Wednesday, July 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

I’ve found a new historical mystery series! I’ve come late to it but that means the others have already been released so hopefully I can get to them soon.

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean is the first in the series that features the cold, cynical Damian Seeker, an agent in the service of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, in London in the mid-1600s. Cromwell and his forces have deposed and beheaded King Charles, and now must be on their guard against Royalists who plot to bring Charles’ son back to the throne.

England is gripped by fear under Cromwell’s repressive regime. The freedoms promised by the revolutionaries have not materialized. Damian Seeker understands the complexities of the situation, but he has pledged loyalty to Cromwell and he’s standing by that pledge.

When one of Cromwell’s most popular army captains is found murdered on his own doorstep, the guilty party seems clear. Elias Ellingworth, an impoverished lawyer who is known to be critical of Cromwell’s government, is standing over the corpse with a bloodied knife in his hand.

Seeker begins the investigation at once by interrogating the widow. Her story convinces him that Elias is innocent. Truth matters to Seeker. He doesn’t want an innocent man executed. Plus, the real killer is still at large. Seeker sets about finding the real killer. He uncovers a web of conspiracy, multiple suspects, and a couple of unrelated crimes. Moreover, his veiled compassion for some of the oppressed Londoners, including Elias’ sister, Maria, yields something he wasn’t seeking: friendship? Maybe love?

The plotting is dense, with multiple intertwined subplots. Characters have depth. Seeker is one of those thrilling anti-hero types of detectives: fearless, ruthless, brutally effective. His dark, violent past renders him able to kill coldly without remorse, yet he has an inner core of goodness that leads good people to trust him as much as they fear him.

S.G. MacLean does a wonderful job of placing the reader into the time period, bringing us up to speed quickly on the politics at play that set the stage for the intrigues. I’m eager to read book 2!

Monday, June 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: First Comes Scandal by Julia Quinn

I’ve never read Julia Quinn before, but saw a favorable review of her new historical romance, First Comes Scandal, and decided to give her a try.

The novel is set in England in 1791.

Georgiana Bridgerton is a spirited young woman of twenty-six, who has never had a London Season partly because she was a sickly child and her mother still worries over her and partly because she doesn’t like crowds and fuss. As far as marriageability goes, she’s a bit past the expiration date. So when a local man courts her, she goes along with it, though her interest is only minimal. The man is awful. Only after her dowry. And when the courting isn’t proceeding quickly or successfully enough, he abducts her. She escapes before he can violate her, but she is “ruined” just the same.

Nicholas Rokesby, the 4th son of an earl, is in Edinburgh at medical school when he is abruptly summoned home. There, he learns that his father’s goddaughter, daughter of their neighbors and closest friends, was ruined by a scoundrel. His father tells him to marry the girl. Nicholas has nothing against Georgiana. They grew up together and are friends. But he is too busy with school to even think about marriage and when he does, he wants to choose his own bride.

Nevertheless, when he sees Georgiana again, and finds her as delightful as he remembers, he does propose. Not well. And things are awkward for a bit. But they like each other so much, love can’t be far behind.

Their light-hearted conversations are enjoyable, though some of the comedy is a bit forced. The serious conversations provide some depth. Period details give the story a solid base. There isn’t much in the way of conflict but it’s well-done historical romance and I’ll be looking for more of Quinn’s books.

Friday, June 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

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

I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome since her Falco series. Having brought that series to a conclusion, Davis continued the informer motif with Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. The latest novel is The Grove of the Caesars.

Albia is settling in to her new role as wife of Tiberius, a soon-to-be-retired magistrate who is doing well at his new enterprise as a contractor. Doing very well considering that he was struck by lightning at their wedding and was addled for a while. The author has been sidelining him in the last couple of books, which is a shame. The interplay between Albia and Tiberius made the initial books more enjoyable. Now it’s pretty much a one-woman show. That may be necessary since the love-story subplot that helped to drive earlier books is difficult to sustain once the couple is domesticated.

Tiberius has been called away to see to his sick sister, leaving Albia in charge. She sees to his business interests and stumbles into two separate mysteries, both involving an imperial park, the Grove of the Caesars.

First, her husband’s work crew, who are remodeling a grotto, discover some unusual old scrolls hidden amongst the rocks. A little sleuthing convinces Albia they are forgeries. Nevertheless, her father (Falco, who is now an auctioneer) will be able to sell them to bibliophiles. She’s happy with that, but curious as to the identity of the forgers and what else they might be up to.

