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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Dec 14, 2021

Interview with Mamie Parris: Broadway star, concert singer, audiobook narrator

I feel so fortunate that the amazing actress and singer Mamie Parris narrated the audiobook of The Limits of Limelight. The production process was smooth and entirely professional, and I couldn't be more pleased with the result. And the reviews!

My own history as book narrator is limited to nonfiction and instructional manuals. So I was curious to get Mamie's perspective on narrating novels--and this novel in particular. She very generously responded to my questions.

Relying on an audiobook narrator with a strong performance background was important for several reasons. Many of the characters are themselves performers, in film and theatre. Ginger Rogers, for instance, arrived in Depression-era Hollywood from the Broadway stage--where you have also appeared. Her cousin Phyllis Fraser, is striving to become an actress. Did you feel a connection with them, or other actresses in the novel, by virtue of being an actress and singer yourself? What impact did that have on your approach to the material?

I absolutely felt a connection to every performing artist in this book. Since the age of 17 I've been in New York City struggling, then working, then finding success as a professional actress. I'm very familiar with the kinds of struggles and triumphs relayed in the stories of Phyllis, Ginger, Anne, and Peg. I've even trod the same boards as many of these actors at theatres from New York to Connecticut to Maine. Our business is unique and very intimate. I felt privileged to give voice to their stories. 

When voicing the well-known Hollywood personalities, did you carry out any background research, apart from the words on the page? Create some sort of profile, as I do before writing about them?

I research and create characters for audiobooks the same way I would for a play. When I have the opportunity to narrate a book that features real people, my goal is never to imitate, but to take all the information I can gather, and create a fully realized person in my mind. The way they breathe and think is as important to me as how they sound. 

I’m curious about what aspect might have been the most enjoyable about recording The Limits of Limelight. And what you regard as the greatest challenge.

The biggest challenge was also, in its own way, the most enjoyable to me. I loved voicing some of the most recognizable actors and personalities of the era. But with that opportunity comes a great responsibility to their fans. I hope I haven't let them down.

Did you have a favorite character to portray? Or a favorite Astaire and Rogers movie musical? (I can never decide which one is mine!)

I loved Ginger, of course. She's confident and carefree, and grows into a real firebrand. Phyllis's journey was most rewarding. Of course, poor Peg Entwhistle was enjoyable for other reasons. She was complex and so fragile, I wanted to make sure I treated her with respect and love. And who wouldn't relish the opportunity to step into Katharine Hepburn's shoes?

I love a Gershwin tune, so Shall We Dance might be my favorite Fred and Ginger flick, though my favorite number has to be "Night and Day" from The Gay Divorcee. I'm thrilled that Ginger's incredible feathered dress has a mention in the book (with a killer story to it).

You have a home studio, set up with all the necessary technical equipment for recording books and commercial voice-overs. What is your typical work schedule when recording an audiobook? Is there an optimal time of day to do it? How long is your average recording session for an audiobook?

It all depends. I can generally tell right away how dense the material is: The number of characters and scenes involving dialogue, the type and length of the book itself. All this dictates my timeline. When I'm actively recording a book, I expect to spend anywhere from 4-6 hours in the studio at a time. I'm fond of working in the afternoon, when my voice has had plenty of time to warm up and settle. When I finish recording, I can expect anywhere from a few days to a week of editing and engineering, to make sure the finished product sounds the best it can.

With in-person concerts and stage performances possible again, after more than a year of theatre closures due to the Covid pandemic, please share upcoming events and locations.

I'm thrilled to be back in theatres again! Future performance dates and book releases can be found at my website.

Thanks for the great insights, Mamie! I couldn't be more pleased with the audio version of The Limits of Limelight.

This audiobook is available from AudibleibooksGoogle PlayLibro.fmChirp, and many other vendors.

Sep 30, 2021

Biopic Blogathon: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle


The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, filmed in 1938 for release in 1939, was the ninth and penultimate pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and their final picture for RKO. And it was the duo’s first and only period piece.

Together we had drunk our cup of Fame
And side by side had loved, and worked, and played
And Life to us seemed but a happy game;
We met our fortunes laughing—unafraid.
Irene Castle

 Production Background and Source Material

 RKO’s script was based on Mrs. Castle’s books, My Husband and My Memories of Vernon Castle, but production was delayed for two years after acquiring the rights. The producers never refuted Irene’s firm belief that they would acquiesce to her demand for a nationwide search for the actress to portray her (inspired by David O. Selznick’s well-publicized "Search for Scarlett.") But from the outset, the project was intended for Ginger and Fred.

During pre-production, Ginger had her first meeting with the former ballroom and cabaret dancer, and reminisced about it in her memoir. “What an entrance she made! … I could hear the rustle of taffeta and the swishing of her dress. Then the door opened and in she swept. Irene Castle was tall, at least 5’10”. [Ginger was six inches shorter.] Everything she wore was gray: gloves, shoes, hat, and purse…She looked as if she had stepped out of a Vogue magazine from the early 1920s.”

Surprisingly, despite being offered the role of her own mother, Irene declined. She received script and casting approval, and was put under contract as technical advisor. An assertive personality and a stickler for accuracy, she insisted that Ginger appear as a brunette in the film, with short, bobbed hair in the style made popular as the “Castle Bob.” Didn’t happen. The director, Hank Potter, constantly ran interference, according to Ginger, “with care and tact.”

