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REVIEW: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport pierces the romantic veiling swaddled around the daughters of Nicholas II to present a pleasing, if sobering look at the four lives brutally ended one night in the summer of 1918. I’m not a Romanov buff by any means, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Imperial Family and their lost world (Fox’s Anastasia (1997) is one of my favorite movies). When I downloaded this book to my Kindle, I didn’t know what to expect–the discovery of Anastasia’s remains in 2007 closed the case on the many imposters, and Rappaport certainly wasn’t going to mine rumors about Rasputin, was she?

Thankfully, Rappaport didn’t dwell on either. Instead, she drew a balanced, yet sometimes frustrating portrait of four young women raised at the highest echelons of society by warm, kind-hearted parents who were horrible rulers. The sentimental portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra’s great, abiding love is brought to earth to a startling degree, and the reality of their characters played out amongst their five children. The family of Nicholas II was very close and tight-knit, and the love between them all was intriguing to read in light of the stereotypical image of the stern, emotionally distant Victorian/Edwardian paterfamilias. But in the context of their time–which Rappaport paints very well–their extreme insularity brought their downfall.

There were times when I wanted to reach through the text and shake Empress Alexandra for her neglect and sheltering of her daughters, her obsession with her son and the throne, and her devotion to autocracy. There were times when I wanted to shake Olga, whom Rappaport claims was the most sensitive and astute of the four daughters, especially as Russia drifted towards the Revolution. My frustration was especially piqued when the Grand Duchesses kept getting sick at moments of crisis! I suppose illness was a constant presence in the days before vaccinations, but I couldn’t help but feel that the Romanov sisters were subconsciously susceptible to debilitating illnesses when beneath emotional strain (and it possibly was the only time their mother got out of bed and paid attention to them).

However, there are lots of charming, cheeky moments in this book. Rappaport draws from reminisces and letters they sent to friends over the years to paint as deep a portrait of Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as one can without lots of primary resources (I was arrg! when reading passages of the sisters burning their diaries and letters in 1917-18). There is some repetition of their characters traits Rappaport presumes from extant sources, but it kept the sisters at the center of the tale even when chapters detailed the obsessive, fearful motherly love Empress Alexandra had for her only son. It was also intriguing to read about Rasputin through their eyes: I still can’t get a bead on him, but their grief when he is murdered in 1916 is palpable nearly one hundred years later.

Rappaport ends The Romanov Sisters as they are heading downstairs to the cellar of the Ipatiev House, for which I am thankful–it would have been difficult to read the gory details after being in their heads for 500+ pages (Rappaport has written about the fortnight leading up to murder in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). The mark of a great biography is one that effortlessly weaves the historical, cultural, and socio-political context into the subject’s life, and in The Romanov Sisters, Rappaport does just that.

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A Friday Reads Smorgasbord!

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In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess my neglect of Edwardian Promenade was also due to other people’s books! Thanks to the good folks at Edelweiss and NetGalley, I’ve loaded up my Sony Reader with amazing upcoming releases, which compliment my own ample personal purchases. All links lead to Goodreads

WWI

– The second book in my series is based around the Somme and a VAD Hospital, and the superb Lyn Macdonald kicks off my research for both topics.

Somme

The Roses of No Man's Land

Dual Timelines

– This seems to be a new trend in women’s historical fiction, but I’m not complaining!

Letters From Skye
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

The Ashford Affair
As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .

What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.

A Hundred Summers
Memorial Day, 1938: New York socialite Lily Dane has just returned with her family to the idyllic oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island, expecting another placid summer season among the familiar traditions and friendships that sustained her after heartbreak.

That is, until Greenwalds decide to take up residence in Seaview.

Nick and Budgie Greenwald are an unwelcome specter from Lily’s past: her former best friend and her former fiancé, now recently married—an event that set off a wildfire of gossip among the elite of Seaview, who have summered together for generations. Budgie’s arrival to restore her family’s old house puts her once more in the center of the community’s social scene, and she insinuates herself back into Lily’s friendship with an overpowering talent for seduction…and an alluring acquaintance from their college days, Yankees pitcher Graham Pendleton. But the ties that bind Lily to Nick are too strong and intricate to ignore, and the two are drawn back into long-buried dreams, despite their uneasy secrets and many emotional obligations.

Under the scorching summer sun, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick’s marriage bubbles to the surface, and as a cataclysmic hurricane barrels unseen up the Atlantic and into New England, Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which will change their worlds forever.

