Thursday, September 13, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a classic dystopian novel written in 1920-21 that was translated and published worldwide at the time, but banned in Russia until 1988. It was the inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984.

The novel is set in a future world on earth, after a 200-year war that changed society completely. People now live in a world made of nearly indestructible glass, their lives on public display. (They are under surveillance by "guardians.") They live according to rigid schedules, everyone rising, working, eating, taking a walk in the square at the same time, even chewing according to regulation. Sex is permitted only when a person receives a pink ticket to "lower the blinds" of their apartment for an hour. The partner is assigned. People are not named, but numbered. Nonconformity is swiftly, and publicly, punished by death.

The protagonist, D-503, is a mathematician, one of the chief builders of Integral, a spaceship designed to spread their ideal society to other planets. He is fully indoctrinated into this totalitarian society, ruled by the Benefactor. He believes himself completely happy.

And then I-330 enters his life. She makes him very uncomfortable. He dislikes her at first, but is sexually attracted to her and she exploits this, leading him to break rules and become reluctantly complicit in hiding her noncomformity. I-330 is one of the leaders of the resistance. Their goal is to hijack Integral and use it to smash the barriers of their glass world. They want to start a revolution that will return freedom to the people.

There is nothing heroic about D-503. He wants to remain in his bubble. But he also wants I-330. He discovers, to his dismay, that he has a soul and imagination. With all these upheavals, his life is a torment.

The resistance permeates society to a greater degree than D-503 realizes. But the state is strong and has a new weapon – an operation that can remove human imagination. Which will prove stronger?

The stark philosophies of the characters provide interesting food for thought. D-503's fear of freedom and his contrasting comfort with the highly intrusive state are chilling. The novel does come across as somewhat dated, since dystopias are now so numerous with much more explicit sex and violence and more in-depth characterizations. D-503 thinks mathematically and is confused much of the time, which makes it a tough read. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how many of the issues are still relevant and likely always will be.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Our book group’s latest book was Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. This journalistic historical account of the Osage murders of the 1920s is a fast-paced, detailed narrative of yet another shameful event in the long history of the exploitation of Native Americans.

In Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation became (theoretically) extraordinarily wealthy when oil was discovered in their territory. Although the land had been ceded to the government, mineral rights had not, and anyone wishing to drill for oil had to pay the Osage.

In practice, although some of the Osage did acquire mansions and servants, they were not allowed to spend their own money without the permission of government-appointed guardians. Deemed incompetent by the government, the Osages’assigned guardians exploited them through various schemes that made the whites much more wealthy than their wards. But bleeding their wards dry was not quick enough for some of the guardians, who wanted more of the money and more direct control.

Members of the Osage Nation began to die, some of outright murder and others more insidiously under suspicious circumstances. Local law enforcement investigated half-heartedly and backed off quickly under threat of violence. Corruption ran deep. As the death count rose, the Osage had nowhere safe to turn.

At this point, the Federal Government stepped in. The newly created FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, was called upon to find out what was going on. Hoover assigned a former Texas Ranger, the incorruptible Tom White, to head the investigation.

White proceeds with determination and intelligence to uncover a widespread conspiracy of greed, racism, and utter moral bankruptcy that is horrifying and, unfortunately, not at all surprising.

The book is well-researched and provides a crisp, clear, devastating story.

Friday, August 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: 1876 by Gore Vidal

Way back in 2011, I read Gore Vidal’s Burr, and didn’t like it. Too dense, too dull, and the protagonists (the aged Aaron Burr and the young Charlie Schuyler) were not sympathetic characters. I couldn’t see why Vidal got such rave reviews. Nevertheless, an interest in the post-Civil War years and the Gilded Age led me to pick up Vidal’s 1876.

Schuyler is now a successful journalist/historian, who has spent the last 39 years in Paris, sending home occasional articles and writing a few books. Against his inclination, he must return to his native country. He arrives with his daughter, Emma, a Frenchwoman through and through, and a princess to boot. He has returned because he lost his fortune in the crash of 1873, his daughter is widowed, and he is desperate to earn enough by his writing to support them both. Additional goals are to find a comfortably wealthy husband for Emma. And to see Governor Samuel Tilden (the reformer who brought down Boss Tweed) elected President. Schuyler believes it likely that he will be appointed ambassador to France if Tilden, a friend, is elected.

The novel traces the political maneuverings of 1876 that culminated in Tilden winning the popular vote by a comfortable margin, but nevertheless having the election stolen by Rutherford B. Hayes. It also follows the fortunes of Schuyler and Emma. Finally, it showcases the New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia of 1876, including its socialites and politicians.

Although the novel started a bit slow, it quickly became engrossing. Vidal’s gift for writing vivid historical detail makes the book truly read like a first person account. He manages to present the complicated politics, the corruption, the role of the press – all filtered through Schuyler’s biased, dry, cynical viewpoint in a way that is depressing and amusing at the same time.

Schuyler as an old man, not in the best of health, in a financially precarious state, yet still very much respected by movers and shakers, is a much more interesting protagonist than the young Charlie in Burr. He is funny. At various times, his observations of people and situations had me laughing out loud.

This book was so enjoyable, I’ve changed my mind on Gore Vidal. Not only do I want to read more of his work, but I’m considering going back and re-evaluating Burr.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh

I love the convenience of requesting books online from my local library. One downside, however, is that I rarely spend time browsing in the library and picking something to read on the spur of the moment. Recently I decided to do just that, and took home an "old" (2010) Historical Romance by Mary Balogh: A Secret Affair.

