Saturday, November 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

I was past due for the next Lindsey Davis Flavia Alba mystery, #7, A Capitol Death.  

Shortly before the feared and despised Emperor Domitian returns to Rome to claim a double triumph for a lackluster military campaign, an important official in his transportation department is found dead at the foot of the Tarpeian Rock. A witness saw him moments earlier at the top of the rock. He wasn’t alone.

Flavia Alba, daughter of the retired, renowned detective/informer Falco, has been tasked by her husband, Tiberius, a local magistrate, to solve the murder. (He’s a bit busy helping to arrange the triumph. Plus, he’s still recovering from being struck by lightning on their wedding day.)

With her typical dogged persistence, intelligence, and trademark snark, Flavia Alba interrogates coworkers and acquaintances of the dead man – a man so nasty the list of suspects keeps growing –  in order to solve not just one, but two murders. 

After a slow start, the danger builds as clues start falling into place and she closes in on the murderer.

Tiberius plays less of a role in this investigation. I hope to see more interaction between the two in future books because that spark enlivens the novels. Book 8 is due out next summer!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is an extraordinary writer, best known for her novels of the New York “aristocracy” during the Gilded Age. However, she also wrote short stories, plays, nonfiction, and novels covering diverse subjects.

My most recent read is one of her lesser known books, a World War I novel, A Son at the Front.

The protagonist is John Campton, an expat American artist in Paris. A fairly self-centered, shallow man, he has, after a rocky start, become a sought-after portrait painter. Part of his rocky start included a failed marriage that produced a son, George. (Campton’s portrait of George as a boy was pivotal to his success.)

His wife remarried a very successful, wealthy businessman while Campton was still a struggling artist. George was largely raised and entirely supported by his mother and stepfather, a fact that Campton resents. However, now that George has grown to manhood, he and his father have become close. (Although maybe not as close as Campton believes.)  George is about to arrive in Paris and the two will embark on a vacation together.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, this is the eve of the beginning of the war. And, unfortunately, although Campton and his ex-wife are Americans, George was born in France. Almost immediately after George arrives, the borders are essentially closed and George, a French citizen, is called for military duty.

Thanks to the machinations and connections of three doting parents, George is assigned to a safe desk job away from the front. But the parents live in constant terror he will be reassigned. As the war gets underway and then drags on, and the casualties mount, Campton’s reactions to his son’s safety are conflicted. How can George be so content to remain behind the lines?

The novel is a beautifully written psychological study not only of the protagonist but of numerous people in his sphere. War effects everyone, the privileged and the poor. Some throw themselves into relief efforts. Some try to ignore the war and get on with life. And everyone loses loved ones.

The action is muted for a “war novel.” Yet the tension is palpable. Campton is a sympathetic if not particularly likeable character. Of course, it’s a tragic novel. How could it be otherwise? But Wharton writes masterful tragedy.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Remember by Mary Balogh

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

I love Mary Balogh’s historical romances and have been following her latest series, “A Westcott Story” (or the “Someone to. . .”) since the beginning. The new release, Someone to Remember, is billed as a novella.  At 272 pages, it’s shorter and simpler than the longer novels in the series. It’s probably best to read some of the others in order to understand the large Westcott family and their sphere of influence before reading this one.

This is Mathilda’s story. Previously known as the spinster aunt, a fussy stickler for propriety, Mathilda was usually present but generally invisible until the previous book, Someone to Honor. Then she comes briefly to the fore—boldly, if secretly, approaching a man from her past to help solve a crisis in the family.

That action draws the man, Viscount Dirkson, into the Westcott world where he and Mathilda rediscover one another.

Interestingly, Mathilda is in her mid-to-late fifties, making her an unusual heroine for a Regency Romance. Her only prior experience with love was when she was a debutante. She was courted by Dirkson, who was then merely Charles Sawyer. Charles was very young (as was she) and known to be wild. When he asked her father for her hand, her father refused. Obedient daughter that she was, Mathilda sent Charles away. He became even wilder, seemingly proving that her parents were correct to deny his suit. But Mathilda never loved another.

A good deal of this short novel is taken up explaining the backstory and reminding the reader of who’s who in the expanding Westcott saga. But, since the Westcotts are old friends by now, I was pleased to get the reminders and a hint of what they are currently up to. The progress of the now-resumed romance proceeds smoothly and chastely. There are no surprises, except, perhaps for the reaction of Mathilda’s grumpy mother. The book lacks the steamy love scenes of Balogh’s other books, though it does imply that Mathilda and Charles are not too old to feel passionate. It’s a good, solid romance that gives Mathilda a voice. It also introduces new single young people who may well end up getting books of their own.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Susie Slagle's by Augusta Tucker

Miss Susie Slagle’s by Augusta Tucker, originally published in 1939, is an interesting look at the life of medical students at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1912, the glory days of the founding of modern medical education in the United States.

Miss Slagle runs a boarding house for medical students and has supported numerous young doctors-to-be through the process with her good nature and unconditional caring. The book opens with introductions to her current boarders, all with different backgrounds and very different personalities, motivations, weaknesses, and ambitions. It takes us through four years, highlighting their training and interpersonal relationships.

Descriptions of Baltimore and of the hospital at that time are lush and detailed. The rigorous training is aptly portrayed.  It’s a lovely period piece. However, it’s dated in style. The male-female relationships all progress from love at first sight and none seem realistic. Women are presented in a condescending way, even when the author intends admiration. Racist views permeate the book in a way that is rather nauseating to a modern reader. Although widely read in its day and even made into a movie, the book is now more valuable as a window into the past than as entertaining fiction.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

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

I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout almost eight years ago so the details are fuzzy, but I remember being moved by the characterizations. A follow-up novel, Olive, Again, has recently been released and it’s a worthy successor.

This novel is also a collection of vignettes, stories about the inhabitants of Olive’s small Maine town, whose lives swirl around and occasionally intersect with that of the curmudgeonly retired school teacher. For the most part, the characters in this story are older than in the original. Delving deeply into their psyches using glimpses of daily life, Olive, Again is a masterful portrayal of loneliness, aging, resignation, and a smidgen of hope. Olive is as uncompromising as ever, but her perspective shifts as her world shrinks and there is some healing in her relationships.

Although it’s a fairly quick read, it’s a melancholy book. Strout has a gift for storytelling that can make a reader think and feel. Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again should not be missed.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker

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

If you liked Inland by Tea Obreht (which I did!) then you may also enjoy One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker.

Set in 1876, on the harshly beautiful Wyoming frontier, this love story is loosely based on that of the author’s ancestors.

The story shifts between the viewpoints of Beulah, a mystically wise thirteen-year-old daughter of the prairie, Clyde, the strong, responsible neighbor who is learning what kind of man he will grow to be, and their mothers, Cora and Nettie Mae.

The women are polar opposites. Cora is a soft city woman who cannot adapt to life on the isolated farm. Nettie Mae is a battle-hardened prairie wife, who wields her bitterness as a sword and shield.

Although Cora has four healthy children and a devoted husband, she is desperately lonely. For no other reason, she commits adultery with her neighbor, Substance Weber, Nettie Mae’s husband. Her own husband discovers them in the act. In the heat of passion, he shoots to kill. Instantly regretful, he turns himself in to the sheriff.

Nettie Mae has lost four children and, now, her husband. The man was a brute. Nettie Mae would consider herself well rid of him, except she needs his strength to survive the coming winter. Her sole remaining child, Clyde, is a sturdy young man and a hard worker, but it’s all too much for him to take on alone. Even so, they’re better off than their neighbors. When Cora’s husband is sentenced to two years in prison, she’s left alone with four children. Clyde takes it upon himself to help them–against his embittered mother’s express orders.

