Sunday, March 24, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Flotsam by Erich Maria Remarque

It’s been eight years since I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a truly extraordinary classic novel about WWI. I loved the book, yet it never occurred to me to look to see what else he’d written. I’m embarrassed to admit I just assumed he’d written this one great book and nothing else of note. How wrong I was!

Flotsam is a novel about German refugees during WWII. Primarily Jews and political "criminals," thousands of people were forced to leave Germany, stripped of their passports, to become unwanted, country-less exiles. Some are little more than children deported along with their parents. Without papers, they are unable to find work or permanent residences and so live lives of hunger, uncertainty, fear, and often despair as they are deported again and again across the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France.

The story begins in Austria and primarily follows two men as they navigate life along the borders. The first is a political dissident named Steiner who was forced to leave his beloved wife Maria behind when he fled Germany. He is a man of steady nerves, many talents, and an innate goodness. The second, Kern, is a twenty-one-year-old man tossed out of Germany with his parents. His father is Jewish; his mother is not. She was allowed to stay in Hungary because she had been born there. His father was deported and Kern lost track of him before he, too, was deported.

Steiner and Kern meet when they are both detained in Czechoslovakia and kicked across the border to Austria. Steiner takes Kern under his wing for a short while before they separate. Kern manages to find a temporary residence in a boarding home for refugees where he meets a young Jewish refugee, Ruth. The two form a bond. They link their fates to one another and quickly fall in love. Love sustains them in the trials ahead.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this novel is another masterpiece of historical fiction demonstrating human suffering and resilience. By relating the day-to-day struggles of refugees, it draws the reader into their lives and forces us to empathize. Flotsam realistically portrays the characters’ humanity, their kindness to one another, the constant tension of being displaced, and the simple relief in finding a safe -- though always temporary -- haven. The novel tugs at the heart and conscience of a reader who takes the security of citizenship for granted.

Flotsam is at times a hopeful novel, showing how some – even most -- people are innately good and will help those in need as best they can. People can look at injustice and recognize it for what it is. But there are too many others who will not only steal from or cheat the vulnerable, but will also take pleasure in being cruel.

Steiner is a survivor, a philosopher, and a cynic. But he is generous to those in need. Kern and Ruth are young and still hopeful. Kern is too trusting, which costs him at times, yet he does not become embittered. Despite their setbacks, Kern and Ruth do not abandon hope.

The novel shows the fates of other refugees who drift in and out of the lives of the three protagonists. Some survive. Some disappear. And some succumb to despair. It’s a beautiful novel, at once heart-wrenching and uplifting. Published in 1939, Flotsam is as relevant today as it was then.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Lord Apart by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford’s new Regency Romance series, The Way to a Lord’s Heart, showcases her talent for sweet, entertaining romance. Her protagonists come with troubled back-stories and find their way to one another with gentle support and occasional banter.

Book one in the series, Brave New Earl, introduces the theme (which reminds me a bit of the theme of the linked stories in Mary Balogh’s Survivors Club.)

The Earl of Macklin is an older man, a widower, who has decided to put to use his knowledge of grief to help grieving younger gentleman move on with their lives. Previously, he aided his nephew. Now, in book two, A Lord Apart, he hopes to help the son of an old friend.

Daniel Frith, Viscount Whitfield, has inherited his father’s title and estates after the sudden death of both parents in a shipwreck during a trip to India. His grief is muted by the resentment he feels. His parents ignored him throughout his life, choosing travel to exotic places over the mundane duties of parenthood. Even when he grew old enough to accompany them, he was never included. Now Daniel is trying to sort of the accounts of the ancestral home, a chore he finds dull and impossible.

Penelope Pendleton is a baronet’s daughter who has been thrown out of the home she grew up in through no fault of her own. Her brother, an activist who was killed at the Peterloo massacre, was posthumously found guilty of treason against the crown. She was imprisoned and questioned mercilessly by government investigators who could not believe she knew nothing of her brother’s activities or friends. Fortunately, just as she emerged from custody with nowhere to go, she learned that she had inherited a cottage in another town. Her benefactor was anonymous and wanted to remain so.

Penelope is too grateful to question, though her curiosity is immense.