The Perfume Collector
London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a young newlywed, eager to make a success of her marriage. However, with her intellectual curiosity and her unladylike talent for advanced mathematics, she finds the routine of elegant luncheons and exclusive parties among post-war London’ s social set more tiresome than exciting.

When Grace receives an unexpected inheritance from a woman she’ s never met, she finds herself suddenly in Paris, embarking upon a journey to discover not only the identity of her mysterious benefactor but also the hidden secrets of her own past.

In a story that takes us from New York in the 1920s to mid-century Monte Carlo, Paris and London, Grace discovers a world filled with the evocative, intoxicating power of perfume; an obsessive, desperate love between muse and artist; and a trail of dark memories that may mean she isn’t the person she thinks she is at all.

Historical Fantasy

– I’m not a big SFF reader, but add history to the mix and I’m there.

A Thousand Perfect Things
In this epic new work, the award-winning Kenyon creates an alternate 19th century with two warring continents on an alternate earth: the scientific Anglica (England) and magical Bharata (India). Emboldened by her grandfather’s final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori Harding, a young Victorian woman and aspiring botanist, must journey to Bharata, with its magics, intrigues and ghosts, to claim her fate. There she will face a choice between two suitors and two irreconcilable realms.

In a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and enduring gods, as a great native mutiny sweeps up the continent, Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped and stranger than she could have dreamed.

The River of No Return
“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life’s advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.

In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance.

Zelda, Zelda, Zelda

– Zelda is another trend for 2013, and both of these titles delve deeply into the Fitzgerald mythos with pleasing results.

Z
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.

What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.

Everything seems new and possible. Troubles, at first, seem to fade like morning mist. But not even Jay Gatsby’s parties go on forever. Who is Zelda, other than the wife of a famous—sometimes infamous—husband? How can she forge her own identity while fighting her demons and Scott’s, too?

Call Me Zelda
From New York to Paris, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reigned as king and queen of the Jazz Age, but those who really knew them saw their inner turmoil.

Committed to a Baltimore psychiatric hospital in 1932, Zelda vacillates between lucidity and madness as she fights to forge an identity independent of her famous husband. She discovers a sympathetic ear in her nurse Anna Howard, who finds herself drawn into the Fitzgerald’s tumultuous lives and wonders which of them is the true genius. But in taking greater emotional risks to save Zelda, Anna may end up paying a far higher price than she ever intended.

Romantic Fiction

– I am an unabashed fan of romance novels, and these are two superb historical titles I’ve recently read.

Your Wicked Heart
Jilted overseas and abandoned without a penny, Amanda Thomas is desperate to get home. She’ll do whatever it takes to secure a berth on an England-bound ship, even if it means pretending to be the wife of the absentee viscount who jilted her. But when the anchor lifts, she’s not the only impostor on board—for the stranger in her bed claims to be the real Viscount Ripton. Can she trust this devastatingly attractive scoundrel? Or is his offer of friendship only a pretext for seduction…and revenge?

The War Bride Club
When Betty, Madeline, Alice and June depart London for New York at the end of 1945 they are complete strangers. But along with hundreds of other war brides, they are leaving home to be with their American husbands now the war is over. In the days they spend at sea, the four young women become firm friends, and vow to stay in touch no matter what their new lives bring.

But life in a new country comes with many challenges…

Betty has no family, and she has no intention of being alone in her final stage of pregnancy. Her dashing pilot husband is the man of her dreams, and she can’t wait to be reunited with him, but tragedy awaits her in America.

Madeline never wanted to leave her family, but she was also in love. She is excited about the ranch her new husband has told her so much about, but the reality of life with his family is nothing like she could ever have imagined.

Alice fell in love with her soldier husband while she was nursing him in London, but the strong, capable man who returned to sweep her off her feet seems to have disappeared. In his place is a man so haunted by what used to be before the war, that she has doubts their marriage will last.

It seems that June is the only one of the four friends to find happiness in America. Her husband and his family welcome her with open arms, but her inability to get pregnant makes her feel like a failure.

The only thing these four brave women can count on is their friendship, but Betty, Madeline, Alice and June didn’t move half way across the world to give up without a fight.

The 1920s

– Is there something in the water? Because this dizzy decade is fodder for some pretty amazing fiction in the recent months.

The Other Typist
Rose Baker seals men’s fates. With a few strokes of the keys that sit before her, she can send a person away for life in prison. A typist in a New York City Police Department precinct, Rose is like a high priestess. Confessions are her job. It is 1923, and while she may hear every detail about shootings, knifings, and murders, as soon as she leaves the interrogation room she is once again the weaker sex, best suited for filing and making coffee.