Beulah is the true heart of the story. Calm, resilient, accepting, with the ability to see glimpses of the future, to commune with nature, and to speak to the dead, she helps the two older women realize that the only way they will survive is to combine their resources. Cora’s guilt and Nettie Mae’s hatred make this a bitter pill, but Cora moves her family to Nettie Mae’s farm and they try to make it work. Beulah and Clyde, drawn together by circumstance, develop an unbreakable bond, which unnerves Nettie Mae all the more, nearly leading her to undo everything Beulah has striven for.

The novel shows prairie life in all its hardness, danger, and beauty. The stark realism of the day-to-day life is undercut somewhat by Beulah’s mystical powers, which made the novel float between magical realism and historical fiction. Yet it’s a beautifully written story that tugs at the heartstrings.

Friday, October 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning has been on my TBR list since 2013. Finally, I decided to move it to the top of my pile.

This novel, written as a memoir of a mid-19th century midwife (who had the audacity to also provide contraceptives and abortions), has a strong voice and poignant message that is all-too relevant today.

Axie Muldoon, otherwise known as Ann Jones, otherwise known as Madame DeBeausacq, is born into poverty in the tenement houses of New York City. After her father’s death, while her mother is hospitalized for a work-related injury, Axie and her two younger siblings are sent west on an orphan train. Her siblings are snatched up, but the rebellious Axie returns home to find her mother. Unfortunately, after a brief reunion, her mother dies of a postpartum hemorrhage, extracting a deathbed promise from Axie to find her siblings.

In the midst of these tragedies, Axie experienced two bits of good fortune. First, on the orphan train she met a young man named Charlie who will find his way back into her life later. And second, Axie took her dying mother to the home of the Evans’, a doctor and midwife, who gave Axie a place as a servant and later trained her to be a midwife.

After the death of Mrs. Evans, necessity and compassion lead Axie/Ann to begin selling pills and powders to desperate women. Eventually, she branches out into delivering babies, carrying for women pre- and postpartum, dispensing information about health and sex, and providing abortions. In doing so, she falls afoul of obscenity laws, championed by Anthony Comstock, which made the distribution of any form of fertility control illegal.

The novel is graphic in its language and descriptions, true to the subject matter. The horrific lives of women, poor or rich, unmarried or married, desperate to conceive or to end unwanted pregnancies, is heart-wrenching. Ann is presented as a caring woman, skilled at her profession, conflicted about the “complexities” of what she is doing, insecure, and remarkably brave. She is also, admittedly, greedy. She loves her newfound wealth. She (and her husband) have known grinding poverty and are determined not to fall into that trap again. Her conspicuous consumption aggravates her problems as the “old money” folks determine to bring her down–even though many are not above using her services when needed.

When Comstock discovers a way to arrest Axie, things spiral out of control. 

Axie is a vibrant, compelling, sympathetic character, and she narrates the novel at a brisk pace. This is historical fiction at its finest.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Browsing in our newly renovated public library and in the mood for something quick and light-hearted, I came upon Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer. I hadn’t read this Regency Romance of hers yet, so I picked it up.

Lady Serena Carlow, a beautiful headstrong heiress of twenty-five, is mourning the recent loss of her father. Serena’s mother died a dozen years earlier. Her step-mother, Fanny, is a shy, retiring girl of twenty-ish, who failed to produce the required son. Serena and Fanny get along shockingly well considering they are absolute opposites. They retire together to the dower house when Serena’s cousin inherits the earldom. But they are both bored and take off for the quieter and less restrictive Bath.

Serena cannot receive her full inheritance until she weds and it must be with the approval of her guardian. The man her father chose for this task is the Marquis of Rotherham. Serena and Rotherham were engaged years before until Serena jilted him. Both believe her father arranged this in hopes of seeing them reunited – a ploy that infuriates them both.

In Bath, Serena comes across a man that she once adored, a man who worships her still, and they quickly reconnect. He is a good person but completely wrong for her. Obviously, the only true match for her is Rotherham. However, he becomes engaged to a weak-willed silly girl just out of the schoolroom, whose horrible mother is desperate to catch her daughter a marquis.

The mismatches abound. Heyer’s signature quick plotting and witty repartee move the story along as the couples sort themselves out. The pace lags a bit in the middle as the characters go through contortions in order to do the honorable thing even though they all know they have committed themselves to paths that will make them miserable. Sanity and love prevail in a whirlwind of Romance activity, complete with an elopement, a chase to Gretna Green, and a showdown.

While this isn’t one of my favorite Heyer Romances, it is nevertheless a delightful read.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Inland by Tea Obreht

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

Tea Obreht is a brilliant writer, as proved by her bestselling The Tiger’s Wife (which I have to admit I liked but did not love.)

Her newest book, Inland, is more up my alley and I did love it. Set in Arizona Territory in 1893, the book follows the fates of two very different people: Lurie, an orphaned ex-outlaw turned camel driver, and Nora, a frontier farmer trying to hold the family together while her husband searches for water during a drought. It’s clear the two disparate stories will eventually intersect, and part of the beauty of the story is piecing together all the individual parts until it becomes a narrative whole.

Lurie is a lonely figure, wandering the west, trying to outrun his past. He settles into whatever occupation he can find, finally finding peace with a group of cameleers who take him in. When his past catches up with him, he sets off again, this time taking along his camel, who has become his most faithful companion. Lurie’s other constant companions are ghosts. (And there are many of them haunting the barren West.) He can feel their wants and if he gets too close to them, he absorbs the yearning – not a healthy gift to have.

Nora is raising three boys on a hardscrabble farm; two are grown and one is still quite young. She’s devoted to them, yet detached. She’s walled herself off, having lost her firstborn, a daughter, many years before. The stated cause of death was sun-poisoning (sun-drowning) but, of course, the story behind that is complicated. Nora talks to her daughter’s ghost, who has not remained a baby but rather grown up as though a normal child, but one with a vaster perspective than that of a living child.

All the disasters that can beset a struggling frontier farming community have hit this one. The precipitating event is a severe drought that leaves Nora and her family desperate for water. Her husband, Emmett, who runs the local newspaper, has set off to find the delayed water delivery man. Her two eldest sons disappear, ostensibly gone looking for him. Alone with her youngest boy, her mother-in-law (incapacitated by a stroke), and her husband’s cousin, a somewhat batty young woman who undermines Nora’s practicality with an insistence that she can communicate with the dead. (Lots of that going on.)

It’s a gorgeous story, solemn without being depressing. Nora’s resilience in the face of almost unrelenting hardship manages to provide hope to a narrative that would otherwise be painfully bleak. The mix of dreamy otherworldliness with the stark realities of frontier life make for a complex, absorbing novel.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a modern-day epistolary novel, constructed by narrator Bee Branch, a wise, sweet 15-year-old girl, who pieces together the story of her mother’s disappearance using emails, faxes, doctor’s notes, receipts, and even a transcript of a TED talk.

Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is/was a brilliant architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, known in architectural circles for two quirky “locally sourced” houses, but best known for disappearing. Following the demolition of her second house, she abandoned her career, escaped to suburban Seattle with her Microsoft-bound husband, and focused on raising her daughter. Averse to people in general and Seattle-ites in particular, she essentially drops out of sight.

Her reclusiveness incites the ire of the other parents at Bee’s exclusive (but second-tier) private school. Bernadette would rather avoid conflict but stirs it up effortlessly–leading to the amusing if farcical train of events that make up the narrative.

The story takes off when Bee earns straight A’s and reminds her parents that her promised reward is a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette hates the thought of traveling, especially by boat, but cannot disappoint Bee. She tries to pull herself together for the trip, relying on an outsourced email personal assistant. Things spiral out of control. Drastically. Then Bernadette disappears again.

