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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

Jan 23, 2023

This New Year

Christmas feels like it happened a year ago--and it was last year, after all. But nearly a full month has passed since then. Quite a busy one! Our holiday festivities followed our usual traditions: Thanksgiving/Friendsgiving dinner at our house with English neighbours.  Followed by several Christmas Caroling Party planning parties.

The event itself took place on Christmas Eve Eve. Fifteen minutes before the guests were due, a massive rainstorm and heavy winds took out electricity all over our city. We have a whole-house generator, so we carried on, and were able to provide neighbours--adults and children--with warmth, light, music (we had two musicians this year), three types of soup and chili, and delicious desserts. Dot was delighted by all the attention.

Dot & me before the caroling party

Dot, waiting for Santa

Christmas Eve and Day were quiet and pleasant. Lots of telephoning to family in friends in around the US and in the UK.

Gardening catalogs!

The deluge of plant catalogs arrived when I was deep into revisions for a novel, so they did pile up before I had a chance to look them over. With nearly 190 rose bushes in the gardens, I hardly need any more. But I confess, I have ordered a few for springtime planting. 

My Somerset village

When not socialising and celebrating, I was in the final stages of the next novel--in a new genre. After 15 historical novels, I've ventured into contemporary fiction. This project was inspired by my experiences in filmmaking, in the years before and after I became a published author, and life in both England and New England. There could be a sequel . . . , But after a very short break for a reading binge, it's back to the 18th century and writing about a fascinating real-life celebrity couple.

The hectic activity immediately following the release of The Myrtle Wand subsided during the festive season. It was so nice, at parties and dinners, receiving compliments from local friends who had read the novel, and tracking the reviews. 

I'm participating in various historical and multi-genre writing conferences in coming weeks and month and mentoring a couple of writer friends who are entering the submission stage. Again I'll be co-producing the second annual Authors Event on the big stage downtown, an opportunity to offer an update on my own books and writing but also to introduce our audience to other local or regional published authors. So there will be more and different books at our booksigning, sponsored by our local independent bookstore. 

At last--enough snow to make Dot happy

Over a month ago, the calendar date told us it was winter, but we certainly couldn't tell from the weather--until this week. We are in the midst of a series of snowstorms, bringing many more inches than we've had in recent years. A certain snow-loving dog is absolutely delighted! And it suits me--snowy days are very conducive to writing.

 All best wishes for this New Year. Let's make the most of it!


Jan 3, 2023

2024-2023-2022-2021 Book Reviews

Pointe of Pride by Chloe Angyal

 In her follow up to Pas de Don’t, her romcom debut, former dancer Chloe Angyal provides an engaging enemies-to-lovers tale set in her native Sydney, Australia. Sparky New York corps de ballet dancer Carly Montgomery puts friendship over prospects for promotion by serving as maid of honor for her bestie, prima ballerina Heather Hays. On her arrival she has an unpleasant encounter with a handsome jerk, whose luggage gets mixed up with hers, and who naturally turns out to be the groom’s best man, Nick Jacobs. His dancing days are long past, his career as professional photographer hasn’t taken off. Carly, committed to her profession, also suffers internal injury that requires extensive physical therapy prohibits penetrative sex

The bickering couple agree to make nice throughout preparation for the nuptials, all the while sparring out of their friends’ presence. Carly taking advantage of Nick’s supposed fame as photographer, enlists him to take dramatic pictures of her in scenic locations in the Sydney environs, with the intention of boosting her Instagram profile. A multitude of followers and enhance popularity, she’s sure, will result in her longed-for rise in the ballet company back home. When carefully concealed secrets are fully revealed, the romance as well as workplace prospects are imperiled.

The pace of the story never flags, Nick and Carly are pleasingly flawed and equally captivating, and the ballet content is well-presented. The result: another winning story from Angyal.

(Amberjack Publishing, 378 pp., paperback/ebook, May 2024)

The Painter’s Daughters by Emily Howes

The painter is famed British portraitist Thomas Gainsborough, and the daughters are keen observer Peggy and her mentally unstable sister Molly, his favorite subjects from their innocence childhood to their maturity. When he moves the family from rural Suffolk to the fashionable spa city of Bath, Peggy grows ever more protective of Molly, striving to keep parents and others from discovering the seriousness of her malady. She also recognizes her parents’ foibles and faults—an unfaithful father and a stern, social-climbing mother constantly aware that the family fortunes depend upon flattering and pleasing the rising artist’s wealthy and aristocratic patrons.

 This is also a dual timeline story, set in an earlier period, as Meg, a desperate country girl, seduces and is impregnated by a German prince, the heir to England’s throne. Her history is woven throughout the novel, as she attempts to trace her royal lover in London and secure the support  she believes and her child are owed. Before the conclusion of the Gainsborough girls’ story, her connection to them is clarified.