Irene achieved victory in the area of choreography and to a lesser extent, in costuming. She worked closely with Hermes Pan, already familiar with the Castles’ manual Modern Dancing, recreating dance steps she and her husband had performed. Ginger’s dance dresses were designed to replicate the ones worn by Irene, and she was excited by the prospect of wearing historical costumes from decades earlier. The studio spent a total of $2,775 on her wardrobe.

Irene & Vernon and Ginger & Fred

But Irene had scant understanding of the concept of “interpretation” and was constantly disappointed in Ginger, who later reflected that Fred had it easy, because Mrs. Castle was so intently focused on her portrayer. Besides, all along, Irene had wanted Fred to play Vernon, and was especially pleased that he could fit into her late husband’s military uniforms. During Fred’s early career dancing with his sister Adele, he’d often witnessed the Castles in action and remembered some of their dances well enough to help Hermes Pan revive them. was further instructed by Mrs. Castle herself.

The film contains seven dance duets, some extremely brief. The music and songs were faithful to those of the Castles’ performances, apart from “Only When You’re in My Arms,” which was composed for the film.

Although the movie was popular with audiences, it wasn’t entirely successful for the studio, failing to make a profit and recording a loss of $50,000.

 The Film

For audiences, then and now, accustomed to the lightweight plots of an Astaire-Rogers musical, the witty banter and repartee, misunderstanding-based conflict, and dances that reflect and inform the romantic plot, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle contains numerous differences. As a biopic, it’s a straightforward—if not wholly factual—presentation of the real-life performers’ courtship, dance partnership, and wartime separation, and (spoiler) a tragic accidental death. Fred, collaborating with Hermes Pan, choreographed solo dances for himself and to perform with Ginger, specific to the films they made together. The Castles were famous for exhibition dances performed for live audiences in theatres and cabarets. Their original creations became popular as social dances that anyone could learn—the Castle Walk, the Castle Polka, the Maxixe. They also added flair to existing dances like the Turkey Trot and the Foxtrot.

The Story. 

Zowie (flim version), with Ginger & Fred 
Young Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers), a New Rochelle doctor’s daughter, aspires to a stage career. When she encounters English vaudeville comedian Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) at the seaside, where they save a small fluffy white dog from drowning, she invites him home and gives a drawing-room performance of “The Yama-Yama Man,” in a Pierrot clown suit, copying Bessie McCoy, the originator. It fails to impress her parents or Vernon. Later, at the railway station, the indifferent vaudevillian breaks into a dance, convincing Irene that his talents are wasted in broad slapstick comedy roles for producer Lew Fields (appearing as himself). She’s already smitten, he eventually succumbs. They dance together. They marry. They accept an employment offer from a pair of Parisian producers believing they will perform together as a couple. On arrival in Paris, with the little dog Zowie and omnipresent servant Walter (Walter Brennan), Vernon discovers that he’s supposed to appear in his old vaudeville routine. A chance encounter with a formidable female talent agent (Edna May Oliver), secures them a fine dinner at the Café de Paris restaurant and cabaret and the chance to dance there the following night. But when the extremely hungry couple sit down for their delectable meal, a Russian Grand Duke demands that they dance there and then. Vernon escorts Irene, in her wedding dress and lacy Dutch cap, to the floor. Their massive success and lasting legend are instantly assured.

Irene becomes a worldwide fashion icon, influencing dresses, shoes, and hairstyles. They exhibit their talents across the continent, these cross-country tours revealed in a process montage across a map of America. They acquire numerous animals in addition to Zowie, the little dog that brought them together. All is peachy—apart from occasional references to excess expenditures—until World War I breaks out, and Vernon feels the call to enter the fray on behalf of his native land. Irene embarks on a silent film career. Vernon’s daring exploits as an aviator are depicted. He and Irene meet up in Paris. Eventually he returns to America as a military flying instructor in Texas. On the day of his long-awaited reunion with his eager wife, he’s involved in a fatal airplane accident—and is lauded as a hero for saving his pupil’s life.

Reality vs. Fiction

Fred Astaire bears an uncanny resemblance to Vernon Castle, though his personality was quite different. As previously stated, Ginger looked nothing like Irene Castle and neither she nor the studio had any intention of altering her appearance.

Walter Ash, the family servant of Irene Foote’s family and the Castles’ devoted retainer, was a Black man. In later years, Irene complained about his being “whitewashed” into Walter Brennan in order not to offend exhibitors or audiences in the South. This might or might not be true.

The couple’s “meet cute” didn’t happen that way, and “The Yama-Yama Man” played no part. Vernon helped Irene get a proper audition with Lew Fields, who cast her in a show. Vernon’s barber shop routine, however, is based on fact.

The real-life Zowie was an un-fluffy bulldog-type. He did accompany the couple to Paris, where they performed in vaudeville revues and lived hand to mouth, as depicted in the film.

It was a male agent who booked the Castles at the Café de Paris. On that first night their dinner was interrupted by a Russian aristocrat who insisted on their dancing immediately, but it wasn’t exactly an impromptu performance—they’d previously rehearsed with the orchestra. Irene was indeed wearing her wedding dress and her Dutch bonnet. The Russian paid them a tip of 300 francs. The result was a six-month engagement at the same venue, augmented by private performances.

The Castles did travel throughout Europe with a German Shepherd dog that they brought back to the States.

The Castle House—its façade appears briefly on screen—was their dancing academy, and they operated the Sans Souci restaurant at 42nd and Broadway, and a beachside nightclub. The movie makes it seems that they were financially as well as professionally successful as entrepreneurs, but this is misleading. Vernon had lavish tastes and was a spendthrift, causing practical Irene considerable dismay and concern.

