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Book Reviews: Sarah Baughman, Penelope’s Hope and Violet’s Daybreak

(Disclaimer: I have been friends with the author and her family for many years, and she provided me with copies of her books in exchange for an honest review.)

Sarah Baughman’s Penelope’s Hope and Violet’s Daybreak are inspirational Regency romances that feature two young women coming to terms with their personal demons and their difficult families. Having followed the author on social media and having seen the depth of her research into the Regency period, I have been looking forward to sitting down to read the finished books. Baughman’s research has clearly paid off—speaking as a historian, it was a nice experience to pick up a Regency that didn’t make me cringe due to inaccuracies. Her use of language, etiquette, and clothing descriptions are spot on.

Baughman’s first book, Penelope’s Hope, tells the story of the Hon. Miss Penelope Drayton, who is secretly working as a portrait artist to support herself and her aunt financially (her brother, meanwhile, is doing his best to drink and gamble his way through the family’s resources). Due to her brother’s behavior, and their father’s before that, Penelope has learned to distrust men and she is highly skeptical about God. As Penelope continues to work, she encounters Violet Wyndham and her brother Ash, our hero. While enjoying Violet’s company, Penelope grows concerned as she observes Violet’s intense shyness and the emotional abuse she suffers at the hands of her mother (the truly despicable Mrs. Wyndham) and her sister Rose. Ash does his best to protect Violet, but has problems of his own, having recently been jilted. Noticing their growing friendship, Ash asks Penelope if she can draw Violet out. He also asks if Penelope would agree to a sham courtship in order to throw matchmaking mothers (particularly his own) off the scent.

The story picks up considerably after Penelope and Ash meet—they have great chemistry. Through her relationship with the pious Violet, Penelope begins to question her own faith and trust issues, even as Ash begins to question his pride. The remainder of the story centers on the faith journey that the main characters take, even as they struggle to decide what to do once their fake courtship begins to turn real.

The book ends with a cliffhanger concerning Ash and Violet’s parentage, which carries over to the second book.

Violet’s Daybreak opens shortly after Ash and Penelope’s wedding, and focuses on Violet Wyndham. While a talented seamstress and deeply thoughtful and religious person, Violet has suffered for years at the hands of her domineering mother and spoiled sister. As the book opens, Mrs. Wyndham is determined to marry Violet off in order to clear the way for her younger daughter Rose to marry her suitor, the foppish Mr. Langley.

While visiting their cousins, Violet attends a ball and encounters Nathaniel Peyton, Lord Reymes and Earl of Bainscroft, and his younger brother, John. When John accosts Violet on a deserted balcony, Nathaniel comes to her rescue. After preventing Violet from falling, Nathaniel is confronted by Mrs. Wyndham, who accuses Nathaniel of compromising Violet and demands that he marry her. As he is an honorable, if somewhat reclusive man, Nathaniel agrees.

While the novel follows the standard forced marriage trope, Baughman handles it deftly, giving her characters time to fully adjust to their marriage. They also are forced to deal with past demons: Violet’s neglectful childhood, and Nathaniel’s guilt over his father’s death and brother’s appalling behavior. We get also a glimpse of Ash and Penelope’s future life, and there’s an amusing section where they grill Nathaniel about being good enough for Violet.

Violet blossoms as Nathaniel’s wife, quickly learning the ropes and becoming mistress of their estate. Her concern and care for their tenants inspires Nathaniel to become more involved, particularly as he realizes that all is not well with his brother and the estate’s finances. Baughman does an excellent job of depicting an emotionally realistic love story between two people coming from complicated families. By the end, Violet and Nathaniel are able to stand up to their pasts and form a true marriage. Violet’s faith grows stronger, and Nathaniel comes to terms with his own neglected faith. (Violet also learns a mean right hook, but I won’t spoil the details.)

I enjoyed reading these books, even though I was a little bummed at the end of Violet’s Daybreak to realize that Baughman left several plotlines hanging—I very much want to know what happens to the other couples in the book: Nathaniel’s brother and his wife, Violet’s sister and her new husband, Nathaniel’s baliff and his fiancee. Who is going to marry Violet’s cousin Charlotte? Will the evil Mrs. Wyndham finally get what’s coming to her?

