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.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh by Stephanie Laurens

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

Stephanie Laurens is one of the reigning queens of Historical Romance, so I’m not sure how so many years have gone by since the last time I read one of her novels. I saw The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh on Netgalley and decided it was time to jump back in.

Lord Christopher Cavanaugh (Kit), the young half-brother of a marquess, has had a difficult upbringing. His mother was something of a Lady Macbeth character. He managed to avoid her schemes and matchmaking by pretending to be an irredeemable rake. Now that she is dead, he’s stuck with his reputation. Undaunted, he leaves London for Bristol to follow a passion he has long yearned to indulge: he wants to start a company that builds luxury ocean-going yachts. He has the capital, a good business sense, important connections, and a close friend who knows yachts. Bristol was once a hive of wooden ship-building activity, but since the coming of steamships, the city is in decline. The city’s elders are thrilled beyond measure that a man of consequence is bringing jobs back. Kit has his eye on a particular warehouse for lease and has no difficulty securing it.

Unfortunately, the building is not exactly vacant. A local charity has been using it. But the owners assure Kit the charity will quickly clear out.

Sylvia Buckleberry is a clergyman’s daughter who has found her calling: running a school for the sons of local dockworkers and craftsmen. She has the support of the local church and has been able to hire a couple of teachers and purchase supplies. But she relies on the goodwill of the owner of the warehouse recently secured by Kit for a venue. When she learns that the warehouse is about to be leased out from under her, she is determined not to let the school fail.

Sylvia and Kit have met before, at the wedding of friends. Kit was intrigued but put off by her cold shoulder. Sylvia was cold on purpose because she was actually giddily infatuated with his bad-boy image and appalled at herself for it.

Sylvia expects the worst from Kit and is surprised when he acts opposite the way she expects. In fact, he outdoes her in concern for the welfare of the students, the fate of the school, and the general condition of the unemployed dockworkers and boat builders. His wealth is seemingly bottomless and he stands ready to hire everyone who wants to work.

There is a problem though. Not everyone supports the school and not everyone is rooting for the success of Kit’s business. While the romance is the main focus, the story is carried along by this additional conflict and potential danger.

The novel is a quick, enjoyable, escapist read. The protagonists verge on a bit treacly as they spread their goodwill thickly and hold no grudges against those who wish them ill – most of them anyway. But their pleasantness was a nice break from heavier reading. It’s clear why Laurens is a perennial favorite.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist by Gary Scharnhorst

Several months ago, I read Matthew Goodman’s book Eighty Days about Nelly Bly’s race around the world in 1889. I was intrigued by this celebrity journalist and even more intrigued by her rival, Elizabeth Bisland. However, these two were relative newcomers to the field. Kate Field (1838-1896) was a famous woman of letters/journalist who predated them by many years.

Although famous in her time, Kate Field has slipped into obscurity. I chanced upon a biography written by Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, and learned a great deal about this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1838 to parents who were celebrated actors of the time, Kate had an unconventional upbringing. Her father not only acted, but he also wrote for a number of newspapers, showing Kate that this was a viable way to earn a living. She was introduced early on to influential people and perfected the art of networking.

At age 16, after the death of her father, Kate went to Italy to study voice. Bronchitis put an end to her studies, but she began writing letters for publication in newspapers back in the states. She became fascinated by Italian politics and, for a while, reported on the goings-on in that country, until her editors, put off by her increasingly biased articles, declined to print any more. She continued writing less controversially on her travels. When she returned to the U.S., she went on the lecture circuit, a more lucrative career than reporting. She was an instant hit.

Having mastered self-promotion, she applied her skills to promoting products. She became a spokesperson in Britain for the newfangled telephones, even getting the queen to listen in and purchase a couple. By all accounts, her advertising campaign was a great success.

In addition to advertising products, Kate used her writing and lecturing platforms for many political causes. She made enemies in the feminist community because she was anti-women’s suffrage. (She was also anti-universal suffrage, preferring property requirements.) She went on the attack against Mormonism. She was also anti-Temperance. Or, as she preferred to say, she was pro-True-Temperance, which was NOT abstinence. She became a spokesperson for the California wine industry, insisting people were better off drinking good wine in moderation.

Despite constant work, Kate was always in need of money. She decided to turn her hand to acting, believing it would be more remunerative than writing. Acting was in her blood. Nevertheless, her first attempts on the American stage were panned. Undaunted, she returned to Europe and tried again, using a stage name. There she was more favorably received.

