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How exciting! It is the last Wednesday of the month! Pre-Reads are here. Below is a list of recently published or re-leased titles that pertain to the 19th century and its subgenres. Eight fiction and eight non-fiction books. There was quite a selection of fiction books to pick from this July, making it tough to narrow down the list. All titles are highly reviewed from various sources such as Library Journal, Bake and Taylor recommendations, Kirkus Review (my favorite), Publisher’s Weekly, and Amazon. Likewise, summaries and reviews are taken directly from these resources. As always, I have not read these items, so I could not personally recommend any one book over the other. However, I will say there are a few on the list that I purchased for my own library, which is very rare. Most of my patron demographic prefer mysteries, romances, and Westerns, in that order. There is also the latest from Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. I am totally planning on reading it! Which titles are you eager to add to your To-Read-List? I’d love to know your interest in the comments.


Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

Growing up in the British colony on Mars, Arabella Ashby would rather be working with her father on his automatons or outside with her brother and her Martian nanny. Yet her mother wants her to be a proper young lady and decides to take Arabella and her sisters to Earth, specifically London, to reside. When the news of her father’s death as well as a threat to her Martian home arrive, Arabella knows that she would rather save her brother than save face. Disguised as a boy, she gets a job with the crew of the Diana, a ship that serves as part of the Mars Trading Company. Learning of her knack for clockwork, the captain puts her in charge of the ship’s lifelike navigator. Dealing with the intricate automaton would be enough, but Arabella also must learn to sail across the stars—while dealing with a less-than-happy crew and the British and French naval war. It will take all of Arabella’s skills to survive the skies, and she only hopes to ensure her family stays alive on Mars, too.

A Beauty Refined by Tracie Peterson

The year is 1907 and German-born Phoebe Von Bergen has come to Helena, Mont., with her father, Count Von Bergen. They’re on a grand tour of the world for the count’s business interests—specifically the acquisition of sapphires. The journey brings Phoebe more than she was prepared for as unexpected dark secrets await in the American West. Ian, who lives in Helena, is a man of strong faith who abhors a lie. He finds himself wrapped up in the beautiful young Phoebe’s life after he discovers that the woman living in his home is Phoebe’s long-lost mother—a convenient coincidence. In a situation fraught with betrayal and facades, Ian is the only person Phoebe can turn to. **Purchased for my library**

The Baker Street Jurors by Michael Robertson

Two jury summonses arrive at 221B Baker Street, which is the address of Nigel’s law firm, Baker Street Law Chambers: one for Sherlock Holmes, the other for Nigel. The attorney discards the one for Holmes by making it into a paper airplane and throwing it out the window. To his dismay, the claim on his own time isn’t dispensed with that easily, and he ends up as an alternate on the highest-profile case of the day. Superstar cricketer Liam McSweeney, on whose skills rest Britain’s hopes for an international championship, has been charged with bludgeoning his wife to death with his cricket bat. Nigel’s own experience in the courtroom enables him to second-guess both the prosecution and the defense, and the proceedings are made livelier by an eccentric juror with a penchant for quoting Conan Doyle.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is people by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s new legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever. **Purchased for my library**

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

Drinking Gourd by Barbara Hambly

Set in the summer of 1839, takes the free black physician from New Orleans to Vicksburg, Miss., whose swampy environs hide runaway slaves desperate to join the Underground Railroad and “follow the drinking gourd” north to freedom. When Ezekias Drummond, the principal conductor of the local railroad, is stabbed to death, the authorities arrest Jubal Cain, who coordinates the whole railroad operation in Mississippi, for the crime. January, who’s been posing as a slave accompanying his white master, must identify Drummond’s killer before Cain’s role in the railroad is exposed.

Make Me Love You by Johanna Lindsey

Robert Whitworth, the earl of Tamdon’s heir, relishes the idea of sending his younger sister Brooke to his enemy’s remote estate. He knows the Lord Dominic Wolf will reject her as a bride, thereby losing his wealth and status. The Wolf, however, is determined to scare away the Whitworth chit. With dueling no longer an available means of destroying the man he abhors, he will be satisfied to see him lose his lands and title. But he hadn’t expected his enemy’s sister to be so resourceful or resilient.

