Wednesday, April 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen

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

I’ve been nursing a horrible cold this week, so I spent as much time as I could under a blanket, reading. I just finished Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen. (Book one of a new series.)

A cozy historical mystery, the novel’s protagonist is Lady Helena, a young woman newly widowed. Her unfortunate husband, Justin, was a gentleman farmer many years her elder. Their marriage had been a happy one, and Helena is stunned and grieving. Justin died by drowning, trying to save a ram that had fallen into a river. At least, that’s the theory.

Helena is the youngest daughter in a large aristocratic family. Very large. It’s a bit difficult keeping them all straight in the opening chapters, but things fall into place fairly quickly. The main thing is that Helena is stronger in spirit than her older sisters and overbearing brother, the Earl of Broadmere, credit her with being. Although everyone has their opinion on what she should do next, she has her own ideas and searching for a replacement husband is not one of them.

With enough to do fending off her probably well-meaning but intrusive family, Helena is not particularly pleased when her husband’s physician, Armand Fortier, an attractive, self-assured Frenchman, presents himself at her door. After offering condolences, he states the real reason for his call. He believes Justin was murdered.

Helena doesn’t want to believe this and so, for a time, she simply doesn’t.

The novel does not proceed as a usual mystery. It’s more of a gentle family saga, with Helena trying to piece her life back together. In her youth, Helena had an interest in following in her mother’s footsteps as an herbalist and healer. But she lost interest when her first fiancĂ©, her cousin Daniel, died unexpectedly. Helena’s mother is now suffering from dementia, and Helena regrets the lost opportunity to learn from her. But she does have all her mother’s old journals. Reading through them, Helena learns a great deal about the woman her mother once was. But unearthing the past leads to shocking, painful truths about her family.

There’s a lot packed into the story–maybe a little too much. A lot of human foibles are crammed in as well as the usual suspects of sin and evil. But the main characters are thoughtful, caring people so I’d be glad to read more about them in book two. The budding romance with its hint of mystery is another reason to look forward to seeing them again.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I just read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down! I hadn’t heard of the book until I saw some buzz on my goodreads newsfeed that made me want to give it a try. It’s odd for me to read two contemporary novels so close together (see Every Note Played by Lisa Genova) but this one had a bit of a historical fiction flavor. The title character, Evelyn Hugo, was a movie star back in the 50s - 80s. (Yikes. I still have trouble accepting that the 80's were "a long time ago.") And this novel is her autobiographical tell-all.

Monique Grant is an up-and-coming journalist whose career feels stalled as a small-potatoes writer for the magazine Vivant. This is particularly galling because she recently chose career over her young marriage. (Her soon-to-be ex-husband chose his career too.) To her shock, and to the shock of her editor, the reclusive Evelyn Hugo has agreed to an exclusive interview with Vivant, but insists that Monique be her contact. Otherwise, no deal. Monique has no idea why.

Even more shocking, when Monique arrives at Evelyn’s home, the star jettisons the magazine interview ploy and explains she wants to tell her life story, warts and all. Given that Evelyn is as well known for having gone through seven husbands as she is for her award-winning performances and decades-spanning career, Monique can’t pass up the opportunity.

Monique has two pressing questions she wants answered. First, as an opener for her book: Who was Evelyn’s greatest love? The second question is a private one: Why Monique?

Evelyn is willing to answer, but not right away. And she has her reasons.

The story is engrossing, heart-breaking, and 100% believable. Even though Evelyn Hugo is not a real person, she very well could be. Navigating the treacherous waters of poverty, sexual exploitation, professional rivalries, and love – Evelyn Hugo is always in control, except when she’s not. She admits she has often been an awful person and eventually proves it to Monique. Nevertheless, she is an admirable heroine; even Monique is forced to admit it.

This riveting story is beautifully told. I’m going to have to look for more of Reid’s work.

 

 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson

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

For those who like police procedurals set in the relatively near past, laced with dry British humor, the re-release of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Mystery series is a reason to celebrate. I’m on book 3, Hopjoy Was Here. This book was thoroughly entertaining and could stand alone, though I still recommend reading Book 1 first.

The novel opens with the removal of a bathtub from the home of mild-mannered tobacconist, Gordon Periam. It’s being carted away by policemen, evidence of a heinous crime committed in the house. The unflappable Investigator Purbright is in charge, so we settle in confident that the crime will be sorted out.