Kate Field was a whirlwind. She had her admirers and detractors. (Mark Twain couldn’t stand her, but they competed for some of the same audience and dollars.) She was intelligent and a biting critic. She was kind to her friends, but quick to turn on them when they disagreed with or criticized her. (She handed out criticism freely but was very thin-skinned.)

The biography is balanced, highlighting her versatility and perseverance, but not sugar-coating her faults. She left behind a large body of work and, whether admired or not, she deserves to be remembered more than she has been.

Friday, February 8, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman

After the last two books I read, I needed some light escapist fiction. I chose Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman, which was getting good reviews on goodreads.

This clean Regency Romance is told from the perspective of Abigail Blakeslee, a young woman who missed her debut because of the death of her mother. Abigail is not a particularly social person, partly because of a secret in her past that needs to stay secret. However, her father and younger brother are determined that she find happiness, which means pushing her out into the world.

For a start, Abigail is persuaded to accept an invitation issued by her aunt to join her cousins for the summer at the country house of the Stantons, a wealthy but untitled family. Abigail’s cousin Helena is as good as betrothed to the heir, Edwin Stanton. Abigail is not overly fond of Helena but she does like the younger cousin, Hannah. This small gathering is a good opportunity to polish her social skills in anticipation of the next Season.

From the moment she arrives, Abigail is put off by Edwin, who is harsh, serious, and unfriendly. Helena fawns over him, excusing his ill manners. Edwin is attentive to Helena but not enthusiastic. He soon begins paying more attention to Abigail, though much of the attention seems critical, at least as Abigail interprets it.

There are other houseguests as well, including the handsome, charming Lord Ramsey. (Everyone but Abigail can see his charm is false.) But he makes such a pleasant foil to Edwin that Abigail allows him to flatter her and finds herself flirting in return. Yet, as the days wear on, she finds there is more to Edwin than was first apparent. Moreover, Edwin’s sister, Diana, works tirelessly to throw the two of them together, much to the irritation of Helena and Abigail’s aunt. Helena and her mother grow nastier and more threatening as they become concerned Abigail is drawing Edwin away.

Abigail falls for Edwin, but tries to avoid him, since she has no intention of stealing her cousin’s betrothed. It’s clear to the reader that Helena and Edwin are a terrible match and that Edwin is much more impressed with Abigail. But Abigail is convinced Edwin loves Helena. (Helena is pretty, but her personality is so grating it’s hard to see why Abigail is fooled.) Even when she begins to believe Edwin may want her instead, Abigail refuses to be the cause of Helena’s broken heart. Finally, she discovers Helena does not love Edwin. But what does Edwin want?

It’s a sweet story even if Abigail is a bit slow to pick up on what’s going on. Her own secret is eventually revealed. It’s rather a contrived bit of coincidence, but ties up the loose ends and allows for a satisfying happy-ever-after. This is a quick, light read, just the antidote I was looking for.

Monday, February 4, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Overstory by Richard Powers

A friend lent me The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a remarkable book, but since it left me feeling depressed, angry, guilty, and hopeless, I hesitate to recommend it. Reading it on the heels of The Financier by Theodore Dreiser was doubly painful. Yet the book is powerful and I’m grateful my friend brought it to my attention.

The author is undeniably talented. The writing is evocative and the structure brilliant. I’m impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge of trees and of human experience. The amount of research that had to have gone into this is daunting to imagine. It’s a book with a strong message presented in such a poetic way it doesn’t come across as preachy. But that message is damning. If there is a hint of redemption for mankind in the end, I think I missed it.

The book begins with a section titled "Roots." Powers introduces the reader to several main characters, sometimes beginning with their ancestors so we truly get to know how they were formed into what they are. Some are individuals and others we meet as part of a couple. As I waded through the first part of the book, I got a bit exasperated because even beautiful writing plods when it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Where was the plot?

The plot shows up in the second part, titled "Trunk." Incredibly, the varied people come together and forge a purpose. (And the book grows into a novel instead of what seemed to be a collection of unrelated short stories.)

Trees are being destroyed. Old growth forests are being mowed down at a shocking speed. These trees are irreplaceable. By now, we have been immersed enough in each character to understand how different trees have played a formative role in each of their lives. Maybe we’ve even paused to remember significant trees in our own lives. The fact that trees communicate, that trees have agency, is acceptable fact and not fantasy. We pull for the trees as hard as the newly-minted radical tree-huggers do. We feel the urgency of the plotline. Saving the trees is essential to saving us all.