Second, and more significantly, she learns that for decades women have been raped and murdered in the park. Generally the women have been prostitutes, so the vigiles haven’t paid much attention. This time, however, the rapist nabbed the beloved wife of a wealthy, well-connected Roman citizen who demands justice. The vigiles snap to. Also, an enforcer working directly for the emperor, a man named Karus, who Albia has come across before, is called in. Karus believes in blaming the first likely candidate in order to placate the victims’ families. It doesn’t matter if an innocent man is executed as long as someone is. Albia has to find the real killer quickly.

Albia sorts through clues with her trademark cynicism and snark. She’s clever and determined. She’s used to solving murders, but these crimes are darker than usual, making her more world-weary. Also, she misses her husband and worries about her sister-in-law.

The mystery is well-plotted and Albia remains an intrepid detective, who brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. I hope to see more of Tiberius in the next book, but this is really Albia’s series and I’m still addicted to it, waiting to see where it goes next.

Friday, June 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

James Meek is a difficult writer to read. I recently reviewed The People’s Act of Love and, although I struggled with the awfulness of the characters, it’s a story that stayed with me.

His current book, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, is another historical novel that is hard to read but rewarding to have read. Set in the fourteenth century during the Black Death, it’s particularly disturbing to tackle during the pandemic. The degree of superstition, denial, resignation, and grief feels suitable to the Middle Ages, which makes its parallels to today even more frightening and sad.

There are three protagonists, all starting from England where the plague is, initially, simply a rumor, who are heading to Calais for various reasons. In France, the plague is a deadly reality. As the protagonists move toward the disease, it comes to meet them.

Lady Bernadine is a young gentlewoman who is fleeing a marriage to an old man. The marriage was arranged by her widowed father who wants to exchange his daughter for that of his friend. Thus both old men can have pretty young wives. Berna, who yearns to model her life after the Romance, Roman de la Rose, was previously courted by a handsome young lord named Laurence Hacket. He asked for her hand, was refused, and left for his own estate near Calais–much to Berna’s chagrin. Since it didn’t occur to him to carry her off, she has decided to pursue him.

There is a young ploughman from the same village, Will Quate, who is in an uncomfortable half-free, half-serf position, whose greatest wish is to have his freedom recognized by the lord. To that end, he has trained as a bowman and has earned the chance to represent his lord by helping to garrison Calais. He leaves behind his betrothed, the village beauty, to whom he is not particularly attached. Along the way, he joins a band of archers who are every bit as awful as the soldiers in The People’s Act of Love.

Finally, there is a Scots proctor, schooled in Avignon, who is being sent back to France by his superiors. He will accompany the archers as a substitute for a priest, even though he insists he is not truly a priest and not qualified to hear confession or give last rites. (He hears quite a bit of confession.)

Even though the protagonists travel together, each a product of their time and place, they may as well be from different worlds. The author gives them each unique voices that add to the feeling of immersion into the fourteenth century. In many ways, they are as foreign to each other and unable to comprehend one another’s world views as they are foreign to the reader.

Ideas about war, sex, right and wrong, religion, and impending death are explored from the different perspectives of the protagonists and the characters they interact with. It’s fascinating to see how lines are blurred.

The novel is a slow read at first, but the tension builds. Even though I found the characters hard to like, it was still tragic to watch as the plague inexorably did its work.

Friday, June 12, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Say Yes to the Duke by Eloisa James

After finishing Eloisa James’ historical romance Say No to the Duke, I forged ahead with the more recent book, Say Yes to the Duke.

The heroine in this novel is Viola Astley, an adopted daughter of the Duke of Lindow. Unlike the rest of her family (tall, lean, self-confident, bold), Viola is short, voluptuous, and excessively shy. She doesn’t feel like she is a “true” Wilde, even though her family has always treated her as one of them. Dreading her debut to the point of physical illness, Viola is emboldened when a handsome, young, kindly vicar is recruited to their village. The vicar has a fiancee, but the woman is so shrewish and clearly wrong for him that Viola feels no qualms about hoping to steal him away.

Viola and her family (including her step-sister Joan who will be debuting at the same time) make their way to London. The vicar makes the journey as well. At Viola’s debutante ball, she asks the vicar to meet her in the library for moral support. But when she gets to the library, it isn’t empty. She overhears two men in discussion.

Devin Elstan, Duke of Wynter, is one of the men. Known to be cold, haughty, and anti-social, the duke has come to London in search of a wife, because that’s what dukes do. He has heard that a Wilde daughter is available and since he feels he must marry the daughter of a duke, and is entitled to do so, this one will do. He’s thinking of Joan, because the other one is not a real Wilde. Thus, he gives voice to Viola’s greatest fear. Rather than flattening her, it energizes her. The man is so obnoxious, she ends up giving him a piece of her mind.

He’s intrigued.

The courtship follows. Wynter is determined to win her. She is still attached to the idea of the vicar and has trouble forgiving the duke for what she has heard. The courtship is a growth process for them both.