Periam is missing, as is his boarder, Brian Hopjoy. Hopjoy is known as a flashy spendthrift and somewhat of a playboy. He is also known, by pretty much everyone, to be an undercover agent for the secret service. His status as a spy is something he plays on to woo women and get out of paying his bills. It seems pretty safe to say that one of the men is a murderer and the other, the victim, but as there is no body it’s hard to say which is which.

Adding to Purbright’s difficulty is the arrival of two men from Hopjoy’s agency who have been sent to look into the disappearance of their man. To Purbright’s surprise, they are not discomfited by the fact that their associate may be dead and are equally comfortable with the idea that he is a murderer–though they assume that if Hopjoy killed Periam it was in the interest of national security. And, of course, it will all have to be hushed up.

Purbright sets to solving the crime while the secret agents set about discovering the larger problem, which they are certain exists.

The contrast between the methodical, intelligent, practical Investigator and the over-the-top, James Bond-like government agents is very cleverly amusing. The plot twists and turns keep a reader guessing right along with Purbright. His exacting attention to the smallest details will surely lead to the correct conclusion, but along the way, it’s a toss-up as to who is cleverer, Purbright or the criminal. (It’s certainly not the intelligence agents.)

Unlike many of the historical mysteries I’ve read recently, there is no love interest for Purbright to serve as a parallel plotline. In fact, we know very little at all about the investigator except what we learn by seeing him at work. Even so, he’s an increasingly endearing character, and I’ll continue reading this fun series.

Friday, March 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

D.E. Stevenson was a Scottish author who published extensively in the mid-twentieth century. Her novels are sweetly charming, old-fashioned love stories with embedded moral messages. (See my review of Miss Buncle’s Book.)

I recently saw a review of The English Air, published in 1940, and although my library didn’t have it, they were able to get it for me through interlibrary loan.

The novel begins in 1938, just after the Austrian Anschluss. So it has the interesting perspective of being written in the early days of the war, looking back at the times leading up to it. Set in a small English port town, it is an extremely gentle dual love story, the main conflict being the differences between the English and the Germans.

Wynne Braithwaite is a lovely young British girl who has grown up innocent and carefree, spared memories of the First World War that still haunt her Aunt Sophie, who raised her. She fully expects life to be easy, full of good friends, good times, tennis, and volunteer social work. When a distant cousin, Franz von Heiden, comes for a visit from Germany, she is eager to get to know him and show him around.

Franz is half-English, though a bit ashamed of it. He’s a young Nazi, devoted to his Leader, whose father is an important man in the party. (He would be more important, but in his early days, he mistakenly fell in love with and married an English wife. That wife was Sophie’s cousin and best friend. He took her back to Germany, made her miserable, and was relieved when she died so that his career could get back on track.) Franz has grown up with much of his father’s prejudice.

He is sent to England by his father to gauge the English temperament. His father anticipates a report that they are weak-hearted, decadent, and will roll over and surrender if it comes to another war. But this is not what Franz finds. Although a fish out of water at first, Franz comes to admire the friendly, good-natured English, who harbor no enmity for the Germans, but who have backbones of steel. Franz grows healthy, strong, and happy in "the English air." And, naturally, he falls in love with Wynne.

Wynne’s aunt and step-uncle, Dale, remembering what happened to their cousin, are terrified of something similar happening to Wynne, and they essentially forbid Franz from courting Wynne. He understands their viewpoint, but doesn’t agree, until Hitler breaks his promise and marches into Prague. At that point, Franz realizes that Hitler is a problem, not a solution. Appalled, he returns to Germany to become part of the resistance.

No one knows where he has gone. Wynne grows sad, but is convinced he’s coming back. The story tracks Franz’s wartime efforts and Wynne’s devotion until he returns.

It’s a pleasant romance with strong, good people. However, it was such overt propaganda (not surprising given the times) that it detracted from the story. I can’t disagree with the Nazi- bad, English people- good, theme, naturally, but it was so preachy, without a drop of subtlety, that the story itself was weak and dated. It reads better as a period-piece, giving insight into the mind-set of people at war, than as a novel. It’s an interesting contrast to WWII novels that are written today that are much more gritty, horrifying, and yet show shades of grey.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

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

Lisa Genova’s new release, Every Note Played, is a gritty, realistic, and yet beautiful novel following the physical decline and emotional growth of a man dying from ALS. This is the first book I’ve read by this author, but I can understand why she is so widely read.