The cottage is part of the estate of Viscount Whitfield. When he learns of her arrival and that the cottage is now hers, his curiosity is also piqued. Moreover, he’s annoyed. Not with her, per se. He has no intention of wresting the cottage from her. But he feels it is another example of his parents’ disdain. Why shouldn’t he know why part of his father’s lands have been willed to a stranger?

The two characters have a lot of baggage, but they are reasonable people and kind to one another. It isn’t long before they are spending a good deal of time puzzling out the mystery of the inheritance. And falling in love.

The government agents aren’t through with Penelope yet. And the strange lives of Whitfield’s parents leave much to be explained.

The romance is enjoyable and the plot swift moving. It is a little annoying that Whitfield’s title effectively protects him from the rough treatment Penelope has to endure. And the ending was a bit too pat with the resolution of the crisis being achieved much too easily, thanks to Whitfield and Macklin’s connections.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of other grieving young men Macklin is determined to help. I look forward to seeing their stories unfold.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer is supposed to be a fan favorite so I picked it up recently at a Barnes and Noble "Book Haul." Although I love most things Heyer, this one disappointed. The situations are a bit too outrageous, the reason for the old vendetta that initiates the action is too vague, and the romance is not credible to my mind. The story felt dated, and Heyer’s romances generally do a better job standing the test of time.

The Duke of Avon, Alistair, is a jaded man so wicked he has earned the nickname Satanas. Which people actually call him to his face. He has a lot of old grudges but he particularly hates the Comte de Saint-Vire. (I’m not sure exactly why. A woman maybe?) Avon is filthy rich and despises the lower classes. He recognizes his own poor behavior but excuses it because he’s a duke and can get away with anything.

While out walking one evening in Paris, he is almost bowled over by a young (nineteen-year-old) scamp. The boy is fleeing his brother who is trying to beat him for laziness. Avon buys the boy to be his page, giving the brother a jeweled pin and telling the boy he now owns him body and soul. So that’s a bit distasteful. And not really helped by the fact that the boy is ecstatic, considering Avon his savior.

Turns out that the boy, Léon, is actually a girl, Léonie. She’s the unacknowledged daughter of the Comte de Saint-Vire. The coincidence of the meeting is never explained as anything but sheer chance, though Avon does suspect the truth from the start, so at least that explains why he bought the boy/girl.

Avon constructs an elaborate scheme to get back at the Comte, using the secret daughter. Meanwhile, Léonie charms one and all with her plucky irreverence, her cute mangled English, and her extraordinary beauty. She’s innocent and wise, and she has fallen head-over-heels for Avon. Yet she believes he can’t love her back because she’s baseborn. (Not to mention far too young for him.)

Avon makes her his ward as part of his plot. He calls her "enfant", and "my child", etc., etc. She complains that all men her own age are silly – and so they seem. But Avon is forty and does treat her as a child until he realizes that he’s fallen in love with her. Even then, though she twists him around her little finger and he becomes less domineering, the relationship is lopsided and kind of icky.

Without giving away too much, there are confrontations and abductions. Avon is cool and composed come what may. Léonie is courageous and resourceful. But the characters never seemed real to me and the situations seemed like farce that never quite hit the mark as funny. (Although, admittedly, Avon’s dry reaction to his siblings’ effusiveness and his friend’s dull moralizing are often humorous.)

I’m glad to have read this because it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. But it’s not a book I’d recommend for anyone new to Heyer, because I think it could be off-putting. She’s written much better romances.

Friday, March 8, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: They Found Him Dead by Georgette Heyer

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

They Found Him Dead struck me as an awful title for a murder mystery, yet I’ve discovered I love Georgette Heyer’s mysteries almost as much as I love her romances, so an off-putting title could not deter me from requesting this book for review.

Heyer often opens her novels by throwing her reader into the middle of family muddles where the family trees are large and complicated. I’ve learned not to fret when I’m lost at the beginning. Heyer does such a fine job of drawing her characters that their individual personalities and quirks define them. Very quickly the large cast sorts itself out.

In They Found Him Dead, a large dysfunctional family gathers with long-time business associates to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the head of the family/head of the business. It is not a pleasant party. Some of the attendees, anticipating a large inheritance, are hoping he won’t have many more birthdays. Moreover, his business partners are peeved at his reluctance to cough up the money for a risky new investment opportunity. When he is found dead the following morning, there are plenty of potential murderers.