The novel is not as simplistic as that. It has too many layers to try presenting them all. I won’t go into spoilers, except to say there is a painful inevitability to the story’s progression, through sections titled "Crown" and "Seeds."

At roughly 500 pages, the novel is long but not frighteningly so. Yet it is so dense with meaning that it reads as a much longer book. Nevertheless, it was worth the time invested. It’ll stick with me a long while.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

For those disheartened by the current state of politics/economics, The Financier by Theodore Dreiser is probably not the best book to read. It’s not a satisfying novel for those who hope that at least in fiction, justice will prevail. Published in 1912, this is one of those brilliant classics that is as relevant today as when it was written, no matter how much we may wish it was not relevant.

Frank Cowperwood was the son of a mediocre banker in post-Civil War Philadelphia. Frank knew from an early age that he was going to make scads of money. Shrewd, brutally intelligent, and completely amoral, Frank made his way up in the world working at various finance-related jobs until he was able to open his own brokerage company. He came to the attention of various wealthy, none-too-scrupulous, politically connected men in the city who were impressed by his understanding of the intricacies of the world of finance. He made money hand-over-fist, but too slowly for his liking, especially because he could see there was real money to be made if only he could take over the streetcar lines in growing parts of the city. For that, he needed even more capital.

His big break came when the newly-elected city treasurer, a dull political hack, appointed because he was weak and biddable, came to him for financial advice: he needed to sell city bonds for more than most people were willing to pay for them. Frank knew how this could be done in a way that would allow him to skim a good deal of money off the top, with a little on the side for the treasurer as well. Although not legal in a strict sense, "everybody was doing it."

Frank was not only grasping when it came to money. While fairly young, he married a pretty, wealthy widow whose bewildered reluctance he easily overcame. He bought a large house and furnished it expensively. He had two children. But all the while, his main goal was ever more money.

He fell in with a wealthy businessman who also speculated in just about everything, Edward Butler. They had a mutually beneficial working relationship and for a time liked, or at least respected, one another. But Butler had a beautiful, high-spirited, young daughter. It wasn’t long before Frank put her on his list of things to acquire. Pampered, spoiled, and convinced no man was good enough for her except for the wealthy Mr. Cowperhood, Aileen Butler rushed headlong into her seduction. Adultery, betrayal – none of this meant anything to these two excruciatingly selfish people.

Frank continued to use city money for self-aggrandizement while seeing Aileen on the side. Everything was going swimmingly for him until the Great Chicago Fire. The ensuing financial panic reached Frank even in Philadelphia as insurance companies, banks, and businesses failed. Frank was overextended, owing money to creditors who wanted it speedily as well as being five hundred thousand dollars in the hole to the city. On shaky legal ground, he was nevertheless confident he’d done nothing wrong. At least, not wrong enough to ruin him or land him in jail. The city treasurer was in a worse position, being such a poor steward of public funds. Frank tried to intimidate the man into lending him even more city money so that they (or at least Frank) could get through the worst of it. For once, Frank’s schemes didn’t work.

His exposure was so great that to buy time he tried to enlist men more wealthy and powerful than himself. He had the gall to go first to Butler.

With an election coming up, the wealthy businessmen of the city hunkered down and looked for someone to blame for the misuse of city funds. They pulled their support from their treasurer-puppet. Someone would have to take the fall, either Cowperwood or the treasurer. Or both.

At just this time, Aileen and Frank were found out, thanks to an anonymous tipster. Butler, an aggrieved, infuriated, broken-hearted father, convinced his cronies that Frank should be the scapegoat.

Frank is such an awful person, that even though everyone is greedy and awful in his sphere, the magnitude of his offenses and his utter lack of remorse makes the reader hope for his downfall. Aileen is obstinate in her refusal to believe anything Frank may have done should hurt them. Wrong or not, if she and Frank benefitted, nothing else mattered. She doesn’t care who gets hurt and even blames her father for trying to keep her from her lover.

Frank is convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary. Readers may rejoice. But don’t be fooled into thinking karma got him. Even there, privilege buys him special treatment. He adapts. He’s released early. He ends up with Aileen. It’s a devastating ending.