 Howes paints with words as she reveals Peggy’s inner life, her love for and callous betrayal by a musician, and her constant struggle to cover her sister’s mental lapses and save her from the horrors of a madhouse. Molly, chafing at the severe attempts to control her, is determined to prove that she’s destined for a life of her own choosing, but her temporary escape from the family only plunges her deeper into distress.

 The author depicts the Georgian era, domestically and socially, with painstaking and evocative detail, and the few lapses in accuracy cannot detract from the power of the writing and the characters, drawn with the same precision as a Gainsborough painting. A tale of devotion taken to extremes, with life-altering consequences, it is sure to please historical fiction fans. (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., hardcover/ebook/audio, February 2024)

The Fortune Seller by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Competing on an equestrian team with the daughters of millionaires and billionaires is difficult enough for a girl who isn’t born rich. Add the pressures of Ivy League schooling and uncertainty about what professional path to follow after graduation, and it’s no wonder Yale senior Rosie Macalister is muddled. Her situation worsens when she arrives in the rented Victorian house that she and her upper-crust teammates share and discovers she’s stuck in a double room with a complete stranger. Not only has the lovely and mysterious Annelise apparently stolen the affections of Cressida Tate, Rosie’s best friend, she’s also an enviably skilled rider. But Rosie unexpectedly bonds with the West Coast newcomer, attracted by her warmth and intrigued by her tarot readings. She becomes her roommate’s pupil, friend—and defender, when mistrust severs longstanding friendships.

Reeling from tragedy and loss, Rosie settles for a post-graduation job in finance that is at odds with her longstanding desire to follow her parents’ profession and become a vet. Torn between her desire to achieve wealth and her longing to care for animals, she tries to navigate her way through betrayals, revelations, and a budding romance doomed by her circumstances and conflicts. A twisty plot, the interweaving of tarot cards and lore, the unpredictability of highly strung horses, characters of privilege and of wasted promise, laced with mystery and suspense lead to an impressively satisfying yet bittersweet conclusion. (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., hardcover/ebook/audio, February, 2024)

The Still Point by Tammy Greenwood

Movingly told from multiple viewpoints, Greenwood’s novel is a realistic deep dive into the challenging and intensely competitive world of young ballet students and their mothers, who confront the same insecurities and inner agonies as their talented daughters. The catalyst for conflict at Costa del Luna Conservatory of Ballet is rogue French dance star Etienne Bernay, visiting ballet master, who arrives at the academy with a documentary crew. He will direct the annual production of The Nutcracker and will also choose one student to receive a scholarship to the Ballet de Paris Académie. Cue the rivalries.

Ever Henderson, widowed mother of two, has high hopes for her daughter Bea, who spent the summer studying dance in New York. And indeed, Bea is singled out for attention—more so than Savvy Jacobs, the school’s star. Whose ambitious mother Josie, divorced and divorcing again, believes she’s gained an advantage by securing Etienne as tenant of her guest house. Realtor Lindsay Chase, mother of Bea’s best friend Olive, is troubled by her faltering marriage, worried that her husband is cheating, and is dismayed by her daughter’s sudden transfer of loyalties to privileged, unlikable Savvy.

Bea is tortured by memories of her behavior at a late-night party, which resulted in ostracism by her peers. The preferential treatment and starring role given by Etienne, her prominence in the documentary, and a developing romance with a male classmate can’t compensate for the knowledge that she’s responsible for Savvy’s cruelty and her abandonment by Olive. Just as the mothers must face the realities of their own choices and mistakes, the daughters will each pay a price for theirs. Meanwhile, the enigmatic, charismatic disrupter Etienne choreographs a holiday spectacle that will determine the fates of his dancers and their parents. An intimate, brutally honest yet touching depiction of the demands of the art form and the dedication it demands from all involved, those who study and perform as well as the family members who struggle, sacrifice, and support along the way. (Kensington, 304 pp., paperback/ebook, February, 2024) 

The Boy from Kyiv: Alexei Ratmansky's Life in Ballet by Marina Harss

Impressively thorough and impeccably informed, this biography of the Russian-born and Ukraine-raised international choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is more than a journey through a storied and celebrated life in the arts. Firmly founded on personal interviews with the subject himself, his spouse, professional colleagues, dancers, dance company employees, rivals, and critics, it provides a highly detailed and fully human portrait of a creator and his drive to create. Harss not only provides Ratmansky’s personal chronology and professional itinerary, she delves into the many sources of his inspiration and his quest to coalesce his classical ballet and regimented Russian training with techniques absorbed during his tenure dancing in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—where he expanded earlier youthful experiments in choreography into works for company performance and public consumption—and at the Royal Danish Ballet, where he was significantly influenced by the Bournonville style of movement and mime.

