Book Review: The Beautiful American, by Jeanne Mackin

The Beautiful American, by Jeanne Mackin, tells the story of Nora Tours, a young American woman from Poughkeepsie, New York, whose life crosses paths with that of famous photographer Lee Miller more than once. As the years pass, the two women’s fates become intertwined in more ways than one.

 

Nora is the daughter of the Millers’ gardener, and as she grew up, her father, the descendant of a French perfumer who fled the Revolution, shared with her his passion for perfumes and how they’re made. As the gardener’s daughter, Nora becomes a sort of playmate to Lee, especially after a terrible childhood tragedy that will leave physical and emotional scars on Lee forever. The two young women meet later on in Paris, where Nora is living with her boyfriend, Jamie, who dreams of becoming a photographer. Lee, who is a photographer and fashion model herself, introduces both Nora and Jamie to her lover, famous photographer, Man Ray. Nora is whisked into the last years of the Lost Generation in Paris, where she meets such luminaries as Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso. While Jamie works for Man, Nora does what she can to support him. Lee and Man’s relationship, however, isn’t so rosy. Man is obsessively jealous of Lee, his muse, while Lee pursues other men. Friendship turns into betrayal when Lee takes up with Jamie. Heartbroken and pregnant, Nora leaves Paris for the south of France. Here, she stays with a friend of Picasso’s, a Russian émigrée named Madame Hughes, and gives birth to her daughter, Dahlia.

 

As the years pass, Nora raises her daughter and finds work in the sales department of a French perfume company. She also embarks on a relationship with Madame Hughes’s charming son, Nikolai, who runs a hotel by the seaside. Nora has finally found contentment…until World War II breaks out. With the invasion of France by the Nazis in 1940, Nora finds herself in a precarious position, selling perfume to the occupying forces while doing what she can to assist Nicky, who is working with the French Resistance. As their situation grows more dangerous, Nora, Dahlia, and Madame Hughes are smuggled to Switzerland, where they wait out the war as refugees. When they return to France, they discover that Nicky was arrested and executed by the Nazis and Vichy government. It is all too much for Madame Hughes to bear, and she dies soon after, leaving Nora and Dahlia alone in their cottage. A tragic history from Nora’s childhood repeats itself, though, and Dahlia is left traumatized. After Nora’s arrest for being a Nazi collaborator and subsequent release once the authorities discovered she aided the Resistance, she returns home to find her daughter missing. Frantic, she searches high and low for Dahlia, only to find her way to England, where she encounters Lee again. Lee is now a renowned photographer, famous for her bravery during World War II, and married with a child of her own. Both women are now at a crossroads, and must move beyond the transgressions of their past and the hurt it caused so that Nora can find her daughter.

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Image of cover, courtesy Amazon.

Mackin’s writing is magical and takes the reader to another time, all the while evoking the scents of such famous vintage perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 and L’Heure Bleue. Nora has an exceptional sense of smell, and this takes her far in the perfume industry, and she even picks up the old family trade of mixing custom scents for her friends and neighbors in the village. Nora’s time in France is a return to her family’s roots, and she carries on her family’s legacy long after they had left their home country. There are two minor historical errors, one being the date of the Nazis entering France, which is given as June 10, 1940, instead of June 14, 1940, and the name of Lee’s son being listed as Antony, and not Anthony, Penrose. Despite this, The Beautiful American is a lovely, sprawling story of two women finding places for themselves and making peace with one another in a world torn apart by war.

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Book Review: Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage

There’s more than meets the eye to a seven-year-old girl in Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth, a nail-biter of a novel that offers many a nod to the classic book and film about a murderous little girl, The Bad Seed.

 

Seven-year-old Hanna Jensen has never spoken a word, and her parents, Suzette and Alex, are beside themselves with worry and frustration at not knowing what the issue might be and how to resolve it. But there’s so much more to Hanna than the angelic-faced, seemingly sweet-natured little girl she seems to be. Hanna’s inability to speak isn’t a result of a health condition or a cognitive disability, but one of her own choosing. This frustrates Suzette, who stays at home full-time with her daughter and homeschools her, to no end, while Alex believes it to be the effects of a disease yet undiagnosed. But while Alex sees Hanna’s sweet nature and believes that she can do no wrong, Suzette, who is home with Hanna all day, witnesses some very creepy aspects of her daughter.

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Cover of Baby Teeth, courtesy Amazon.

Hanna herself adores her father, but despises her mother, whom she sees as an interloper in the relationship between herself and her father. Hanna devises clever ways to torment her mother in a sort of power play, and Suzette finds herself going more and more frightened of her daughter and what she might be capable of. As Hanna’s threatening behavior escalates, Alex, who had doubted his wife’s apprehension, sees what she is capable of, and unites with his wife to do whatever it takes to get their daughter the help she needs.