What brings these two together mostly is sexual attraction. They have to marry before they have a chance to get to know each other very well because they are caught in a compromising position. The remainder of the novel is the married couple finishing the work of the courtship.

It’s a quick, entertaining romp. The characters are likeable. Viola is a particularly sensible and forgiving sort. The banter between them is fun. I look forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Say No to the Duke by Eloisa James

I needed some easy escapism and discovered I had fallen behind on Eloisa James’ latest Historical Romance series: The Wildes of Lindow Castle. Book 4 came out last summer: Say No to the Duke. So I read that in preparation for the newest release, Say Yes to the Duke. (Different dukes, I hope.) Although set in the 1770s and 1780s, these show essentially the same manners and mores as Regency Romances.

Previous books have looked at the elder Wilde brothers. Now the series is turning to the daughters. It’s a large family so the series should run awhile.

The eldest daughter is Betsy (Boadicea - they are all named for warriors). A strikingly beautiful, bold, composed young woman, Betsy is inwardly traumatized by the knowledge that her mother ran off with a Prussian, abandoning her husband and children. Her father remarried and moved on, but a segment of society hasn’t forgotten. A nasty incident at school has convinced Betsy that everyone is watching her for signs of her mother’s wantonness. Betsy is determined to be prim and proper in public, and to receive more marriage proposals upon her debut than any other debutante. She succeeds. But she also succeeds at boring herself near to death.

Staying at the castle is one of her elder brothers’ friends, Lord Jeremy Roden. Jeremy has PTSD after serving in the British army in America. In one ferocious battle, his entire battalion was lost. He was the sole survivor. He’s carrying a tremendous amount of guilt, which has turned him cynical and morose. He drinks heavily, though not as much as he pretends to, in order to put people off. The only company he can bear is that of his old friends, the Wildes, especially Betsy. He frequently finds her venting her boredom and frustration in the billiards room. He’s entranced, though he can’t admit it to himself.

When Betsy receives a marriage proposal from a duke, Greywick, the scene plays out in the billiard room where they went to be alone. They aren’t. Jeremy is there and interrupts. Even though he likes Greywick and pleads his case for him, Jeremy is horrified at the thought of Betsy saying yes.

Shortly afterward, when Jeremy and Betsy are again alone in the billiards room, they make a wager over a game. If Betsy wins, Jeremy will accompany her on an adventure. She wants to disguise herself as a man and attend an auction in a neighboring town where ladies are not allowed. If he wins, she must give herself to him for a night. Of course, he wouldn’t take advantage of her, but since she wins, that isn’t put to the test.

The story unfolds with Jeremy and Greywick vying for Betsy’s hand. Greywick is a standup guy and a friend of Jeremy’s. There really isn’t anything wrong with him, which has the potential to make this a difficult choice for Betsy.

Meanwhile, Jeremy must face what happened to him at the battle. And Betsy has to come to grips with what her mother did and what that means for her.

This is another entertaining Romance on the steamy side. Eloisa James writes fun characters with lively interactions. Even though Romance plotting can get repetitive, James has a way with dialogue and believable emotions that make her stories consistently enjoyable.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott

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

Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott is a collection of intertwined “mini-biographies” of journalists/foreign correspondents in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a booming time for journalists. Many young writers wrote for newspapers, which were in their heyday. Going abroad allowed many of these adventurous young men and women a chance to explore new places, learn about different peoples, and delve into the politics that were shaping the post-war world.

The four journalists featured in the book are Vincent Sheean, John Gunther, Dorothy Thompson, and Rayna Raphaelson. Each had a different idea about the way to do journalism. Each was enormously successful and yet they all have been largely forgotten.

The book traces a bit of their backgrounds and then launches into their careers, lives, and interpersonal relationships. This was a time of increasing sexual freedom for both men and women, and Fighting Words explores their sexual relationships as well.

They were all horrified by fascism rising in Europe and had contrasting opinions about communism. The book is less of a history lesson than a look into the lifestyles of foreign correspondents. It’s an interesting read. A little disorganized at first, the book settles into a more compelling narrative as the reader grows more familiar with the protagonists. This is a worthwhile read, if only to bring back into focus the importance of journalism and to awaken the memory of these four fine journalists.

Friday, May 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

I am a fan of Ruta Sepetys’ work. She writes serious YA historical fiction set in times and places that have not received enough attention. My favorite was her first: Between Shades of Gray.

The most recent novel is The Fountains of Silence, set in post-WWII fascist Spain. Francisco Franco is dictator and the people are living in fear and silence. Franco has begun “opening” up the country to foreign investment, particularly to U.S. oil interests. Although there is a good deal of skepticism about Franco’s supposed reforms, money is money, so U.S. companies are willing to do business with Spain and ignore any signs of oppression.

