Category Archives: Book Review

She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World Book Review

American women have a lot to celebrate. In the nearly 100 years since the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, we have made leaps and bounds towards equality. But for every step we take forward, there are two steps back.

Feminist and political advisor Jennifer Palmieri published her new book last month. Entitled She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World, the book states unequivocally that women can only go so far by playing the rules of men. In order to break the glass ceiling once and for all, we have to blaze a new trail of our own making.

I really loved this book. It is short, sweet, to the point and frankly inspiring. For those of us afraid to step out of the tried and true, Ms. Palmieri gives the reader the kick in the proverbial behind needed to get out there and change the world.

I recommend it.

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Bronte’s Mistress Book Review

In our culture, it is not uncommon or unacceptable to see an older man in a romantic relationship with a partner young enough to be their child. But, if an older woman is in a similar romantic relationship, the response is not the same.

According to Bronte lore, Lydia Robinson was responsible for the downfall and premature death of Branwell Bronte at the age of 31. Hired as a tutor for Lydia’s son, their rumored relationship is still scandalous after more than a century and a half.

Debut author Finola Austin’s novel, Bronte’s Mistress was released earlier this week. The story starts in 1843. Having recently lost her mother and still grieving from the death of her youngest child, Lydia returns home to silence. Her husband and surviving children are nowhere to be found. The only emotional support she receives is from her maid.

Upon meeting Branwell, she is intrigued by the younger man. He is twenty-five to her forty-three. While Branwell’s sister, Anne (also working in the home as the governess) remains emotionally distant, Branwell opens up to Lydia.

When gossip starts to circulate about their so-called affair, the sh*t starts to hit the fan and Lydia must deal with the backlash.

I loved the book. Lydia is a new kind of heroine for the genre. She is middle-aged and a mother made bitter by her circumstances. She has done everything that society tells her to do but feels unfulfilled and unappreciated. Lydia is also complicated. Though she has moments in which the reader empathizes with her, there are also moments in which she is thoroughly cold and cruel.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Rodham Book Review

Life sometimes comes down to a series of choices. But the thing about these choices is that we never know where these choices will lead us.

Curtis Sittenfeld‘s new novel, Rodham, was released back in May. The book asks one basic question: what if Hillary Rodham has not married Bill Clinton? How would her life had turned out?

The book starts out when they are both students at Yale Law School in the 1970’s. Finding a nearly ideal partner in one another, their romantic relationship is on fire. After graduation, Hillary follows Bill back to Arkansas. But instead of marrying him, she ends the relationship.

Over the decades, Bill and Hillary will cross paths as she builds a career in politics and grapples with the same sexism that existed in her youth.

This book is brilliant. Balancing both the known facts and the what if question, Sittenfeld creates a narrative that feels completely organic. I was immediately sucked in and taken through an alternative history that could have happened, had things gone differently.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Bronte’s Mistress-Author Q&A with Finola Austin

Among Bronte fans, Lydia Robinson is seen as a controversial figure. Employing both Anne and Branwell as a governess and a tutor respectively, Lydia appeared to dutifully follow the rules of both gender and class that ruled women of the Victorian era. She was also having an alleged affair with Branwell. Bronte’s Mistress, the debut novel by Finola Austin, gives Lydia the voice that fans of the Bronte’s have yet to hear.

I’m looking forward to the novel and I am thrilled that Finola will be answering a few questions.

AB: What drew you to the Brontes and more specifically, Lydia’s story?

FA: I have always loved Victorian literature. I grew up reading the novels of writers such as Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, and studied Classics & English as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. I then stayed on at Oxford to complete a Masters in English Literature, 1800-1914. My dissertation was on the works of Victorian sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, but I also wrote an essay on student/teacher attraction in the novels of Charlotte Bronte as part of my graduate studies.

I was drawn to Lydia’s story in 2016 when I finally read Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte (the first Bronte biography). It was a book I’d been meaning to read for a very long time. Gaskell describes Lydia as a “profligate woman,” who “tempted” Branwell into sin. I was enthralled by the scandal and controversy (Lydia threatened to sue Gaskell for libel), as well as by the Bronte connection. I just knew this was a story I had to tell.

AB: When did you read your first Bronte novel and what was your impression of that first book?

FA: My first Bronte novel was Jane Eyre and it was read to me by my mother, when I was pretty young—I’d guess I was seven or eight at the time? I loved the book, especially the early sections set during Jane’s horrific schooldays. But, even as a child, I had questions. I didn’t think I’d have been as good as Jane, refusing to live in sin with Rochester, and I thought Jane was very judgmental, especially of Blanche Ingram. Wasn’t she just trying to make her own way as Jane was?

AB: Do you have a favorite Bronte novel?

FA: Jane Eyre is probably still my favorite, though I also love Charlotte’s Villette.