This is a new era for women, and New York is a confusing place for Rose. Gone are the Victorian standards of what is acceptable. All around her women bob their hair, they smoke, they go to speakeasies. Yet prudish Rose is stuck in the fading light of yesteryear, searching for the nurturing companionship that eluded her childhood. When glamorous Odalie, a new girl, joins the typing pool, despite her best intentions Rose falls under Odalie’s spell. As the two women navigate between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night and their work at the station by day, Rose is drawn fully into Odalie’s high-stakes world. And soon her fascination with Odalie turns into an obsession from which she may never recover.

The Heiresses
In Allison Rushby’s Heiresses, three triplets–estranged since birth–are thrust together in glittering 1926 London to fight for their inheritance, only to learn they can’t trust anyone–least of all each other.

When three teenage girls, Thalia, Erato and Clio, are summoned to the excitement of fast-paced London–a frivolous, heady city full of bright young things–by Hestia, an aunt they never knew they had, they are shocked to learn they are triplets and the rightful heiresses to their deceased mother’s fortune. All they need to do is find a way to claim the fortune from their greedy half-brother, Charles. But with the odds stacked against them, coming together as sisters may be harder than they think.

A Spear of Summer Grass
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

Look out for a giveaway of Deanna Raybourn’s elegant 1920s historical novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, next week!

Goodreads Links

Somme by Lyn Macdonald
The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn Macdonald
Letters from Skye: A Novel by Jessica Brockmole
The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
Your Wicked Heart by Meredith Duran
The War Bride Club by Soraya Lane
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
The Heiresses by Allison Rushby
A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Review: The Flower of Empire by Tatiana Holway

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picture for review

Due for release on April 9th 2013

Blurb

In 1837, while charting the Amazonian country of Guiana for Great Britain, German naturalist Robert Schomburgk discovered an astounding “vegetable wonder”–a huge water lily whose leaves were five or six feet across and whose flowers were dazzlingly white. In England, a horticultural nation with a mania for gardens and flowers, news of the discovery sparked a race to bring a live specimen back, and to bring it to bloom. In this extraordinary plant, named Victoria regia for the newly crowned queen, the flower-obsessed British had found their beau ideal.
In The Flower of Empire, Tatiana Holway tells the story of this magnificent lily, revealing how it touched nearly every aspect of Victorian life, art, and culture. Holway’s colorful narrative captures the sensation stirred by Victoria regia in England, particularly the intense race among prominent Britons to be the first to coax the flower to bloom. We meet the great botanists of the age, from the legendary Sir Joseph Banks, to Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to the extravagant flower collector the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps most important was the Duke’s remarkable gardener, Joseph Paxton, who rose from garden boy to knight, and whose design of a series of ever-more astonishing glass-houses–one, the Big Stove, had a footprint the size of Grand Central Station–culminated in his design of the architectural wonder of the age, the Crystal Palace. Fittingly, Paxton based his design on a glass-house he had recently built to house Victoria regia. Indeed, the natural ribbing of the lily’s leaf inspired the pattern of girders supporting the massive iron-and-glass building.
From alligator-laden jungle ponds to the heights of Victorian society, The Flower of Empire unfolds the marvelous odyssey of this wonder of nature in a revealing work of cultural history.

Review

The Flower of the Empire is about the discovery of the water lily by Robert Schomburgk and its connection to great events within the Victorian/Edwardian period, including the building of the Crystal Palace.  This novel captures the feeling scientific wonder and exploration of the period and in a chatty, easy to read style introduces to the main characters of the drama. It is hard to imagine a flower at the centre of a drama and yet this fast paced book introduces you to powerful and brilliant men of the period, who were all tied together by their fascination and drive to bring the water lily to England and to successfully get it to thrive in England.

A beautiful garden was expected by the elite of the period and the New World was a botanist’s paradise, with many different types of flowers which had not yet been grown on British soil. Wealthy men funded expeditions to bring back flowers that would show their prestige to those who walked through their gardens. I had heard of Paxton before, through his involvement in the Great Expedition but the rest of the characters in this novel were new to me and it was interesting to hear their back stories and follow their triumphs and failures through the book. I would recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Edwardian period and the history of botany. It is written in an approachable style and enraptures everything exciting about the period.

I give it 4 out of 5 water lilies.

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