The novel follows eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, son of a Texas oil tycoon and a Spanish mother, who wants to be a photo-journalist if he can avoid being roped into the family business. On a visit to Madrid with his parents, Daniel meets a young local woman, Ana Torres Moreno, who works as a maid in the “American” hotel. They are attracted to one another. However, Daniel is a wealthy, privileged American. Ana is the daughter of murdered Republicans. She is poor, oppressed, and full of secrets.

There are a slew of other characters as well: Rafa, Ana’s brother and Fuga, his friend. They survived brutal torture as children. Fuga is determined to be a bullfighter and Rafa wants to be his supporter and promoter. Ana’s family also includes a sister and brother-in-law, who are struggling to make ends meet, especially now with a new baby. And she has a cousin, Puri, who works in an orphanage. In the hotel, Daniel meets Nick, the son of a diplomat, Ben, a reporter who is impressed by Daniel’s photographs, and some of the other staff. Everyone has secrets. Even Daniel’s parents. Even Daniel.

Despite being intrigued by the setting, I had a hard time getting into this book. It’s long, at about 475 pages, not including notes, photos, and a glossary. But long isn’t bad in historical novels and 475 pages isn’t terribly long for the genre. It just read very slowly. There were so many characters and bouncing viewpoints that it was difficult to feel close to any of them. And the brooding atmosphere and abundance of secrets made it feel like the plot didn’t go anywhere for quite a long time. Rather than ramping up tension, all the hinting at hiddenness dragged the book down. It wasn’t that it was confusing. The writing is clear. But it wasn’t until nearly page 300 that it felt like the story started to come together. Moreover, there was no solving of any of the problems. Essentially, everyone had to simply lie low until Franco died and enough time passed to move on.

I am glad to have read the book. It did bring to life a hidden time period. The rather depressing atmosphere of the book was appropriate to the subject matter. But I think the story itself would have been a more compelling read if it had been streamlined a bit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

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

You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to love The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, but if you are, you’ll love it even more.

In this gentle, sweet historical novel, set in the small English town of Chawton during the second world war, a group of six Jane Austen fans come together to preserve the legacy of the famous author.

Chawton is the one-time home of Jane Austen and of the Knight family, who adopted her brother Edward in order to have an heir. Austen’s works fell out of favor after her death. By the time interest in her life and works revived, many Austen artifacts and much memorabilia had been discarded or disbursed. Nevertheless, a trickle of diehard fans made pilgrimages to Chawton to try to connect, in some way, with the woman.

Dr. Benjamin Gray is the village physician, a man of young middle-age, who lost his wife to an accident several years before. Adam Berwick is a farmer, slightly younger, who lost his two elder brothers in WWI. Adeline Grover is a young schoolteacher, whose husband dies in the war shortly after their wedding. She’s pregnant, but miscarries the baby and nearly dies. Francis Knight is the last in the Knight line, living in the old house, waiting for her cruel, miserly father to die. Evie Stone is a whipsmart schoolgirl, forced to leave school when her father is injured in a tractor accident and can no longer support the family. She takes a job in the Knight home. And finally, Mimi Harrison is a beautiful Hollywood movie star, involved in a trainwreck of a relationship, whose love of Jane Austen brings her to Chawton first as a tourist and later as a member of the “Jane Austen Society.”

The lives of the Chawton villagers are intertwined. They’ve grown up with one another and know many, but not all, of each other’s secrets. Sometimes they understand each other better than they understand themselves.

As in Austen’s novels, the romances between various characters give the novel its heart. The goal, preserving Austen’s home as a museum, is secondary in importance to bringing hurting people together to heal. They will often break into discussions of their favorite characters or scenes, which grounds the book delightfully in its Austen-ian roots.

It’s a beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Killer High. A History of War in Six Drugs by Peter Andreas

Pre-pandemic, I was browsing in a bookstore and this one caught my eye: Killer High. A History of War in Six Drugs by Peter Andreas.

The author weaves a narrative of drug abuse and warfare throughout history by looking at 1. War while on drugs; 2. War through drugs; 3. War for drugs; and 4. War against drugs. The six drugs that he looks at are: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine.

While it was no surprise that soldiers throughout the ages have resorted to various drugs to help them bear the boredom, fatigue, terror, and horrors of warfare, it was nevertheless interesting to read the details of how each of the first five of the drugs were used and how this changed over time. (Although not specifically stated, these are additive. Soldiers still utilize alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine as more modern drugs are piled on.)  Interesting, too, was how complicit the military authorities were in supplying drugs of every sort to the soldiers.