Richard Evans is a brilliant classical pianist, whose career comes crashing to a halt when he is diagnosed with ALS. Cruelly, the disease has attacked his hands first, robbing him not only of his life’s work, but of the very core of his identity. A year earlier, his marriage ended and this crisis has made him aware of how very alone he is.

Karina is the wife who divorced him. An exceptionally talented pianist in her own right, she has sacrificed her career to support his, devoting her time to bringing up their daughter. She teaches piano to ungifted, uninterested suburban students. Still mired in resentment– Richard cheated on her repeatedly as well as tearing her away from her promising start as a jazz pianist–Karina thought she would be reborn after the divorce, but instead is stuck. Their daughter is now in college and her ex-husband has moved out. No one is holding her back anymore and she has nowhere to place blame for her dissatisfaction.

Both believe the love they once shared is dead and buried. Responsibility for the failed marriage falls to both parties, but neither can relinquish old grudges. This is emotionally entangling enough, even without the addition of the slowly progressive, deadly disease. But the disease is what the story hinges upon.

Richard becomes increasingly physically dependent and Karina takes him home to be his support person.

The plot revolves around the progression of the disease. The novel is well-researched and graphic in its medical details. It’s heartbreaking and painful to read. Realistically, there can be no happy ending. And yet, there is healing of a sort for these broken people. The reader journeys through the process with Richard and Karina, engrossed.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Bump in the Night by Colin Watson

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

I loved the first book in the A Flaxborough Mystery Series: Coffin, Scarcely Used and was eager to get to book 2: Bump in the Night. This series by British author Colin Watson from the 1950s/60s is being re-released in electronic form, and I’m thrilled to have discovered them through Netgalley.

That said, I’d urge you to start with book one, because book two wouldn’t have hooked me by itself. It can be read as a stand-alone, but the charm of its protagonist would be missing.

Bump in the Night is set in a town nearby to Flaxborough, named Chalmsbury. It begins with a middle-of-the-night explosion that destroys a statue/water fountain in a local park that had been dedicated to a local luminary. A series of similar unexplained explosions follows. The shocked and entertained locals discuss the events for a few chapters before the police chief, Inspector Hector Larch, becomes involved. As an inspector, he’s clearly out of his league. His method is a rather prejudiced bullying of whatever witness he comes across in the hopes of extracting a confession. The townspeople know him too well, however, to be bullied. He is aided by a young policeman named Worple who is more intelligent and possibly more capable. But the reader’s introduction to Worple shows him as somewhat lazy and obstructionist, so it’s hard to get behind him as the investigation proceeds.

The townspeople are, as in Coffin, Scarcely Used, a collection of oddball characters/caricatures. But they are not as endearing as those of Flaxborough. The physical descriptions are still written with the dry wit of book one, but some seem more labored. The characters’ quirks are more irritating, their habits more tawdry. And Larch’s aggressive and ineffective methods give the book a meandering, aimless feeling.

Thankfully, just as I was wondering if it was worth plodding on, Inspector Purbright is called in from neighboring Flaxborough. What a relief! Continuity was restored to the series and the clever, good-souled detective shows up to move things along. Pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. The townspeople reveal hidden depths–not all that deep, but at least they are less one-dimensional. The pace picks up and I am intrigued by the crime.

Obviously, I wasn’t as enamored of book two as I was of book one, and yet, on the whole, it was a satisfying read. Purbright remains a compelling protagonist. Hopefully, he will be more present in book 3, because I’m still a fan of the series and want to see what he does next.

Monday, March 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My book group picked The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for our next meeting. I had mixed feelings about the choice. It’s award-winning historical fiction, so I’ve felt for quite a while that it should be on my TBR pile and this was a great way to nudge me to read it. On the other hand, the premise didn’t grab me. The escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad imagined as if the route was an actual train? Why?

And my reaction to the book after reading it is also mixed. It’s essentially magical realism, which may explain why I found it slow going. I’ve found books in this genre usually fail to grab me. And then there is the unrelenting, mind-numbing brutality that seemed to deaden the emotions of the characters so that they never really came alive. (Maybe that was intentional?) Although I’m sure the horrors represented in the book are based on fact, it nevertheless never seemed real.