The novel is written in old-fashioned style with an omniscient narrator and dense details of the financial world. Every new character is introduced with wordy physical description that stops the action dead. And yet, the book is gripping. I didn’t want to put it down. There is a sequel that follows Cowperwood west to Chicago. I’m sure I’ll have to read it at some point. But I’m too drained now by the apparent triumph of such disgusting people.

Friday, January 25, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Jay Cooke's Gamble. The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 by M. John Lubetkin

Jay Cooke’s Gamble. The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 by M. John Lubetkin is a fascinating account of the bold, visionary (or impractical, depending on perspective) endeavor to build a second transcontinental railroad in the 1870s.

I’m interested in learning about the Panic of 1873, but quickly discovered that U.S. economic history is far too convoluted and complex to grasp without investing a lot of time – and I’m not that interested in it. When I came across this book, I thought it might be a way to approach the topic obliquely. I expected something detail-rich and narrow in focus, but dry. But this book is anything but dry.

Lubetkin has researched the topic thoroughly and presents it in a well-organized, tension-filled fashion. The major players are fleshed-out, three-dimensional people whose talents and strong points are balanced with their foibles. While the author was reasonably non-biased, I nevertheless found myself rooting for some and peeved with others.

Jay Cooke is the focal point. The most prominent banker of the time, Cooke was particularly skilled at selling bonds – a talent that gained him the reputation as financier of the Civil War in the North. After the war, he needed a new calling and found it in the Northern Pacific Railroad. Convinced it was God’s will that he help open up the Pacific Northwest to Christian settlement, Cooke took on ownership of the foundering project.

His own reputation was sterling, but he partnered with J. Gregory Smith and Thomas H. Canfield, two greedy, dishonest men who began bilking the company pretty much as soon as it was formed.

Aside from the financial shenanigans, construction of the railroad was hampered by the lack of a defined route. The bulk of the narrative concerns the surveying expeditions sent out to determine the best path. Although led by dedicated, hardworking men, the surveys were troubled by poor maps, horrible weather, and fear of Native Americans. The route along the Yellowstone River took them through the territory of Sitting Bull and the Sioux, who were well aware that a railroad through their hunting grounds would be devastating. The survey teams received military escorts, but these were of inconsistent efficacy, especially as a couple of the top commanders were alcoholics whose leadership was unreliable.

The final survey, just before the collapse, received the largest military escort. The calvary was commanded by George Armstrong Custer. The author does a wonderful job of portraying Custer fairly, showing both his strengths and weaknesses, a harbinger of things to come.

In the end, the combined financial strains, environmental forces, and fear of Indian attack were too much for skittish investors. Cooke had more and more difficulty raising the necessary funds to keep the company solvent. His own bank was too heavily invested in the railroad. When one of his junior executives bailed out and betrayed him, Cooke was blind-sided and hadn’t time to gather resources to save his bank and smaller connected banks. While many other factors also played into the Panic of 1873, Cooke’s bankruptcy was a major precipitant.

The summary does not do justice to how well this book presents the material. Using letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and a host of other material, Lubetkin transports the reader into the midst of the events. I’m surprised by how riveting I found the read.

Monday, January 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

Years ago, I read Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery with my daughter and I’m still nostalgic for the shared enjoyment. When I saw Sarah McCoy wrote a novel focusing on Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who took Anne in and grew to love her as a daughter, I knew it was a book I had to read.

Marilla of Green Gables is a sweet prequel to the beloved Anne series. It opens with a young Marilla working devotedly alongside her brother, Matthew, on their parents’ farm. Her father, Hugh, is a man of few (to no) words. Her mother is more sociable but currently isolated due to a difficult pregnancy. Marilla’s Aunt Izzy has just arrived from the city to help out. Izzy tries expanding Marilla’s world, if only by taking her out more to spend time with the neighbors. Marilla meets the girl who will be her closest friend, Rachel White. Marilla also becomes reacquainted with a neighbor, John Blythe. The two are destined to fall in love.

Unfortunately, tragedy strikes. Marilla’s mother dies in childbirth. Her last words extract a promise from Marilla to take care of her father and brother. No doubt, Marilla misinterprets her mother’s intention. She takes it into her head that she has promised never to leave Green Gables – never to marry or have a life of her own. Maybe it’s an excuse. She loves her home and doesn’t want to leave.