AB: You spent a year researching the novel. Can you describe your experience with the research and how that changed your impression of the characters along the way?

FA:  My full research process is detailed in my Author’s Note at the end of my novel, so no spoilers here, but I will say it was extensive. A huge focus was understanding the lives of Lydia’s servants better, and this was an area where my research went beyond a lot of what has been done by Bronte scholars through the years. The most fun part of my research was visiting Yorkshire. I found it quite emotional to see the graves of many of the Robinson family and their neighbors, and to visit the Monk’s House, the building where Branwell once slept.

My research gave me a much fuller understanding of my characters. For the servants, it told me what roles they played in Thorp Green Hall, who their loved ones were, and what happened to them after the disbandment of the Robinson household. When it comes to Lydia, in my work in the archives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, I held 1) an inventory of her furniture, allowing me to picture the objects that surrounded her; 2) eighteen letters in her hand, giving me her distinctive sign-off, “yours very truly,” which I use throughout the book; and 3) her husband’s accounts book, which is important to the plot of my novel.

AB: The hardest thing for a historical novel to do is to balance the history with the fictional narrative. How did you stay true to the history of your subjects while making the story palatable for modern readers?

FA: Bronte’s Mistress, unlike many historical novels, has a very quiet backdrop—this is rural Yorkshire, not Dickensian London.  Wars and politics are distant concerns to the Robinsons and their peers. This makes the balancing act of history and narrative a little easier than if I was writing characters on a grand historical stage.

Bronte’s Mistress is also written in first person, so I hope Lydia’s voice is what readers find compelling. Through it, we can cut through the formalities of Victorian middle-class existence and get to what’s human, timeless and universal—the voice inside us.

AB: Did you have any expectations about Lydia when you started the research or were you open to whatever information you were able to locate?

FA: I held myself to a very high standard, when it came to the accuracy of my story. By that I mean that everything that happens in Bronte’s Mistress is something I think could have happened, based on all the facts currently at our disposal. Where the fiction piece comes in is in exploring what characters thought, felt and said.  What I was looking for when researching the novel was dramatic possibility. I searched for the places that the historical record was silent and looked to create something beautiful in that void.

AB: How do you think Bronte fans will react to your novel?

FA: I hope fellow Bronte fans will discover the more subtle references to the works of all three Bronte sisters in my novel! These were fun to include and are little Easter eggs for you. I also think they’ll be excited to see Branwell and Anne, the overlooked siblings, foregrounded in this novel. Their time at Thorp Green Hall was very important to both of them—to Branwell’s deteriorating mental state and to Anne’s development as a talented novelist.

AB: If you were casting the movie version of the book, which actors would you ideally cast?

FA: This is a question I can never answer. My characters are like real people to me in my mind, so they don’t resemble actors (though of course I’d be thrilled to see them portrayed on screen!). One thing I do know is I that I would want an actor of the right age to be cast as Lydia. Lydia is forty-three at the start of my novel, and forty-eight by the end. She’s not the typical historical fiction heroine, who seems to be rarely older than twenty-one! There’s such a problem with women actors disappearing from the film industry when they’re deemed “too old” to be the romantic lead, but “too young” to be the matriarch. I think this would be a fantastic role for an actress in this, all too often, invisible decade.

AB: In your novel, Lydia Robinson could be interpreted is a more empathetic or even feminist character than Bronte lore implies. Was this your intention or did her character change as you were writing and researching?

FA: Lydia is no saint. She’s flawed—by turns, self-centered, petty, and oblivious to the emotions of those around her. And, even if in some ways she’s a feminist, straining against the strictures of nineteenth-century womanhood, she’s definitely a “bad feminist.” She is classist; she pretends to be against slavery for attention at a dinner party; and she is horrified when another character tells her they are attracted to people of the same sex. But, despite all of this, I hope that readers can have empathy for Lydia and her impossible situation. She’s been raised to do one thing—marry and produce children. She’s done that and she’s facing the question “now what?” Her husband is cold and uncaring. She has no recourse to divorce. She’s doomed to a life without sex, freedom, or excitement. I see Bronte’s Mistress as an exploration of the extreme claustrophobia of upper middle-class women’s lives in the period, and of the ways many women perpetrated misogyny, while also suffering from the consequences of it themselves.

AB: This is your first published novel. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

FA: Read constantly and critically. Join a writing group for feedback. Write an outline. Don’t use filter words. Finish the books you start.

Bronte’s Mistress will be released on August 4th. Find Finola Austin on social media on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic: The Rise of the Third Reich Book Review

History has a way of teaching the current generation as only history can. But, we must be willing to listen.

The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic: The Rise of the Third Reich was released earlier this year. Written by R diger Barth and Hauke Friederichs with a translation by Caroline Waight, the book tells the story of the short time in which democracy turned into fascism in the 1930’s.