The local police investigate and declare the death to be the result of a weak heart. Although those who know the situation have doubts, nothing is pursued until the heir is shot in the head in the middle of the day while sitting at his desk and the murderer disappears into thin air.

Now they bring in Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemingway. Although it seems likely they have two murders to solve, they can’t be sure the first death was a murder. And it seems impossible to find someone with motive and opportunity to commit both. The more they explore, the more baffled they become.

There is a sweet romance brewing alongside the mystery. A nephew farther down the line of inheritance (Jim Kane) has become smitten with Miss Allison, the companion of his great-aunt. (The elderly aunt is the reigning queen of the family.) While everyone believes Jim is far too nice to be a suspect, the second murder unexpectedly moves him into the spot of heir, which means he has an uncomfortably strong motive. The inspectors will not rule out the possibility Jim killed both men until it becomes clear someone is also trying to kill Jim. Solving the crimes takes on a new urgency.

There are a couple of likely villains, but the tight plotting makes it difficult to pin the blame on anyone in particular. Meanwhile, the business and family dynamics propel the plot forward until Hannasyde plucks out the final clue and everything falls into place.

This novel is not as amusing as Death in the Stocks, but it is still very entertaining. I look forward to more of the Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemingway series.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh by Stephanie Laurens

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

Stephanie Laurens is one of the reigning queens of Historical Romance, so I’m not sure how so many years have gone by since the last time I read one of her novels. I saw The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh on Netgalley and decided it was time to jump back in.

Lord Christopher Cavanaugh (Kit), the young half-brother of a marquess, has had a difficult upbringing. His mother was something of a Lady Macbeth character. He managed to avoid her schemes and matchmaking by pretending to be an irredeemable rake. Now that she is dead, he’s stuck with his reputation. Undaunted, he leaves London for Bristol to follow a passion he has long yearned to indulge: he wants to start a company that builds luxury ocean-going yachts. He has the capital, a good business sense, important connections, and a close friend who knows yachts. Bristol was once a hive of wooden ship-building activity, but since the coming of steamships, the city is in decline. The city’s elders are thrilled beyond measure that a man of consequence is bringing jobs back. Kit has his eye on a particular warehouse for lease and has no difficulty securing it.

Unfortunately, the building is not exactly vacant. A local charity has been using it. But the owners assure Kit the charity will quickly clear out.

Sylvia Buckleberry is a clergyman’s daughter who has found her calling: running a school for the sons of local dockworkers and craftsmen. She has the support of the local church and has been able to hire a couple of teachers and purchase supplies. But she relies on the goodwill of the owner of the warehouse recently secured by Kit for a venue. When she learns that the warehouse is about to be leased out from under her, she is determined not to let the school fail.

Sylvia and Kit have met before, at the wedding of friends. Kit was intrigued but put off by her cold shoulder. Sylvia was cold on purpose because she was actually giddily infatuated with his bad-boy image and appalled at herself for it.

Sylvia expects the worst from Kit and is surprised when he acts opposite the way she expects. In fact, he outdoes her in concern for the welfare of the students, the fate of the school, and the general condition of the unemployed dockworkers and boat builders. His wealth is seemingly bottomless and he stands ready to hire everyone who wants to work.

There is a problem though. Not everyone supports the school and not everyone is rooting for the success of Kit’s business. While the romance is the main focus, the story is carried along by this additional conflict and potential danger.

The novel is a quick, enjoyable, escapist read. The protagonists verge on a bit treacly as they spread their goodwill thickly and hold no grudges against those who wish them ill – most of them anyway. But their pleasantness was a nice break from heavier reading. It’s clear why Laurens is a perennial favorite.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist by Gary Scharnhorst

Several months ago, I read Matthew Goodman’s book Eighty Days about Nelly Bly’s race around the world in 1889. I was intrigued by this celebrity journalist and even more intrigued by her rival, Elizabeth Bisland. However, these two were relative newcomers to the field. Kate Field (1838-1896) was a famous woman of letters/journalist who predated them by many years.

Although famous in her time, Kate Field has slipped into obscurity. I chanced upon a biography written by Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, and learned a great deal about this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1838 to parents who were celebrated actors of the time, Kate had an unconventional upbringing. Her father not only acted, but he also wrote for a number of newspapers, showing Kate that this was a viable way to earn a living. She was introduced early on to influential people and perfected the art of networking.