The discussion of war through drugs was newer to me, though still not surprising. Taxing drugs was a crucial source of revenue. The more addicted the populace, the greater the revenue stream. The money was then used to wage war. Since war is expensive, drug use by both the military and the civilian population was implicitly encouraged. Although the argument is simplified, it is convincing.

War for drugs and war against drugs are two sides of the same coin. The attempt to stamp out cocaine use was the best example of how a “War on Drugs” stimulated violence, crime, militarization of the production and distribution of drugs, the rise of criminal warlords, and the profitability of drug trafficking, while doing little to address the actual problem of drug abuse.

A well-organized book that looks at an age-old problem from a different perspective, this book is well worth the read.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Malcolm's List by Suzanne Allain

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

After my banner reading month in January, I fizzled out. And then the pandemic hit. It’s left me apathetic about reading novels. (Odd, because I would have thought the escapism would be what I needed.) I’ve also been writing, so focused more on research than reading. But I finally decided that a light-hearted Regency Romance would be the distraction I’ve been looking for, so I picked Mr. Malcolm’s List by Suzanne Allain from my Netgalley queue.

Jeremy Malcolm, second son of an earl, is every ladies’ dream. Because he is wealthy and wickedly handsome, unmarried girls of the ton don’t seem to care much about the actual person. Tired of being considered nothing more than “a catch,” yet recognizing he has to marry eventually, Jeremy writes a list of ten qualities he needs in a wife. One of the ladies (Julia Thistlewaite), whom he escorts to the opera, fails almost at once. When, to her amazement, he doesn’t ask her out again, she complains to her cousin, who is one of Jeremy’s friends. She learns about the list.

Julia is a spoiled brat and a nasty schemer. Although she’s correct that a list of requirements is obnoxious and arrogant, she’s deluded to think he led her on. At any rate, she plans revenge. She invites a sweet (beautiful) ex-schoolmate to town and grooms her to attract Jeremy. The plan is, when he shows interest, to hit him with a list of her own.

The lovely friend is Selena Dalton. Selena would effortlessly meet every requirement. She doesn’t want to play Julia’s game, but is bullied into it. Plus, she meets Jeremy and it is pretty much love at first sight for them both. He begins a courtship. She is entranced. She wishes desperately for Julia to leave them alone and wants to come clean about the whole plot because she is inherently honest. But this is a Romance, so the game must play out.

The protagonists are good people and it’s enjoyable to read along as they get through their rough patch. The witty banter keeps everything fun. It fits into the category of “clean Romance.” And it is a charming distraction from the state of the world.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov

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

Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov (translated by Betsy Hulick) is a short, fascinating book. The text taken by itself would be a cute and mildly amusing play in verse. But taken together with the introduction, it is much more.

I had never heard of the author, an early nineteenth century Russian playwright and poet who remains a very influential writer in Russia. Apparently lines from his plays, this one in particular, are quoted even today and it’s social commentary is still relevant after a fashion.

The play itself centers on Alexander Adreevich Chatsky, a young man who returns to Moscow after three years abroad, to court the young woman he left behind. The woman, Sophie, has moved on, falling in love with her father’s secretary, Molchalin. She has other suitors as well.  The father wants someone wealthier and higher in rank for his lovely daughter but her mind is made up.

The father throws a party to which numerous friends and acquaintances are invited. Chatsky is there. He has a sharp wit and is quick to criticize what Moscow was and what it has become. Sophie has no patience for his cynicism, especially when he turns it on Molchalin. She starts a rumor that Chatsky has gone mad.

The entertainment picks up as the guests make wilder and wilder claims about Chatsky’s loss of sanity. Eventually the news gets back to him. Shortly, Sophie overhears Molchalin hitting on her maid. She breaks off their affair. Chatsky, furious and disillusioned that she would make up a tale about him, no longer wants anything to do with her. He stomps off after a blistering tirade against everyone of the guests, leaving the father to conclude the rumor must be true.

Like most plays, I imagine this would be much more enjoyable to watch than to read. However, it did leave me wishing I could see it performed. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The People's Act of Love by James Meek

I recently skimmed a review of James Meek’s new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time.  It sounded intriguing, but daunting, reminding me a bit of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which I loved. However, it isn’t released yet in the U.S.  So, while looking up the author in my library, I saw The People’s Act of Love. The superlatives used to describe it on the jacket blurb made it impossible to bypass. (They were so over the top I doubted the book could possibly live up to them.)

Set in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, I expected the book to be gritty and bleak, so I was prepared. Nonetheless, it was a hard book to read.

Told from many viewpoints, the anti-hero of the story is a young radical, intellectual, prison-camp survivor named Samarin. It’s clear from the start that he’s an unreliable narrator, but no one, including the reader, is able to quite put a finger on what parts of his narrative are true and which are false.