During World War I, Vernon joined the Royal Flying Corps and was a distinguished and decorated aviator, receiving the Croix de Guerre in 1917. Achieving the rank of Captain Castle, he was transferred to Canada as a flight instructor before arriving in Fort Worth for that fateful final flight. He took the front seat and insisted on his pupil taking the rear one. This was his final act of heroism, because when he made his risky maneuver to avoid colliding with another training plane he was in the more vulnerable position, and it cost him his life. As indicated in the film, his student did survive.

Vernon Castle shortly before his death by airplane

The final image of the Castles dancing together leaves the impression that Vernon was the love of Irene’s life. This may be the case. However, his indomitable widow ultimately had nearly as many husbands (four) as Ginger Rogers (five).


In their own time, Fred and Ginger were the 1930s edition of the Vernon and Irene phenomenon—a wildly popular dance partnership, omnipresent in the media of the day, recipients of international acclaim, and cultural and fashion influencers. This biopic provided Ginger with the meatier dramatic role she’d been angling for. The movie concludes during one world war and at the time of its release a second such conflict was already well under way, and again the U.S. was slow to join the fight. The demise of Fred’s character, as Ginger points out in her memoir, presaged the death of their dance partnership, which wasn’t revived until they reunited a decade later for The Barkleys of Broadway at MGM.

Don't forget to visit other Biopic Blogathon entries!

Sep 16, 2021

Peg Entwistle and The Limits of Limelight


At The Limits of Limelight book launch

Two nights ago, at my book launch for The Limits of Limelight, during the question and answer time, a friend asked, “What was the hardest part of writing this novel?”

Without hesitation, I replied, “Peg Entwistle.”


Immersed in her life, thanks to the exceptionally detailed and brilliantly researched biography by the late James Zeruk, Jr., there was a great heaviness on my heart and spirits. As a renowned stage performer, and a promising film actress, she deserved a much happier fate than the one she chose for herself.

Peg was born in Port Talbot, Wales, to an English theatrical family that worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Her parents divorced, her father died, and she and her two stepbrothers were raised by her aunt and uncle, who had settled in Los Angeles. But Peg's sights were set on the stage, so as soon as she was old enough, she headed East. Unlike many stage-struck teens, she enjoyed rapid and meteoric success. 

I’ve known a little bit about Peg for a long time. Enough to believe that she must have needed a close and supportive friend in those final months, weeks, and days. So I gave her Phyllis. My novel’s main character. They were definitely acquainted with each another, put under contract by RKO at the same, time along with the other young beauties dubbed “The Baby Stars.”

Phyllis & Peg in makeup class at RK)

RKO's "Baby Stars"

Both were cast in David Selznick’s pet project, Thirteen Women, with Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, and many more. Peg had a significant role, which was drastically reduced in the final edit—for reasons my novel reveals. Phyllis had a minor role, and was cut out of the movie entirely.

Lobby card for Thirteen Women

On the night of September 16, Peg walked from the Beechwood Drive home of her aunt and uncle, scaled the steep and rocky path leading to the Hollywoodland sign—in her younger years, she’d observed its construction, the laborers and trucks had passed by her house. She’d even climbed onto it, with her brothers, for fun.

The Hollywoodland sign from Peg's street

Motivated by despair and disappointment, all too conscious of her own mistakes, depressed about her dire financial situation and a run of bad luck, she made her final ascent.

Her body, lying in a ravine, was spotted by a female hiker, who reported the discovery to the police. It wasn’t recovered until after dark. Her relatives didn’t learn what had happened until they read the newspaper—two days after Peg’s disappearance.

A report of her death

The legends about Peg, whose gardenia-scented ghost reportedly haunts the neighbourhood where she lived and died, and assumptions made about her, are endless. And often erroneous. Like her biographer, I feel too little attention is given to her talent, her spiritedness, her persistence, her love of family and theirs for her, and her optimism—which eventually, tragically, ran out.

The impossibility of giving Peg a happy ending is another reason writing about her was painful. I hope in the afterlife, she and James are chatting up a storm. He dedicated years of his life to presenting the real Peg. He died before I could send him a copy of The Limits of Limelight, so I’ll never know his response to my portrayal of her. But I'm forever grateful to him for his lasting legacy--her biography.

Sep 14, 2021

Now Available: The Limits of Limelight

 It's launch day for The Limits of Limelight!

Purchase links for all formats, all vendors, can be found here.

This evening, I'll be here, discussing the novel, the real-life characters, and signing:

For those who purchase the paperback, and want to request an autographed book plate,  you can use this contact form. Remember to include your name or someone else's for personalisation, and your postal address.

Here's a link to the book review at Reading the Past.

And an interview by the Historical Novel Society.

Links to other interviews and information about my blog tour will be posted soon.

Sep 4, 2021

Coming Soon--Very Soon--The Limits of Limelight


Somehow the summer fled, now it's September, and The Limits of Limelight will be released in ten days.

I received an early author copy, and expect a full carton to be delivered at any minute.

The in-person launch day event and blog tour are scheduled.

Book plates for autographing and sending out have been ordered. And book swag for giveaways (fruit smoothie not included!)

I've been doing preliminary publicity for the novel, on Zoom and on television.

It's a busy season, true. But I'm taking time to enjoy the roses--still blooming profusely.

And I fit in relaxation days at the lake--with husband, dog, and sometimes a fellow author who joins me for a writing day--if she's not hosting me at her house for the same.