Cora is a young, enslaved woman, who is isolated from her fellow slaves as someone who just doesn’t fit in anywhere. Her father is gone. Her mother abandoned her in order to escape the Georgia cotton plantation and run away north. Of all those who attempted escape from this particular plantation, Cora’s mother is the only one to succeed. That notoriety burdens Cora because she isn’t proud of her mother. She’s angry.

A new arrival named Caesar takes notice of her. He, too, is different, having been educated by his former owner. The elderly woman led him to believe he’d be freed at her death. She lied. When he decides to run away, he asks Cora to join him. Although hesitant at first, changes taking place on the plantation make the decision for her. Caesar has contacts with the Underground Railroad. The escape is difficult, but they make it to the first stop. And here, they learn that a true railroad exists deep underground.

Until this point, the narrative is a fairly typical fictional story of desperate slaves risking all for freedom. But once on the railroad, Cora’s experience broadens to incorporate multiple forms of brutality, exploitation, humiliation, terrorization, and loss. There are a few good people who try to help, but the majority are untrustworthy at best and threatening as a rule.

The book bounced from place to place, event to event, even person to person, to show as much of man’s evilness to man as possible. I was pulled into some of the scenes, curious how they would play out, but on the whole, the characters were too much symbolic "types" to really care about. The book ended abruptly, which didn’t bother me since I was simply glad it was done.

The book is ambitious in scope. It’s clearly written. And it succeeds in making the reader uncomfortable about the sickening underpinning of our country’s foundation and growth. It’s a worthwhile read. But not a book I’d read twice.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Brush with Shadows by Anna Lee Huber

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

I’ve been following Anna Lee Huber’s The Lady Darby Mysteries ever since book one, The Anatomist’s Wife. The books are excellent mysteries with thoughtful, kind, intelligent protagonists whose relationship development is as compelling as the detective plot. Set in the mid-1800s, primarily in England, the historical setting and bits of the politics of the day add to the enjoyment of the read.

In A Brush with Shadows, Lady Darby (Kiera Gage) and her husband Sebastian Gage have been summoned by Gage’s aged, ill grandfather to the old family manor in Dartmoor. Gage’s cousin Alfred, the heir to the estate, has gone missing.

Kiera is aware that Gage had an unfortunate childhood. His mother died when he was a young man. His father, a nasty old sea captain, was absent most of the time. They are all but estranged now, although they are both inquiry agents and the father relies heavily on the talent of the son. Although Kiera knows Gage was unhappy growing up, she doesn’t know the details. He has always been very supportive and understanding about her past traumas, but very close-mouthed about his own.

It doesn’t take long for Kiera to grasp the family dynamics. And while she is 100% behind her husband, she does have a bit more perspective and her kindness and perceptiveness allow her to see behind some of the cruel facades.

They soon discover there is more to the story of the missing cousin. Alfred is something of a wastrel and is heartily disliked by just about everyone–especially Gage. Still, he has to be found.

Once again, the author constructs an intricate plot with contradictory leads, multiple possible culprits, and multifaceted characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Kiera and Gage have to navigate new difficulties in their relationship as this time, Gage is the vulnerable one.

Readers may figure out whodunit before the climactic revelation, but the conclusion is nevertheless tension-filled and fast-paced.

This series is highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle a while back and it made me determined to read more by this critically acclaimed but often overlooked British author.

A Glass of Blessings, first published in 1958, is another delightful comedy of manners. Following the musings and day-to-day activities of a British suburban housewife, Wilmet Forsyth, it presents an humorous look at the rather dull middle class.

It is Wilmet’s thirty-third birthday. She begins the day at church, mainly to see what is going on rather than to worship. The reader is introduced to the elderly Father Thames and the not-quite-as-old Father Bode. (Clergy always play a role in Pym’s work.) But Wilmet’s interest is caught by the unexpected presence of Piers Longridge, the very attractive brother of her best friend Rowena.

Wilmet’s social circle is relatively small, consisting of fellow parishioners, Rowena and her husband Harold, Wilmet’s own husband Rodney, and her mother-in-law, Sybil. (Wilmet and Rodney live in Sybil’s home, and the two women are close.) Wilmet’s daily life consists of shopping, having tea, gossiping, and wishing she was more useful. After reconnecting with Piers, she also starts considering--even planning--an affair.