He comes upon a small town that is being ruled by the remnant of a Czech Army that knows whatever role it played in the war is no longer significant. The soldiers vary in their loyalties but all want mainly to go home. The leader, a man named Matula, is a sociopath. His lieutenant, a Jewish Czech who mourns the lost German civilization where he felt at home, is a good man, the one truly sympathetic character in the book. He is smart, good to his fellows, and in love with the wrong woman.

The woman, Anna, is a Russian widow who has moved to the town with her son. She’s a photographer, an artist, who claims she needed to get away from the city, but no one knows why she ended up there.

Also within the town is a sect of Christian mystics, castrate, who believe themselves to be angels. They hold all their goods in common, and so are better at being communists than the communists. They just want to be left alone.

Two more strangers have arrived simultaneously with Samarin. One is a local shaman who has lost his ability to “see” and is being held captive by the superstitious Matula. The other, a man no one has yet seen in the town but whose arrival is heralded by Samarin, is the Mohican. This fellow escapee from prison is a brutal thief who helped Samarin escape only so that he could use him as food on the long trek from camp to civilization.

Over the course of the next few days, with the threat of the Red Army about to descend upon the town, the various inhabitants try to come to grips with internal and external threats.

It is a powerful book, difficult to put down, but ultimately disappointing. Most of the people are awful in large or small ways. There is good, but it’s not rewarded. And the themes are muddied by the sense that nothing really matters in the end.

Even so, I will be reading To Calais, In Ordinary Time.

Friday, January 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

It might seem a 370+ page book is overkill for a history of a single New York City Hospital, but Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky, was a nice surprise. I got the book from my library to see what it had to say about a specific moment in its history, but started reading from the beginning just because, and ended up reading the whole thing.

The book covers the history of the hospital from when it was little more than a pesthouse for yellow fever victims in the Colonial period to a modern-day facility equipped to deal with Ebola.

More than a history of New York’s most resilient public hospital and teaching facility for new physicians and nurses, Bellevue is a history of medicine in America in microcosm. Well-researched, readable, and chock full of interesting anecdotes, this book held my interest from start to finish.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

I pulled another book from my TBR pile: The Only Story by Julian Barnes. I normally love this writer but I thought this book was a bit of a dud.

The narrator is a middle-aged man relating his story, which is a love story. Because he has heard, or believes, that the only story worth telling IS a love story and that everyone has one of their own, he sets out to tell us his. Because everything not directly related to the love story is considered extraneous, the novel is pared down to the essentials. Unfortunately, the story is not unique and brave and ultimately tragic, but rather is commonplace, dull, and sad.

The narrator, Paul, looks back on his life, which begins at age nineteen when he met the love of his life, Susan Macleod. She was forty-eight, married with two grown children, and was assigned to be his tennis partner at his parents’ club. They hang out after tennis, he starts driving her around, bumming around her house, going with her to concerts, and they start sleeping together. Her husband is there in the background, aware of what’s going on, as are her daughters and Paul’s parents. They are all extraneous to the lovers so are no more than sketched in.

Paul is a callow college student with no ambition and a mistaken awe of his own originality. His lover is so much older–how cool is that!. He doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, since they are in love, and the husband is a jerk. Or if it is wrong, he is thrilled by his scandalous misbehavior. He believes his friends are impressed.

Paul remembers Susan as a quirky original, but the picture he paints of her is also shallow and dull. The relationship plods along. They don’t actually do much. Eventually, it becomes clear that Mr. Macleod is drunk and physically abusive. Susan and Paul move in together.

The relationship lasts years. Divorce is not really an option. Or maybe it is, but not one that Susan is interested in. She gets depressed. She starts drinking. Heavily. He can’t save her. He gives up and moves out. They both age. Neither has another real relationship.

The storyline is realistic. It’s objectively sad. However, I was never drawn in to care about the characters. There was not a lot of depth to them or to the relationship. The narrator likes to meditate on love. In fact, he keeps a notebook of pithy sayings but ends up crossing most of them out. That's kind of how I feel about this book, like it could be crossed out.

Monday, January 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff is a riveting read. It’s a chronological account of the events of 9/11 told in bits and pieces by people who were there. Some of the voices are carried though the whole story and others appear only once or twice. The effect is to take you back to that awful day and give the event new immediacy.

The author does an amazing job pacing the story as the day progresses and the focus shifts from New York to the Pentagon to Pennsylvania and back again. We learn exactly what was going on at the Twin Towers,  in the bunkers, and on Air Force One–the confusion, disorganization, and fear, as well as remarkable dedication and bravery.