The Limits of Limelight audiobook will also be released soon., and I'll be publishing my interview with my amazing narrator, a star of Broadway and the concert stage.

I've sent out the first September newsletter, and the second one will be chock full of info. You can sign up here to receive it.

I look forward to more frequent posting in coming weeks--so much to share about my main character, Phyllis Fraser, her first cousin Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela Rogers!

Ginger, Phyllis & Lela at a formal event

Ginger & Phyllis on a very casual occasion 

Jun 28, 2021

Historical Novel Society 2021 Conference: The Virtual Experience

Originally scheduled to take place in San Antonio, Texas, the  2021 Historical Novel Society Conference was successfully transformed into an online event. The HNS North American Board of Directors worked hard and diligently, working with EventMobi. The result was nothing short of spectacular.

Spread across six days, the pre-conference and post-conference events resembled our in-person conferences in many respects, apart from the reliance on Zoom, the inability to hug friends and hang out in the bar together or sign books in person (the event app included an online bookstore).  We remained in our own homes, receiving glimpses of our colleagues' office space, bookshelves, and--occasionally--pets.

My responsibilities this time round consisted of hosting a Conversation Room for 20th Century historical fiction, and moderating two panel discussions: NO, REALLY, I DIDN’T MAKE THIS UP: USING THE HISTORICAL NOVELIST’S TOOLKIT TO WRITE COMPELLING NARRATIVE NONFICTION and in the closing hour THEATRICAL TECHNIQUES TO A BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL: 3 PROFESSIONAL ACTORS SHARE TIPS FOR BRINGING YOUR BOOK TO LIFE.

I attended as many sessions as I could in real time, and look forward to catching up with others of interest via the video recordings, available to registrants for 90 days.

We even had a successful Hooch Through History session, combined with Historical Trivia.

Upcoming HNS conferences include the HNS Australasia  virtual conference (22-24 October) and the HNS conference in Durham, England (early September 2022).

I'm easing back into normal life after being online from early morning till late in the evening for a solid six days. 

I look forward to spending more time at the lake cottage, resuming work on Novel #15, preparing for the launch of The Limits of Limelight, reviewing books when time permits, instigating an author newsletter, and tending my 175 rose bushes. That should keep me out of trouble!

Jun 17, 2021

2021-2022 Book Reviews

Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet
by Alice Robb

Robb’s analysis, primarily written from the female perspective, of the pleasures and perils and psychology of the dancer’s life is based on personal experience as well as a synthesis of other ballet performers’ careers, either from their memoirs, biographies, or interviews. Some, like Margot Fonteyn or Misty Copeland or Gelsey Kirkland, are well known beyond their respective generations. Others have toiled in near-obscurity, pursuing the elusive goal of perfection in their art. Admitted to New York’s School of American Ballet (SAB), founded by famously dictatorial choreographer George Balanchine, Robb is unable to meet the superior standard required of aspirants to the New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. She is eventually excluded from the rarified profession she desires.

Her more fortunate classmates suffer similar—though well-concealed—doubts and stress. Their careers are hampered, even destroyed, by injury, overwork, and exhaustion. Or worse, what cannot be altered—a body type or skeletal that may appear outwardly normal but is deemed by teachers and administrators as a distortion of the ideal. The need to “lengthen,” a euphemism for weight loss, and the constant assessment and criticism of physical flaws, result in eating disorders and persistent body image trauma. Spending an entire day in a mirrored studio or classroom has lifelong consequences, even for those who abandon or are driven out of ballet.

Hidden from the appreciative and awed audience is the agony imposed by the constricting pointe shoes and the various foot injuries and blemishes beneath the pink satin. For the dancer who is training or rehearsing, pain equal progress, and therefore must be ignored. There are many more professional hazards: sexual bullying or predation by superiors, a dependence upon being constantly told what to do at all times, and the oddly contradictory de-sexualizing effects of being partnered by a male dancer, which involves intimate touching of all body parts and extremely close physical proximity.

And yet, despite its adverse impacts, the spell cast by ballet doesn’t necessarily dissipate disappointed dancers mature and move on. Robb charts the second acts of those of her contemporaries and former classmates as they seek less demanding forms of dance, for exercise of pleasure, or decide to follow other creative pursuits—writing, painting, filmmaking. And some strive to teach ballet technique in a more balanced and sensitive fashion than the one that formed them.

A welcome and highly perceptive addition to the growing list of books examining dance and dancers, this illuminating and incisive work is a well-written and rewarding read. (Mariner Books/HarperCollins, 304 pp., hardcover/audio, February 2023)

The Ingenue by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

             Like The Ballerinas (2021) Kapelke-Dale’s latest delves into the life of an artist, although unlike her prior novel The Ingenue focuses on a single individual—and one who has stepped aside from her performing past.

            Saskia Kreis, a piano prodigy from an early age, develops her gift during a childhood spend in a privileged suburb of Milwaukee. The daughter of an imaginative feminist author-artist and a professional cellist, she grows up in in the Elf House, a brewery baron’s ornately fantastic but decrepit mansion. Saskia spends a mostly solitary and singular girlhood traveling the world, amazing audiences with her precocious and highly developed talent on the keyboard. But as she enters her teens, her mother’s much older university colleague, a photographer, takes her under his wing—and into his bed. Their secret affair has a profound impact on Saskia’s later life, resulting in the abandonment of music career, dead-end jobs, dodgy life choices, and damage to her hands in the amateur boxing ring.