Bee is unwilling to accept that her mother would abandon her. And she adamantly refuses to believe her mother is dead. So she reconstructs the last few weeks of her mother’s life, then delves into her mother’s past.

The result is a wacky picture of a creative genius, stifled by circumstance, whose love for her family helps her find a way forward.

The book is fast-paced and entertaining.  It suffers bit by comparison with Daisy Jones and the Six, which I had just finished reading, which also had a pieced together narrative but was more realistic and grittier. Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a fun book and I imagine it makes for a delightful movie, but it isn’t something that will stick with me.

Monday, September 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

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

Painful and powerful, The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is engrossing historical fiction. Set in Calumet, Michigan, during the copper mine strikes of 1913, the novel follows the labor leader Big Annie Clements, a twenty-five-year-old woman whose father died in the copper mines and who married a miner because she knew nothing else. Annie has grown tired of watching the men in her community sicken and die in the mines while their wives struggle to raise families on too little pay and less security. When men are injured or killed on the job, their families are out on the street unless they find a family member or friend to take them in.

The mines are incredibly dangerous, especially given the long hours the men work and the introduction of the single-operator drill dubbed “the widow-maker.”

The union is beginning to make inroads, but acting too slowly for Annie. After one particularly gruesome death, Annie leads the women in an effort to convince the men to strike. The outside union organizers feel she jumped the gun. There’s not enough money in the strike fund and the percentage of union members among the miners is not high enough to guarantee support. Yet Annie forges ahead, gaining support, gaining newspaper coverage, and impressing the nation with her fierce determination.

The other side of the coin is James MacNaughton, the local manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Presented as so coldly despicable he seems inhuman, he is representative of a type that is all too real. Greedy, self-important, convinced of his own superiority and entitlement, he is utterly devoid of compassion for the men and women suffering in the mining community. MacNaughton knows his company has the resources to wait out the strike. When it lasts long enough to truly inconvenience him, he brings in strike-breakers who unleash violence with tragic consequences.

The book is inspiring and yet, devastating. It’s impossible not to be caught up in Annie’s struggle and to root for her success. At the same time, I kept thinking “this is not going to end well.”

This type of realistic historical fiction is hard to read because it highlights how terribly people treat one another and reinforces how consistently the bad guys still win. However, it also shines a light on the heroes and heroines who fight for justice. It isn’t hard to see which side of the fight is the right one.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I absolutely loved Taylor Jenkins Reid’s earlier book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so I was excited to read her new release, Daisy Jones & the Six.

This novel uses an unconventional narrative style – an anonymous interviewer sets out to learn the reason behind the breakup of a phenomenally successful 1970s rock band at the height of their popularity. (The novel is loosely based on Fleetwood Mac.)

The story is told more or less chronologically but in snippets excerpted from interviews with band members, spouses, producers, friends, etc.  Because the events happened long ago, memories are sometimes foggy, and different perspectives shade things differently. The truth lies somewhere in between so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, giving a more complete picture of what actually happened. The various personalities come across better as a result of the way they present their stories than they would if a single narrator described them all.

As in the previous book, the author does an incredible job of creating complex, fully-rounded characters and an absorbing storyline. Readers can feel the elation, the pain, and the love that these characters are feeling as the band makes it big and then cracks apart.

The format lends itself to fast reading, so it is doubly impressive that so much emotion can be conveyed in so short a time. And rather than feeling disjointed, it coalesces as a whole.

Even if the thought of a novel based on a seventies rock band doesn’t grab you (I wouldn’t have picked up the book if I wasn’t already enamored of the author), give this one a try.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald

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

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is meaty, in-depth historical fiction, recounting the life of a lesser known historical figure from the Middle Ages (my favorite time period). This rather somber tale is the type of historical fiction I love. The action is subdued, but the psychological picture of the man it portrays is vivid and compelling.

Canon Michael Scot was one of the most learned men in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Scot was born in the wilds of Scotland (so he was always an outsider in the south) but he was educated in Paris, the foremost Christian intellectual center of the day. The depth and breadth of his learning was so impressive that he was chosen to be one of the young King Frederick’s tutors. Their relationship flourished over the years, fortunately for Scot, as the King/Emperor’s patronage not only allowed him to pursue studies in far-flung locations but also lent him protection when the subjects he chose to study offended the Church.

Scot was fascinated by philosophy, in particular Aristotle (unfortunately pagan) and the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes (unfortunately Muslim). He lived for a time in parts of Spain under Islamic rule so that he could translate the Islamic studies into Latin. He studied not only philosophy, but mathematics, natural history, medicine and astrology. Although I usually find depictions of the occult distracting, the otherworldliness of Scot’s astrological predictions and their frightening accuracy fit in so well with the storyline that it was all believable.

Because of Scot’s knowledge of medicine and his skill in healing, the emperor chose him for his chief physician. Scot’s own medical and mental torments made him an even more sympathetic and interesting character.

Although he was a monk himself, his unorthodox interests and his close work with Muslims and Jews earned him the enmity of his fellow churchmen. His friendship with Frederick also made him a target for ambitious courtiers. His life was one long struggle to learn and to disseminate what he had learned, despite the opposition. The details of his studies seemed well-researched and were presented in enough detail to convince without becoming burdensome to read.

A Matter of Interpretation takes us into Canon Scot’s world with all its intrigues, prejudices, and opportunities. The author does a superb job of bringing Michael Scot to life and pulling the reader into the story. I’ll be looking for more by this author!

Friday, August 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

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


Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore is a delightful historical Romance that manages to spotlight the “historical” as well as the “romance.” It is set in 1879, during Queen Victoria’s reign, rather than the typical Regency period, but many of the same society customs and restrictions apply.

Annabelle Archer is the twenty-five-year old, impoverished daughter of a deceased vicar, forced to live with a cousin as a drudge because she has no other options. She is a commoner. She is too beautiful for her own safety/reputation. And she is extremely intelligent, not just intelligent in a witty, able-to-fend-for-herself way, but academically intelligent, intelligent enough to be frustrated by the lack of opportunity available to studious women and the inevitable “blue-stocking” label. If all this isn’t bad enough, she has a scandalous past.

When an opportunity arises for her to leave her cousin’s household to attend Oxford College with a stipend, she finds a way to do it. There is a condition on the stipend, however. It is provided by an organization of suffragists, and she is expected to take part in the women’s lobbying efforts. She immediately inadvertently lobbies the wrong man: the duke of Montgomery.

Sebastian, the duke of Montgomery, is known to be a cold-hearted efficient Tory who gets things done. A favorite of the queen, he has been tasked with ensuring the election of Prime Minister Disraeli in the next election. In truth, Sebastian has Liberal leanings, but he serves the queen with unquestioning determination because she is the only person with the authority to grant what he wants most: the return of his ancestral seat. The previous duke, Sebastian’s father, lost it in a card game. An ineffective duke, he frittered away much of the Montgomery holdings by neglect, drink, and gambling. Sebastian has spent his life trying to rebuild the legacy his father lost.

Annabelle’s assignment from the suffragist leader is to follow up on the initial encounter with the duke. Annabelle, desperate to avoid further scandal, is reluctant but complies. Typical developments for the genre--mistaken identity/motivations, miscommunication, prideful rebellion, and simmering passion--propel the story along as the two learn to understand one another and then fall in love.

Annabelle’s strength as a heroine is not simply her striking beauty and strong personality. Annabelle is a fascinating character because of her intelligence. She challenges the men around her with a brain and an education that more than equals theirs, despite all the advantages of their situations. Sebastian’s character impresses because even though he is a snob, his privilege has not blinded him to the plight of those lower in the pecking order. Even more importantly, he is not threatened by or made uncomfortable by Annabelle’s intelligence. He is able to recognize her as an intellectual equal and that doesn’t bother him. (What bothers him is her social inferiority.)