Wilmet is stylish, pretty, and reasonably sociable. She’s bored at home, having no interest in what Rodney does "at the Ministry" and seemingly very little interest in Rodney. Aware that Rowena worries about her brother because he can’t seem to settle into a permanent occupation and because she does not approve of his friends, Wilmet decides to make him a project. This is her excuse for trying to see him more often and allowing herself to flirt.

Meanwhile, she also tries her hand at a few other projects: finding a new housekeeper for the clergy, befriending the dowdy do-gooder who makes her feel particularly unworthy and, at the same time, superior, and even learning a little Portuguese in advance of a summer vacation.

Wilmet is a surprisingly shallow character, considering how she shines as a protagonist. She is remarkably self-centered. She’s kind, but her motivation is really because she believes it will reflect well on herself. And she is a bit miffed when any attractive man seems to show interest in someone else. Still, the running monologue going through her head and the quips she makes are very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. And, to her credit, when things don’t go her way, she takes it all in stride, never turning petty or mean.

This is an odd book. Wilmet does not lead an exciting life, and the minutiae of her activities would make for dull reading if not for the underlying irony. The book flies by considering how little happens to Wilmet. (Although plenty is going on around her, to which she is more or less oblivious.) Pym’s novels are a wonderful way to pass the time and give you something to think about when the story is through.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Dying for Rome. Lucrezia's Tale by Elisabeth Storrs

I received this book for free from the author through "Book Funnel." This did not influence my review.

 

I loved Elisabeth Storrs’ historical trilogy: Tales of Ancient Rome. (The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice, and Call to Juno) These wonderfully immersive novels took me to the fascinating world of the Etruscans, who became the arch-enemies of early Rome.

Now Storrs has written a historical novella, Dying For Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.

The "Rape of Lucretia" is a well-known historical event (though various accounts of the event differ slightly in the details) in which a virtuous Roman woman was attacked by an Etruscan prince, the son of the nasty king of Rome. The people of the various towns ruled by the king were tired of being oppressed, but too terrified to rebel. This changed after the dishonored Lucretia committed suicide. She became a martyr to the people, who rose up, overthrew the king, and established the Roman Republic.

The politics of all this are challenging. Fortunately, Storrs has a solid grasp of the history and is able to pare it down to the essentials. In this novella, a slave girl belonging to Lucretia bears witness to the fateful events.

Historical fiction as a rule is not short. It’s difficult to bring the reader into a long-ago world, establish the historical framework, and bring the characters to life. Dying for Rome succeeds as a short work because its focus is so narrow. Even so, what a wonderful subject for a full-length novel this would be!

If you’d like to dip your toe into the waters of very ancient Rome, give this novella a try. If you’d like to dive in, get hold of The Wedding Shroud.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Coffin Scarcely Used by Colin Watson

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

Farrago Books is re-releasing the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Book 1, Coffin Scarcely Used, was first published in 1958. Set in a small village in England, this detective story is a delight.

The first death, that of Harold Carobleat, a wealthy local businessman, was suspicious only in that the funeral was so understated as to be a non-event. However, months later, the bizarre possible suicide of Harold’s neighbor triggers an investigation by the low-key detective, Inspector Purbright. Aided by an eager (and naive) young policeman, Purbright doggedly pursues leads that don’t add up, convinced that things will eventually fall into place. He’s certain the "suicide" was a murder and is determined to prove it. Although others in Carobleat’s circle are either frightened, threatening, or both, and although it’s clear more deaths will follow, there isn’t the building tension of "catch the villain before he strikes again." Purbright is methodical. And very entertaining. His patience and gently paced investigation swept me along.

The character sketches are ironic and the tone of the book is humorous, despite the underlying violence. It isn’t gory and sadistic. It’s almost. . .quaint. But not quite cozy.

Although I don’t think it was written as a historical mystery initially, it belongs to its time period and, being more than fifty years old and dated in a good way, I’m counting it as historical.