            Her mother’s sudden death draws her reluctantly but dutifully back to Elf House, in the expectation that she and her father will inherit it. Conflict over whether to keep or sell the dilapidated money pit and surrounding estate become moot when they discover that Evie Harper Kreis has left it to Patrick Kintner—Saskia’s seducer, whose surprise inheritance and simultaneous photographic exhibition sparks the shocking denouement.

            Saskia’s childhood, her difficult coming of age, and the destructive consequences of a disastrous affair are revealed in flashbacks. Through the course of the story, her weaknesses and resentments are transformed into strengths. Kapelke-Dale’s revelation of the artistic temperament and creative passion is especially well done, and her conflicted, motivated, and multi-dimensional characters are effectively drawn.  (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., hardcover/ebook/audio, December 2022)

The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London by Catherine Ostler 

A comprehensive and highly detailed biography of a Georgian adventuress and her adventures. The depiction of 18th century England, Europe, and Russia demonstrates a perfect combination of aristocratic lineage, royal access, ambition, physical attractiveness and disregard for social norms as embodied by Elizabeth Chudleigh, Countess of Bristol and Duchess of Kingston.

A member of the royal household, an intimate of the Prince and Princess of Wales (Frederick and Augusta) in the reign of King George II, Elizabeth made an impetuous marriage to the grandson of Lord Bristol. In order to maintain her position as maid of honour to the Princess, she didn't reveal her marital status, and her bridegroom was conveniently placed out of the way, first by his naval service and his foreign travels. 

Elizabeth, after bearing and losing a child--also in secret--presented herself a single woman and gadded about in high society. Her estranged spouse consistently repudiated the marriage and eventually sought a divorce, which would have required Elizabeth to acknowledge its legality. Her lawsuit against him resulted in a declaration of invalidity, allowing her to marry up--to the Duke of Kingston, with whom she enjoyed a brief period of happiness. At his death, she inherited his property and fortune, and by his will was permitted to retain them as long as she remained a widow. She also inherited the enmity of his relatives, who charged her with bigamy, resulting in one of Britain's most notorious legal proceedings--witnessed by Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) and members of her family. After the House of Lords declared her guilty, she spent her time in Prussia, Paris, Rome. In Russia, where she built a magnificent mansion, she was for a time a curious and barely tolerated member of Catherine the Great's court. 

The subject of this biography is frequently shown to be her own worst enemy and undeniably unstable, while at the same appearing as a sympathetic figure due to her ill-usage by the male establishment that marshalled forces against her. A thorough work with great depth and detail, this book is recommended to readers interested in the complexities of this prominent, scandalous, and unrepentant 18th century woman. (Atria Books, hardcover, paperback, ebook, audio/427 pp., 2022).

The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People by Clive Aslet

             Renowned historian and former editor of Britain’s Country Life magazine, Clive Aslet makes excellent use of his expertise and narrative skill in delineating the long history of domestic architecture and life in his native country.

            The book is arranged by period, from medieval through Tudor and Stuart and Commonwealth ears, to the Georgians, Victorians, Edwardians, the World Wars and the time between, post-War, up to current times, with a focus on personalities—architects, property owners, menials. Trends and fashions, the variations in personal and the national economies is revealed through representative houses, selected to chart the rise and fall of the country house. Anecdotes and events associated with them are well-chosen, and the author’s style is lively and vivid. While Aslet does tread some familiar and well-covered territory, he does so in a most informative and engaging fashion, equally scholarly and entertaining.

            This is a welcome addition to the category of British country house history, and will be appreciated by readers possessing prior knowledge of the subject and those with none at all. (Yale University Press, 256 Pages, hardcover, paperback, ebook, audio, 2021)

In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters by Nancy Goldstone

The author, who previously depicted European royal women from the medieval era and Renaissance, provides a tour de force joint biography of four eminent females of the 18th century Hapsburg dynasty. The dominant and most influential figure is Maria Teresa, unexpected heiress of the Austrian empire—which included Hungary, Bohemia, Silesia, portions of Italy, more. From the outset of her reign, the young empress had to contend with masculine diffidence, or in the case of various military officers, incompetence, while her territories were encroached upon and frequently seized by Frederick of Prussia, whose “greatness” arose from schemes, persistent betrayal of allies, and determination to conquer as much and as many lands as possible. Often he defeated the empress’s forces, but sometimes she prevailed. An adoring wife to a philandering spouse, designated emperor by her design, mother to more than a dozen children (not all of whom lived), intensely Catholic, and reform-minded, she was a powerful influence on the three daughters whose lives are also minutely and incisively examined.

Artistic Maria Christina, “Mimi,” an older daughter, was a favorite of her pleasure-seeking father Francis, and served her empress-mother as helpmeet, confidante, and best friend. Her matrimonial happiness was initially stymied—the man she loved was initially disregarded as unworthy of a Hapsburg archduchess. Once married, the pair were sent off, though not very far in terms of distance, to rule Hungary. After her mother’s death, Mimi’s older brother Joseph—nearly as dangerous a character as Frederick, whom he revered—placed the skilled and diplomatic couple in the Netherlands, where they and their extensive and valuable art collection were potential victims of the radical republican wave flowing from France, and were eventually forced to flee from Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces.