The two lovers have a number of hurdles to overcome. Each has to learn what is truly important to them and what goals can be sacrificed. It makes for a page-turner of a Romance.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: How to Cross a Marquess by Jane Ashford

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

I’ve been following Jane Ashford’s Regency Romance series: The Way to a Lord’s Heart. In these novels, an older gentleman, the Earl of Macklin, uses his experience with grief to aid younger lords who have lost someone dear to them.

In How to Cross a Marquess, Macklin’s current project is Roger Berwick, Marquess of Chatton, whose wife died from a fever a year earlier. (The story behind the fever is complicated and drives the plot.)

Roger returns to his ancestral home in Northumberland where he meets up with his old neighbor, Fenella Fairclough. They had been children together. He was a few years older, a mischievous boy much admired by the others in their gang. Fenella was a smitten, shy, insecure girl. Their lands abutted and their fathers argued over boundaries until they hit upon the idea of marrying their children to each other. Roger had rebelled at the thought; he rebelled against any project of his father’s. Fenella, humiliated, also refused – by running away to her grandmother in Scotland. There she grew into a mature, self-confident, and beautiful young woman.

Roger went to London where he met and married a young beauty (Arabella) whom he accidentally compromised, at least according to the girl’s mother. The mother arranged the whole embarrassing charade in order to see her beloved daughter make a grand match.  The marriage was a disaster. When Arabella died after an ill-advised outing in the rain (one that Fenella had tried to talk her out of but could not), Roger was more relieved than saddened, which led to a tremendous burden of guilt. In response to the guilt, he tended to blame everyone involved, including Fenella.

When Roger returns, he and Fenella are frequently thrown together by circumstance. Macklin arrives to see how Roger is faring and watches with benign amusement as the two find their way to one another. Macklin takes a more passive role in this romance than he has in previous stories, because the two don’t need much help. They just need time and proximity.

The plot is well-constructed and the characters pleasant. Fenella is a particularly level-headed heroine. It isn’t my favorite story of the series but Ashford’s Romances continues to entertain.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore

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

The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore is a beautifully written, atmospheric, gothic historical novel set in mid-eighteenth century New England. Unreliably narrated by the protagonist, Lucy Blunt, from the New Hampshire State Prison where she is being held for a double murder, the story moves back and forth through time to explain how she ended up with a death sentence hanging over her. She insists that she is innocent, but is she?

Lucy Blunt is not a likable character but she is sympathetic. Her life has been one of almost unrelenting misery. The book is pretty dismal because of this. At times I had to put it down to take a break from all the despair. The one bright spot in her life is her love for her employer, Eugenie Burton. The lady of the house also loves her, maybe. At least, they begin a torrid affair. Lucy is promoted from kitchen maid to Eugenie’s companion. (Eugenie is blind, and pretty much confined to the house by her possessive, overly protective husband.) This causes a good deal of friction with Eugenie’s current companion, Rebecca.

Things go from bad to worse for Lucy. Her backstory is a nightmare that keeps creeping up on her. She makes some bad decisions, but her options are so limited she doesn’t really have any good decisions available.

There is a mystery wrapped up in the story as well. If Lucy didn’t commit the murders, who did? Despite the downward spiral of misery, I had to keep reading to confirm the true culprit and learn how Lucy’s story would end.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox

Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox is another nonfiction work concerning a late nineteenth century scandal that played out in the press. (See also my review of Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller.)

In the 1870s, the renowned preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was accused by his longtime friend, protégé, and one-time parishioner, Theodore Tilton, of committing adultery. Tilton claimed Beecher had seduced his wife, Elizabeth, and he sued for damages.

Because Beecher and Tilton were such prominent moral leaders of the time (they had both been fervent abolitionists), the nation was enthralled and appalled by the charge, which was, of course, denied by Beecher and by Elizabeth. A six-month-long trial followed, which was reported in minute detail in the press, along with letters and explanations by the principals. It was such a hopeless, confusing mess of accusation and counter-accusation that the jury could not reach a verdict. Even when Elizabeth Tilton changed her story three years after the trial, now admitting the adultery, the truth remained murky. Her story had changed so many times during the trial and before it that no one placed much weight on what she said after it.

The author takes the unusual tack of presenting the story backwards, from end to beginning, to help deconstruct the arguments made by scholars, contemporaries, and the primary actors themselves. Although this leads to some repetitiveness, it is a very effective way to show just how difficult it is to get at "truth," when those involved may not have a firm grip themselves on what the truth was.

Beecher and Theodore Tilton had been extraordinarily close early on in their relationship, both personally and professionally. Beecher presided at the wedding between Theodore and Elizabeth, both members of his congregation. The Tiltons had grown up together and were teenagers when they fell in love. Beecher was old enough to be their father. But as the Tiltons grew and matured, the relationships among the three changed. This was partly a result of the men’s changing world-views and religious beliefs after the Civil War. But the interwoven rivalries and jealousies played a significant role as well. As Theodore and Beecher grew apart, Beecher and Elizabeth grew closer. How close? Close enough to deepen the wedge between the two men. By the time they were denouncing one another in court and in the press, the physical nature of the bond between Beecher and Elizabeth seems almost moot.

This is an excellent book that delves deep into the social, religious, and political culture of the times. Highly recommended for those interested in post-Civil War U.S. history.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

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

I love multi-generational historical sagas. Bethlehem by Karen Kelly is a perfect example of the genre. Alternating between a current day (early 1960s) storyline and that of a past generation (40-50 years earlier), the reader meets two very different women whose lives converge around family and scandalous secrets.

Joanna is a young woman from a working class background who marries into a fantastically wealthy Bethlehem Steel family, the Colliers. She and her husband, Frank, have two young children. They have been building a life for themselves when the death of Frank’s father leads to a change. Frank’s work hours with the family business increase astronomically. His mother and grandmother, alone in the ancestral home, need support. Nothing makes more sense than for Joanna and Frank to move into the mansion. Joanna is now a fish-out-of-water. The older Collier women are courteous, but aloof. Joanna feels isolated and bullied into conforming to a lifestyle she doesn’t want. Frank dismisses her complaints as unreasonable. She feels her identity melting away. Her only refuge is, unfortunately, the handsome young caretaker of the family cemetery, a man who seems to be a kindred spirit.

Joanna’s mother-in-law, Susannah Collier, is the most closed-off person Joanna has ever met. She seems to live in her own private world. Grief is understandable, she just lost her husband of many years, but Susannah’s cold shoulder goes beyond grief.

The reader is also cast back in time to Susannah’s childhood and young adulthood. Susannah Parrish, her sister India, and brother Kit, are the children of Bethlehem Steel’s chief engineer, Hollins Parrish. Kit is best friends with Chap Collier (the elder son of Bethlehem Steel’s owner) and close as well to Wyatt Collier (the younger son.) The children play together and get into all manner of mischief. For as long as anyone can remember, Wyatt has been desperately in love with Susannah and India has been infatuated with Chap.

We watch the Parrish and Collier children grow up and we follow Susannah’s successes and disappointments. She and Wyatt are the closest of friends, childhood sweethearts destined for marriage and happily-ever-after. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Meanwhile, in the current-day storyline, as Joanna’s life spirals out of control, the person who reaches out to her is Susannah, the mother-in-law with secrets of her own.

The story is lovely, full of warmth, love, and familial support. While not brimful of historical context, the period details set the scene well. The love stories are complex, realistic, and satisfying. This novel is recommended for fans of emotionally gripping multi-generational fiction.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh

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

The Westcotts are back in Someone to Honor! I’ve been compulsively following Mary Balogh’s Someone to... series, watching all the members of the convoluted Westcott family (legitimate and illegitimate) fall in love and marry in Regency England.