The book starts in November of 1932. The Weimar Republic is Germany’s version of democracy between World War I and World War II. The country is in shambles. The economy is crumbling as multiple political parties vie for power. President Paul von Hindenburg is presiding over a country in which democracy is on the verge of disappearing.

As political intrigue over takes the German political system, the Nazis slowly begin to take hold of power. Germany and the rest of the world will never be the same.

Two things struck me. The first thing was that this book is that it reads like a political thriller. Instead of being a fictional story with the fictional ending, it is a real story with an ending that resulted in war and the loss of millions of lives. The second thing is that the events in the book are a lesson that some political leaders in 2020 desperately need to learn.

I recommend it.

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The Third Daughter: A Novel Book Review

History seems to always have a way of teaching the current generation, that is if they are willing to listen.

Talia Carner‘s 2019 novel, The Third Daughter: A Novel, was published last fall. In 1889, Batya is a fourteen year old Jewish girl trying to escape Europe with her family. The many pogroms that have turned her world upside down. Along the way to hopeful freedom, a handsome and wealthy man presents himself. He wants to marry Batya and give her a new life in America.

It seems like a fairy tale ending to what has been a horrific experience. But like many fairy tales, it is nothing but a sham. Batya is sold into prostitution or “white slavery” along with thousands of other young immigrant women in Buenos Aires.

As the years pass, she adjusts to her forced circumstances, but still dreams of the day when she will be reunited with her family. When an opportunity appears to become a Tango dancer, Batya takes it. It is also an opportunity to get justice for herself and the other women forced to earn their living on their backs.

Previous to reading this book, I thought white slavery was a story told to young girls to keep them chained to the patriarchy. To say that I was educated by the novel is an understatement. I thought that I knew almost everything there was to know about Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century. I was wrong.

I loved this book. It was well written, entertaining and educational without hitting the reader over the head.

I recommend it.

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Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl Book Review

If one were to ask readers who their favorite character is, I would suspect that Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice would rank near the top of the list.

Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl, edited by Christina Boyd, was released earlier this year. The fourth book in a series of five Jane Austen inspired anthologies, this edition contains a series of short stories inspired by Austen’s most famous heroine.

Like it’s predecessors, I loved this book. I could feel the presence of Austen’s voice and point of view as a writer, which in the world of fanfiction, is not always present. Balancing Austen’s original narrative and their vision of Elizabeth Bennet, the stories reminded me of why I continue to adore the novels of Jane Austen.

I absolutely recommend it.

P.S. The royalties from these anthologies go directly to Chawton House. I can’t think of a better way to give thanks to Jane Austen and to those who are keeping her legacy going.

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Books That Speak to the African-American Experience

It has been said that we can never know how another person sees the world until we walk a mile in their shoes. But books have a way to providing that perspective.

As our country and our culture once more grapples with racial tension and the troubled history of our mutual past, books may be one of the keys to bringing us together.

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Proud: My Fight For an Unlikely American Dream by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale by Andrew Kane

It may be simplistic to say that reading the books listed above or any book will help to solve our issues. However, I believe that by at least beginning to understand another’s perspective, the doors to communication, understanding, and diversity may truly start to open.

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Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era Book Review

There is a myth about women and art. We can be the subject of the art, but we cannot be the artist.

In the mid 19th century, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood decided to put their own spin on art. Mostly made up of men, their work consisted of bright colors, an ornate attention to detail and subjects that looked like they could be real. But in spite of the impression that this movement was mostly made up of men, there were also a good amount of women artists and models who had a hand in creating this new form of art.

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era was published in 2018. Written by Kirsty Stonell Walker with illustrations by Kingsley Nebechi, this book highlights the work of fifty women who should rightly be given the spotlight.

I picked up this book because the women whose stories are told have as much right to be recognized and appreciated as their male counterparts. To be honest, it was ok. If I was more a fan of classical art, I think I would have enjoyed the book more.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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The Yellow Bird Sings: A Novel Book Review

The bond between a mother and her child is powerful. In times of war, what will a mother to do protect her child?

The Yellow Bird Sings: A Novel was published last week.

Written by Jennifer Rosner, the novel is set in Poland during World War II. Róza and her 5-year-old daughter, Shira, are hiding in a barn owned by their Christian neighbors. Her husband, parents and the rest of the town’s Jews have all disappeared. To keep her daughter quiet and calm, Róza tells her the story of a yellow bird. The story works, but not forever.

Soon, Róza must make a choice. Keep Shira with her or send her away with strangers to give her a chance to survive.

This book hits all of the emotional and narrative points that is standard for the genre. However, it did not tough me in a way that other books in the genre do. I wanted to feel the tension as to whether both characters would survive and find their way back to each other. Unfortunately, I did not.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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