 Her sister Maria Carolina had the great misfortune to be united in wedlock to the dreadful Ferdinand, King of Naples. It turned out to be the making of her. As forceful a character as her mother, she succeeded in winning a seat on her husband’s council—by virtue of bearing the requisite male heir—and essentially became ruler in his stead, leaving him to enjoy hunting and bedroom exploits. She found a friend in Emma, Lady Hamilton, the beautiful and scandalous young wife of the venerable British Ambassador, and who enlisted her help in supplying Lord Nelson with ships in his time of need. She bore numerous children, losing several when fleeing an invasion by the French as Napoleon rampaged across Europe by land and by sea.

 The most famous, or infamous, is the youngest of Maria Theresa’s daughters, Maria Antonia. Her youthful frivolities as archduchess accompanied her into a new life as dauphine of France, where she became Marie Antoinette. Though the future Louis XVI was neither as uxorious as Maria Cristina’s spouse, nor as repulsive as Maria Carolina’s, he was no great catch—his prospects notwithstanding. Goldstone convincingly makes the case that his awkwardness, halting speech and reclusive habits were indicators of an autism spectrum disorder. Over time he formed a bond with his wife, who, to her credit, seemed capable of accepting him as he was. After the couple ascended the throne, Marie gradually became more serious, even more political, and was a devoted mother. Axel Fersen, her lover, went to extraordinary lengths to remove Marie and Louis from France, relying on the assistance of her two older sisters. His relationship with the doomed queen, the author asserts, was not only romantic but also sexual. She identifies him as the father of her two youngest children, including the short-lived Louis XVII, who died soon after his parents were led to the guillotine.

 The family saga is brilliantly rendered, sweeping the reader from the earliest part of the 18th century into the Napoleonic age in the first part of the 19th. Her subjects are presented as women who were tested almost beyond endurance, deeply flawed yet inherently moral and honest, and all too often misjudged. Goldstone’s style is eminently readable and entertaining—this is no dry history—no small feat when covering such a lengthy timeline and the myriad complex relationships, familial and royal and political. She has a gift for connecting events and dates, tossing in reminders of precisely how past actions and decisions affected and relate to what transpired afterwards. Very highly recommended, to the dedicated and the casual reader of history, and anyone seeking proof that royal women were more than symbolic mannequins swathed in velvet and wearing a crown.

 (Little, Brown and Co., hardcover/ebook, 640 pp, 21 September 2021)

 Unearthing The Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

This sensitive, appreciative, and exquisitely illustrated book is a welcome gift to fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel. It has guaranteed appeal for those who share the author’s passion for gardening—roses in particular—and many writers who find inspiration in the natural world. McDowell traces Burnett’s earliest gardening influences, from her floral-themed childhood alphabet book to an abandoned walled garden in Salford in the north of England, to the very different environment of Tennessee, to which her widowed mother emigrated.

 Unexpectedly, Burnett did not actually become a gardener until the age of fifty, long after achieving her youthful success as a writer for the most popular journals of her day, and following marriage, motherhood, the creation of the iconic and influential novel Little Lord Fauntleroy, her tragic loss of a young son, and inevitable divorces. It was the fortuitous purchase of Maytham Hall in Kent, an unadorned canvas upon which she could paint in flowers of all kinds, but mostly roses, that provided her with an Arcadia to absorb a considerable amount of her substantial fortune. The combination of walled gardens, rose arbors, orchards, and a friendly robin did not immediately find their way into her fiction. Only after she was forced to abandon it, in order to join her surviving son in New York, did her memory and imagination produce The Secret Garden. Her depiction of contrary Mary Lennox’s rebirth and renewal within the brick walls of her Yorkshire oasis (Maytham transformed into the more massive Misselthwaite Manor well to the north) arose out of longing for a place lost to her creator. But Burnett did find solace in making new gardens—at her London Island mansion and later the Bermuda cottage to which she fled in avoidance of harsh American winters.

 McDowell draws upon her subject’s memoir and many writings, but also family papers, and presents the reader with a wealth of photographs of Burnett within her gardens, and the gardens of Maytham as they exist in the present. In the final section, she includes a selection of Burnett’s gardening articles as well as a list of plants she grew. In the afterward, a great-great granddaughter briefly reflects on the familial connection to the classic novel. This book is a treasure, one for absorbing, reading and re-reading—and sharing with likeminded persons.

 (Timber Press, hardcover/ebook/audio, 320 pp., 28 September, 2021)

Teatime at Grosvenor Square: An Unofficial Cookbook for Fans of Bridgerton―75 Sinfully Delectable Recipes by Dahlia Clearwater

 This charming collection, inspired by the Netflix series based on Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton historical romance novels, offers seventy-five options for entertaining, from sweet treats to meats. The introduction to each recipe makes generic references to characters, settings, plot points, or society rules familiar from the episodes. Several options for scone-making are presented—the classic English scone (fluffy and tall), as well as various modern variations. There are examples of actual Regency fare encountered in Quinn or Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer: ratafia biscuits, flummery, white soup, blanc mange, trifle, orgeat, mulled wine, and meat pie. The cakes live up to the “delectable” description of the title. For main dishes, anyone seeking more solid sustenance will be pleased to find recipes for lamb, duck, turkey, and ham. This would be a welcome addition to any cookbook shelf, even one belonging to the minority of cooks who might be entirely ignorant of Bridgerton world. (‎Skyhorse Publishing, hardcover/ebook, 152 pp., 22 June, 2021)