So bring on the sequels, in other words!

Source: Review copies provided by the author


In Which I Have Traveled the Night (End of 2017 Reflection)

I have wanted to write about this year for a while now. Seeing everyone’s end of the year reflections starting to emerge has only compounded this desire. But what to say?

In the end, I find that don’t have much to say, other than to talk about my emotions. I’ve been very active on Twitter this year, so my responses to the current administration are out there. I feel that America is at a moment of serious reckoning—we are being forced to look at what we have attempted to keep buried for too long. I’ve studied these moments as a historian—but somehow in my naivete I assumed I’d never live through anything similar. But here we are.

I spent most of this week writing and rewriting a response to historian Megan Kate Nelson’s excellent blog post on the current state of the history Ph.D. I have yet to produce a response, however, that isn’t a diatribe against myself for not winning the “magical history job brass ring” or a rant against the conditions in academia and society that have made the history profession such a precarious place. So that piece of writing remains in my draft folder for now.

My sadness comes down to the fact that we as historians are keepers and interpreters of the past while we live in a “fake news” era. And during this year in particular it’s been really heartbreaking. Personally so as I cobble together sporadic research and writing gigs while wondering if the Ph.D. that I fought so hard to finish was even worth it.

In the end I feel it was, even if all it did was teach me how to wrestle with the demons of my own past and that of the nation.

Academic Twitter has been a godsend this year. I’ve met a lot of people who are just like me—we’re scholars but we don’t fit into the established models. I’m getting more okay with the idea that whatever I end up doing is going to be very specific to me, created out of the ether. I’m frankly tired of hiding who I am behind all of things that I think I’m supposed to be.

I follow psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach online, and she recently sent out a newsletter in which she quoted from the poet Rumi’s “Search the Darkness.” At the end of 2017, it’s worth looking at in full:

Sit with your friends; don’t go back to sleep
Don’t sink like a fish to the bottom of the sea.

Surge like an ocean,
don’t scatter yourself like a storm.

Life’s water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.

Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.

Be a wakeful candle in a golden dish,
don’t slip into the dirt like quicksilver.

The moon appears for night travelers,
be watchful when the moon is full.

So travel the night with me, my friends, as we carry the light into 2018.

In Which I Return

It’s been over a year since I have posted here.

As it did for a lot of people, the 2016 Election threw me for a loop. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, watching cable news, and reading newspapers and online commentary. With the news cycle changing so quickly and history being made right in front of me, it’s been difficult to focus on my writing and on book reviews.

The last year has forced me to confront most of what I believe about history, about my country, and about spirituality. I have kept busy, even as I seek a full-time job (admittedly my timing is terrible given the current state of the job market in the humanities). I co-wrote a commemorative history book celebrating the centennial of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. I’ll keep you posted as to when it will be published. I did some freelance research for a friend beginning his next book. I became active with the #Exvangelical contingent on both Twitter and Facebook (for ex-Evangelical fundamentalist Christians), which has been both healing and disturbing, as it’s bringing up a lot of emotion about my childhood that I had forgotten. My family is doing well, and it’s been a quiet year. My daughter has joined the Singing Angels, a well-known children’s choir here in Cleveland. My husband and son are active with their Cub Scout den. Our finances, however, continue to be a source of constant stress, given my irregular income.

I’ve begun two research projects of my own, both biographies. I consider this blog another neglected project that I want to pick up again. I have many ARCs that I owe reviews on. I want this to be a more authentic reflection of me than it has been.

2017 is almost over. The world feels like it’s hit some sort of watershed, some sort of shift, at least here in the United States. Maybe it will signal a new beginning for me as well.

Book Reviews: Three More from Hay House

As I continue to clear through my ARC pile…here are three quick reviews of books from Hay House.

Mastin Kipp – Daily Love: Growing Into Grace

Mastin Kipp’s book Daily Love: Growing Into Grace (published September 9, 2014) is an offshoot of his The Daily Love Twitter feed and YouTube videos (since 2014, Kipp has re-branded under his name). The book is part memoir, part self-help book, and details Kipp’s life as he moved toward a recognition of Divine Grace (he calls this the journey “from crisis to Grace”).

