Wednesday, October 10, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer is as delightful as all her Regency Romances.

Abigail Wendover is a gentlewoman nearing spinsterhood living quietly with her significantly older sister in Bath. They are bringing up their spirited niece, Fanny, who is lovely, vivacious, and an heiress. Fanny is just seventeen and has not yet come out, but she has already attracted the attention of a fortune-hunter, Stacey Calverleigh.

Stacey is nearly thirty and quite broke. He was already disappointed in his hopes of financial rescue when an elopement with a different heiress was warded off. Now, he has set his sights on Fanny.

Abigail is horrified, especially since her older sister is unable to see through the odious man and finds him charming.

Stacey is not the only Calverleigh to appear in Bath. Stacey’s uncle, Miles, has returned from India, escorting the favored son of a local widow who was taken ill there. Miles had been banished to India twenty years earlier by his father and elder brother and was not expected to return. Miles is the black sheep of the family, a man whose lack of family feeling and numerous indiscretions have made him very suspect in the eyes of the ton. He is not particularly welcome in Bath. However, he and Abigail meet cute, a case of mistaken identity, and he is taken with her unconscious charm. She is taken with his sense of humor.

Abigail is determined to protect Fanny from Stacey. Miles listens, to a point, but insists the whole thing is tedious. He admits he dislikes his nephew, but says he has no influence to exert.

The courtship between Abigail and Miles is delightfully entertaining as their relationship develops based on enjoyment of time spent with one another rather than instantaneous profound passion. Miles supports her endeavors, even as he claims it is none of his business. Miles’ reputation may be in tatters for long ago sins, and, even now, he may not behave within the bounds of strictest respectability, but he nevertheless behaves well.

For lovers of "clean" old-fashioned Romance, Georgette Heyer never disappoints.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell

This has been a terrible summer for blogging. I have been reading, just not blogging. I’m currently trudging through a doorstop of a history book that I’ll review when I finally finish. I’ve broken that up with working my way through Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series. Two more to go!

In the meantime, I took a break to read a book in my Netgalley queue that was recently released.

(Thank you to Netgalley! I received the book for free. That did not influence my review.)

The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell is a multi-POV novel set in multiple time periods: early 1900s, WWII, and current day.

Because the early part of the book jumps around so much between characters and time periods, it’s hard to get engaged. In particular, the current day character, Cady, is introduced with both forward moving chapters and chapters that slip into her backstory. Perhaps it’s supposed to give the whirling up-and-down feeling of being on a carousel, but it was frustrating to read at first. The lack of cohesion got tedious. Eventually, the different stories intersected and the novel clicked. This is a novel that rewards patience as it draws to a close as a rich, emotional, multi-generational tale.

Cady Drake is a young female photographer who has difficulty connecting with people, largely due to her foster care upbringing. She was a troubled youth, who was fortunate to find stability living with an older woman, an antique store owner named Maxine. When Maxine dies, Cady is devastated. At the urging of her only friend, Cady embarks on a trip to Paris to photograph carousels for a coffee table book. This idea is inspired by the gift of an old carousel rabbit she had once received from Maxine. Inside the rabbit was a box with a photograph of a young woman from long ago, standing in front of a carousel. Cady becomes obsessed with learning who made the rabbit and the identity of the mysterious woman.

Maelle Tanguy is a young Breton woman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. She is a talented sculptor who yearns to make carousel animals. She bravely sets out on her own to apprentice with Monsieur Bayol, the acknowledged master carver. Although he refuses to take her on at first, she impresses him with her spunkiness. He hires her to help his wife with housework, but gradually allows her to take on menial tasks in his workshop, and finally help make the animals. Unfortunately for Maelle, there is a handsome charmer in the workshop, Leon, and she is very gullible.

Finally, there is Fabrice Clement from Provence. During WWII, he was a young resistance fighter in Paris. He survived, barely, to become a writer known for difficult post-modern novels in the war’s aftermath. He then retired to an inherited, falling-apart chateau back in Provence, where he became a cranky recluse.

Fabrice’s chateau was once known for a carousel built for its aristocratic owners by the master Bayol. And, this is the carousel in the photograph Cady found in her rabbit. Maelle is the woman in the photo.

There is a good deal of mystery surrounding all these elements. And the author does a lovely job of piecing it all together. Cady blossoms in France as she never could in her California home.

The novel also beautifully describes the carousel making process in fascinating detail.

I tend to enjoy these types of multi-period novels less than historical novels that follow a more chronological plot line. I don’t like having the flow of a narrative interrupted so frequently. I’m not thrown off by different POV characters so long as their stories are moving in the same direction at the same time, but when the stories are all unconnected for too long, even when I can see that they will eventually connect, I lose patience. That said, I’m glad I stuck with this one until it all came together to its satisfying conclusion.