I wasn’t expecting to find this so readable or so important. No matter your perspective on where the country is now, it’s worthwhile reading and remembering what it was back then.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon is a contemporary mystery set in a home for the elderly in England. The protagonist, Florence Claybourne, is eighty-four years old and has dementia. She is coping, helped along by two other residents: a retired general named Jack and her lifelong best friend, Elsie. And then a new resident enters the home, Gerald Price. Florence recognizes him as Ronnie Butler. But sixty years ago, Ronnie Butler drowned.

The story unfolds in bits and spurts as Florence struggles with memories she can’t quite recall and perhaps doesn’t truly want to recall. But Ronnie Butler is a dangerous man and, even after all these years, he’s out to get Florence. Jack and Elsie are on her side, but no one else believes her.

The Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly is staffed by kindly, well-meaning people who wanted more out of life. Each has an interesting back story, though most are only lightly touched upon.

The most intricate life story belongs to Florence. As the final pieces fall into place, it becomes clear how interconnected all those lives are even if they are unaware of the connections.

It is a well-plotted story with warm characters. The ending is poignant and the mystery solved satisfactorily. The book reminded me strongly of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, which I also enjoyed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver

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

An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, to be released in mid-April, is the latest contribution to American Civil War history that not only takes into account environmental factors but makes the case that these factors were central to deciding the outcome.

The various chapters discuss illness (particularly infectious diseases), weather, the availability and scarcity of adequate food, terrain, use of animals and the problems associated with their use, and soldiers’ death and disability. These are placed in context more or less chronologically, although their impacts were felt throughout the course of the war.

While many of the big-picture conclusions are not revelations, the book delves into the details supporting the conclusions in a scholarly yet accessible fashion that aids in understanding. The two authors’ combined expertise makes for a wonderful synthesis of a good deal of material. For those interested in Civil War history who are not fluent in environmental history but who would like to see events examined from this angle, this book is a fine choice.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Southernmost by Silas House

Silas House is one of Kentucky’s foremost contemporary writers, yet I’d only read one of his novels, Eli the Good, until our book group chose Southernmost for our next meeting.

The protagonist, Asher Sharp, is a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a small Tennessee town who has lost the verve for the harsh, exclusionary, judgmental preaching that had made him so popular with his like-minded congregation. He has a wife who is steeped in this type of religion and a nine-year-old son who is a more independent thinker. Asher loves his son with his whole being, but he has fallen out of love with his narrow-minded wife.

An historic flood hits his community with devastating consequences. Among the newly homeless is a gay couple who had recently moved to the community. Asher offers to let them spend the night in his home, but his wife rebels. This is the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Asher’s backstory is that he had a gay brother who was shunned and abused by his mother. Asher adored the older brother, but sided with his mother and threw himself into spreading the message of hate and intolerance. He has not seen his brother in ten years, but receives occasional cryptic postcards from him. Asher is filled with regret for the way he dealt with his brother and for the self-righteous beliefs he once held and encouraged others to hold.

When he tries to preach a more inclusive message to his congregation, things blow up in his face. He’s voted out. His marriage falls apart. And he loses custody of his son. Unable to bear the loss and fearful of leaving his son to grow up under those influences, he kidnaps the boy and sets out for Key West, where he believes his brother is living.

Despite finding a place to live and work in isolation, Asher soon realizes that living on the lam is a terrible environment for a child.. But the only option now is to return to Tennessee where he will undoubtedly be arrested.

This novel is beautiful and sad. The nasty characters have also suffered and their viewpoints are understandable if unacceptable. Asher’s heart is in the right place but his actions are misguided. The message is important. The delivery is a bit preachy, but given the characters, that’s to be expected.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev (translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim) was a Christmas gift, so it didn’t sit long on my TBR pile.

M. Ageyev is a pseudonym. The author is suspected to be Mark Levi, a Russian emigre in Paris. The novel was first published in 1934. It was rediscovered and translated into English in 1984.

The narrator/protagonist, Vadim Maslennikov, is a disturbed, disturbing adolescent from an impoverished Russian household. His father is dead. Vadim is ashamed of his dreary mother who sacrifices everything for him. His cruelty to her is horrifying. Despite his laziness and aimlessness, Vadim believes himself to be exceptionally smart and on the path to becoming a wealthy lawyer.

The first part of the book covers his school days. The school is filled with awful people. Vadim fits right in.

After graduation, he settles into a life of bumming around, borrowing money, and looking for women to sleep with. He has an affair with a married woman who eventually dumps him for being an awful person.

Surprisingly, the novel is compelling, despite the repulsive narrator. He’s full of self-justification and impressed by his own psychological insights. The author does a superb job of creating a fictional character that I could not care less about, but in a world that drew me in.