Through increasing experience and knowledge, relying on limitless imagination, Ratmansky translated the musicality and brio of his own stage performances into a choreographic style. Through a marriage of high classicism and accessible modernism, he often explores Soviet themes and history, expressed with irony and humor and typically performed to favorite Russian composers (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninoff). Harss examines Ratmansky’s passion for remaking canonical ballets at the major companies around the world—Paquita, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle—based on his painstaking and dedicated study of original dance notation and character presentation. In these efforts he is ably assisted by his wife Tatiana, a Ukrainian former dancer and constant presence in his private and professional life.  The tragic coda, Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ratmansky’s beloved Ukraine, affects his sense of identity and instantly ruptures long and fulfilling relationships with Moscow's Bolshoi ballet and other Russian companies where his works were created and performed, whether to acclaim or criticism.

In this outstanding and revealing biography, its subject’s achievements as well as his ambitions—and his self-doubts—are movingly presented. Rehearsals and performances are presented with clarity, and ballet steps are effectively described, enabling the read to follow and understand the kinetics of dance. Regardless of one’s familiarity with Ratmansky and/or his ballets, this is an illuminating and informative work, and therefore highly recommended to both passionate and casual fans of the dance, and anyone interested in the process of artistic growth. (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 496 pp., hardcover/ebook, October 2023)

It Happened One Fight by Mareen Lee Lenker 

Strong-willed film star Joan Davis, an amalgam of cinema dames Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck, is desperate to recover from being labeled “box office poison.” Her prior on-screen partnership with rising heartthrob and prankster Dash Howard (modeled on the early-career Clark Gable) faltered after a very public altercation. When the studio re-pairs them in a dramatic film set at a Reno divorce ranch, as with the best screwball movies, mayhem ensues. Echoes of the Golden Age classic It Happened One Night are embellished with twists that include an inconvenient revelation of the protagonists’ marital status, an even more inconvenient love affair, the place of ambitious women before and behind the cameras, and the machinations of a malevolent and self-important gossip columnist (clearly inspired by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). The combination of factors results in an agonizing betrayal and threaten to destroy the main characters’ personal and professional lives. A fun and pacy debut, with appeal for fans of Hollywood’s wittiest and most glamorous era. (Sourcebooks, 384 pp., paperback/ebook, July, 2023

Double Decker Dreams by Lindsay McMillan

The impact of British rom-com films on impressionable management consultant Kat results in a surprising relationship during her six-week work stint in London. Her determined climb up the corporate ladder results in a work from home gig in a flat with a bus stop view. Repeatedly spotting an attractive morning commuter who personifies her romantic fantasy of a posh British aristocrat—or royal—she decides to pursue him. But the reality of Rory is a disappointment, because her crush turns out to be a fellow Yank, a primary school teacher who has a hometown honey back in the States. However, these unfortunate facts don’t preclude a supportive friendship, which blossoms into a conflicted romance at the same time Kat must navigate a problematically masculine workplace. The combination of lightness and depth, and the London setting will find favor with fans of films and novels based on similar American-in-Britain tropes. (Alcove Press, 336 pp., paperback/ebook/audio, June, 2023)

Beyond That, the Sea: A Novel by Laura Spence-Ash

In her debut work of fiction, Laura Spence-Ash charts the lives and longings of her characters during the World War II years, and in subsequent decades, as relationships and connections and identities shift. As a young girl, Beatrix is shipped by her parents to the Gregory family in Massachusetts remove her from the dangers of the London Blitz. The reluctant evacuee’s assimilation into the upper-class American household, a sharp contrast to her own, is complicated but eventually solid and complete. Each of the section is identified by its viewpoint character—Beatrix; her parents; each of the adult Gregorys; their vastly different sons, Gerald and William, and others entering the story later. The Maine cottage where Beatrix and her hosts spend every summer serves as an anchor and a talisman, until financial straits and advancing age take a toll on family members. Living up to expectations, one’s own and those cherished by others, and the attendant difficulties, are a consistent theme.

At the conclusion of the war, Beatrix is reclaimed by her surviving parent, returning to a London altered by time and destruction. Unable to feel wholly at home, she must forge her own professional path while struggling to find a compatible partner in romance.

The only (relatively minor, but recurrent) flaw is an accurate degree of Englishness in the English characters, whose Americanisms in speech and narrative can be jarring. Overall, the writing is beautiful and insightful, and tragedy and heartbreak are exquisitely rendered throughout. (Celadon Books, 368 pp., hardcover/ebook/audio, March, 2023)

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.)