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.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Summer by Edith Wharton

It felt like time to read a classic, so I chose Summer by Edith Wharton.

Charity Royall is a beautiful young woman who was brought up in the home of a small-town lawyer and his wife in North Dormer, Massachusetts. The tiny, rural town lives in the shadow of "The Mountain," which is home to a community of impoverished, uneducated, hopeless people who are scorned and feared by the whole town. Charity had been born to a woman on The Mountain, but was brought down by Mr. Royall as a young child. He was doing a good deed for a man he had sent to prison for murder, Charity’s father.

Charity lives a lonely, isolated existence as the town’s librarian. She lives with Mr. Royall but she despises him. He’d come to her one night after his wife died, hoping to sleep with her, but she turned him away in horror. Since then, he’s kept his distance.

One day, a young man comes to town to spend time with his aunt while studying local architectural history. In short, he seduces Charity.

There is a stark difference between the colorless loneliness and lack of future that Charity feels before Lucius Harney arrives and the bright, passionate, living-for-the-moment existence that she discovers when she is with him. The romance is bittersweet. The reader knows that this will not work out well. Lucius appears to be gentle and kind to her. However, she feels unworthy of him – she is, after all, descended from mountainfolk, while he is an educated city dweller. Worse, he feels superior to her. The gulf between them makes any marriage so far out of the question that it never comes up until the issue is forced. Lucius may not consider her a suitable option for a wife, but he is perfectly content to use her and let her believe he’s in love.

All the while, Mr. Royall tries to warn her, earning only her anger and hatred. He’s an unpleasant character as well, significantly older and prone to drunkenness. But he provides a sort of safety net for her. And eventually, she needs that safety net. She becomes pregnant. Lucius takes off with vague promises to return.

Charity decides to run back to the Mountain where she believes her people are, but discovers pretty quickly that she can’t return to that community of despair. She cannot raise her own child there.

With nowhere to turn, she finds Mr. Royall coming to her rescue. He still wants to marry her and provide for her. Passively, she lets this happen too.

The story is depressing as many of Wharton’s works are. It’s beautifully written and Charity’s musings and distraction as Lucius becomes her whole world illustrate wonderfully the all-encompassing nature of a first love. Charity’s naivete and almost determined blindness to reality are heartbreaking but realistic. The reader (and Mr. Royall) can see that the young man is using Charity. But it’s easy to see how she falls for him nevertheless. The ending is ambiguously painful. Is she fortunate to have Mr. Royall’s devotion to fall back on? Or was it her inevitable fate to end up miserably trapped in a life with him?

Monday, July 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Blue Murder by Colin Watson

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

I keep coming back to Colin Watson’s entertaining British detective series: A Flaxborough Mystery, featuring the unflappable Inspector Purbright.

Blue Murder is a new release of a book originally published in 1979. In this installment, muckracking newsmen and a female research assistant have arrived in Flaxborough from London after receiving a tip that pornographic films are being made by local villagers. Unfortunately for them, a traffic accident brings them to the immediate attention of the police. Then, the teaser published in their London paper incites the ire of Flaxborough’s mayor. He’s a hot-headed Scotsman, easily manipulated by pranksters who get him to challenge the leader of the muckrakers to a duel in order to defend the honor of the town. This, too, is a matter for local law enforcement, much to Purbright’s chagrin.

In his usual unexcitable, methodical way, Purbright keeps tabs on local troubles and tries to calm things down without inserting himself too much into the mix. In early chapters, his profile is pretty low. It’s the London reporters who take center stage.

There is a lot going on and the plot is pretty convoluted, but stick with it and things gradually fall into place. The tip the reporters received is a false one. To save face, they need a way to back out before it gets any worse. Using the excuse of riled and unpredictable villagers, they contrive a fake kidnaping of the star reporter. But that plan goes horribly awry.

Now Purbright has no choice but to step in. With his faithful sidekick, detective Sydney Love, as well as a few others of Flaxborough’s finest, he digs in to unravel a plot that has its beginnings in an unsolved death from a few years past.

Once again, wry humor carries the novel. Purbright’s detecting style is a delight. And while his character remains rather enigmatic to the readers, we do at least learn he is married. (Was that evident before? How did I miss it?)

These novels are quick, delightful reads and I look forward to more of them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora's Boy by Lindsey Davis

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

Having recently completed book 5 in Lindsey Davis’ historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, The Third Nero, I was thrilled to have the chance to review book 6, the newly released Pandora’s Boy.

With this latest installment, the series has recaptured its momentum and I enthusiastically recommend it. However, the series should be read from book one, The Ides of April. (For ultimate enjoyment, start with Silver Pigs, the first book in the preceding Marcus Didius Falco series – but that’s not crucial for this series featuring Falco’s daughter, Flavia Albia.)

When we left Albia and her new husband, plebian aedile Manlius Tiberius, the outlook for his recovery from the wedding-day lightning strike was looking promising, but he was not yet out of the woods. Things take a turn when his ex-wife, the unpleasant Laia Gratiana appears with a job for Albia. A friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter has been found dead in her bed, possibly poisoned, possibly the victim of a love potion.