Marilla leads a fairly quiet life, devoted to her family, punctuated by encounters with John that leave her questioning her choice. Often she is irritated by her own conflicting desires and strikes out, pushing John away. (Readers may grow frustrated by her here.)

Marilla is a native of Prince Edward Island. During the time frame of the novel, Canada is undergoing an upheaval as conservatives (those loyal to the Crown) and liberals (those who look to the U.S. as an example of freedom) come to violence. Marilla comes from a long line of conservatives. John is a liberal.

Additional historical context is provided with Marilla’s response to slavery in the United States. Through charity work, Marilla comes in contact with ex-slaves who have escaped by crossing into Canada. Although slavery is against the law in Canada, slave catchers are active and are supported by the government. Marilla and her aunt Izzy work with a Catholic orphanage to help runaways. This is more dangerous work than I would have expected, imagining Canada as a more welcoming haven.

The injection of these historical bits adds drama and interest to Marilla’s tale. The failed courtship gives the story poignancy and provides a plausible backstory for the Marilla of Anne’s story. You don’t have to have read Anne of Green Gables to appreciate Marilla of Green Gables, but you’ll be missing out on a beautiful classic if you don’t. Like L.M. Montgomery’s works, this book can be enjoyed by older children and adults of all ages.

Friday, January 18, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer

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

Continuing with Georgette Heyer’s re-released mysteries, I read Death in the Stocks. In this delightfully humorous novel, a corpse is discovered early on, stabbed in the back and propped up in the stocks on the village green. The novel is set in the early twentieth century, so the stocks were a quaint historical relic as well as a bit of a red herring.

The victim is Arnold Vereker, a wealthy businessman from London, a nasty and disliked character who had taken a home in the country as a weekend getaway for himself and various lady friends. The immediate investigation of his home revealed a young woman at the house, his half-sister Antonia (Tony) Vereker, who had come from London to argue with him, but not, she claims, to kill him.

In short order, we meet her attorney, Giles Carrington, a sensible man who is a cousin by marriage, Tony’s artist brother Kenneth, Kenneth’s fiancé, a cold beauty named Violet, and Tony’s fiancé, Rudolph. Rudolph is the accountant for Arnold’s corporation and he has recently been caught embezzling. Everyone hated Arnold for one reason or another, except for Violet, who is nevertheless pleased to hear that he’s dead since Kenneth is the heir and will now be wealthy.

They all have terrible alibis and are quite glib about the whole affair, which exasperates the inspector and troubles Giles. Giles happens to be in love with Tony and is just waiting for her betrothal to Rudolph to fall apart. He works with the inspector while counseling his cousins, a conflict of interest of which they are all aware but accept.

Things are confusing enough, and then, Arnold’s long-lost, presumed dead brother Roger appears on the scene, recently returned from South America. He replaces Kenneth as heir and chief suspect. His alibi is even weaker. The siblings are pleased to pin blame on him, though no one seems to actually believe him guilty. They also bandy about the possibility of their own blame. Kenneth, in particular, takes pleasure in baiting the inspector. However, when Roger is murdered, Kenneth is not so amused. It isn’t the fact that his own guilt now seems assured, but rather, he fears being the next victim.

The inspector is a competent detective who methodically pursues clues and discusses them with Giles, the only sane-appearing member of the family. Giles does his own clue chasing, being better informed and knowing the quirks of the Verekers. Naturally, it is Giles who solves the case.

The plot zips along and the mystery is well constructed to keep everyone guessing. What makes this novel shine, however, is the dialogue and the relationships among the various characters. It is farcical for a murder mystery, and also contains a cute romance. Although the novel started out a bit slowly, establishing who’s who and what their motives might be, it’s well worth sticking with it to see how it all plays out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: This Republic of Suffering. Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering. Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust is an unusual choice for me. It is a study of the Civil War focused on death. This isn’t one of the journalistic type histories that takes an interesting hook and builds a broad narrative around it. This book is a narrow look at what death of such magnitude did to the United States in the nineteenth century.

Topics include the problem of killing (How do men bring themselves to kill other men and justify doing so?) and dying – (What is a "good death" and how do young men reconcile themselves to the fact that they are likely to die?) How is it possible to bury so many corpses and why it is necessary to bury them? How can loved ones be appropriately informed so that they can begin the process of mourning? What is the process of mourning or what should it be, for individuals and collectively? What happens when a loved one’s body cannot be found or when corpses can’t be identified? How did death on such a massive scale change religious attitudes, politics, and governmental policies?