If you enjoy clever writing and puzzle solving, Coffin Scarcely Used is a terrific introduction to this series. I’m eager to read Book 2.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg

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

I’ve never read anything by or about Jack London, one of the most famous writers of the early twentieth century. I knew him primarily as the author of the novel Call of the Wild. Although I’d never felt particularly curious about his work, I was nevertheless eager to read a historical novel based on his wife.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg gives a fictional first person account of the life of Charmian Kittredge London. Devoted to her husband, Charmian acts as muse, secretary, editor, and enabler. The once athletic, handsome adventurer is now a gouty alcoholic suffering from kidney disease. Their once-passionate love life has faded into a near platonic literary partnership. Jack plays warped psychological games, pushing her towards other men then becoming furiously jealous, possibly in order to experience emotions that he can then use as inspiration for his writing.

Charmian is getting a bit tired of it all.

Nevertheless, she works tirelessly to maintain both the marriage and Jack’s career, even though the commitment stunts her own ambition. Charmian is strong, healthy, adventurous, and smart. The novel gives one the sense that Jack is dragging her down.

A turning point occurs when she and Jack meet Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess. Both being strong-willed women married to celebrities, Charmian and Bess bond, striking up a true friendship. Jack and Harry don’t hit it off as well. Their egos clash and they constantly engage in macho one-upmanship. It’s a bit one-sided though, since Houdini is at the top of his game, while Jack is fading into a caricature of his past self. But within the foursome, the strongest attraction is between Houdini and Charmian.

As her relationship with Jack suffers one too many traumas, Charmian takes comfort in the cautious, intriguing advances of Houdini. But what kind of relationship can she ever expect to have with a man in the world’s spotlight–a man married to a friend?

This is a beautiful book that takes us deep into the heart of a very conflicted woman, yearning to be loved and desperately in love with her husband, though with eyes wide open to his flaws.

Monday, February 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

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

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith is a richly layered historical novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with interwoven tales taking place during multiple time periods. Each individual story is unique with a well-developed protagonist and compelling narrative. They come together only because of the setting and occasional references to earlier-living characters by the later-living ones. And yet, each of them has in common a yearning for love (or something) and social advancement (or at least security).

Colonial period: A young Quaker girl at the brink of womanhood has to find a way to support herself, her young sibling, and a slave after the death of her mother and loss of her father at sea. Caring members of her community believe she should marry. An older widower is more than willing to step up and wed her. But she balks at a loveless marriage. She has to come up with a bold plan of her own.

Revolutionary War period: A British solder/spy becomes obsessed with the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. In order to have her (not to marry), he is willing to behave dishonorably despite his position as an officer, to lie, even to murder. Clearly dealing with a sociopath, this narrative grows increasingly unpleasant, a counterpoint to the poignant, sometimes disturbing, but generally gentle progress of the other stories. I always cringed during these sections and was glad to get back to the others.

Civil War period: A young Henry James embarks on a mission to train himself to be an observant recorder of the beau monde in Newport as a prelude to a writing career. However, he starts by observing a beautiful, free-spirited girl and, before he knows what’s happening, he is drawn into an unexpected friendship. As the friendship turns toward romance, he wants nothing more than to flee, to the consternation of all involved.

Gilded Age: A social climbing charmer of less than modest means recognizes that he will soon age out of his pretty-boy, jester persona and be dropped by the society that now finds him amusing. He must marry up. Fortunately, he has been adopted as a project by Mrs. Belmont, the former Mrs. Vanderbilt, who rules supreme in Newport society. He is paired with a wealthy widow and is surprised to discover he can respect and even like her. But, he is gay–a fact that must, at all costs, be hidden.

And modern day: An aging professional tennis player, an almost-was, is making a living as a tennis pro at a Newport resort, but is dissatisfied with just about everything. He’s a nice guy, but that has been identified as his weakness. He’s taken up by a wealthy married woman, then has a fling with an artist who lives in the same mansion. He learns that their world revolves around a young woman who is the sister-in-law to his mistress and the employer/friend of the artist he thinks he would prefer to be with. The sister-in-law has cerebral palsy and depression and calls herself the crazy heiress. He’d rather avoid her at first, but slowly his world begins to revolve around her as well.

The author does a fine job turning the spotlight on love, lust, and money–and the interplay among all three. He also does a fine job of defining each character and making them distinct. Almost too fine. This is one of those multi-charactered books that jumps abruptly from story to story. At the beginning, it’s annoying. Just as I’m being drawn into someone’s world, I’m yanked out and have to start over again. Along about the third narrative, I was irritated enough to consider giving up. By the time I got back to the first storyline again, I was wondering if I cared enough to read such a disjointed book. But I found I did care enough. And the writing made me keep going. Eventually, I became more pleased to return to each character than I was annoyed to be jolted from a storyline.