Brooke Whitworth has been dreaming of her first Season in London because she intends to win a husband who will take her far away from her unloving family. Instead, she is being sent to the Yorkshire moors to wed a mysterious nobleman whose family is cursed and who has thrice tried to kill her brother. But there’s no room in her heart for fear; this man is her means of escape. She will make him love her! **Purchased for my library**

Mata Hari’s Last Dance by Michelle Moran

Moran’s latest historical novel portrays the life of the enigmatic and infamous Mata Hari (1876–1917). The narrative follows Hari’s rise to fame as a dancer and courtesan, the decline of her career, and her fall from grace as she is accused of espionage during World War I. Interspersed throughout are glimpses of the figure behind the façade—Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, a young Dutch woman escaping a bad marriage and a painful past by reinventing herself. Even amid the glamour and fame she can’t quite overcome the abandonment and hurt caused by her father or the sorrow at her own separation from her daughter. Was Hari really a German spy or a tragic victim of circumstance and her own bad decisions?


Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War by Paul Kahan

Simon Cameron (1799–1889), a member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet at the beginning of the Civil War, served as U.S. secretary of war from 1861 to 1862. Generally portrayed as a corrupt and opportunistic manipulator, here he is exemplified as a man of principle. Cameron rose from humble beginnings and mastered the art of deal-making to become a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman. Achievements in banking and railroads ultimately led him into state politics, where he employed patronage, personality, and connections in order to navigate an era of increasing party fragmentation and realignment. Cameron kept his political focus on serving the interests of commerce in Pennsylvania, migrating from party to party and finally emerging as a Republican and awarded a position in Lincoln’s cabinet. After his brief stint there, Cameron was dispatched as minister to Russia, returning after the war to again take up the role as an influential senator.

The Fighting Temeraire: Legend of Trafalgar by Sam Willis

J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up (1838) was his masterpiece. Sam Willis tells the real-life story behind this remarkable painting. The 98-gun Temeraire warship broke through the French and Spanish line directly astern of Nelson’s flagship Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), saving Nelson at a crucial moment in the battle, and, in the words of John Ruskin, fought until her sides ran ‘wet with the long runlets of English blood…those pale masts that stayed themselves up against the war-ruin, shaking out their ensigns through the thunder, till sail and ensign dropped.’ It is a story that unites the art of war as practiced by Nelson with the art of war as depicted by Turner and, as such, it ranges across an extensive period of Britain’s cultural and military history in ways that other stories do not.
The result is a detailed picture of British maritime power at two of its most significant peaks in the age of sail: the climaxes of both the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815). It covers every aspect of life in the sailing navy, with particular emphasis on amphibious warfare, disease, victualling, blockade, mutiny and, of course, fleet battle, for it was at Trafalgar that the Temeraire really won her fame. An evocative and magnificent narrative history by a master historian.

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Hilmes and Stewart Spencer

Franz Liszt—Superstar. That’s how Hilmes presents one of the 19th century’s most famous and flamboyant composers. In this account of the Hungarian-born Liszt, the author emphasizes the virtuoso performances (he was a consummate pianist who dazzled audiences with his technique), the countless love affairs, and the many scandals that followed in Liszt’s wake as he played concerts across Europe. Father Adam Liszt took an early interest in his son’s musical career and the reigns of its promotion (a curious parallel to Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Early on the young prodigy expressed a strong inclination toward religion (he did become an abbot), but his father admonished, “You belong to art, not the church.” Hilmes, aided by Spencer’s fluid translation, effectively presents the many sides of his subject as he explains how “a God-fearing Catholic [was also] a man of the world.”

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Eerie Canal by Jack Kelly

At the beginning of the 19th century, around the same time that businessman Jesse Hawley was publishing anonymously 14 essays in the Genesee Messenger spelling out his “favorite, fanciful project of an overland canal” across the state of New York, inventor Robert Fulton sailed the first commercial steamboat up the Hudson River, and the future founder of the Mormon sect, Joseph Smith Jr., was born in Vermont to poor tenant farmers who would eventually settle in Palmyra, New York. This period marked the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, sparking outbreaks of religious fervor in unlikely spots. The author explores the lives of itinerant frontier preachers such as Charles Finney, William Miller, and Methodist Lorenzo Dow, among many others, as well as the abduction and probable murder of former Freemason William Morgan, who dared to publish the mysteries of the Freemasons in Batavia, New York, in 1826. Meanwhile, on the hopeful report by New York surveyor James Geddes, Gov. DeWitt Clinton banked his career on spurring financing and construction of the ambitious canal that would link the Hudson and Mohawk rivers at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo—360 miles of tangled forests, valleys, and swampland that would open up commerce to an unimaginable degree. Notwithstanding the lack of engineering knowledge, especially about the building of locks, construction got underway by July 4, 1817, requiring horrendous digging by mostly Irish immigrants, and was finally completed in 1825 at the cost of $7 million. An intriguing synthesis of American cultural and economic currents in the early 19th century, all culminating with the completion of the Erie Canal.

Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in Civil War South by Christopher Dickey

The ambitious and politically-minded Robert Bunch served as the British consul in Charleston, S.C., from 1853–63, seemingly the ideal choice to represent Great Britain’s interests in the South. But almost no one realized that he had a double agenda. Great Britain had grave concerns during the antebellum period: “England hated slavery, but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended on it. Defending Britain’s political interests while serving its commercial interests required constant delicate diplomacy.” Simply put, Bunch’s mission was to subtly sabotage the slave trade and Southern secession, undermining the very institution that produced the goods his country demanded. Bunch was playing with fire, and reader will feel the agent’s mounting frustration as he sends missives back to England, damning the slave trade and Southern arrogance, while wearing a more moderate face for his Charleston neighbors. Bunch’s tale is framed by the larger arguments of the time, including the inexorable march toward war, and the result is a fascinating tale of compromise, political maneuvering, and espionage.

Stepping Lively in Place: The Not-Married, Free Women of Civil-War-Era Natchez, Mississippi by Joyce Linda Broussard

Enlivened with profiles and vignettes of some of the remarkable people whose histories inform this study, Stepping Lively in Place shows how free, single women navigated life in a busy slave-based river-port town before and during the Civil War, and how these women transitioned during Reconstruction, emancipation, and thereafter. It examines how free, single women in one city (including prostitutes, entrepreneurs, and elite plantation ladies) coped with life unencumbered, or unprotected, by husbands. The book pays close attention to the laws affecting southern gender and sociocultural traditions, focusing especially on how the town’s free, single women maneuvered adroitly but guardedly within the legal arena in which they lived.

Unwanted: Murder Mystery of the Gilded Age by Andrew Young

On the foggy, cold morning of February 1, 1896, a boy came upon what he thought was a pile of clothes. It was soon discovered to be the headless body of a young woman, brutally butchered and discarded. It would take the hard work of a sheriff, two detectives, and the unlikely dedication of a shoe dealer to find out who the girl was; and once she had been identified, the case came together. Centering his riveting new book, Unwanted: A Murder Mystery of the Gilded Age, around this shocking case and how it was solved, historian Andrew Young re-creates late nineteenth- century America, where Coca-Cola in bottles, newfangled movie houses, the Gibson Girl, and ragtime music played alongside prostitution, temperance, racism, homelessness, the rise of corporations, and the women’s rights movement. While the case inspired the sensationalized pulp novel Headless Horror, songs warning girls against falling in love with dangerous men, ghost stories, and the eerie practice of random pennies left heads up on a worn gravestone, the story of an unwanted young woman captures the contradictions of the Gilded Age as America stepped into a new century, and toward a modern age.

Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

An investigation of a late-19th-century crime in which a 13-year-old boy murdered his mother. In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes stabbed his mother, and he and his brother, 12-year-old Nattie, stole her money and took off to watch the local cricket match. Their father was a ship’s steward, kind and caring but often absent. Leaving their mother’s body upstairs in her bed, the boys enlisted the aid of John Fox, a fellow from the docks who had done odd jobs for their parents. With a look at late-19th-century social mores, the availability and quality of education, and the poor state of psychological help, that exposes how the young killer’s mind worked. Robert, an excellent student, was a voracious reader of the penny dreadfuls, adventure books aimed at the young. He was eccentric, morbid, prone to terrible headaches and periods of withdrawal, and obsessed with ghastly murderers. His mother comes off as a harridan: she often beat the boys, including once for stealing food (she often didn’t feed them), and she even threw knives at Nattie, who seems to have been oblivious to the direness of the facts but followed Robert without questions. After two weeks, the body was discovered in an advanced state of decay. The trial process was quick and fair, and Robert was remanded to the notorious insane asylum Broadmoor, where he was put in the gentlemen’s wing. Then the book follows Robert’s transfer to a Salvation Army colony and move to Australia, where he finally found the adventures he had dreamed about.