This is an exhaustively researched and thorough discussion of the subject. It’s a fairly dispassionate book. No exaggeration or melodrama is needed to document the horrors of the battlefield and the unimaginable grief of survivors. My only quibble is that it grew repetitive, an unavoidable complication of examining one subject from slightly different angles.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Tempt Me with Diamonds by Jane Feather

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

I read a Jane Feather Historical Romance in the past and enjoyed it, so when I saw Tempt Me with Diamonds available for review I quickly requested it.

Feather sets this story in 1902, following The Boer War.

Colonel Rupert Lacey is a survivor of the war. Unfortunately, his best friend since childhood, Jem Sommerville, died fighting in South Africa. Jem’s father died shortly after. The inheritance was to be divided between two children, Jem and his younger sister, Diana. With Jem’s demise, the fortune should all have gone to Diana. However, unbeknownst to the sister, Jem had made a will leaving his half to Rupert. This includes half of the family home and one-half interest in a superb racehorse.

Diana Sommerville is a headstrong, intelligent young woman who returns from South Africa deeply grieving the deaths of her father and brother. She is horrified to find Rupert already installed in her home. Of course, the two have a past. Lifelong friends who fell in love, they were engaged to be married until betrayal led to breaking of the engagement. (Rupert betrayed; Diana left him. But there is more to that story than is initially explained.)

Diana expects Rupert to leave the house, even if she must buy out his share. They can’t live together when they are not wed. Rupert refuses to leave. His suggestion is that they simply pretend to have been wed in South Africa as originally planned. They will treat each other courteously in public but divide the house in two and lead separate private lives.

Jane Feather’s romances are of the steamy variety, so this couple has already consummated their relationship and waste no time resuming that side of it. It takes a bit longer for them to hash out their old hurts and forgive one another. In this author’s skilled hands, the pair do not irritate the reader by prolonging their bitterness and recriminations, but rather build upon a regard for one another that predated their falling out in order to reach a workable compromise. And then fall in love all over again.

Despite the somewhat strained premise, the story is an enjoyable read and the characters make for a satisfactory Romance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

One of my New Year’s resolutions (like everyone else) is to tackle my TBR pile.

Long ago, I decided I should read Ursula K. Le Guin, so I bought Lavinia, which can be shoe-horned into the historical novel category. It sounded like something I would enjoy. Nevertheless, it sat neglected on my shelf. When Le Guin died last year, I meant to read it soon, but it has taken me a whole year to buckle down and read it.

What a gorgeous book!

It could be described as Vergil fan fiction. The story is told by Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins, who became the bride of Aeneas at the end of his long journey from conquered Troy. Aeneas is the founder of the Roman people. (Aeneas’ mother was the goddess Aphrodite.) In Vergil’s The Aeneid, Lavinia is a passive character who never speaks. She’s simply there to be claimed. Le Guin gives her a voice.

The novel is written in the first person but is not told linearly. It has a dreamy, otherworldly feel to it, the right atmosphere for mythical people who live very close to their gods.

While on a visit to a sacred place in the forest, Lavinia communes with Vergil, a poet who lived long, long after the fall of Troy, but who comes to Lavinia in a vision as he is dying, to tell her of the poem he is creating – a poem that essentially creates her. She understands her own fictionality. This fictionality makes her immortal, which allows her to tell us her story. Because she has heard the story from the poet, she knows how it will turn out. This time twisting adds to the mythological quality of the tale.

Lavinia is her father’s only living child and they are devoted to one another. (Her mother is another story.) She is obedient and pious. When she reaches marriageable age, she is sought after because she is the daughter of the king. The leading contender for her hand is her cousin Turnus, but the thought of having to marry him depresses her. Fortunately, she learns from her poet that she is destined to marry Aeneas. Unfortunately, she also learns that the peace of her kingdom will be shattered because of this and the war will be terrible. It’s horrible knowledge to have. And yet, the inevitability of what will come to pass gives her strength and acceptance.

Everything happens as the poet foretells. Lavinia knows there is nothing she can do to prevent the tragedy. Moreover, she wants to wed Aeneas. It’s a difficult position to be in because she doesn’t want to be the cause of a war but she is content with the outcome.

