Saturday, November 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

I was past due for the next Lindsey Davis Flavia Alba mystery, #7, A Capitol Death.  

Shortly before the feared and despised Emperor Domitian returns to Rome to claim a double triumph for a lackluster military campaign, an important official in his transportation department is found dead at the foot of the Tarpeian Rock. A witness saw him moments earlier at the top of the rock. He wasn’t alone.

Flavia Alba, daughter of the retired, renowned detective/informer Falco, has been tasked by her husband, Tiberius, a local magistrate, to solve the murder. (He’s a bit busy helping to arrange the triumph. Plus, he’s still recovering from being struck by lightning on their wedding day.)

With her typical dogged persistence, intelligence, and trademark snark, Flavia Alba interrogates coworkers and acquaintances of the dead man – a man so nasty the list of suspects keeps growing –  in order to solve not just one, but two murders. 

After a slow start, the danger builds as clues start falling into place and she closes in on the murderer.

Tiberius plays less of a role in this investigation. I hope to see more interaction between the two in future books because that spark enlivens the novels. Book 8 is due out next summer!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is an extraordinary writer, best known for her novels of the New York “aristocracy” during the Gilded Age. However, she also wrote short stories, plays, nonfiction, and novels covering diverse subjects.

My most recent read is one of her lesser known books, a World War I novel, A Son at the Front.

The protagonist is John Campton, an expat American artist in Paris. A fairly self-centered, shallow man, he has, after a rocky start, become a sought-after portrait painter. Part of his rocky start included a failed marriage that produced a son, George. (Campton’s portrait of George as a boy was pivotal to his success.)

His wife remarried a very successful, wealthy businessman while Campton was still a struggling artist. George was largely raised and entirely supported by his mother and stepfather, a fact that Campton resents. However, now that George has grown to manhood, he and his father have become close. (Although maybe not as close as Campton believes.)  George is about to arrive in Paris and the two will embark on a vacation together.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, this is the eve of the beginning of the war. And, unfortunately, although Campton and his ex-wife are Americans, George was born in France. Almost immediately after George arrives, the borders are essentially closed and George, a French citizen, is called for military duty.

Thanks to the machinations and connections of three doting parents, George is assigned to a safe desk job away from the front. But the parents live in constant terror he will be reassigned. As the war gets underway and then drags on, and the casualties mount, Campton’s reactions to his son’s safety are conflicted. How can George be so content to remain behind the lines?

The novel is a beautifully written psychological study not only of the protagonist but of numerous people in his sphere. War effects everyone, the privileged and the poor. Some throw themselves into relief efforts. Some try to ignore the war and get on with life. And everyone loses loved ones.

The action is muted for a “war novel.” Yet the tension is palpable. Campton is a sympathetic if not particularly likeable character. Of course, it’s a tragic novel. How could it be otherwise? But Wharton writes masterful tragedy.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Remember by Mary Balogh

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I love Mary Balogh’s historical romances and have been following her latest series, “A Westcott Story” (or the “Someone to. . .”) since the beginning. The new release, Someone to Remember, is billed as a novella.  At 272 pages, it’s shorter and simpler than the longer novels in the series. It’s probably best to read some of the others in order to understand the large Westcott family and their sphere of influence before reading this one.

This is Mathilda’s story. Previously known as the spinster aunt, a fussy stickler for propriety, Mathilda was usually present but generally invisible until the previous book, Someone to Honor. Then she comes briefly to the fore—boldly, if secretly, approaching a man from her past to help solve a crisis in the family.

That action draws the man, Viscount Dirkson, into the Westcott world where he and Mathilda rediscover one another.

Interestingly, Mathilda is in her mid-to-late fifties, making her an unusual heroine for a Regency Romance. Her only prior experience with love was when she was a debutante. She was courted by Dirkson, who was then merely Charles Sawyer. Charles was very young (as was she) and known to be wild. When he asked her father for her hand, her father refused. Obedient daughter that she was, Mathilda sent Charles away. He became even wilder, seemingly proving that her parents were correct to deny his suit. But Mathilda never loved another.

A good deal of this short novel is taken up explaining the backstory and reminding the reader of who’s who in the expanding Westcott saga. But, since the Westcotts are old friends by now, I was pleased to get the reminders and a hint of what they are currently up to. The progress of the now-resumed romance proceeds smoothly and chastely. There are no surprises, except, perhaps for the reaction of Mathilda’s grumpy mother. The book lacks the steamy love scenes of Balogh’s other books, though it does imply that Mathilda and Charles are not too old to feel passionate. It’s a good, solid romance that gives Mathilda a voice. It also introduces new single young people who may well end up getting books of their own.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Susie Slagle's by Augusta Tucker

Miss Susie Slagle’s by Augusta Tucker, originally published in 1939, is an interesting look at the life of medical students at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1912, the glory days of the founding of modern medical education in the United States.

Miss Slagle runs a boarding house for medical students and has supported numerous young doctors-to-be through the process with her good nature and unconditional caring. The book opens with introductions to her current boarders, all with different backgrounds and very different personalities, motivations, weaknesses, and ambitions. It takes us through four years, highlighting their training and interpersonal relationships.