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.

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.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

For our next meeting, our book club has chosen Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman.

The book is a dual biography of these two adventurous women. Nellie Bly is the better known historical figure. She initially made her name as a journalist by going undercover to write exposĂ©s. However, determined to make her mark on the world and to prove women could be as successful as men, she proposes to her editor that her next project be beating the fictional record for circumnavigating the globe recounted in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Although the idea was rejected at first, as the editor began to realize that someone was likely to undertake the task soon and it would be a greater publicity stunt to send a woman than a man, he gave her the green light.

Elizabeth Bisland was also a writer, but she wrote more literary articles for a monthly magazine. Her editor decided that it would be an even greater publicity stunt to send another woman around the world in the opposite direction to see who would come in first. Elizabeth was reluctant, but seemed to have been given little choice. She was aware it was a race, but Nellie was not.

The book goes into lengthy detail, sometimes absorbing and sometimes rather plodding, describing their itinerary, traveling quirks, hazards, people they meet, impressions of distant locales and peoples, and their thoughts on the undertaking. There are also numerous digressions that give a great deal of detail about things touching upon the various modes of transportation, sights they saw, and the lives of people they came into contact with. An eighty-day race is a fairly slow-paced one, but the book would have been more interesting if some of the extraneous detail was pared away to give it more sense of urgency.

The personalities of the two women were quite opposite and they were differently affected by the venture. In some ways, the short summaries of their lives afterward was more compelling than the story of the race.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Care by Mary Balogh

I’m a sucker for Mary Balogh’s Regency Romances, most recently the Westcott Novel series (starting with Someone to Love.) The latest addition to the series is Someone to Care.

Miss Viola Kingsley was, until two years prior, a countess – the wife of the Earl of Riverdale. At least, she thought she was. Upon the earl’s death, Viola discovered the marriage had been bigamous. Her children are illegitimate and were disinherited. The family circled the wagons and supported one another, so the scandal has more or less faded for the others affected by the earl’s deception. But not for Viola. After a christening party held for a grandchild, Viola snaps. Needing time for herself, she flees.

She isn’t particularly clear on where she wants to go, but the decision is taken out of her hands when her hired carriage breaks down in a small country village and she is forced to wait overnight for it to be fixed. There she comes across an old acquaintance, Marcel Lamarr, who is now the Marquess of Dorchester.

Marcel is a widower, but his wife died in an accident many years earlier. His response was to immerse himself in a life of pleasure-seeking debauchery.

Fourteen years earlier, Marcel had tried to begin a flirtation with Viola, but she, then a virtuous young wife, sent him on his way. When she enters the country inn where he has also been temporarily detained by a transportation mishap, memories of his past attraction come flooding back. He approaches Viola to renew the flirtation.

This time, Viola succumbs. Why not? They spend a lovely day together, followed by a night of passion. In the morning, they decide to run off together for a fling, both recognizing that this is to be temporary.

Naturally, they fall in love. Following some of the usual conventions of Regency Romance, they miscommunicate and pride keeps them from being honest with one another. Before they can part, they are found out in their love nest and, doing the honorable thing, Marcel announces that they are betrothed. For the rest of the novel, they try to wriggle out of the betrothal even though marriage is clearly where they need to be heading.

Sometimes, plots that follow this track get annoying because the hero and heroine just behave stupidly. But Mary Balogh has a talent for writing sympathetic characters that tug at the heartstrings so you can forgive them for making a muddle of things. In addition, she usually twists convention enough that the typical romance plots feel fresh. In Someone to Care, Viola is forty-two years old! Marcel is just shy of forty. A regency romance featuring "middle-aged" lovers with the woman older than the man? Someone to Care is a heartwarming romance and I continue to follow this series avidly.

Friday, June 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Charity Ends at Home by Colin Watson

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

I decided to keep going with the Flaxborough Chronicles. The next book in this charming detective series by Colin Watson is Charity Ends at Home.

Detective Purbright is wearily keeping tabs on increasingly competitive Flaxborough charity drives when an anonymous letter is brought to his attention, a letter that has been sent to three local VIPs: the coroner, the constable, and the newspaper editor. The distressed writer is convinced he/she is in danger. Loved ones are plotting murder. Although the writer does not sign the letter, an enclosed photograph is referred to – but no photo is enclosed.

Purbright is duty-bound to take the threat seriously, but has no idea where to start until a local woman is found dead, drowned in a well. She was active in the local fund-raising community, favoring charities that support dogs. She was not happily married. Naturally, her husband becomes the prime suspect. But how does the letter tie in?