 

Baby Teeth is delightfully creepy, as it explores the different reasons behind Hanna’s behavior. Is it something along the lines of possession, a cognitive disorder, or is Hanna a sociopathic child? The reader is left pondering these possibilities, up until the very end of the book.
I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Book Review: Ash Princess, by Karen Sebastian

“I was a princess made of ashes; there is nothing left for me to burn. Now it’s time for a queen to rise.” Theodosia was only six years old when the Kaiser invaded her country, killed her mother the Queen, and turned her into a living trophy of his empire’s triumph. But in the novel Ash Princess, by Laura Sebastian, the time has come for Theodosia to seize her destiny and lead her people to their freedom as their queen.

 

Astraea was once a peaceful, prosperous country, with its own culture and its own pantheon of gods. The country’s most prominent feature was its temples, built over magical caverns filled with magical stones. The stones are associated with the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. When worn, the wearer can wield the magic contained within each. Since the Kalovaxians have invaded Astraea and enslaved its people, the stones have become little more than baubles to wear as jewelry, and the Astraeans are forced to work in the mines so that the Kalovaxians can have their pretty, shiny jewels.

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Cover of Ash Princess, courtesy Amazon.

 

Since the Kalovaxians invaded her country and enslaved her people, Theodosia has grown up with a new identity: not as the princess of Astraea, but as the Lady Thora, trying to keep a low profile and please the Kaiser so that she can keep her people alive. It is when she is forced by the Kaiser to kill one of her mother’s former guards that she meets her childhood friend, Blaise, who is part of a group of revolutionaries seeking to help Theodosia overthrow the Kaiser and regain her rightful place on the throne. Theodosia joins them in their plot, resolving to win the affections of the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and then kill him, thereby starting a war among the Kalovaxians and providing her people with an opportunity to strike. But complications always arise when executing perfectly laid plans, and Theodosia finds herself falling in love with the Prinz, even though he is the son of the man who has been so cruel and ruthless to her and her people.

 

The tropes in Ash Princess are standard in YA high fantasy, especially since Game of Thrones exploded on the scene and made the genre so popular. But Sebastian executes them so well, and uses these elements of the story to provide commentary on real social problems such as imperialism, greed, oppression, enslavement, and the idea of racial superiority. Add to that the good old tropes of magic, rebellion, court intrigue, and poison. The plot moves quickly, with unexpected twists and turns, making the book highly readable and difficult to put down. The novel was amazing, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

A young wife and mother is forced to come to terms with her past in Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter. Set in Michigan’s both beautiful and harsh Upper Peninsula, the novel details the past and present of Helena Pelletier as she races against time to hunt down her fugitive father before he can find her.

Helena Pelletier has carved out what she can call a normal life for herself: she has a devoted husband, two beautiful daughters, and a successful business making jams and jellies. But underneath the façade lurks the horrible specter of her past: Helena is the result of a horrible crime. Her father kidnapped her mother as a young teenager and held her captive in a cabin in the wilderness for years, during which Helena was born and raised. The news that her father has escaped from prison shatters the tenuous peace of Helena’s life. Determined to protect her family, Helena sends her husband and daughters elsewhere for their safety, so she can track him down before he brings harm to anyone else.

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Front cover of The Marsh King’s Daughter, courtesy Amazon.

Throughout the novel, we get flashbacks of Helena’s childhood and her life her father’s cabin. Her father, who calls her his Little Shadow, teaches her everything she knows about hunting and tracking. At first, it seems an idyllic life, but as the story progresses, we see that the world Helena was raised in was one of cruelty and hardship: a world in which her father’s rule was supreme, and where she and her mother were but puppets of his will. Helena’s childhood devotion toward her father slowly wanes, and as she grows older, she sees what kind of person he is: a sociopath who doesn’t care who he hurts when it comes to having his way.

Woven throughout the story is the cat-and-mouse game Helena’s father forces her to play as she tracks him through the wilderness using the methods he taught her. As she closes in on his trail, we see her conflicting feelings for him. While she still has some residual love for him because he is her father and while she does have some pleasant childhood memories of him, it doesn’t negate the horrible things that he did, and the horrible things that he might still do. She finally concludes, albeit very begrudgingly, that she needs to do what must be done, no matter how much it might pain her, so that she can keep her family safe and not have her father taint her daughters’ lives as he tainted hers. And in the end, she still can’t help but feel some semblance of love for him. The loneliness of the landscape of the U.P. also lends some creepiness to the novel, since Helena is alone in a vast expanse pursuing a monster. And all the while, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Marsh King’s Daughter comes into play, as Helena continually struggles with one question: Is she just like her father, or can she be better than he is?