This is one of those ultimately very satisfying novels that rewards a little bit of patience.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh

I’ve read a few of Mary Balogh’s Regency Romances and find them uniformly enjoyable. Most recently, I’ve been following the Westcott Novel series: Someone to Love and Someone to Hold.

The third book dealing with the extended Westcott family is Someone to Wed.

Alexander Westcott, the new Earl of Rivendale, has inherited a title and a sprawling, poorly maintained estate. Being a caring, responsible individual, he feels duty-bound to act as a true lord and benefactor to the tenants in his care. He is well-off, by dint of a previously modest inheritance and long hours of conscientious effort, but nowhere near wealthy enough to take on the new responsibilities. He feels he has no real choice but to marry for money. It shouldn’t be difficult since he’s titled and extremely handsome, but it isn’t what he’d hoped for out of life and the mercenariness of the endeavor appalls him.

Wren Hayden, his new neighbor, happens to be an heiress. Her adopted uncle, who made a fortune as the owner of a glassworks, had introduced her to the business and taught her to be an extremely capable businesswoman. She became extravagantly wealthy when both her aunt and uncle died. But she has found she can’t simply bury herself in the work. She wants a husband and family. She assumes no man would ever marry her for herself because of a prominent birthmark on her face. Luckily, she has money to buy a husband.

Wren settles on Alex after a short meeting. (She’d already met and dismissed two neighbors/candidates.) She believes he will treat her with respect.

Alex is intrigued but also put off, not by the birthmark but by her cold demeanor. He recognizes it as a defense mechanism, but isn’t sure why the birthmark has affected her so cruelly. (Of course, it isn’t just the birthmark. She had a horrific childhood.) He cannot outright refuse her frank marriage proposal. It would not only be cruel but, also, her money would be useful. Instead, he decides to get to know her as a person and see if they would suit.

Their courtship is difficult, which is not unusual for Romances, but the reasons for the difficulty are rather unique and not simply due to avoidable misunderstandings or poor behavior. It’s more complicated. Alex and Wren are very thoughtful protagonists who belong together. It’s easy to be pulled into the storyline. The frequent references to and appearances by relatives who populated the previous books help to pull the reader into a world that feels familiar.

At times, the dialogue has a bit of an infodump feel. Characters will embark on monologues that recap and explain to the point that it doesn’t come across as real conversation. But other interactions are more natural. Overall, the distraction of the improbably lengthy narrations by one or another of the characters can be overlooked.

The Westcott Novels are wonderful Romances and this newest is as charming as the first two.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Our history/historical fiction book group is reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. It’s a remarkably detailed biography/analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings (surprisingly few) and notebooks (a treasure trove.) I learned a great deal about the artist/engineer/architect–you name it–but the book was on the slow side. The author got a bit repetitive in making his points.

Da Vinci was undeniably a genius. His artwork revolutionized understanding of perspective and three-dimensionality. But painting was just one of his many talents. Everyone who reads this book will likely find a favorite facet of his skill–one they find most impressive. I was particularly intrigued by his anatomical studies and drawings. These were not simply done to inform his painting. It seems that he dissected human and animal bodies, documenting his findings in numerous drawings, because he was insatiably curious.

The author touches very lightly on Da Vinci’s personal life. The book does give a basic chronology but primarily as a framework for highlighting the interests and accomplishments of different time periods in the artist’s life. We meet some of the important historical figures of the day. Da Vinci was able to slip from patron to patron, avoiding political entanglements even when he acted as a military engineer or consultant.

One of the nicest things about the book is its physical quality. I bought the hardcover as a Christmas present for my husband and myself. The illustrations scattered throughout are beautifully crisp and large enough to see. They aren’t all grouped in one spot (which would made it difficult to flip back and forth to see what the author was talking about), but are present in the context of the narrative. And they are plentiful.

I haven’t read anything else by this author, but I do recommend this one for anyone curious about the reasons Leonardo da Vinci achieved such lasting fame. It isn’t only the Mona Lisa!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Courtship by Patrick Taylor

It’s been too long since I visited Ballybucklebo to spend time with Drs. Barry Laverty and Finnegan O’Reilly. The books are sweet, entertaining reads that show slices of daily life and medical practice in rural Ireland in the 1960s. (I’ve decided that the timing counts for historical fiction.)