Abigail Westcott is the younger daughter of the deceased Earl of Riverdale. When he died six years earlier, the world learned his secret: the earl was still married to his first wife when the wedding to Abigail’s mother took place. He had a daughter, Anna. His will left everything to her except the title and entailed property.

At a stroke, Abigail, her siblings, and her mother were rendered penniless. Her mother’s marriage was invalid. Abigail and her siblings were illegitimate. The scandalized ton shut them out. But that was Anna’s story (see Someone to Love.) Now it’s Abigail’s turn.

Abigail was born to take her place in society and never gave much thought to alternatives. The catastrophe following her father’s death not only showed the depth of her family’s love and unconditional support for each other, it also frees Abigail to discover who she is. She doesn’t have to define herself by society’s expectations any longer.

Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington is also illegitimate. He’s the son of a blacksmith’s daughter and a man he doesn’t know and doesn’t wish to know (a viscount, of course.) He grew up in extreme poverty but made his own way in the military. Unfortunately, he married the wrong woman. They had a daughter. His wife abandoned them while he was away at war. Then she died. The grandparents took the child and refuse to return her. Gil has engaged a lawyer but is terrified he won’t win.

Gil was in France with Abigail’s brother, Harry. (Harry would have been the new earl, but when disinherited, he went into the army.) He was wounded and has been trapped in France, withering away rather than recovering, for two years. Gil escorts him home, where Harry’s family descends, ecstatic to have him back.

Abigail comes to visit and decides to stay rather than accompany her family to London and another season, which she has been dreading.

Phew. So that’s the set-up.

Abigail and Gil meet cute. They immediately take a dislike to one another. But, when the family departs, they both stay on to help Harry and to lick their own wounds. Before long, their initial impressions change. When Abigail and Harry learn of Gil’s dilemma, Harry suggests they marry. It would help Gil’s case immensely to have a wife (and the backing of their cousin, the powerful Duke of Neverby). But Gil has been burned before and doesn’t want to wed again. And Abigail worries Gil’s lowly background will prove a stumbling block to gaining her family’s acceptance. Plus, is this really a reason to marry?

With her usual aplomb, Mary Balogh draws the reader along as the protagonists work through their conflicting emotions and face the trials before them. Once again, the carefully crafted storyline (with some familiar-feeling plotting and a comfortably predictable outcome) is enlivened by wonderful characters who pull at the heartstrings. Balogh’s characters are what keep drawing me back. I eagerly await what’s in store for the next of the Westcotts.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, The Winter Queen by David Elias

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

Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) and his queen, Anne of Denmark, is one of those obscure but fascinating women of the Middle Ages/Renaissance whose lives provide material for historical novels that inform while they entertain.

Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, The Winter Queen by David Elias begins in October 1612 when the young princess is about to meet the man who will become her husband, Frederick V of the Palatine. Elizabeth is tired of being paraded in front of potential suitors. Beautiful, clever, and stubborn, she has strong opinions about everything, including her extravagant parents for whom she feels mostly contempt. The only person she cares for is her older brother Henry, who she believes would be a much better king.

Frederick woos her persistently, befriending Henry in the process. Unfortunately, Henry suffers from a recurrent illness that seems suspiciously like chronic poisoning. During Frederick’s visit, Henry dies. Elizabeth accepts Frederick’s proposal while in a deep depression. This is more than simply mourning; it appears Elizabeth suffers from bipolar disease, which influences her later behavior.

Frederick’s primary appeal, aside from his devotion to her, is his potential claim to the throne of Bohemia. In the novel, Elias portrays Frederick as a sensible, sensitive man content with the title and riches he possesses. Elizabeth, on the other hand, finds an outlet for her discontent: ambition. She bullies her husband into pursuing the throne against the advice of his counselors.

The novel closely follows the historical timeline. Frederick obtains the crown but cannot hold it for more than a couple of months. (Hence Elizabeth’s nickname, the Winter Queen). They are driven from the castle into exile. Frederick spends the rest of his life fighting a war he cannot win. Elizabeth falls from being a pampered, wealthy daughter of a king to being an impoverished exile, living on the charity of sympathetic nobles.

The historical detail is superb, bringing this woman out of the shadows. However, Elizabeth is not a warm protagonist. She does not love her husband. (She never really loves anyone but her dead brother.) She takes no interest in her many, many children until they are adults. She has no qualms about using men who fall for her to help her achieve largely selfish aims. Her political acumen is lacking. It’s difficult to root for her success.

Nevertheless, despite a somewhat unlikeable protagonist, the story itself is compelling enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller

Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller is interesting reading (but the title is way too long.)

Colonel W. C. P. (Willie) Breckinridge was a colonel in the Confederate Army from Kentucky who, following the war, entered politics and was elected to Congress. He was from an old, socially prominent, politically active Kentucky family. In 1893, he became embroiled in a sex scandal when his mistress of nine years, Madeline Pollard, sued him for breach of promise. He had promised to marry her if he ever became free, but a year after his wife died, he married a widow with a better pedigree. That woman was more than likely already pregnant with his child, as was Madeline.

Madeline had been a student at the Wesleyan Female College (presumably 17 years old but she may have been as old as 20) when the famous, middle-aged, married-with-children Breckinridge approached her on a train and flattered her with his attention. Soon after, he called on her at her school, took her out riding in a closed carriage after dark, and then, days later, seduced her at a house of assignation.

Breckinridge was one of those church-going, moralizing politicians who lived a lie and continued to lie even when caught out. He was so convinced his privilege and power would protect him from any consequences that he barely prepared any defense – except to slander Madeline. His excuse was simply that if Madeline slept with him, she was immoral and her suit should have no validity. He may have promised to marry her, but he could not be held to that promise because no one would seriously expect him to marry a woman who was compromised, even if he was the one who compromised her.

The book does a good job of describing the sexual mores of the time. Women had to be chaste. Any woman who allowed herself to be seduced, or even one who was raped, was at fault. (Apparently the fact that a woman survived the rape meant she did not fight her attacker strenuously enough to convince anyone the act was not consensual.)

Breckinridge attempted to malign Madeline’s character by claiming she’d been with numerous other men. He tried to say she seduced him and he was powerless to resist or to end the affair. He denied knowing about the babies he fathered with her and forced her to abandon. He showed no remorse, even knowing that they had been sent to infant asylums where the death rates were essentially 100%.

The author does present a balanced picture of Madeline’s difficult life. She was not, by the standards of the day, a sheltered, well-behaved southern daughter. Her father died when she was young. She grew up poor. And she was extremely intelligent and ambitious. So she was "forward" compared to the ideal, all of which was held against her during the trial.

Madeline was unique in that she did not shrink from pressing her suit, admitting her fault, and insisting that all she wanted was for Breckinridge to take his share of the blame. The injustice of a system where the guilty woman was ruined (truly ruined – socially and economically) while the equally guilty man would not even receive a slap on the wrist, was recognized by women and exploited by men. Breckinridge and his cronies were shocked to learn that anyone would even listen to a "fallen woman," let alone take her side in a dispute.

Parallel to Madeline’s story, the reader is presented with the story of Jennie Tucker. Jennie was born to wealth, but after her father’s death her family started slipping down the social ladder. Jennie had to go to work in one of the low-paying, back-breaking office jobs available to women at the time. However, she made an impression on one employer who, it turned out, was one of Breckinridge’s most steadfast supporters. Charles Stoll convinced Breckinridge to hire Jennie to spy on Madeline. He wanted her to "befriend" Madeline and dig up whatever dirt she could. She failed in that endeavor, despite giving it her all. (Her willingness, even eagerness, to take up Breckinridge’s cause makes her a less than sympathetic character.) And then, Breckinridge failed to pay her for her work.

