Monday, May 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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

I just finished a beautiful, melancholy World War II novel, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Two of the main characters, Marianne von Lingenfels, an aristocrat, and Benita Gruber Fledermann, a peasant who married Marianne’s best friend, are introduced at a party in 1938. During the party (at the von Lingenfels country castle), they learn of the rioting and destruction of Jewish businesses and property later known as Kristallnacht. A small group of guests, anti-Hitler intelligentsia, coalesce in their determination to stand against fascism. One of these is Albrecht, Marianne’s husband, and another is Connie Fledermann, Marianne’s oldest and dearest friend, with whom she is more than a little in love. Connie assigns Marianne the task of being "commander of the wives and children." Even though she finds the designation affronting, she takes the task to heart.

The story is told in non-chronological order. The story jumps to the end of the war to find Marianne searching out the wives and children of men who had bound themselves to the resistance. Albrecht and Connie had been among the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler but were caught and executed. During the war, wealth and connections helped spare Marianne the worst of Nazi punishments, but she could do nothing to help her fellow widows. As the war drew to a close, Marianne found Benita and her son Martin, and later, a woman she’d never met but whose name had been on her list: Ania Grabarek, along with her two sons. Marianne brings these families to live with her at an old family castle in the countryside.

The novel tells these women’s stories, what they experienced during and after the war. They are very different but linked through suffering and the desire to protect their children. Each is guarding secrets which are slowly revealed through the course of the narrative.

Although the time shifts in the novel make it a bit choppy, the story holds together well and is, in fact, difficult to put down. The psychological studies of the women are poignant and credible. Marianne is at the center of the book. Extraordinarily strong and full of conviction, she never strays from her sense of duty or her clear-eyed view of right and wrong. While this serves her well as far as moving forward despite aching loss, it does blind her to shades of gray that have influenced the actions of the other women, costing her friendships that might have blunted her own pain.

A varied exploration of the experiences of women inside Nazi Germany, The Women in the Castle is deeply moving, important, and sad.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey

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

I was ready to change gears and read a lighthearted Regency Romance, so I pulled Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey from my Netgalley queue. This novel had a premise that enticed me. An orphaned heiress has reached the age where she must marry, but her heart is already given—not to her guardian, but to her guardian’s best friend. This twist on the "he loves her but it’s not honorable to seduce a young ward" plot line sounded like fun.

Lady Eleanor is the heiress, living with her guardian Cousin Charles and his wife. Charles’s best friend is Sorin Latham, an earl (Lord Wincanton). Sorin practically helped raise Eleanor, and is trusted almost as a member of the family. So when he sees Eleanor at sixteen, after a brief absence, and realizes he has inappropriate feelings for her, he absents himself for 5 more years, thinking to wait until she’s safely married before returning.

Eleanor, however, has no desire to marry any of the men who’ve been presented to her. None of them come close to Sorin.

Sorin returns because his duties won’t wait forever. Naturally, he can’t avoid contact with Eleanor. As they are both in need of spouses, they go to London for the "Season," each pretending to be looking for someone else to wed. Charles specifically asks Sorin to help chaperone Eleanor to keep gold-diggers away, so the two spend a great deal of time together.

Each feels the other cares only as a sibling would. Family and friends can see the sparks flying between them, but they are both so insecure that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they embark on secretive quests to win the other over, without betraying their own feelings, lest it ruin their friendship.

While the premise is cute, they drag it out for the requisite 300 or so pages until it is so tedious I no longer cared whether they got together or not. In fact, in the final confrontation between the two, when Eleanor stares at the obvious but refuses to see it, I found myself wishing Sorin would give up and go home and the two could be miserable-ever-after.

More interesting than the relationship between the two was the rival for Eleanor’s affections, a low-class bully who was so deep in debt he would stoop to anything to entrap Eleanor. He was not an actual rival, since no one could stand him. Eventually, desperate, he sinks as low as he could go to cause a scandal that would force the issue. Eleanor is rescued in the nick of time, but here the book lost me completely. Sorin behaves in a way that is so appalling that all his previous shilly-shallying for the sake of behaving honorably appears ridiculous.

So, despite an initially interesting premise and a few entertaining scenes, this was not a Romance I particularly enjoyed.

Monday, May 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

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

Fictional biography is one of my favorite subgenres of historical fiction, and I particularly gravitate towards novels about writers or important people in the lives of writers. So I was pleased to have the chance to read The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber (to be released this summer). This is a dual fictionalized biography of Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter, the artist and child prodigy, Pamela Bianco.

This is a beautifully written, entrancing book. It is not a story of Margery Williams’ writing career, though her writing is briefly touched upon; it’s more the story of the relationship between mother and daughter, and how that relationship is complicated by Pamela’s early fame and later mental illness.