Descriptions of Baltimore and of the hospital at that time are lush and detailed. The rigorous training is aptly portrayed.  It’s a lovely period piece. However, it’s dated in style. The male-female relationships all progress from love at first sight and none seem realistic. Women are presented in a condescending way, even when the author intends admiration. Racist views permeate the book in a way that is rather nauseating to a modern reader. Although widely read in its day and even made into a movie, the book is now more valuable as a window into the past than as entertaining fiction.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout almost eight years ago so the details are fuzzy, but I remember being moved by the characterizations. A follow-up novel, Olive, Again, has recently been released and it’s a worthy successor.

This novel is also a collection of vignettes, stories about the inhabitants of Olive’s small Maine town, whose lives swirl around and occasionally intersect with that of the curmudgeonly retired school teacher. For the most part, the characters in this story are older than in the original. Delving deeply into their psyches using glimpses of daily life, Olive, Again is a masterful portrayal of loneliness, aging, resignation, and a smidgen of hope. Olive is as uncompromising as ever, but her perspective shifts as her world shrinks and there is some healing in her relationships.

Although it’s a fairly quick read, it’s a melancholy book. Strout has a gift for storytelling that can make a reader think and feel. Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again should not be missed.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

If you liked Inland by Tea Obreht (which I did!) then you may also enjoy One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker.

Set in 1876, on the harshly beautiful Wyoming frontier, this love story is loosely based on that of the author’s ancestors.

The story shifts between the viewpoints of Beulah, a mystically wise thirteen-year-old daughter of the prairie, Clyde, the strong, responsible neighbor who is learning what kind of man he will grow to be, and their mothers, Cora and Nettie Mae.

The women are polar opposites. Cora is a soft city woman who cannot adapt to life on the isolated farm. Nettie Mae is a battle-hardened prairie wife, who wields her bitterness as a sword and shield.

Although Cora has four healthy children and a devoted husband, she is desperately lonely. For no other reason, she commits adultery with her neighbor, Substance Weber, Nettie Mae’s husband. Her own husband discovers them in the act. In the heat of passion, he shoots to kill. Instantly regretful, he turns himself in to the sheriff.

Nettie Mae has lost four children and, now, her husband. The man was a brute. Nettie Mae would consider herself well rid of him, except she needs his strength to survive the coming winter. Her sole remaining child, Clyde, is a sturdy young man and a hard worker, but it’s all too much for him to take on alone. Even so, they’re better off than their neighbors. When Cora’s husband is sentenced to two years in prison, she’s left alone with four children. Clyde takes it upon himself to help them–against his embittered mother’s express orders.

Beulah is the true heart of the story. Calm, resilient, accepting, with the ability to see glimpses of the future, to commune with nature, and to speak to the dead, she helps the two older women realize that the only way they will survive is to combine their resources. Cora’s guilt and Nettie Mae’s hatred make this a bitter pill, but Cora moves her family to Nettie Mae’s farm and they try to make it work. Beulah and Clyde, drawn together by circumstance, develop an unbreakable bond, which unnerves Nettie Mae all the more, nearly leading her to undo everything Beulah has striven for.

The novel shows prairie life in all its hardness, danger, and beauty. The stark realism of the day-to-day life is undercut somewhat by Beulah’s mystical powers, which made the novel float between magical realism and historical fiction. Yet it’s a beautifully written story that tugs at the heartstrings.

Friday, October 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning has been on my TBR list since 2013. Finally, I decided to move it to the top of my pile.

This novel, written as a memoir of a mid-19th century midwife (who had the audacity to also provide contraceptives and abortions), has a strong voice and poignant message that is all-too relevant today.

Axie Muldoon, otherwise known as Ann Jones, otherwise known as Madame DeBeausacq, is born into poverty in the tenement houses of New York City. After her father’s death, while her mother is hospitalized for a work-related injury, Axie and her two younger siblings are sent west on an orphan train. Her siblings are snatched up, but the rebellious Axie returns home to find her mother. Unfortunately, after a brief reunion, her mother dies of a postpartum hemorrhage, extracting a deathbed promise from Axie to find her siblings.

In the midst of these tragedies, Axie experienced two bits of good fortune. First, on the orphan train she met a young man named Charlie who will find his way back into her life later. And second, Axie took her dying mother to the home of the Evans’, a doctor and midwife, who gave Axie a place as a servant and later trained her to be a midwife.

After the death of Mrs. Evans, necessity and compassion lead Axie/Ann to begin selling pills and powders to desperate women. Eventually, she branches out into delivering babies, carrying for women pre- and postpartum, dispensing information about health and sex, and providing abortions. In doing so, she falls afoul of obscenity laws, championed by Anthony Comstock, which made the distribution of any form of fertility control illegal.

The novel is graphic in its language and descriptions, true to the subject matter. The horrific lives of women, poor or rich, unmarried or married, desperate to conceive or to end unwanted pregnancies, is heart-wrenching. Ann is presented as a caring woman, skilled at her profession, conflicted about the “complexities” of what she is doing, insecure, and remarkably brave. She is also, admittedly, greedy. She loves her newfound wealth. She (and her husband) have known grinding poverty and are determined not to fall into that trap again. Her conspicuous consumption aggravates her problems as the “old money” folks determine to bring her down–even though many are not above using her services when needed.

When Comstock discovers a way to arrest Axie, things spiral out of control. 

Axie is a vibrant, compelling, sympathetic character, and she narrates the novel at a brisk pace. This is historical fiction at its finest.