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Review – Carnegie’s Maid

by Marie Benedict

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Coming into this, I knew very little about Andrew Carnegie, and I admit that I wasn’t sure it would be a romance or not. As a book, it’s a fun, engaging read that’s over all too quickly. The author has a crisp voice that I found very well-suited to historical fiction, and the main character in particular is beautifully crafted. Details are excellent, but not overwhelming or gratuitous. The emotional tone is also a glowing point for me–there’s such a good balance. Never any maudlin displays that go beyond believability, while also avoiding the dreaded robotic drone of lacking emotion.

Clara Kelley is from a farming family in Ireland, sent to America to bolster their income. When she arrives, she hears a man call her name. Although she’s pretty sure this posh man in a bowler hat is looking for a different woman with the same name, Clara takes the opportunity. She has to tell some lies and mask her accent a bit, but she makes it to the formidable Mrs Seeley, a placement agency owner who intended the other Clara to be Mrs Carnegie’s lady’s maid. Clara makes herself indispensable by realising that Mrs Carnegie is new to society and needs assurance as well as the high standards she more openly touts. Although Clara’s initial efforts to be a lady’s maid are blustering through with cautious guesswork, she also seeks information from a book in the library, which made her later settling into her role more believable. She meets Andrew Carnegie in the library.

I loved Clara. She’s pragmatic and firm in her convictions. She makes difficult decisions like hiding her true faith (Catholics were not popular) without doing stupid wishy-washy things that would put her in danger of losing her position. She’s realistic and not precious about pondering or accepting hard facts of life. Nor is she unfeeling. When she begins a friendship with Andrew Carnegie, she is careful to protect herself from impropriety and is wary of how a man in his position could easily destroy her life.

She does struggle to make sense of Carnegie’s inconsistent behaviour, and not just in regards to her. I had trouble with his characterisation in this book. Most of the time he reminded me of the classic lionising of Teddy Roosevelt in Hollywood films. Bright, optimistic, and irritatingly unrealistic in the refusal to examine his flaws. Of course, as I said at the start, I didn’t know much about him, so I may have just balked at his personality changing so much dependant on the company he was in.

However, it did hurt the romance for me. They have chemistry. They spend time together. But Carnegie’s behaviour is beyond mercurial. His mother is described as such, and her characterisation bears it out, but Carnegie came across to me as two different people. I found I preferred the ruthless businessman shouting at his superiors/colleagues to the egalitarian nice guy who never has an argument with Clara. He’s too perfect when he plays the love interest. It makes their early encounters look suspect, and I shared Clara’s discomfort whenever he gave her a lavish and inappropriate gift.

The supporting characters are all drawn well and add to the setting and a lot of Clara’s musings and revelations about the world. The household’s cook Mr Ford is her only friend among the servants, and her immediate family and some cousins keep her grounded and show an important contrast between the life she would have had and the one she made for herself. The Carnegies’ snooty society neighbours added some nice colour and drama as well.

Unfortunately, the ending feels rushed. While reading, I felt like Benedict tried to accomplish things that should have already been covered, some of it in an effort to tie the end to the prologue. The prologue set up some expectations that I don’t think ever really saw sufficient delivery. It’s in Carnegie’s point of view, and he thinks about Clara as if she’s a spitfire who often spoke of equality with passion, and I don’t think she ever came across as such a caricature. The pacing is fine, but the ideas introduced in the prologue kind of felt left alone until the end in an awkward and unnatural way.

The epilogue is quite good, though. It’s a thirty years later epilogue that reaches back to the author’s intent on covering Carnegie’s libraries and public works. Every side character I worried about had their subplots wrapped up nicely, and I liked how Clara chose to live her life after leaving the Carnegie household. In all, I’d say that this book is worth the time and the small hiccoughs. Mostly, said hiccoughs made me wish the book was longer, and isn’t that usually a good thing?

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction, Gay Historical Romance by KJ Charles (also counts as Mystery)

Series: Sins of the Cities #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t quite have auto-buys when it comes to authors because I tend to take forever to buy books that I desperately want. It drives Hubby crazy. But whatever my own weird equivalent of an auto-buy is, KJ Charles is one of them. Not only does she write gay historical romance as though it is not a gimmick or in a novelty in comparison to heterosexual historical romance, she’s also an excellent storyteller and damn classy.