Margery is portrayed as a solid, loving, steadfast, though sometimes overwhelmed, mother, who is unsure of the correct path to take when her daughter’s artistic genius is discovered. She bows to the wishes of her husband, a more aggressive personality. He lives vicariously through the attention paid to his daughter. Margery, on the other hand, constantly questions their choices, wondering if she should have protected Pamela from the stresses of being a "child prodigy," while at the same time believing that her daughter’s love for painting and talent were too great to suppress.

Pamela, desperate for approval, never feels she is quite good enough. A failed, rather one-sided relationship early in life reinforces Pamela’s insecurities. And then she falls ill with severe depression and battles with mental illness the rest of her life. Margery’s role is to pick up the pieces and lend her support, but she can’t cure Pamela, and this is heartbreaking for her.

The novel delves deep into the emotional roller coaster of obsession, artistry, love, and familial pressures. Alternating between their two points of view, the novel presents different sides to each of the defining events in their lives. Their love, understanding, and forgiveness make this book shine.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Minotaur takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

This novel was a staff pick in a bookstore I was browsing in last weekend. The premise was just so odd, I was intrigued. If you find yourself in the mood for a well-written, sad, and very strange story, pick up a copy of The Minotaur takes a Coffee Break by Steven Sherrill.

The Minotaur is that minotaur, but he is nothing at all what you would expect. An immortal half-bull/half man, he is not mythological but very real, very lonely, and tired.

"M," as he is called by those around him, has settled in to a life as a cook in a steakhouse-type restaurant in a small southern town. He lives in a small trailer park where he has grown comfortable with his neighbors and landlord. He is friends, more or less, with some of his co-workers and tolerates the rest, who try to pick on him because of what he is. M has been around for millenia, so he has a high tolerance level for idiots.

Over the course of a couple weeks, M goes about his business and the reader is treated to the minute details of his daily life and his desperate yearning for companionship. His greatest fear is that the small inconveniences and errors will accumulate to the point where he will have to make a change, move on. His life is a series of moving on, and it wears him down.

Still, hope has not been entirely extinguished. A waitress has come to work at the restaurant who is also different in some respects. M summons up all his courage to make a connection. With so much that can go wrong, is he right to take the leap?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this unique book is just how commonplace the other characters find it to have a Minotaur in their midst. Some people are put off, some are momentarily frightened, but for most, he just is and they accept it. The reader is able to feel empathy for his very human dilemma, even though his alienation is a result of his not being quite human. This should not read as realistic fiction, and yet, it does.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

The next book in our history/historical fiction book group is The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter. One reason I love historical fiction is for the perspective it brings to current day problems. Whenever I start to think we are living in times of unprecedented corruption and instability, a good historical novel reminds me that this stuff has been going on in some form or another for all of recorded human history and probably before that.

In this adventure set in India in the mid 1800s, two men, employees of the East India Company are sent deep into native lands to look for Mountstuart, a missing poet whose latest work has offended the Company and its wealthy backers.

William Avery is a first-year, low-level soldier who is naive, loyal to the Company, and a romantic devotee of the poet who has disappeared. Jeremiah Blake is a disillusioned ex-officer who has gone native and wants nothing to do with the Company’s orders. However, he has reasons of his own for wanting to find Mountstuart.

There are elements of the "buddy" novel that I always enjoy. The two men are ill-suited at first, but grow to trust and depend on each other. Blake is the hardened jack-of-all-trades who can speak all the native languages, is a master of disguise, and who seems to have a secret knowledge that gets him out of any difficulty. Avery is fumbling and a poor judge of character, but he rides well, shoots even better, and is blessed with what he himself calls "stupid good health," which is crucial given the clime and the various injuries he sustains. He’s a very honorable man, so his disillusionment hits him hard and the reader will empathize.

Mountstuart left Calcutta for the interior ostensibly to find the subjects for his next poem: adherents of the Thuggee cult, murderous natives who kill to please the goddess Kali. An extensive mythology has sprung up around them thanks to their study by a particularly zealous Company commander who has made it his life’s work to root them out. Avery and Blake are in constant danger from the moment they leave Calcutta, but it becomes increasingly unclear who it is that they have to fear.

This dark novel puts the reader squarely into the exotic locale where the intrigues are palpable. The two heroes are easy to root for. And the historical context is top notch. This is a book one, and there are two more in the series so far, so they are now on my to-be-read list.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

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

Released this week: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King is a superb historical novel set in Ancient Rome.

During the latter years of Augustus’ (and Livia’s) rule and during the reign of Tiberius, a Roman patrician named Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the earliest known "foodies," embarks on a project to make himself legendary. Wealthy beyond measure, he has no talent for the usual methods of making a name for oneself in Roman society, and so concentrates on his one particular skill – exquisite entertaining. For this, he purchases a young slave, Thrasius, who has a reputation as a talented cook, paying 20,000 denarii, a ridiculously high sum.

Thrasius proves well worth the investment. Not only is he a remarkable chef and party organizer, but he is astute and literate. Moreover, he’s a good man, which makes this book a pleasure to read.