The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

As a connoisseur of ballet books—fiction and nonfiction—I now rank Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s fiction debut at the very top of my list of the best, along with an obscure, out-of-print treasured title. The Ballerinas exquisitely, and often excruciatingly, traces myriad personal and professional challenges experienced by protagonist Delphine—first as a youthful dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, then as a famous choreographer’s assistant in St. Petersburg, and then as guest choreographer back in Paris. On her return to the city of her birth, this daughter of a far more famous ballerina, long deceased, expects to easily slip back into the familiar habits she knew years. She is reunited with her closest friends—cynical and volatile lesbian dancer Margaux, keeper of the secret that could ruin their mutual friendship with the American dancer Lindsay, whose career Delphine intends to revive with the lead role in a ballet about Alexandra, the doomed Russian Tsarina. She also has hopes of renewed romance with star dancer Jock, the one who got away. While dealing with the struggles, rivalries, and demands of her working life, she suffers from a betrayal that threatens not only her career, but her privacy and her reputation. Delphine’s high expectations are thwarted. Her relationships with the ones whose support she relies upon are damaged, often by her own self-absorption, but also when she is victimized by the callous cruelty of another.

 The gender imbalance within the dance world, the physical and emotional toll as a dancer’s years advance, the difficulty of integrating the personal self with the professional demands are sharply observed and accurately, achingly depicted in each character. The setting for Delphine’s formative past in Paris, revealed through flashbacks, and her present traumas, is the city of a native, of a dancer, not the one encountered by tourists, and its depiction is evocatively true and real. The writing is beautiful, the people are believable, the insights are thought-provoking, and the conflicts ring all too true. Not to be missed. (St. Martin's Press, paperback/ebook/audiobook, 304 pp., 7 December 2021)

Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life by Gavin Larsen

 From a struggling but promising pupil to a professional ballet dancer whose career spanned nearly two decades, Gavin Larsen experienced the range of emotional and physical turmoil associated with a dancer’s existence. In energetic and expressive prose, she articulates the pains and pressures and pleasures that flow from commitment to her thoroughly demanding art. “Making a living being tired” accurately describes her sense of never feeling fully rested. Her search for the right place to perform takes her from the corps de ballet to soloist to principal, within a respected professional company, and later as a freelancer. Larsen’s tenacity and stamina shine through her depictions of the touring life and the quest for the next job search, inserting herself into daily class among strangers whose rituals and routines are unfamiliar. Every bourée forward is followed by one or two backwards, with dread of injury—career-halting or career-ending—always looming and seemingly inevitable. The frank and graphic account of ballet’s toll on the body, especially the toes, tendons, and ankles, makes real the agony behind the beauty seen onstage. Particular attention is given to the specifications and adaptions of pointe shoes and the mechanics and logistics involved in partnering and lifts. This is an admirable and extremely well-written memoir of a perceptive dancer’s artistic and professional challenges. (University Press of Florida, paperback/ebook, 272 pp. 27 April, 2021)

London’s Number One Dogwalking Agency: A Memoir

When Kate Macdougall’s latest and last costly mistake as a London auction house employee results in termination, she decides that a lifelong affection for canines is sufficient justification for setting up as an urban dog-walker—despite the fact that she hasn’t had a pet dog since childhood. So begins this delightfully witty and utterly immersive memoir of the travails and the joys in her quest for personal fulfillment and monetary sustenance.

In 2006, when she starts her business, dog-walking wasn’t actually a profession, a fact her divorcee mother will constantly point out. Alternating from certitude, ignorance, bravado, and doubt, Kate cobbles together a collection of clients even more idiosyncratic, demanding, and eccentric than their pampered pets. Her most sterling and useful characteristic is the ability understand of dogs as a species and as individuals with unique needs for exercise, companionship, discipline, and diet. Her fond acceptance of their habits, quirks, phobias, and preferences enables her to match them with appropriate members of her own staff, each of whom also presents certain eccentricities that must be coped with or dealt with.

An added complication is the dog owners, who in the main prove more difficult to handle than their precious but often neglected pets. Here, too, Kate eventually excels, through trial and error, resignation and resolve, keeping in mind the needs of the animal each time she confronts the difficult, demanding, and judgmental humans connected to them. Alert to class indicators, within her own broken family and those of her clients—the comfortable, the classy, the creepy—she not only matures, but earns insight into her own neediness and hopes for the future. She and her employees gamely navigate the city’s challenging geography and the intricacies of transportation logistics as her clientele expands. But just as her reputation seems assured, the financial collapse of 2009 and ensuing recession threaten her small measure of success with corporate ex-pat Americans and Londoners who abruptly decide that a dog walker is a luxury too far in hard times. It is then, amidst all the stress and panic, that her canine-averse fiancé suggests getting a dog of their own, an adventure in itself, and a first true test of their solidity as a couple and their readiness for marriage, parenthood, and an inevitable search for the ideal location in which to live.

This is a memoir about dogs—endearing and memorable and challenging ones—but it’s also very much about humans. How they relate to their pets and other people, their ease or difficulty in doing the right thing for themselves and their animals, how their good traits and bad ones are revealed through their interactions with the dogs and the dog-walkers. Not only is it beautifully, cleverly written, ultimately it is deeply moving memoir of overcoming struggles and finding identity and purpose in the life of a flawed but admirable young woman. (William Morrow, hardcover/ebook/audiobook, 6 July, 2021) 

You Belong Here Now, Dianna Rostad’s debut historical novel, offers a complex and nuanced portrait of home life, community values, and persistent struggles facing a Montana ranching family in the 1920s. Their challenges multiply with the arrival of three fugitives from an orphan train traveling from New York City: teenager Charles, Irish immigrant Patrick, and scrawny Opal, all of whom have been rejected as adoptees in the course of their cross-country journey. Nara Stewart, the fiercely independent female protagonist, is dubious about keeping--much less adopting--the orphans, but the need of farm labor overcomes her reluctance. Charles, burdened by a violent and possibly criminal past, grows into a determined protector, not only of his fellow orphans, but the family who can't fully trust him but strive to redeem him. The characters' varied internal and external conflicts are realistically portrayed, the period detail is skillfully blended, and the harsh land itself—its wild creatures and pervasive threats--are depicted with flair and faithfulness. Very highly recommended. (April 6, 2021, William Morrow Books, paperback, 368 pp.)