Clem Talleyfer is an Indian-Englishman who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. He doesn’t speak Hindi and he was otherwise denied that half of his heritage, so he has trouble fitting in on that side, and being dark-skinned and illegitimate are enough to keep him from being considered truly English. He’s also clearly on the autism spectrum, which comes with its own social difficulties. I adored Clem. He’s sweet and self-aware, compassionate nearly to a fault, and loyal. His support network was also lovely.

Clem runs a boardinghouse. One of his tenants is Rowley Green, an intense, bespectacled taxidermist who sees his profession as artistic. The two begin with a quiet friendship of sharing tea and conversation in the evenings. They’re each crushing on the other, but neither is quite ready to risk making a move.

Then one of the other tenants, a massively unpleasant drunkard, turns up on the front steps dead and showing signs of torture.

It’s difficult to articulate what I liked so much about this particular book. There are tonnes of things that I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand that I apparently needed in my life. Polish Mark the PI, Rowley’s artistic musings on the art of stuffing animals, trips to see occasionally cross-dressing acrobats. The romance is a slow burn, which I mightn’t have expected to like, but did. The mystery is amazing, so the less said about it the better: Go Read This is all I have to say on that score.

In fact, just Go Read This.

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Review – The French Affair

The French Affair, Historical Romance by Marion Chesney (aka MC Beaton)

Series: Endearing Young Charms #1

Amazon | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I have read a significant number and variety of Marion Chesney historical romances over the last couple of years. They are like comfort food, the small snackable types that have a low calorie count and therefore engender little to no guilt, but also come in limited flavours. Oft-repeated names and character archetypes abound, and villains and subplots can often be guessed before they come in. Everything is so cosy and easily established.

The downside is that the thinking is quite old. Obviously, the books themselves are old, so this is to be expected, and if I go in expecting anything progressive, than on my own head be it. But I’m always put off when I come across a sticky issue. This one isn’t horrible–it’s not like a self-punishing peek at the Censored Eleven–but it always gets worse when I see that I’m the rare reader who didn’t believe the judgmental bullshit view of the heroine.

When she was five years old, Delphine was rescued from France by Lord Charteris. He coddled and sheltered her through childhood and then into an infantilising marriage, never allowing her to meet other French refugees, nor to speak her own language–she only learned French because he considered it something a proper English lady learned–and he refused to tell her the circumstances of her rescue or her parents’ death. Always claiming that he would tell her someday. Until he died.

Three years later, she lives with his disapproving gossip of a widowed sister, Maria Bencastle, who decries her as too French to the neighbours behind her back, makes life less fun, and is basically the reason no one pays calls. At the start of the story, they are taking a rare, nigh unheard of trip to a fair to raise funds for French refugees, and Delphine encounters a juggler who gives her a flower. She later learns he is the Comte Jules Saint-Pierre, and the two of them are parties to a marriage agreement between their parents that dates back to childhood.

The rest of the story is about Jules being “perfect” and right all the time, even when he makes a mistake or acts like an ass, and every last tiny thing Delphine does wrong is worthy of burning her at the stake. Some faux pas are legitimately head-shaking and tie into her character arc. But Jules has no arc and is never considered by the narrative to have done anything wrong, even if he has done.

As a Chesney HR, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It felt kind of like it was emulating my struggle with still reading them after a saturation point. The antagonist is a pointedly unpleasant poor relation by marriage to the heroine. But she repents of her behaviour immediately and threatens to leave the story early on. Delphine stands up to her right away, so she never needs to learn anything from her interactions with Mrs Bencastle. Theirs is not the timid heroine and overbearing authority figure conflict, nor is it the heroine blinded by loyalty to an awful person conflict.

Delphine’s characterisation fluctuates wildly while the book tries to find its place. At first, she is the capable businesswoman who has made her late husband’s estates flourish. Then she’s bored with it and thinks of how the juggler represents fun. But then she disapproves because the juggler lacks dignity. The fair awoke her need to be with other French people, but she takes a long time to question Lord Charteris’s treatment of her and forced rejection of her nationality. When the marriage comes up, she’s firmly stuffed into the slot of being stodgy and a shrill fishwife who nags Jules in public. Never mind that he puts both of them in danger and never shows any care for her safety. He does care about her safety–he simply chooses to punish her by not making any outward show of it.