Kipp, a Kansas native, moved to Los Angeles with the hope of pursuing a music management career. He was successful, but his addictions to drugs, computers, food, and women led him to continually self-sabotage. He suffered a major breakdown, and, as he worked to overcome his addictions and rebuild his life, he started The Daily Love, a website, email list, and Twitter feed (and eventually YouTube videos) that provided inspirational material. The Daily Love, much to his surprise, continued to grow, and Kipp recounts the ups and downs he experienced. Eventually, Kipp formed relationships with many self-help luminaries, particularly Tony Robbins, and his work was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday.

I was personally drawn to Kipp’s upbeat attitude and his realistic advice—he is very revelatory, almost to the point of giving the reader too much information. I respect his fearlessness in putting all of this out there, however, and how open he is about his personal failures.  Kipp’s message is that we need to realize that we are perfect in God’s eyes, but that we are responsible for taking action, for being willing to screw up and start over, and to find grace where in the past we would have only seen disaster.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Wayne W. Dyer and Esther Hicks – Co-Creating at its Best: A Conversation Between Master Teachers

Co-Creating at its Best (published December 2, 2014) is the transcript of a 2013 interview between the late Wayne W. Dyer and Esther Hicks, best known for her channeling of a “collective consciousness” known as “Abraham.” I admit that I really am not sure what to do with the “Abraham-Hicks” message, as while I can handle some woo, this is pretty woo.

Putting that aside, Abraham’s teachings center on the Law of Attraction, with a focus on maintaining a “high vibration” and a connection to “Source Energy.” In the interview with Dyer, Abraham describes how the universe responds to how you truly feel, not necessarily what you are saying (hence why affirmations often don’t really change things). Abraham also emphasizes the need to develop and maintain positive emotional momentum throughout the day and to try to accept what is at all times, rather than resisting it or comparing your experiences to that of others. In other words, you have to accept your journey and be “aligned with Source” before your external world changes. Life is actually about constant growth—we never stop growing and changing.

I think this is one of those books that will either really resonate with you or it will read as total gibberish. The language is not that accessible until you are reading it for a while (and Dyer’s questions are helpful in getting you into the material). Your mileage may vary.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Katie Dalebout – Let It Out

Katie Dalebout’s Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling (published April 5, 2016), describes how critical journaling can be to the self-discovery and self-help process. She sees writing as a form of meditation and mindfulness, and provides the reader with a series of prompts designed to jump start the journaling process. She includes guides for increasing gratitude, dealing with anger and comparing oneself to others, and working through issues surrounding career, money, and health.

As a longtime diary keeper, I enjoyed this book. My only quibble is that, speaking as someone who is a good decade and a half older than the author, I’m not sure if the tone of the book is as appealing to older women. I have every expectation, however, that Dalebout has a long and interesting self-help career ahead of her given this auspicious start.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Links: What I’ve Been Reading This Week

I’m currently working through a bunch of book reviews and blog posts, but, in the meantime, I decided to pass along some of what I’ve been reading this week:

An article by George Saunders, a reporter for The New Yorker, is the best breakdown I’ve seen so far of why it has been so hard to get a handle on who is supporting Trump and why.

Drama continues in my beloved Trekdom…from George Takei being upset over Sulu being gay in “Star Trek: Beyond,” to the ever continuing Axanar lawsuit, and finally, while not that controversial, I would love to know what they’ve been smoking over at Hallmark to make “Kirk and the Salt Vampire” one of their Keepsake Ornament offerings for 2016.

A physician has added his theory to the long list of retrospective diagnoses of Mary Todd Lincoln–in this case, pernicious anemia caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency. While it’s definitely one of those theories that can never be definitively proven, I find this one compelling. I figure it’s this or she was bipolar.

A blogger named Kristen M has been working her way through a list of the Top 100 Chapter Books and recently read the Little House books. I loved her commentary, especially as she echoes a lot of what I thought when I tried to read Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter. While I remembered the books for their portrayal of a loving family and the descriptions of food and music…what struck me as an adult was the racism, violence, and harsh moral code that the Ingalls inculcated in their children (or, that Rose Wilder Lane wrote into her mother’s stories).