Miller rounds out the narrative with the stories of other involved women, primarily Breckinridge’s politically active sister-in-law and his long-suffering daughter.

It’s a fascinating book to read in this #MeToo era. Women today (as a whole, though not necessarily in individual cases) have a great deal more social freedom and economic security than they did in the 1890s. And yet, privileged men still get away with sexual exploitation. Women who try to hold them to account are still slandered, shamed, and dismissed. This book was about events more than one hundred years ago! It’s depressing to see how far we still have to go.

Monday, May 27, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Earl Next Door by Amelia Grey

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

The Earl Next Door by Amelia Grey is an enjoyable Regency Romance that ticks all the boxes for current trends in Regency.

Adeline, the Dowager Countess of Wake, is a fiery, feisty, very young widow whose previous marriage was a disaster, leading her to swear off marriage for good. Being left financially secure, she decides to endow a school for girls – girls of lower social standing who will be taught marketable skills. (She’s supported in this endeavor by two friends, also young widows, to set up the next books in the series.) Adeline’s mission gets off to a shaky start. The new home she purchased in front of the new school is next door to the home of Lyon Marksworth, the Earl of Lyonwood.

Lyon made the mistake of listening to ill-informed gossip. He believes his new neighbor is a madam and the house will be used as a brothel. He marches over to confront the owner and insults Adeline with his behavior and suspicions. She’s furious, mortified, and attracted to Lyon.

They spar for a while, then make peace, then fall in love.

It took a little while to be drawn into the story. Lyon is a sensitive if impulsive hero. Adeline is a generous and bold heroine. Once the plot settled into the two resolving their difficulties it was a pleasant read. The ending was a little too simple. It was what I expected, but the story could have been more original and impressive had it refused to conform to Regency conventions, letting the characters forge on with the relationship despite the obstacle, rather than having the obstacle simply disappear.

Nevertheless, the characters grew on me throughout the course of the novel. Their growing love for each other was believable. And the plot was sweet.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

I read a review of Jasper Fforde’s novel Early Riser in the New York Times and, although it isn’t my usual fare, it sounded like a fun read. I’d never read anything by Fforde before, so I thought I’d start here.

Set in Wales, in a mash-up of future and present day, the novel depicts a world undergoing a post-climate-change Ice Age, or something like that. For sixteen weeks each year, temperatures plummet into the lethal below-zero degrees range. Fortunately, people have evolved to be hibernating creatures. They bulk up beforehand, sleep away the winter months, and, hopefully, emerge in the spring. But surviving hibernation is risky. Deaths in sleep were significantly reduced by the invention of a wonder drug, Morphenox, which prevents dreams. Dreaming apparently sucks away calories.

The Morphenox supply is limited, so access to it has to be purchased or earned. Access is highly coveted despite the well-known side effect of the drug. About 1 in 3000 users wakes up "dead." The body still moves about, but the people are zombie-like. If well-fed, these "Nightwalkers" are not dangerous but, when hungry, they become cannibals, a significant threat to a sleeping population.

Not everyone sleeps. In addition to Nightwalkers, there are Villains, RealSleep activists, Wintervolk, and Sleep Researchers, all dangerous to varying degrees. And there are the providers of Winter law and order, the Consuls.

Fforde does an extraordinary job building the world for the reader, letting it all unfold through the eyes of Novice Winter Consul Charlie Worthing. Chosen for his outstanding memory, Charlie is not the usual Consul material, not winter-hardened or tough. He’s far too honest, empathetic, and nice.

When Charlie’s mentor is summoned to Sector Twelve to investigate an outbreak of viral dreams, Charlie reluctantly follows. He finds himself stranded in a situation too bizarre to be summarized. The reader watches him blunder along, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, guided only by an innate need to do the right thing, even if it’s the wrong thing.

The story is original, cleverly plotted, and very, very funny. The characters are quirky with wordplay that sometimes made me laugh out loud. Pop culture references pop up in unexpected places in delightfully absurd ways.

Part of the fun of the book is the way the plot zigs and zags, so I won’t give anything else away. But if you’re looking for something entertaining and different, this novel is highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England. The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick

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

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England. The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick is a weird book.

The title and description caught my attention. The book is exactly what it says it is, but I was expecting something a bit different. Maybe I thought it would be more synthesized for a popular audience. Instead, it is a densely detailed collection of data written in a way that presents information without much analysis.

The book begins by laying out the geography of the region and how people utilized the land historically. Then it discusses various historical occupations such as drovers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, ploughmen, wise women, farmers, etc.. It seems each of these groups had secret societies with somewhat bizarre (though often overlapping) superstitions and rituals. They invested objects, particularly animal bones, with magical properties. And they liked to drink and chant almost Monty Pythonesque songs (that the author quotes in their entirety.)

The book is a treasure trove of anecdotal information. Those who love this sort of thing, particularly historical novelists who want accurate period detail, should find this a remarkable resource. However, it’s a difficult book to sit down and read through from beginning to end.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Golden Age of Burgundy: The Magnificent Dukes and their Courts by Joseph Calmette

I’m just back from an extraordinary vacation – a barge tour of canals in Burgundy. My husband and I were celebrating our 30th anniversary so we wanted to do something special.

I couldn’t head off to Burgundy without learning a little of the history. I wish I’d studied up more, but limited myself to the book, The Golden Age of Burgundy: The Magnificent Dukes and their Courts by Joseph Calmette. The book was first published in 1949 and the English translation was first published in 1962 and it’s written in a fairly dry, historical monograph style. It covers the time period between 1364 and 1477, a time when the Duchy of Burgundy vied for supremacy with the kingdom of France. For a while, it seemed Burgundy would surpass France in wealth, splendor, and power, or possibly even absorb France altogether into a Burgundian kingdom.

The dukes who ruled during this Golden Age were Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Rash. Calmette gives a chronological account through the reigns of each of the men. It’s necessarily focused, concentrating mostly on the conflict with France, but demonstrating the reach of the Burgundian dukes. Their domains stretched from present day Holland and Belgium to Southern France and included parts of what is now Germany. The borders were constantly expanding and contracting due to a combination of war, diplomacy, and marriage alliances. The dukes were educated, well-read, and patrons of the arts.

This book was somewhat dry, examining the successes and shortcomings of each of the men as leaders and administrators, but showing very little in the way of their personal lives. Still, it was a wonderful book for providing sweeping historical context. Combining it with a vacation left me wanting to know more. I’ll have to go back!
Tower of John the Fearless in Paris

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Love Artist by Jane Alison

The Love Artist by Jane Alison is a gorgeous, lyrical historical novel about Ovid and his mysterious muse, Xenia.

Ovid is a classical Roman poet best known for "The Art of Love" and "Metamorphoses." About the time he was writing "Medea," a play of which only two lines survive, he was banished by Augustus Caesar to Tomis, on the western side of the Black Sea. The end of the world. His crime is not recorded but since his exile lasted until his death, it must have been significant.

Alison imagines the artist’s biography from this time, filling in the historical blanks by creating a relationship with an exotic, beautiful witch, Xenia.

After "The Art of Love," Ovid is not in the stoic Augustus’ good graces. His friends urge him to absent himself from Rome until things blow over, to help ensure the success of his new work, "Metamorphoses." Ovid sails across the Black Sea to the Caucasus. There he meets Xenia.

This young woman has grown up among strangers, so is always an outsider. Her earliest memory is of being cast out to sea in a basket by her mother to die. Xenia is raised by Phasians (an ancient Colchian tribe, according to Wikipedia) and learns to read, to heal, to tell fortunes, and to cast spells. She’s a witch, but that isn’t a bad thing. She knows who Ovid is. She reads his poetry. When she hears he has arrived in her town, she lures him to her.