I never liked Jules. I only got that he was supposed to be a foil teaching Delphine to have fun and lighten up because I am genre savvy. It was executed extremely poorly. Jules was a lightly sketched character who phoned in everything and sailed through all of his conflict without so much as a speed bump. Delphine was a likeable character who got morphed and badmouthed in order to sell me on things I didn’t buy. Somehow she was always the bad guy when they argued, even when it was clear that Jules should have taken some responsibility or at least effing apologised.

Of course an inattentive reader would believe the “bad press” about Delphine and not disapprove of Jules. She’s an actual character with an arc. He’s just… there without any consequences. This made the majority of the book feel either frustrating or just empty. I know sometimes Chesney HRs have the cards stacked in the hero’s favour, but this was ridiculous.

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Review – House of Stairs

House of Stairs, Science Fiction Horror by William Sleator

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I think I could read this book three times a year and never get tired of it. It’s brief and intense, like a cerebral storm.

Five people, all sixteen and orphans, are blindfolded and transported to a dismal facility made up of nothing but stairs and bridges. There is one bathroom, awkward and perilous to reach, nowhere to sleep comfortably, and their only chance of food is to obey the capricious, impenetrable demands of a machine.

I rather wish someone on the development team for Final Fantasy XIII had read a translation of this book. Then the Hallway could have been a terrifying Orwellian device rather than bad game design, and the Fal’cie might have had a chance of actually seeming like impossible to understand alien entities. But I digress.

Each of the characters is a fascinating study, and they only need the time that they receive in order to be properly established and developed. Lola is a self-confident, empowered young woman with compassion who shows that good doesn’t have to be nice (not all the time, anyway). Peter is a soft boy half-defeated by the world, but not quite down and out. Blossom is right in the middle between one of the most interesting and so obvious in what she is so immediately that it’s pathetic (which works right into her characterisation). Abigail could have been like Peter, but she seems to have or lack something that would complete the comparison. And Oliver is a clean divide between the cheerful, capable manly leader he wants to be perceived as, and the weaker selfish shadow inside.

The atmosphere is my favourite thing. Even though there aren’t reams of pages dedicated to describing the facility or the stairs, I can see them quite clearly. Down to what colour they must be. The placement of their one toilet, as well as its awkward and intentionally humiliating construction, makes me uncomfortable in a very real way. It’s also their only source of water. I have acrophobia, and even if I missed something in two readings and there actually are railings, I imagine the stairs to be narrow and without safety rails of any kind. I have a physical reaction whenever the stairs or a bridge are mentioned. So effective!

It seriously amazes me how much this story accomplishes in so little time. The world outside the house of stairs is even established as a post-apocalyptic science fiction-y world. No one lives in real houses but the elite. Books are considered outdated and undesirable in comparison to their screen replacements. Meat is not commonly available. But we get no more detail than we need, which again adds to the atmosphere. Whatever is outside, the world is now the house of stairs. There is nothing but the machine.

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Review- The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Historical Fiction by Brian Selznick

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My favourite thing about this book is that it’s basically a large scale picture book for an older audience than picture books generally court. The writing is simple and patient without being dumbed down, and the story is structured so that it’s easy to follow while still being suspenseful.

I made the mistake of judging the book by its page count and expected something like Eragon or later Harry Potter instalments. So I put off reading poor Hugo far longer than I should have. But of course the majority of the book is comprised of lovely pictures. They’re incredibly detailed pencils that usually follow one another like frames. On topic with both the automation and movies.

Strangely, I did not come into this book thinking it would be a fantasy or steampunk sort of thing. Either I already knew it was historical fiction, or it looked enough like it up until I recognised Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune. I like that it was Hugo’s father’s favourite film. It’s one of mine as well.

The characters are all sympathetic, although it got on my nerves how many times they throw harsh accusations at one another with little evidence and more vehemence than the situation calls for. Sometimes they’re enigmatic for next to no reason, aside from keeping information from the reader for just a little while longer. That first scene can be a little hard to get through. I did want to kick the old man for taking Hugo’s notebook and threatening to burn it.

There is a considerable amount of real peril. Characters get injured, face significant consequences (sometimes for things that can’t be helped), and it seems like everyone has to deal with psychological trauma. The results of which were quite upsetting in at least one case. It’s nice to see a children’s book that doesn’t shy away from real life, particularly since this is historical fiction.

While I generally dislike the film adaptation coming up in a book review, this is one of the few books I can say has a film adaptation faithful enough to be worth showing in a classroom in relation to the book. Both are also highly invested in spectacular visuals.