Aeneas and the Trojans fight Turnus and Lavinia’s own people, and Lavinia is the prize. The novel does not sugarcoat the horror of the battles and the reader feels it intensely, maybe even more intensely than Lavinia. She’s not detached, but she knows things her people do not. She even knows things Aeneas does not. It’s an odd reading experience because I’m hoping the worst of the poet’s predictions will not happen, even though of course they will.

I love retellings of ancient myths and legends and Lavinia is an example of how to do it with originality and beautiful prose.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Our book group’s next selection is The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace. This is one of those journalistic histories that uses a particular event as a focal point for a broader study of a time period or subculture. In this case, it is the December 5, 1985 auction of a rare wine by Michael Broadbent of Christie’s. The wine was purported to be a Chateau Lafite from 1787, engraved with the initials Th. J., indicating that it had once been owned by Thomas Jefferson. A German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock had unearthed a cache of wines that had been hidden away in a Paris cellar. His plan was to sell most and drink some. This particular bottle sold for $156,000.00 at auction, a record amount.

The subsequent tale of this bottle is unfortunate and not very interesting. The new owners had no intention of drinking it, and it was displayed under conditions far from ideal that destroyed any possibility of it being drinkable.

Much more interesting is the story of the wine dealers, auction houses, collectors, wine experts, and, eventually, scientists, who became embroiled in the various tastings and sales promoted by Rodenstock.

The rare wine industry skyrocketed during the 1980s and 90s. A tremendous amount of money changed hands along with these very old wines which were not as rare as one would expect.

At first, the book draws you in with the descriptions of these exquisite vintages and the excitement of tasting a wine that is more than a century old. There are specific ways to inspect a bottle that can give a clue as to the condition of the wine, but there is no definitive method except opening the bottle and drinking it. An opened bottle holds a great deal of promise, but once the bottle is opened, the probability that it will disappoint is high. So why spoil these priceless collectors’ items by actually tasting them? Why bother proving that they are genuine?

As the narrative proceeds, the inconsistencies of the stories build. Jeffersonian scholars doubted the wine’s provenance from the start. But once one bottle is proven to be a fake, it destroys the credibility of the remaining Jefferson wine cache, the credibility of Rodenstock and the rest of his collection, the credibility of Christie’s auction house, and the credibility of the rare wine industry in general. There is a lot at stake.

Moreover, it is (or at least was) surprisingly difficult to prove a wine is fake. It is especially difficult without opening the bottle.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar ties together the threads of the mystery of the Jefferson bottles with the greater world of rare wine collectors and sellers. It’s a compelling account of how ultra-luxurious living and fraud too often go hand in hand.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

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

I’ve read many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances, but aside from Penhallow, I haven’t really delved into her mysteries. Some are being re-released by Sourcebooks and are available on Netgalley, so I decided to give one a try.

Footsteps in the Dark is a gothic tale with a bit of a Scooby-Doo set up. Charles Malcolm, his wife Celia, and her siblings, Peter and Margaret, have moved to a house – an old priory – in the country. The siblings have inherited this quaint and somewhat dilapidated relic from an elderly relative. It needs work, but the siblings have fallen in love with its possibilities.

The family is warm and congenial and it’s pleasant to spend time with them.

They haven’t been in the house long before they hear tales from the neighbors. The house is haunted. A previous renter left in a terrified hurry, but the new owners are more sensible. When they hear footsteps and groaning noises, and see a dark-cowled apparition of a monk, they are convinced that a human is behind it all. Someone is trying to frighten them away. But why?

They meet an odd assortment of neighbors and visitors to the town. There is a retired colonel, an eccentric moth-collector who wanders about the property at will, a local doctor who drinks, a foreign artist/drug addict, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and a rough rather mysterious man whose employment is unclear but who seems to show up in unexpected places. This man, Michael Strange, catches the eye of Margaret, an otherwise sensible young woman who decides to trust him against her better judgment.

The novel starts with the owners’ curiosity, but this builds to unease and outright fright as the mysterious sounds and creepy premonitions multiply. The sense of danger escalates, especially after a murder is committed in the small town. Charles and company are more determined than ever to solve the mystery, even--responsibly – bringing in the police.

The novel is evenly paced. The characters are clever and behave in a rational fashion. The mystery is not wildly original (though it may have been in the 1930s when first published) but it is well-plotted and the loose ends are tied up nicely.

Although the mystery is set in a more recent past than the Regency Romances, it has a sweet, old-fashioned flavor and is recommended for cozy mystery fans.