At the same time, a newcomer to town is trying out his own amateur detecting skills. His job is to catch a cheating husband. However, the detective, Mortimer Hive, is not very bright, a drinker, and easily distracted. He bungles his job, but no matter. The person who hired him has decided he doesn’t need Hive’s input after all. The assignment is over.

Hive doesn’t leave town. He’s a good friend of Miss Lucy Teatime (a con-woman introduced in the previous book). Lucy has set up camp in Flaxborough. She is no longer scamming gentlemen looking for lady friends. She’s involved in a new plot, skimming money from charities.

Purbright seems to be impressed by Miss Teatime. It’s difficult to believe he doesn’t realize she is up to no good. Still, she’s courteous and helpful as well as very clever. With her help and with some prodding of Mortimer Hive, Purbright sets about chasing down the murderer.

This book is a bit more jumbled than the others and the humor seems more forced. Mortimer’s ramblings take up a good deal of the book and he wasn’t as interesting a character as the others. Nevertheless, he serves his purpose. The threads are all pulled together to bring about a satisfying conclusion. I’ll take a little break, then return eagerly to this series.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lonelyheart 4122 by Colin Watson

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

Thanks to Netgalley, I’ve discovered British mystery author Colin Watson. (See book one in the Flaxborough Chronicles: Coffin Scarcely Used.) The books largely follow the work of Inspector Purbright, a small-town investigator whose polite, persistent detective skills have solved several murders already.

Book four in the series is Lonelyheart 4122. When two middle-aged women, one unmarried and one widowed, go missing within a short span of time, relatives become concerned and bring the matter to the police. After some gentle questioning, Purbright is convinced there has been foul play and he begins looking into the matter. One thing they both had in common was that they were customers of a match-making agency, the Handclasp House Marriage Bureau. Each had a bit of money that also may have gone missing. Could they have been conned? Were they murdered?

Coincidentally, a con-woman, Miss Lucy Teatime, arrives in Flaxborough, presumably because things have become a bit hot for her back in London. Seeing an advertisement for the Handclasp House, she signs up. Soon, she is matched with a charming old seaman. It’s quite evident that each is trying to con the other. Their mercenary courtship is a delight to follow.

However, Purbright is following also, concerned for Miss Teatime and unaware that she is more than a match for an unscrupulous suitor. But is she a match for a murderer?

With his usual care, Purbright pieces together the clues and hurries to head off disaster.

Lonelyheart 4122 is an entertaining cozy mystery with a splash of dry British humor. This series is a lot of fun!

Friday, June 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

My historical fiction/history book group’s last choice (mine) was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I love his writing and had bought this book a while ago but it’s been sitting on my shelf. Choosing it for the book group ensured I would get to it.

I loved it, though it wasn’t a favorite of the group. Almost aggressively literary in style, it has a disjointed, fragmentary rhythm. It’s a deeply psychological book, so that there is not a lot of action. Rather, the angst-filled protagonist spends a lot of time ruminating. Still, it is so intense and so beautifully written that I was hooked from the beginning. (Not the very beginning. The prologue had me concerned it would be a difficult read.)

The Noise of Time is a fictional "biography" of Dmitri Shostakovich, a brilliant Soviet-era composer whose strained relationship to "Power" defines the book as it no doubt defined his life. Was he a communist? A collaborator? Or simply a man determined to make music despite the misfortune of circumstance?

Shostakovich is not an attractive hero, but he is a realistic one. One by one, he sacrifices his ideals in order to survive and to protect his family and his artistic integrity. (His family survives, but he wonders about his artistic integrity.)

The book is a marvelous study of Soviet oppression and psychological terror. The violence is not overt, but it is unsettling all the same. Read this one to compare and contrast with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. While I enjoyed the Towles’ story much more, maybe it’s better to be unsettled by the story of a real survivor of the Russian revolution than charmed by a fictional survivor’s story.

Monday, May 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman

How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is an informative and entertaining work by a British historian of social and domestic life. It is full of the little details that bring fuzzy impressions of how people actually lived back then into focus.

The book is well-organized to address Victorian life, using as its base the structure of the Victorian day. At each level of society, men, women, and children rose from bed, ate, dressed, worked, studied, and/or played, took care of their physical needs and their bodies, and finally, shut the door to their bedrooms. Goodman flavors the facts she’s gathered with insight from having tried living in Victorian shoes. Sometimes literally.

It is written in a conversational style and is easy to read. However, even though the organization allows it to move at a steady pace, there is no story, no narrative flow. Unfortunately, that means the book is pretty easy to put down and pick up again. So it took far too much time for me to get through it. (Which is only really a problem as far as keeping up my blogging pace.)

For anyone interested in Victorian daily life, this book is a fount of information. I got it from my library but am considering buying it for my shelf.

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.