I read most of this book while on the treadmill at the gym three days a week, and toward the end of each workout, I was disappointed that I had to get off the machine, because I wanted to read more. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who loves thrillers and who also might be familiar with Michigan’s U.P.

 

The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell

The dubious title of “wickedest woman in New York” could probably go to any woman who has crossed the line somehow or who has done something so abhorrent in the eyes of the public that they can’t even bear to mention her name. And for years afterward, whenever anyone would mention the wickedest woman in New York, everyone would automatically know who that person really was. During the nineteenth century, this person was Madame Restell.

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Ann Trow, aka Madame Restell, the “wickedest woman in New York.”

Madame Restell, whose real name was Ann Trow, was born in England in 1812 and came to the United States with her husband in 1831. Her brother found a job in a pharmacy in New York City, and by the end of 1839, she “was advertising to ‘married women’ a ‘simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy’ to families ‘that [increase] in size beyond’ the ability of the parents to support them: ‘preventive powders’ and ‘monthly pills.’” (1)  These were marketed as patent medicines, and the advertisements were widely circulated in the newspapers and penny press, which reached all kinds of women. In an article about Madame Restell, Cynthia Watkins Richardson says:

Because women were often unskilled and dependent , the specter of poverty caused by unplanned pregnancy was very real to fertile women…Women sought the sympathetic “Madame Restell” to help them with gaining control over their precarious lives… Living in the city was a new experience for many; and the city of New York was filled with former rural women unacquainted with the perils of urban life. Repelled, threatened, and frightened by a way of life they did not understand, many middle, and even upper-class women sought to shore up their social boundaries by curbing family size, a preferred strategy for the maintenance of financial and social security.

While Madame Restell and others at this time were providing a much-needed service for the women who sought them out, it is also important to note that there was a danger that came with it. The powders and pills were little more than patent medicine, and there was little to no regulation of patent medicines at the time. Surgical abortions, which Madame Restell’s advertisements promised as a “painless operation” were, like all operations at the time, quite dangerous and painful because of the lack of anesthetic and sanitary measures. There was always a certain risk that the medicines or operations could be fatal, but the women seeking them were willing to take the risk in order to avoid the stigma and shame that came with the birth of an illegitimate child. (2)

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Madame Restell’s 5th Avenue mansion.

When Madame Restell’s business was at its height, there was a much more permissive attitude toward abortions; they were generally legal or unregulated, usually until there were signs of “quickening.” (1) However, in the mid-1800s, this attitude began to change. The recently formed American Medical Association took the position that “formally educated doctors knew better than women how to determine pregnancy and how to take care of pregnant bodies.” (1)  By the mid-1800s, there were laws on the books which made abortion illegal. Nonetheless, Madame Restell kept providing her services, if not a little more discreetly.

Soon, though, Restell became a target of religious activist Anthony Comstock. In winter of 1878, Comstock went to Restell on the pretext of obtaining some contraceptive powder for his wife. After obtaining the powder, he returned four days later with the press, eager for the story, at his side. Madame Restell was later arrested and charged with “selling abortive and contraceptive devices.” Even though she had excellent attorneys, Madame Restell did not wish to see the end of the court trial she had faced, On April 1, 1878, decked out in some of her finest jewels, she slit her own throat with a “pearl-handled knife” while in the bathtub. Comstock declared that her suicide was “a bloody ending to a bloody life.” Her–perhaps ill-gotten estate totaled one million dollars. (2)

So was Madame Restell a pioneer in providing women’s health care, or was she an opportunist who profited from providing a service that many women at the time needed? One might say that she was both; while she was able to provide these services, she also knew that some of the methods used would be dangerous, yet both she and her patients were willing to take the risk. And some of what could be considered dangerous or risky was the reality of taking any patent medicine or undergoing any surgery at that time. But Madame Restell amassed quite a fortune from her business ventures and began to only take wealthier clients after the first time she was imprisoned, and her prices went up. Hers was essentially a for-profit business, and we can only speculate if there was any concern for the safety of her patients or the effectiveness of her products when there was so much money to be made from them and there were so many people who were desperate for them.

However, laws against abortion did not prevent Victorian women from seeking them out, even when the results could be fatal. Now, with the advances made in medicine, abortions and contraceptives are much safer than they were in the mid-1800s. The case of Madame Restell is a perfect example of the reasons why abortion and contraceptives must remain safe and legal. Outlawing abortions is not going to stop people from seeking them out; rather, it drives women to risk their lives dealing with practitioners who may not be at all concerned with the safety and well-being of their patients. And it opens the door for profiteers like Madame Restell to take advantage of the need for it and use such needs for their own gains.