The Duchess of Dunbarton (Hannah) is known to the ton as a breathtakingly beautiful woman who, at the age of nineteen, captured the elderly confirmed bachelor, the Duke. She obviously married for his title and money, while he obviously could not resist her beauty. It is also known that she took many lovers during their marriage, which, incredibly, lasted ten years before he finally died. Now, after an obligatory year of mourning, the Duchess is back in London for a Season and the ton eagerly anticipates her next move.

Constantine Huxtable (tall, dark, and handsome) is the eldest son of an earl, but since he was born two days before his parents’ marriage, his illegitimacy made him ineligible to inherit the title. His younger brother inherited, then died at sixteen, and the title and estates went to a cousin. Mr. Huxtable has not wasted time mourning lost chances, but has made himself as comfortable in society as if he were an earl. That includes taking a mistress each Season in London before retiring back to his country estate.

The Duchess plans to take a lover and she intends that it be Constantine. Although he has always chosen his own mistress in the past, he is willing to be chosen this time. Their affair begins with passion and a mutual agreement that it will be short-term and superficial.

Of course, it is neither.

Both have carefully cultivated their scandalous reputations in order to conceal deeply private pasts brimful of hurt and insecurity. Although both move easily in society, they are lonely. And it doesn’t take long before they spill their secrets to one another and fall in love.

Although predictable, the story is fun and the characters are charming. They tend a little too much towards long speeches pouring out their past woes, but they also engage in witty banter. I haven’t read any of the other books in this particular Romance series but now I’m considering looking up the rest and reading them in order.

Friday, August 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Whatever's Been Going On at Mumblesby? by Colin Watson

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

I’ve been working my way through Colin Watson’s re-released series: A Flaxborough Mystery, starring Inspector Purbright. Without thinking too much about it, I envisioned the series to be infinite and was surprised to learn that there were only twelve books and that the one I most recently downloaded was the twelfth – but I haven’t read that many. I’m reading them out of order! I’m going to have to go back and fill in the missing ones.

I just finished Whatever’s Been Going On at Mumblesby?. Our protagonist, Inspector Purbright, dutifully attends the funeral of a prosperous solicitor who collected antiques in the nearby village of Mumblesby, a village within the district of Chief Constable Chubb, Purbright’s boss. What should have been a mere courtesy – the man’s death was not suspicious – turns into another criminal investigation.

Mumblesby is a snooty village, inhabited by a few wealthy farmers and unpleasant members of the upper class. The recently deceased, Mr. Loughbury, is survived by a common-law wife who is much disdained as a gold-digger. Actually, she is a gold-digger. And she’s unapologetic about it. Moreover, she’s aware that some of the priceless antiques her husband has obtained, from those snooty neighbors, were not acquired in a strictly legal way. Nevertheless, she intends to sell them and reap the rewards.

That doesn’t make her a murderess. Especially since her husband died of natural causes. However, there was a suspicious death in Mumblesby’s past, ruled a suicide by a previous inspector. Now that Purbright is on the scene, and following what appears to be a threat on the life of Mrs. Loughbury, the investigation is reopened.

As is typical in Watson’s mysteries, the story opens in a rather scrambled fashion with abundant clues that make no sense. There are numerous newly introduced characters, presented with biting humor, and a few old favorites like Sergeant Love and Miss Teatime doing their part. It is Purbright’s steady, determined, yet placid investigating that pulls all the loose ends together.

These are not psychological studies of the investigator, or mystery/Romances where the detective and an interfering helper fall in love. The focus is squarely on solving the crime. Even so, the personality of the dedicated Purbright shines through and the narrator’s irony keeps these stories entertaining.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: In the Presence of Evil by Tania Bayard

Christine de Pisan, a brilliant medieval lady of letters, is the heroine of a new historical mystery series. I reviewed the book for the Historical Novels Review (e-galley of book received from Netgalley.) 


See my review here.

Friday, August 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Brave New Earl by Jane Ashford

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

I haven’t been to the beach, but I’m indulging in some summer beach reads. Brave New Earl by Jane Ashford is a soon-to-be released Regency Romance with a sweet story and sympathetic characters.

The earl in question is the Earl of Furness (Benjamin), a widower of five years with a five-year-old son. (Yes, his wife died in childbirth.) He is sunk in mourning to the extent that he rather shamefully neglects his son, partly because the child resembles his wife to a painful extent. The child is growing up to be wild and undisciplined. A succession of nursemaids can do nothing with him. There is a recent addition to the household, a fourteen-year-old orphan boy (Tom) with a wealth of experience in odd jobs, whose good nature and common sense make him a perfect companion/mentor for the boy (Gregory). However, Benjamin is not even aware that Tom is in the house. And Tom is not a long-term solution.

Enter Miss Jean Saunders, a distant cousin of the deceased wife, who has heard tales of the neglected child of the morose earl. The victim of a dreadful childhood, Jean is appalled to think of any child being ill-treated, let alone a relative of hers. She descends on the house in a righteous fury, determined to cart the boy off to his grandparents where she will assure he is cared for and loved. She doesn’t expect the earl to resist, but he does.

Benjamin is irritated beyond measure at the busy-body who has invaded his home. However, he does notice how pretty she is. She notices his good looks as well. He also sees that she has a point; he isn’t being a very good father, while she sees that he is not as disinterested a parent as she feared.

Both have the child’s best interests at heart, though they aren’t exactly sure how to go about improving things. Despite their initial discomfort with one another, they decide to work together to whip Benjamin’s household into shape and do what’s right for Gregory.

Their discomfort turns to passion and love, of course. There are some amusing episodes along the way. There is also the emotional baggage each carries that needs to be overcome.

I’ve read Jane Ashford before, (see my review of The Duke Knows Best), and find her Romances to be light, enjoyable reads.