Gardening Hacks: 300+ Time and Money Saving Hacks by Jon VanZile

             In a well-organized collection of tips and hacks, Master Gardener Jon VanZile offers hundreds of time- and cost-saving suggestions for the indoor and outdoor garden. Workable and effective non-toxic and natural shortcuts are a valuable commodity, and this knowledge is creatively and systematically shared, numerically and through a searchable index. VanZile covers germination of seeds and propagation by cuttings, container plants, containers, care of tools, pest control, and collecting the harvest. Among the more interesting tips: using honey as a rooting hormone, seed starting in an ice cream cone (not the sugary kind), cinnamon as an anti-fungal treatment to protect seedlings from wilt, powdered milk as a calcium booster for tomatoes, and the myriad uses of coffee grounds.

            For some, the proposed outdoor decorations might go against personal aesthetics and allowable degree of whimsy in the garden—re-purposing broken and discarded objects into “funky displays” might not suit everyone’s style. But the wealth of advice presented is sound and safe, and the presentation style is readable and sincere. (Adams Media, paperback/ebook/audiobook, 256 pp., 6 April, 2021)

Rhapsody, Mitchell James Kaplan's third work of historical fiction, presents the long and challenging affair between pianist-composer Katharine Swift (Kay) Warburg and George Gershwin, her extramarital lover, soulmate, and collaborator. Their compelling story is revealed through evocative prose and lyrical imagery, peopled with literary and theatrical notables of the 1920s and 30s and replete with references to stage productions and compositions both obscure and renowned. Situations, settings, and dialogue bring to life the vibrant period between the world wars, one of innovation and exploration in music and popular entertainment, experienced atop a lofty pinnacle of wealth, talent, and emerging fame.

 Kay's permissive yet tortured marriage to financier and sometime lyricist James Warburg, and her detached mothering of three daughters is overshadowed by focused commitment to Gershwin and her determination to promote her own musical gifts. And while creativity—solitary and mutual—lies at the core of the emotional and relational arc, embedded within the novel is an examination of ethnic and cultural identity in America as totalitarianism begins its inexorable march across Europe.

Elegantly-attired characters emerge from exquisite New York apartments to attend elite social gatherings and explore Harlem jazz joints. They endure rehearsal agonies and celebrate opening nights. Throughout, Kaplan's skill and the lovers' looming fate propel the reader towards a poignant but inevitable conclusion. (March 2, Gallery Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)

Comedic and elegiac, farcical and tragic, complex and engrossing, Leslie Epstein’s Hill of Beans is an energetic and entertaining depiction of the symbiotic relationship between moviemaking and warmongering. This detailed and imaginative representation of Hollywood dynamics and military events, before and during World War II, is revealed through the minds and motives of multiple characters. The disparate witnesses are Abdul Maljan, ex-pugilist and masseuse to film mogul Jack Warner and President Roosevelt, Warner himself, the fictional half-Jewish German starlet he lures to Hollywood, the Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With the later addition, at the height of World War II, of Joseph Stalin and General George S. Patton. 

The connections between the film industry, politics, and war, are wittily and movingly drawn. The author’s uncles, twin screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein—Academy Award winners for Casablanca—would have loved this fictional version of their boss, the priapic punster Warner, their own antics, and the haphazard creation of their iconic film. (March 1, 2021, High Road Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)

London and the Seventeenth Century: The Making of the World's Greatest City

by Margarette Lincoln

     Relying on descriptive skill, contemporaneous accounts, and engaging insights, Margarette Lincoln presents the people, economies, concerns, and contradictions of seventeenth century London. In an era when church towers dominated the skyline, matters of faith and pursuits of the flesh drove the citizenry to foment rebellions and indulge in the innumerable pleasures available to them. James I, the first Stuart monarch, was succeeded by his second son Charles, whose death upon the scaffold brought the dynasty to a temporary conclusion. A detailed presentation of the volatile Interregnum, which its many contradictions of puritanical politics and economic thrust, is followed by the Restoration.

Like his father, the second Charles understood the imagery of kingship—as well as the high costs of rigidity and raising the displeasure of the populace. Coronation swag, one learns, is no new thing, neither is the royal interest in fostering positive and powerful imagery of kingship. Tested by years of exile, Charles confronted plague, fire, and wars, while many of his subjects sought entertainment in playhouses and coffee houses, and others pursued scientific investigations. The author devotes significant attention to the crucial shipping trade and the expansion of commerce to the Indies, East and West. His busy reign was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother’s very brief one, and on the accession of his nephew and niece, William and Mary, Parliament’s power was reinforced, and the nation’s purse was directed to the Continental war, a preoccupation of the Dutch-born king. This monumental achievement in research and presentation brings to life a fascinating and extremely turbulent era in the life of this great and influential city. (February 23, 2021, Yale University Press, hardcover/ebook, 384 pp.)