Albia turns down the job. She wants nothing to do with any friend of Tiberius’ ex. But the moment her back is turned, Tiberius disappears. No explanation. He’s even taken off his wedding ring. Albia, whose job it often is to find missing husbands, is unable to find her own. The frightening suspicion of her loved ones is that he is suffering from a post-lightning strike fugue state. Desolate, Albia decides to bury herself in her work. She takes the case.

Small, tragic domestic troubles never remain small and domestic. The more Albia digs, the more she uncovers, most of it only peripherally related to the question at hand: how did the girl die? There are criminal gangs active in Rome. Albia (and her adopted father Falco) have come across these dangerous characters before and do their best to avoid them. But Albia’s investigations keep crossing into their territory and she’s going to have to deal with some gangsters before she solves the mystery.

This novel demonstrates Davis’ talent for conflating ancient Rome with modern day tropes: hippies/earth mothers, foodies, bratty overindulged teenagers, and organized crime. The results are vastly entertaining even if a bit farcical for a historical novel. Also, (spoiler alert) Tiberius does reappear. The relationship between Albia and Tiberius is sweet, loving, and amusing. They complement one another’s working styles. And Tiberius has an admirable ability to stand back and let Albia do her work.

For fans of tongue-in-cheek historical mysteries, Lindsey Davis’ novels are pure fun.

Monday, July 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Dear Mrs.Bird by A.J. Pearce

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

Historical fiction fans may want to keep an eye out for the new release: Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce, a wonderful WWII novel set in London during the blitz.

I had to struggle a bit through the first chapter. The protagonist was, at first, too awkwardly perky and naive. But I rapidly warmed to her.

Emmy Lake is doing her part by volunteering to answer phones for the fire brigade at night and working as a secretary by day. But she dreams big. She wants to be a journalist – a war correspondent She believes she’s gotten her big break when she sees a help wanted ad: the newspaper is hiring a "junior." But when she does get the job, she’s distressed to discover she’ll be sorting mail and typing for the advice columnist at a failing, old-fashioned women’s weekly magazine.

Once this premise is established and Emmy deals with the situation she’s found herself in, the narrative voice settles down and the book takes off.

Emmy is an optimist and she makes the best of an unpleasant situation. Her boss, Mrs. Bird, has ridiculously outdated ideas about what is suitable for an advice column. Nothing about the war or anything hinting about relationships can be addressed. Not many women bother writing to Mrs. Bird, but unacceptable letters far outnumber acceptable ones. Emmy is tremendously upset by Mrs. Bird’s callousness. She wants to help. She starts answering letters and signing them with Mrs. Bird’s name.

Meanwhile, her own life suffers a few bumps. Her boyfriend jilts her. Bombs keep falling. It gets harder and harder to keep calm and carry on. The crises grow more serious and the story’s poignancy increases as the losses hit closer and closer to home.

Emmy’s great fault is impulsiveness and her judgment is faulty at times, but her heart is definitely in the right place. She’s brave, persistent, and loyal. And she and her best friend Bunty amuse and entertain.

The subject matter gets heavy and Emmy does a lot of growing up, but a light-hearted strain runs throughout the novel. Its feel-good ending will make you feel good! I find myself wishing for a sequel.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis

I can tell time is passing too quickly when I realize I’ve fallen behind on a series that I love. I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome since the Falco days. When Falco retired from informing, his adopted daughter Flavia Albia took over. I reviewed the previous novel, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, in January of last year. So I’m months behind on this one: The Third Nero.

When we left off, Albia had just wed her aedile, Tiberius, an intelligent, supportive member of the Roman upper crust who aided her with her investigations in the past. Unfortunately, at their wedding, he was struck by lightning. A bit farfetched, but it worked.

Now, they are dealing with setting up housekeeping, Tiberius’ lengthy recuperation, and a new political crisis. Approached by the official spy network of Emperor Domitian with seemingly inconsequential tasks that require a woman’s touch, Flavia Albia becomes aware of a plot against the emperor. Since she and everyone she loves hates the tyrannical Domitian, she is not thrilled to be working for his men. On the other hand, stability is better than chaos. And she needs the funds.

Those interested in getting rid of Domitian have plotted in the past to replace him with a false Nero, claiming Nero was not really dead. Two of these plots have failed. Generally, the impostors get their starts in the east, supported by the Parthians. The newest fake must be rooted out. More importantly, the mole in the spy network who is in contact with the Parthians must be discovered.

At first, Flavia gets so much help from the official spy network that it’s unclear why she is even needed. A good deal of historical background is explained, sometimes rather clunkily, but it is necessary to understanding the convoluted plot.

This is not one of my favorite books in the series. From the plot, to the ironical voice of the protagonist, to the take-a-back-seat role for Tiberius, it seemed forced. Even so, I love returning to this world and will get to the next book sooner.