The magical lure is probably unnecessary, because Ovid grew intrigued by her even before the spell after catching an accidental glimpse of her. Or maybe that was part of her spell. He begins stalking her even as she bewitches him. Before long, they become lovers.

The prose is dreamy and soft-edged and beautiful. Ovid is inspired by Xenia. As he studies her, his next work flows from his stylus. She knows he’s using her in this way, but it doesn’t frighten or annoy her (as it did a previous love of his.) Xenia wants to become part of his art. She knows Ovid’s words will make him immortal and she wants his words to immortalize her.

Ovid realizes it’s time to return to Rome. He needs Xenia to come with him. Xenia realizes Ovid is getting ready to leave, and she casts a spell to make him ask her to follow him. Thus far, they are working towards a common purpose, but there is mutual insecurity and desperate dependence going on, too. Once they arrive in Rome, things get nasty. Xenia is not thrilled with Ovid’s social whirlwind and the many women who occupy his sphere. Ovid realizes he can use her jealousy to his art’s advantage.

Ovid needs a patron and finds one in Julia, the embittered grand-daughter of Augustus. He begins manipulating Xenia’s suspiciousness and jealousy so that he can transform it into his art. Xenia is both aware and unaware of what he’s doing. They are completely entwined with one another’s lives, but they no longer trust each other. Ovid delves deeper and deeper into the dark psychology of the play he is writing, one with a horrific ending, and is urged by Julia to finish what he has started.

The novel is short and builds slowly, but the final chapters are riveting. Ovid is so self-absorbed, and so desperate to believe that his work will live on after he dies, that he starts to seem mad. Either that or evil. Or both. And Xenia will either succumb to his mad plotting or she must find a way to break free.

I could not put the book down until I knew how it would play out.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer

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

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer is the next re-release of a Heyer historical mystery by Sourcebooks. It follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Kane family, introduced in They Found Him Dead, as well as the ongoing career of Inspector Hemingway.

It is fourteen years later. Timothy Harte, the too-curious, gore-loving young stepbrother of Jim Kane, the previous protagonist, is now grown up and engaged to be married. But his bride-to-be does not meet with his mother’s approval. Beulah Birtley has a secret past and no family to speak of. She works as a secretary/girl Friday for a social climbing newcomer, Mrs. Haddington. Mrs. Haddington has brought her strikingly beautiful daughter Cynthia to London to catch a wealthy, preferably titled gentleman. She has Timothy in her sights.

Things may have gone smoothly for Timothy and Beulah despite family disapproval and Mrs. Haddington’s scheming if an old friend of Mrs. Haddington’s (and possible new friend of Cynthia’s), Mr. Dan Seaton-Carew, had not been murdered at a duplicate bridge card party thrown by Mrs. Haddington.

The local police are quickly stumped and bring in Chief Inspector Hemingway, who is surprised and delighted to be reunited with Jim Kane and Timothy Harte. He is less delighted to find that Timothy’s fiancee is one of the primary suspects. He has encountered Beulah before, in a professional capacity.

There were numerous people at the party and several had opportunity to murder Seaton-Carew. A few even had motive, as Hemingway discovers. But it’s almost impossible to fit all the clues together. And, just when he thinks they may have it figured out, the person they believe to be the murderer is killed in exactly the same way.

Heyer’s mysteries are entertaining brain teasers, complete with wry humor and sweet romance, but she belonged to a different time. The novel is dated in some of its language and prejudices, so be prepared.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: An Artless Demise by Anna Lee Huber

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

I’ve been eagerly awaiting book 7 in Anna Lee Huber’s The Lady Darby Mysteries series: An Artless Demise. This is a superb series with complex plotting, well-rounded sympathetic characters, vivid historical setting, and a lovely romance.

Lady Kiera Darby is a talented portrait painter whose first marriage was a nightmare. Wed to an older man, a prominent anatomist, she was brutally abused physically and psychologically as he forced her to view his cadaver dissections and sketch them for an anatomy book he was writing. Cadavers were hard to come by legally, so her husband purchased them from "resurrectionists" (grave robbers). When even these were difficult to find, the body snatchers sometimes resorted to murder.

Lady Darby’s husband was caught up in one of these murder scandals. Although she was innocent, she found herself ostracized by polite society. Traumatized and, thankfully, widowed, she retreated to her sister and brother-in-law’s country estate.

In book one, she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation and there she meets inquiry agent Sebastian Gage. Handsome, charming, intelligent and open-minded, Gage is the perfect match for Kiera, though it takes them a while to figure that out. They embark on a crime-solving partnership, falling in love and wedding over the course of the next few books.

Now back in London, Kiera is pregnant, rediscovered as a popular portraitist, and finding friends in the ton. This newfound calm cannot last. First, there is significant political upheaval as Tories and Whigs argue over the Reform Act, and then another "burking" incident occurs. A young boy is murdered so that his corpse can be sold for dissection. The purchasers notice that the body is too fresh and send for the law.

The boy is one of the "Italian Boys," poor young immigrants who labor in the poorest areas as virtual slaves. His murder draws attention to the plight of child poverty and enslavement. It also refocuses the spotlight on resurrectionists and reawakens the scandal surrounding Kiera.

If this weren’t enough, young lords--sons of influential men--are also starting to be murdered in fashionable parts of the city. Fear mounts that these men were targeted for burking as well. London is about to erupt in panic.

Kiera and Gage race to solve the crimes while dealing with a boatload of emotional issues of their own. Once again, their levelheaded detecting carries the plot while the ongoing development and deepening of their relationship provides an emotionally satisfying read.

Start the series with book one, The Anatomist’s Wife. The books are addictive!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Flotsam by Erich Maria Remarque

It’s been eight years since I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a truly extraordinary classic novel about WWI. I loved the book, yet it never occurred to me to look to see what else he’d written. I’m embarrassed to admit I just assumed he’d written this one great book and nothing else of note. How wrong I was!

Flotsam is a novel about German refugees during WWII. Primarily Jews and political "criminals," thousands of people were forced to leave Germany, stripped of their passports, to become unwanted, country-less exiles. Some are little more than children deported along with their parents. Without papers, they are unable to find work or permanent residences and so live lives of hunger, uncertainty, fear, and often despair as they are deported again and again across the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France.

The story begins in Austria and primarily follows two men as they navigate life along the borders. The first is a political dissident named Steiner who was forced to leave his beloved wife Maria behind when he fled Germany. He is a man of steady nerves, many talents, and an innate goodness. The second, Kern, is a twenty-one-year-old man tossed out of Germany with his parents. His father is Jewish; his mother is not. She was allowed to stay in Hungary because she had been born there. His father was deported and Kern lost track of him before he, too, was deported.

Steiner and Kern meet when they are both detained in Czechoslovakia and kicked across the border to Austria. Steiner takes Kern under his wing for a short while before they separate. Kern manages to find a temporary residence in a boarding home for refugees where he meets a young Jewish refugee, Ruth. The two form a bond. They link their fates to one another and quickly fall in love. Love sustains them in the trials ahead.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this novel is another masterpiece of historical fiction demonstrating human suffering and resilience. By relating the day-to-day struggles of refugees, it draws the reader into their lives and forces us to empathize. Flotsam realistically portrays the characters’ humanity, their kindness to one another, the constant tension of being displaced, and the simple relief in finding a safe -- though always temporary -- haven. The novel tugs at the heart and conscience of a reader who takes the security of citizenship for granted.

Flotsam is at times a hopeful novel, showing how some – even most -- people are innately good and will help those in need as best they can. People can look at injustice and recognize it for what it is. But there are too many others who will not only steal from or cheat the vulnerable, but will also take pleasure in being cruel.