Sources:

1). Ludlow, Jeannie. “Reframing Compassionate Care: Of Madame Restell and Other Outlaws.” On the Issues Magazine. Winter 2012. <http://ontheissuesmagazine.com>

2). “Madame Restell.” Scandalous Women. 8 April 2008. <http://scandalouswomen.blogspot.com>

3). Watkins Richardson, Cynthia. “In the Eye of Power: The Notorious Madame Restell.” <http://umaine.edu>

This piece was originally posted on Persephone Magazine.

Book Review: A Lady’s Code of Misconduct

 

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Once a villain, always a villain, right? Or can a ruthless, conniving young man consumed with ambition and a lust for power suddenly change with a snap of the fingers, or in this case, with a blow to the head? In the new novel A Lady’s Code of Misconduct, by Meredith Duran, rising political star Crispin Burke’s life changes overnight when he is attacked in the dead of night and suffers an injury that leaves him with no memory of the past few months. He doesn’t even remember marrying his lovely young wife, Jane Mason, the niece of one of his former allies in Parliament. Despite his memory loss, he is determined to his best foot forward and become the great politician he had hoped to be before his unfortunate accident. And who better to help him than the woman he trusts most, his young bride, because after all behind every great man is a great woman, right?

Rewind, though, because not everything is as neat and tidy as it seems. Jane isn’t really Crispin’s wife…not technically, anyhow. Before Crispin’s little mishap, Jane, desperate to avoid marrying her cousin who wants nothing more than to inherit her substantial fortune, makes a deal with Crispin: he will obtain a false marriage license for her in exchange for whatever information she can glean from eavesdropping on her uncle’s conversations. She’s so close to freedom…if she can find a man willing to marry her and then part ways. But Jane isn’t so lucky, and upon hearing that Crispin will most likely not survive the attack, takes matters into her owns hands and signs his name to the marriage license. When Crispin wakes up with no memory of the past few months, Jane knows she eventually has to tell him the truth. But she never thought that she would start to have feelings for him…or that he would start to have feelings for her and rely upon her as his partner and helpmeet, despite the circumstances of their marriage.

As Jane and Crispin begin to grow accustomed to their new life together, Parliament still beckons. Crispin is shocked by the harsh prison reform bill he had supported before his attack, and with Jane’s help, he seeks to set things right and withdraw support from the bill. But as he and Jane investigate his past dealings, they begin to see that there are other forces at play behind the politics. And the more they uncover, the more danger they find themselves in. The only way they can get through this is together, and events threaten to test their blossoming love for one another.

Duran captures the domestic and political intrigues of mid-Victorian London perfectly, from the deals made in back offices over brandy and cigars to the show put on in glittering ballrooms in between dances. The best part of the book is the relationship between Crispin and Jane, and how they transition from young bride and groom to a supercouple determined to use their power and influence for the common good rather than for their own gain. A Lady’s COde o my Misconduct has not only the romance that so many love, but provides some reassurance that there are people who enter politics with the honest desire to make a difference and do some good for those who need it.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Ready, Set, Rogue, by Manda Collins

Just how much trouble can a broken wagon axle lead to? Plenty, as the very handsome, slightly rakish Quill Beauchamp, Marquess of Kerr, discovers on his way to Kerr House, the home of his recently deceased aunt. And it just so happens that the beautiful, brilliant Greek poetry scholar Miss Ivy Wareham is headed in the same direction. After a chance encounter at an inn, they end up traveling to Kerr House together.

Ivy is excited about the opportunity that the late Lady Celeste Beauchamp, who had been quite the scholar herself, has offered her and three other young bluestocking ladies: to stay at the house for a year and pursue their studies, and, should they be successful, each inherit a portion of the fortune. Quill is shocked at this provision in his aunt’s will, and he would prefer to keep Kerr House in the family, as it was a favorite retreat for himself and his cousins. But Ivy’s discovery of a letter written to her by the dying Lady Celeste changes everything. Lady Celeste feared that someone was poisoning her, and she charges Ivy with the task of finding her killer. Quill and Ivy must put aside their differences and join forces to bring the dear old woman’s killer to justice…but neither one of them expected that they would fall in love while putting their heads together to solve the mystery.

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Ready, Set Rogue is the first book in Manda Collins’s new Studies in Scandal series. Collins blends a fast-paced mystery story together with witty characters and a very sweet romance. The first kiss that Ivy and Quill share is one of my favorite parts of their romance, as we see that they are both very clever, passionate people who are very well-suited for one another. The minor characters in the book are lovely too, especially the exquisite, plainspoken mathematician Lady Daphne Forsyth and the handsome, dashing Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, who reminded me a lot of Sir Percy Blakeney. The first book in the series is a wonderful read which I highly recommend, and I will definitely be reading the second book when it’s released, as Daphne and Maitland’s romance is the next one to be featured.

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy from Netgalley in exchange fo rmy honest review.