At age 16, after the death of her father, Kate went to Italy to study voice. Bronchitis put an end to her studies, but she began writing letters for publication in newspapers back in the states. She became fascinated by Italian politics and, for a while, reported on the goings-on in that country, until her editors, put off by her increasingly biased articles, declined to print any more. She continued writing less controversially on her travels. When she returned to the U.S., she went on the lecture circuit, a more lucrative career than reporting. She was an instant hit.

Having mastered self-promotion, she applied her skills to promoting products. She became a spokesperson in Britain for the newfangled telephones, even getting the queen to listen in and purchase a couple. By all accounts, her advertising campaign was a great success.

In addition to advertising products, Kate used her writing and lecturing platforms for many political causes. She made enemies in the feminist community because she was anti-women’s suffrage. (She was also anti-universal suffrage, preferring property requirements.) She went on the attack against Mormonism. She was also anti-Temperance. Or, as she preferred to say, she was pro-True-Temperance, which was NOT abstinence. She became a spokesperson for the California wine industry, insisting people were better off drinking good wine in moderation.

Despite constant work, Kate was always in need of money. She decided to turn her hand to acting, believing it would be more remunerative than writing. Acting was in her blood. Nevertheless, her first attempts on the American stage were panned. Undaunted, she returned to Europe and tried again, using a stage name. There she was more favorably received.

Kate Field was a whirlwind. She had her admirers and detractors. (Mark Twain couldn’t stand her, but they competed for some of the same audience and dollars.) She was intelligent and a biting critic. She was kind to her friends, but quick to turn on them when they disagreed with or criticized her. (She handed out criticism freely but was very thin-skinned.)

The biography is balanced, highlighting her versatility and perseverance, but not sugar-coating her faults. She left behind a large body of work and, whether admired or not, she deserves to be remembered more than she has been.

Friday, February 8, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman

After the last two books I read, I needed some light escapist fiction. I chose Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman, which was getting good reviews on goodreads.

This clean Regency Romance is told from the perspective of Abigail Blakeslee, a young woman who missed her debut because of the death of her mother. Abigail is not a particularly social person, partly because of a secret in her past that needs to stay secret. However, her father and younger brother are determined that she find happiness, which means pushing her out into the world.

For a start, Abigail is persuaded to accept an invitation issued by her aunt to join her cousins for the summer at the country house of the Stantons, a wealthy but untitled family. Abigail’s cousin Helena is as good as betrothed to the heir, Edwin Stanton. Abigail is not overly fond of Helena but she does like the younger cousin, Hannah. This small gathering is a good opportunity to polish her social skills in anticipation of the next Season.

From the moment she arrives, Abigail is put off by Edwin, who is harsh, serious, and unfriendly. Helena fawns over him, excusing his ill manners. Edwin is attentive to Helena but not enthusiastic. He soon begins paying more attention to Abigail, though much of the attention seems critical, at least as Abigail interprets it.

There are other houseguests as well, including the handsome, charming Lord Ramsey. (Everyone but Abigail can see his charm is false.) But he makes such a pleasant foil to Edwin that Abigail allows him to flatter her and finds herself flirting in return. Yet, as the days wear on, she finds there is more to Edwin than was first apparent. Moreover, Edwin’s sister, Diana, works tirelessly to throw the two of them together, much to the irritation of Helena and Abigail’s aunt. Helena and her mother grow nastier and more threatening as they become concerned Abigail is drawing Edwin away.

Abigail falls for Edwin, but tries to avoid him, since she has no intention of stealing her cousin’s betrothed. It’s clear to the reader that Helena and Edwin are a terrible match and that Edwin is much more impressed with Abigail. But Abigail is convinced Edwin loves Helena. (Helena is pretty, but her personality is so grating it’s hard to see why Abigail is fooled.) Even when she begins to believe Edwin may want her instead, Abigail refuses to be the cause of Helena’s broken heart. Finally, she discovers Helena does not love Edwin. But what does Edwin want?

It’s a sweet story even if Abigail is a bit slow to pick up on what’s going on. Her own secret is eventually revealed. It’s rather a contrived bit of coincidence, but ties up the loose ends and allows for a satisfying happy-ever-after. This is a quick, light read, just the antidote I was looking for.