Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Starlight

I've always been a social history nut.  Yes, it's all well and good to learn about wars, world leaders and various political maneuverings, but I like learning (and reading) about how your average person lived.  You know, somebody that could have been my ancestor.  That's essentially what Carrie Lofty does in Starlight, the second book in her Christie series.  Yes this story takes place Scotland, hardly a new setting in historical romance circles.  That being said, we have a late Victorian era backdrop, when Glasgow was dominated by ship yards and textile mills.  That's right folks, we're talking industrial revolution, women and children working in factories, and labor union agitation. 

Alex Christie is an astronomer, a man who looks to the stars.  Then his father dies, and leaves all four of his children a task to complete if they have any hopes of getting their one million dollar inheritance.  Alex's job is to turn around a failing textile factory in Glasgow.  He's all set to tell Dad's solicitor to sod off, when his father-in-law comes calling.  An evil, vile man, Alex married Mamie in part to save her from the scumbag.  Mamie died in childbirth, and baby Edmund has not been the heartiest of infants.  Now Josiah is threatening to take Edmund.  Alex has no choice, he needs the money to fight Josiah and the only way to get that money is to jump through his father's hoops.

Polly Gowan is the only daughter of a famed union leader.  With her brothers working on the docks, when her father becomes too ill to continue working at Christie Textiles, Polly pretty much becomes de facto head of the union.  It is not an easy position to be in, and it gets harder when someone sets off an explosive device at the factory.  Now the new master, Alex Christie, wants answers and he takes one look at Polly and thinks she can provide them.  She can, but she has to play things pretty close to the vest. 

Naturally what follows is Polly and Alex working together - sort of.  They both want to find answers behind the factory sabotage.  Alex needs to turn things around to claim his inheritance, thereby defeating his father-in-law.  Polly wants answers in hopes that the other textile masters won't use this latest development to continue to treat their workers like crap.  These are two people who want two very different things, and for that reason there is an exorbitant amount of tension and bickering in this book.

I've read stubborn heroines before, but they were all mere amateurs compared to Polly.  Granted, one understands why she is so combative with Alex.  You grow up poor in Scotland where your only means of meager survival is sitting at a loom all day, in dangerous conditions, for pennies, while your employer has no concern for your welfare, safety, health or the fact that maybe you want more out of your life than just making him money.  Sure Alex is the new guy in charge, but there is nothing in Polly's past or current existence that makes her think that this guy is going to be any different from the ones that came before him.

Alex may be the eldest son of a self-made man, an industrialist who pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the very area where Polly lives, but he's an intellectual.   He's not a businessman, but he has to become one in order to keep his son safe.  And make no mistake, Alex has a protective streak wider than the ocean that separates Scotland from his home in New York City.  Mamie's life was destroyed by her father.  Even marrying Alex didn't bring her peace.  No way in hell is Alex going to let that man destroy his child. 

Polly is a very different sort of heroine from Lofty, who has written several books featuring quiet, buttoned-up women concerned with propriety and safety.  Polly is working-class.  She's not naive.  She's a fighter.  Alex is a man who desperately wanted to save his wife, but couldn't.  So yes, he was married - but in a lot of ways he's still a little green in the ways of passion.  His feelings for Polly, his need for her, are totally foreign to him.

This is a romance that gets better towards the end of the book.  The couple's combative natures brought to mind Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  That is to say, a relationship built entirely around fighting and make-up sex.  Passionate, exciting, but not exactly the sort of thing that screams longevity.  After a while, it made me a little weary.  I understood why they were combative.  I totally got that.  But seriously, it wore me down.  Luckily the final chapters, which includes the unmasking of the factory saboteur, helped calm my concerns.  That stress resolved, I think Polly and Alex just might be able to be married, and stay in the same room for more than 5 minutes together, before they start arguing with each other.

Unlike Flawless that included quite a bit of "business stuff," Starlight plays more on the romance and conflict between the characters than it does Alex turning the factory around.  Which I suspect will suit most readers just fine, although I would have liked a tiny bit more of that.  I'm not sure how that could have been accomplished without padding the story, but it would have been nice to see exactly how Alex and Polly got to the final chapter of the book.

I didn't like this one quite as much as Flawless, but this is the book where I think the author firmly sets roots for her series.  Being the eldest son, Alex's relationship with his father is interesting, and we get some more insight into the man who, instead of just leaving his children a giant pile of money, tasked them all with various missions to earn their inheritance.

This is a good, solid book and so breathlessly different from nearly every other historical romance that's been released in recent memory.  The industrial setting, the working class heroine, and a slice of history that romance readers don't always see because we're stuck at a house party, Almack's or out in the middle of the prairie.  This has been a really intriguing series so far, don't miss it.

Final Grade = B


Hilcia said...

Wendy, you are so right. This historical is different from anything else out there, and that's one of the reasons I really loved it. I also enjoyed the whole Burton/Taylor back and forth during the story thinking that Lofty would come up with a good payoff at the end. However, like you, I also wish that we had experienced how Alex and Polly accomplished the changes they brought to Calton. That was missing for me.

Interesting, I liked this one a bit more than Flawless, although not by much. :)

Lynne Connolly said...

Sounds interesting!
So I'm guessing you haven't read many British authored "saga"s, aka Clogs and Shawls books? Out of favour right now, but there are a ton of them out there.
Freda Lightfoot, Dilly Court, the sainted Catherine Cookson did a few, Jean Fullerton and her Cockney nurses, Harry Bowling, Josephine Cox...
Does puzzle me how a woman in this era would be allowed anywhere near a union with a significant number of men in it, de facto or not, and certainly not of a docker's union. The women's unions were mostly ignored (yes, I went to Manchester University and did local history!) and a woman generally had far more influence as a reforming novelist or a philanthropist.
BTW, this is the most famous Scottish docker's union leader of them all, and one of my heroes - Jimmy Reid.

Lynne Connolly said...

And it published without the link.
Here's Jimmy Reid:
The people talking include Billy Connolly, who was a great friend, and Sir Alex Ferguson, who grew up with him. Some great archive stuff here, too.
"A rat race is for rats. We're not rats."

Wendy said...

Hils: I appreciated that Polly is a very different sort of heroine from Lofty's last few historicals - but the bickering (while I understood it), did wear me down after a while. And one of the things I really loved about Flawless was that we saw Viv and Miles turn that diamond brokerage house around. With Starlight - it just sort of happened, without any lead in. So yeah, would have loved more of that.

But, splitting hairs. Lofty is one of the more intriguing voices working in historicals today, and I love that she's fighting from being pigeon-holed into just doing one "type" of story.

Wendy said...

Sorry Lynne - that wasn't very clear in my review! Polly is the de facto head of the textile union - which her father used to run back when men were still working in the mills (before jumping ship - ha! - for dock work).

The author sort of tap-dances around that because while Dad isn't working any longer, he's a local hero and presumably "has Polly's ear." So even though she's the mouth-piece, the belief is that Dad still has a say. Also, Polly struggles with getting their demands heard since really, it's mostly women and children doing textile work, with a few smattering of men still about. Most of the able-bodied guys have gone to work the docks, so who really cares about working conditions for a bunch of women and children?

It was a nice change of pace from a lot of other historical romances out there.

(Of the authors you listed - I'm most familiar with Cookson and Cox who have been published in the US).

Carole Rae said...

I simply adore history and with that I love historical fictions/romances. Great review!

nath said...

Nice review, Wendy! Glad you enjoyed it. I really didn't ^_^; The historical setting is really interesting as usual, but all the union talk... and then, Alex and Polly's romance, that didn't work for me :( I felt the whole book was rushed, but I don't know why.