Steiner is a survivor, a philosopher, and a cynic. But he is generous to those in need. Kern and Ruth are young and still hopeful. Kern is too trusting, which costs him at times, yet he does not become embittered. Despite their setbacks, Kern and Ruth do not abandon hope.

The novel shows the fates of other refugees who drift in and out of the lives of the three protagonists. Some survive. Some disappear. And some succumb to despair. It’s a beautiful novel, at once heart-wrenching and uplifting. Published in 1939, Flotsam is as relevant today as it was then.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Lord Apart by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford’s new Regency Romance series, The Way to a Lord’s Heart, showcases her talent for sweet, entertaining romance. Her protagonists come with troubled back-stories and find their way to one another with gentle support and occasional banter.

Book one in the series, Brave New Earl, introduces the theme (which reminds me a bit of the theme of the linked stories in Mary Balogh’s Survivors Club.)

The Earl of Macklin is an older man, a widower, who has decided to put to use his knowledge of grief to help grieving younger gentleman move on with their lives. Previously, he aided his nephew. Now, in book two, A Lord Apart, he hopes to help the son of an old friend.

Daniel Frith, Viscount Whitfield, has inherited his father’s title and estates after the sudden death of both parents in a shipwreck during a trip to India. His grief is muted by the resentment he feels. His parents ignored him throughout his life, choosing travel to exotic places over the mundane duties of parenthood. Even when he grew old enough to accompany them, he was never included. Now Daniel is trying to sort of the accounts of the ancestral home, a chore he finds dull and impossible.

Penelope Pendleton is a baronet’s daughter who has been thrown out of the home she grew up in through no fault of her own. Her brother, an activist who was killed at the Peterloo massacre, was posthumously found guilty of treason against the crown. She was imprisoned and questioned mercilessly by government investigators who could not believe she knew nothing of her brother’s activities or friends. Fortunately, just as she emerged from custody with nowhere to go, she learned that she had inherited a cottage in another town. Her benefactor was anonymous and wanted to remain so.

Penelope is too grateful to question, though her curiosity is immense.

The cottage is part of the estate of Viscount Whitfield. When he learns of her arrival and that the cottage is now hers, his curiosity is also piqued. Moreover, he’s annoyed. Not with her, per se. He has no intention of wresting the cottage from her. But he feels it is another example of his parents’ disdain. Why shouldn’t he know why part of his father’s lands have been willed to a stranger?

The two characters have a lot of baggage, but they are reasonable people and kind to one another. It isn’t long before they are spending a good deal of time puzzling out the mystery of the inheritance. And falling in love.

The government agents aren’t through with Penelope yet. And the strange lives of Whitfield’s parents leave much to be explained.

The romance is enjoyable and the plot swift moving. It is a little annoying that Whitfield’s title effectively protects him from the rough treatment Penelope has to endure. And the ending was a bit too pat with the resolution of the crisis being achieved much too easily, thanks to Whitfield and Macklin’s connections.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of other grieving young men Macklin is determined to help. I look forward to seeing their stories unfold.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer is supposed to be a fan favorite so I picked it up recently at a Barnes and Noble "Book Haul." Although I love most things Heyer, this one disappointed. The situations are a bit too outrageous, the reason for the old vendetta that initiates the action is too vague, and the romance is not credible to my mind. The story felt dated, and Heyer’s romances generally do a better job standing the test of time.

The Duke of Avon, Alistair, is a jaded man so wicked he has earned the nickname Satanas. Which people actually call him to his face. He has a lot of old grudges but he particularly hates the Comte de Saint-Vire. (I’m not sure exactly why. A woman maybe?) Avon is filthy rich and despises the lower classes. He recognizes his own poor behavior but excuses it because he’s a duke and can get away with anything.

While out walking one evening in Paris, he is almost bowled over by a young (nineteen-year-old) scamp. The boy is fleeing his brother who is trying to beat him for laziness. Avon buys the boy to be his page, giving the brother a jeweled pin and telling the boy he now owns him body and soul. So that’s a bit distasteful. And not really helped by the fact that the boy is ecstatic, considering Avon his savior.

Turns out that the boy, Léon, is actually a girl, Léonie. She’s the unacknowledged daughter of the Comte de Saint-Vire. The coincidence of the meeting is never explained as anything but sheer chance, though Avon does suspect the truth from the start, so at least that explains why he bought the boy/girl.

Avon constructs an elaborate scheme to get back at the Comte, using the secret daughter. Meanwhile, Léonie charms one and all with her plucky irreverence, her cute mangled English, and her extraordinary beauty. She’s innocent and wise, and she has fallen head-over-heels for Avon. Yet she believes he can’t love her back because she’s baseborn. (Not to mention far too young for him.)

Avon makes her his ward as part of his plot. He calls her "enfant", and "my child", etc., etc. She complains that all men her own age are silly – and so they seem. But Avon is forty and does treat her as a child until he realizes that he’s fallen in love with her. Even then, though she twists him around her little finger and he becomes less domineering, the relationship is lopsided and kind of icky.

Without giving away too much, there are confrontations and abductions. Avon is cool and composed come what may. Léonie is courageous and resourceful. But the characters never seemed real to me and the situations seemed like farce that never quite hit the mark as funny. (Although, admittedly, Avon’s dry reaction to his siblings’ effusiveness and his friend’s dull moralizing are often humorous.)

I’m glad to have read this because it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. But it’s not a book I’d recommend for anyone new to Heyer, because I think it could be off-putting. She’s written much better romances.

Friday, March 8, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: They Found Him Dead by Georgette Heyer

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

They Found Him Dead struck me as an awful title for a murder mystery, yet I’ve discovered I love Georgette Heyer’s mysteries almost as much as I love her romances, so an off-putting title could not deter me from requesting this book for review.

Heyer often opens her novels by throwing her reader into the middle of family muddles where the family trees are large and complicated. I’ve learned not to fret when I’m lost at the beginning. Heyer does such a fine job of drawing her characters that their individual personalities and quirks define them. Very quickly the large cast sorts itself out.

In They Found Him Dead, a large dysfunctional family gathers with long-time business associates to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the head of the family/head of the business. It is not a pleasant party. Some of the attendees, anticipating a large inheritance, are hoping he won’t have many more birthdays. Moreover, his business partners are peeved at his reluctance to cough up the money for a risky new investment opportunity. When he is found dead the following morning, there are plenty of potential murderers.

The local police investigate and declare the death to be the result of a weak heart. Although those who know the situation have doubts, nothing is pursued until the heir is shot in the head in the middle of the day while sitting at his desk and the murderer disappears into thin air.

Now they bring in Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemingway. Although it seems likely they have two murders to solve, they can’t be sure the first death was a murder. And it seems impossible to find someone with motive and opportunity to commit both. The more they explore, the more baffled they become.

There is a sweet romance brewing alongside the mystery. A nephew farther down the line of inheritance (Jim Kane) has become smitten with Miss Allison, the companion of his great-aunt. (The elderly aunt is the reigning queen of the family.) While everyone believes Jim is far too nice to be a suspect, the second murder unexpectedly moves him into the spot of heir, which means he has an uncomfortably strong motive. The inspectors will not rule out the possibility Jim killed both men until it becomes clear someone is also trying to kill Jim. Solving the crimes takes on a new urgency.

There are a couple of likely villains, but the tight plotting makes it difficult to pin the blame on anyone in particular. Meanwhile, the business and family dynamics propel the plot forward until Hannasyde plucks out the final clue and everything falls into place.

This novel is not as amusing as Death in the Stocks, but it is still very entertaining. I look forward to more of the Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemingway series.