An Irish Country Courtship by Patrick Taylor picks up where An Irish Country Christmas left off. Dr. Laverty is continuing as assistant to general practitioner Dr. O’Reilly. But he’s having doubts about staying on. Although he enjoys working with and being mentored by Dr. O’Reilly, and likes the small town and its people, he wants a domestic life with a wife and family. He is in love with Patricia Spence who has gone off to school to become an engineer. While he was originally supportive of her goals, it seems he only will support her so far. He’s willing to wait for her to get her education, but then he expects her to come live in Balleybucklebo and keep house for him. Patricia has given him multiple clues that she wants different things out of life. At the beginning of this novel, she breaks the news to him that she cannot envision a small town life. Moreover, she’s met someone else. It’s over.

Laverty is heartbroken, wondering what he might have done differently, and wondering if he is really cut out for small town doctoring. Will he get bored? Will he grow increasingly frustrated when all the difficult cases have to be referred out? Should he pursue his interest in and talent for OB/GYN?

Dr. O’Reilly, on the other hand, is moving full-steam ahead with his romance with nurse Kitty O’Hallorhan. The only problem is that his long-time housekeeper and cook, Kinky, is getting nervous about being replaced.

The gentle progress of Laverty’s healing and O’Reilly’s courtship make for a pleasant plot arc. The medical emergencies and non-emergencies that they deal with along the way keep the book interesting. And, of course, their "arch-enemy", Councilor Bishop, is still up to no good and needs thwarting.

While the novels follow a pattern, they have some surprises and I’m sure I’ll keep following the developments. I’d like to see less of Laverty’s friend, Jack, who is a skirt-chasing surgeon who is getting more and more annoying, but the other characters are lots of fun.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

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

I really enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, so I was happy to receive her latest, The Music Shop, from Netgalley to review.

This is another sweet story about a lonely man with some endearing quirks who overcomes a painful past to find love.

Frank owns a music shop on a dead-end street in a not very fashionable corner of London. He was brought up by an unconventional mother who was obsessed with music and men, but not so much with being a mother. She raises Frank to distrust relationships both by example and by instruction. From his mother, he has learned to appreciate any kind of music so long as it is played on vinyl. He believes CDs are a fad and refuses to stock them. What keeps customers coming back is the service. Frank has a sixth sense for what customers need. He listens to their stories, learns what they think they want which usually isn’t really what they want, then plucks out just the right record to heal their souls.

One day, a slight, pretty woman faints in front of his store. Frank and his employee bring her in and revive her. She (Ilse Brauchmann) has a German accent and mysterious ways. She and Frank gaze into each other’s eyes and something happens. But they are both wounded and frightened. She disappears then returns with a "thank you" plant, disappears again but "forgets" her purse. Before long, she and Frank are meeting on Tuesday evenings for music lessons. He enthusiastically teaches her about all sorts of music, giving her records and instructing her to listen.

There are complications. She has a fiancee, so Frank won’t confide how he feels. Frank is so stand-offish that she won’t confide anything.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is going downhill fast and record suppliers are pressuring Frank to sell CDs or else they will cut him off.

The story is sweet; however, it was an average read. The over-the-top quirkiness was a bit too much. The lack of communication between the characters was necessary and understandable, but it got to the point where I no longer cared if they got together. Frank, in particular, took so long to get over himself that I started to think Ilse was better off looking elsewhere–even if he was generally kind. Still, I think I would have enjoyed this more if it didn’t seem like I’d already read variations of the story. I’ve read a few books where bookshop owners had the unique gift of knowing just what book to put in the hands of characters drifting into their shops with various emotional needs, so it felt as though Joyce simply exchanged records for books. I am impressed, however, with the detailed knowledge of music and musicians Joyce was able to express through Frank.

For music lovers looking for a sweet love story, The Music Shop is a good bet. But for those who haven’t read Rachel Joyce yet, I’d recommend starting with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Monday, January 1, 2018

NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS

2017 wasn't a great year for reading and blogging. There was a lot going on. The only challenge I signed up for was the Goodreads challenge and I didn't even complete that.

So, I'm going to pick a couple of my old favorite challenges and sign up for them. And my New Years resolution (one of them anyway) is to read more and blog more.

HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all. Let's hope 2018 is a good year!