As a slave, Thrasius is completely dependent on the good will of his master. Apicius is an unpredictable tyrant, making it necessary for Thrasius to measure his words and walk lightly in the household. In his favor, he makes spectacular meals and Apicius’ fame spreads. Ultimately, Apicius hopes to become the gastronomic advisor to the emperor. Unfortunately, obstacles in his way include a former friend and now deadly rival, Octavius, who is in Livia’s favor, and Livia herself, who holds an old grudge against Apicius’ dear friend Fannia. Even worse, he has an enemy in his wife’s cousin, Sejanus, who holds an important position with Tiberius and thus is well placed to thwart Apicius’ rise.

Thrasius works hard to promote his master, knowing that his own future depends on Apicius’ success. Moreover, he falls in love with the personal slave of Apicius’ daughter. Knowing she could be sold or given away at Apicius’ whim, Thrasius must do everything possible to stay on his master’s good side, even while watching Apicius behave in ways that are counterproductive, selfish, and cruel.

The novel is a fascinating look at Rome from a unique perspective. The lush descriptions of the banquet bring the opulence and decadence of the times fully to life. The uncertain lives of slaves and the menace hanging over their patrician masters keep the plot tight and fast paced. Thrasius is heroic as a man with a unique skill attempting to protect those in his sphere as best he can. Apicius is oddly sympathetic as a mediocre man with a narrowly focused ambition, willing to sacrifice everything, even those he loves, in order to be remembered by posterity. King’s story is a convincing portrait of the man. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Merely a Marriage by Jo Beverley

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

I read this book a while ago, but waited to post this review until closer to the publication date.

I’ve read a few of Jo Beverley’s Regency Romances and enjoyed them, so I was startled to see this latest novel, Merely a Marriage, described as her last. I googled her and was sorry to learn that she died in May 2016.

Jo Beverley’s historical romances have always stood out for me because she doesn’t just set them in the Regency period for the manners of the time. (The manners are important, of course; all the rules of courting and social behavior make these books fun escapism.) She also truly seems to know the time period and inserts more historical context into the storylines than is typical. The history isn’t the focus. It’s never heavy-handed and the books are clearly genre romance. But the historical tidbits are an added bonus.

Merely a Marriage takes place immediately following the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth. England is plunged into mourning. Social events are muted. Dresses must be in mourning colors. And the twenty-five-year-old Lady Ariana Boxstall is in a panic. Her father is two years dead and her brother, a couple of years younger than she, has no intention of marrying and filling the nursery with potential heirs. This could be a problem if her brother, Norris, should suffer an untimely death. Their uncle would inherit, and he’s a gambler and a nasty drunkard.

Norris is too young and healthy to be concerned, which irritates Ariana. So, he challenges her: if she’s wed by the end of the year, he’ll marry right after her. Since she retired from society after a disastrous coming out at seventeen, he feels safe. But Ariana is not one to shy from a challenge.

Ariana is beautiful, willful, and intelligent. However, she has a fatal flaw. She’s much too tall. Since she would never settle for a man shorter than herself, her options are limited in the countryside. She has to go back to London to find a wider field of choices. Her mother is happy to take her, and they will stay with an elderly relative who knows all the right people. Unfortunately, she knows some of the wrong people too: her nephew, the Earl of Kynaston, is one of the young men whose mockery made Ariana’s debut so painful. She might have endured it better if she wasn’t so smitten with him at the time. She’s older and wiser now, but still not prepared to share a roof with him. He’s as gorgeous (and tall) as ever, but he’s also still nasty, and he drinks to excess.

Of course, first (and second) impressions can be wrong.

As Lady Ariana shuffles through the men who survive the first weed-out round (tallness), she discovers that she’s even pickier than she thought. Height is the main thing, but not everything. Thrown together frequently with Kynaston, she finds he has more and more attributes on her checklist. Still, she resents him so much and is so certain he’s not interested in her, that she invents sins to assign to him, fabricating a tale of dissipation, rakish behavior, impoverishment, neglect of his estates and family, all to talk herself out of the attraction she still feels.

Kynaston has his own reasons for keeping Ariana at arm’s length despite his attraction to her. The reader will be convinced that he’s actually a noble character long before Ariana admits it. Ariana’s willful blindness to all the clues gets a bit irritating after awhile. She prefers to invent reasons for his behavior and stick to her own version of his life despite all evidence to the contrary. However, once she is told Kynaston’s history, she does an abrupt about face. Now she sees clearly that he is the perfect man—the only man—for her.

Ariana’s matter-of-fact approach to life makes her an interesting protagonist. And Kynaston is fine as the alpha male of her dreams. But her single-minded pursuit of him, including various plans to compromise herself so that he will have no choice but to marry her, get a bit unnerving. She tackles problems with an end-justifies-the-means attitude where the end is always to get what she wants. Since she’s certain that she knows what’s right for everyone, she sees no problem with forcing the issues. And, while she is naturally right that she and Kynaston are meant for each other (it’s a romance, after all), I found her character rather off-putting. Nevertheless, she is surrounded by charming supporting characters and I had fun reading this.