Heather Havrilesky knocked it out of the park again with her Ask Polly advice column–this week’s article focused on a young woman who is trying to reconcile her self-image and childhood values while working in what sounds like some high profile industries (or at least populated by the upper class). Havrilesky also has a book coming out this month that I’m looking forward to reading.

And, finally, my alma mater is losing its shit over the Republican National Convention.

Link: Author S.L. Huang Discusses the “Manpain” Trope

I wanted to pass on this link to a recent post on Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog. In, it, author S.L. Huang discusses the trope of “Manpain,” where the focus of a story centers on the angst and suffering of the male protagonist. Disturbingly, this shows up even in cases where the protagonist has done something terrible to a female character, who disappears from the story after being harmed. Huang deliberately subverted the trope in a recent book, and analyzed the feedback she received:

It’s interesting, the responses I’ve gotten on this character and this scene. Male readers have tended to be neutral on the arc and the character or even view him as weak. Whereas female readers have almost universally come back with, “OMG I HATE HIM SO MUCH YEAH CAS PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE PUNCH HIM AGAIN!!!”

Of course, a few first readers on one book aren’t enough to draw empirical conclusions. But what I can say is this: it’s a pervasive trope, and at least some of us are really dang tired of seeing men given sympathy for the awful things done to women.

It ain’t your pain, dude. It’s ours.

I find Huang’s explanation, even though she’s referring to sci-fi and fantasy, very relevant given how often this also shows up in romance novels. Kudos to her for having her female protagonist fight back!

In Which I am No Longer a Graduate Student

It’s been about a month since I turned in my final paperwork to graduate from my doctoral program. Officially, I won’t have the diploma in hand until the end of summer semester (August).

I’m not really sure how I’m feeling right now. Not having a dissertation, or any academic work, hanging over my head has been a lovely experience. It’s been a long time. It’s been nice getting my head back together, spending time with my kids, and reading a lot of books that have nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, or nineteenth-century cultural, medical, or literary history.

I’m in the realm of what some call “post-academic,” as I am not planning to pursue a tenure track job. For the first time ever, I really have no idea what I am going to do next. Simultaneously this feels freeing, yet completely batshit crazy. In academia, you are always “supposed to have a plan.”

It’s an interesting space, largely as I feel like I’m wrestling with expectations, my own and that of others. On the one hand, wasn’t I supposed to be a teacher? Aren’t I supposed to be sending out book proposals to turn my dissertation into a monograph? Aren’t I supposed to be giving conference papers? What’s wrong with me that I never wanted any of this? (And, having seen blog posts out there from individuals who have left the academy—there is so much censure regarding other people’s choices and decisions. So many terrible words about how it’s all your own damned fault for choosing the “wrong” program or “wrong” career path. How dare you be honest about your pain, in other words, and imply that maybe it’s the academy that’s a wee bit fucked up?)

In looking back, I think all I wanted to do was to keep studying history. And a doctoral program seemed to be the only socially-sanctioned way to do that, at the time.

The major takeaway is that I am far too concerned with what others think of me and what their expectations are. My heart knows that expectations don’t matter, and that there is nothing wrong with me. I will find my way. My head, though—oh, my academically-trained head! That woman needs to be deprogrammed, stat.

I have been reading Pema Chödrön lately and am trying to be more open. I am so tired of trying to present a certain appearance to the world, or of judging others for who I think they are. This, from Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, has been on my mind a lot:

“Then this experience of opening to the world begins to benefit ourselves and others simultaneously. The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. Often the only way we know how to react is to use it as ammunition against ourselves. We aren’t kind. We aren’t honest. We aren’t brave, and we might as well give up now. But when we apply the instruction to be soft and nonjudgmental to whatever we see right at that very moment, then this embarrassing reflection in the mirror becomes our friend. Seeing that reflection becomes motivation to soften further and lighten up more, because we know it’s the only way we can continue to work with others and be of any benefit to the world.” [Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 76-77.]

“Soft and nonjudgmental.” That is the space I’m trying to inhabit right now—as I seem to be dwelling in the “in between” stages of my life. I think this will be an intensely healing space, if I allow myself to feel everything that I’m feeling and to become friends with ambiguity. It is truly okay that I do not know right now. It is truly okay that “they” do not know either.