With nothing to do and no one to do it with, Vadim is bored. When an acquaintance calls and invites him out to join a small group who are hoping to snort cocaine one evening, Vadim joins them. He is invited only because they are out of money and need whatever pittance he can provide. That is his first experience with cocaine and he is instantly hooked.

After the first night, he goes to the home of a wealthy school friend, who fortuitously is going away to visit a girlfriend. He tells Vadim he can housesit, and gives Vadim a wad of money to entertain himself. Vadim spends it all on cocaine.

It is an interesting, personalized narrative of cocaine’s effects, physical and psychological. Vadim eventually succumbs to his addiction.

It’s not a cheery story. It’s not one where I could feel any empathy for the characters. But it is powerfully written.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

The next book in my TBR pile is The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. This novel was extraordinary.

Billed as a literary historical mystery, it is a smartly constructed psychological study and examination into the nature of confession. Narrated by John Reve, the priest in an isolated farming community in early fifteenth century England, the novel draws the reader in slowly but is difficult to put down.

Attention has been drawn to historical inaccuracies by some reviewers, but even though anachronisms usually bother me in serious historical novels, I couldn’t get upset about them here. The novel has an outside-of-time feeling to it that is enhanced by the unfolding of the narrative backward through time.

It begins at the outset of Lent, three days after the drowning death of Tom Newman, the wealthiest, most forward-thinking man in the village of Oakham. Was the death an accident, as John Reve tiredly assures the petty, interfering dean of the district who was called in to investigate? Was it suicide? Or was it murder?

Daily life of the village must go on, with the addition of a village-wide call to confession before Lent. The priest hears the sins and concerns of his charges, assigns gentle penance, and attempts to sort out his own feelings about the dead man, about his duty to God, about his lonely life.

Each part of the novel takes us one day backward in the life of the priest, the Dean, and the community, growing closer to the answer of Newman’s untimely death. By the time we reach the “beginning” of the story, the truth has shifted. Beautifully written and thought provoking, this book is highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to put a dent in my TBR pile. The first book I pulled out was The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino.

The book is structured as a novel in a novel.

The outer skeleton focuses on the residents of the retirement home, nicknamed “the Pen.” A luxury retirement home on the beach in Bar Harbor, founded by a famous (now deceased) literary agent turned doctor, the Pen is home to such (fictional) literary giants as Olivia Peppernell and Raymond Switcher, and editor Judi Arsenault. They are old friends and sometime rivals. Their days are reinvigorated by the arrival of the most renowned writer of them all, Alphonse Carducci. He lived large and had affairs at various times with Olivia and Judi, but the love of his life was the literary agent who founded the home and bequeathed it to him.

The home is staffed by a kindly doctor/psychiatrist, unnamed nurses, and three orderlies. The orderlies, misfits and outcasts, also live in the home. Cecibel Bringer is one of these.

Cecibel suffered a horrific car crash years earlier that left her with severe scarring over half her face. Her physical scars lead her to hide from the world, but her emotional scars are even more devastating. She isn’t sure the car wreck was an accident.

Cecibel’s favorite writer is Alphonse Carducci. When he arrives, a chain reaction occurs throughout the home. Writers need to write, and they had all given up. But Cecibel becomes Alphonse’s muse. He begins writing again. Olivia catches him at it and they start trading off, writing a love story, alternating chapters and viewpoints. Judi transcribes the hand-written notes, cleaning up but not altering anything. When Olivia gets stuck, she allows Raymond to insert a character of his own. For writers, the greatest gift anyone could give them is another chance to create.

For Alphonse, it’s also a chance for one more love, one different from the whirlwind affairs of his earlier days. This time, he’s able to give more than he takes.

The story is a beautiful though sad depiction of aging and dying. The writers look back on their lives with a mixture of triumph, regret, and resignation. Cecibel’s encounters with Alphonse open her up to the possibilities of her own life and help her to confront her past.

These chapters mingle with chapters written by the residents: the story of Cecelia, Aldo, Enzo, and Tressa. Although it does, in a way, suck the reader in, the story written collaboratively by the fictional authors is kind of cheesy and cliche. It’s a fun read, and has some pretty prose, but as the authors said “no planning,” it has an appropriately sloppy plot and stereotyped characters.

The novel overall works very well as the backstories of each of the residents and orderlies unfold and become intertwined in a subdued way. The story they write adds passion and pizzazz.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Clergyman's Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice told by Elizabeth Bennett’s close friend, Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte was the shy neighbor, plain and poor, who stepped in to soothe the ruffled feathers of Mr. William Collins after Elizabeth rejected his marriage proposal. Mr. Collins was the ridiculous, pompous clergyman who was destined to inherit the Bennetts’ entailed estate. He had a living in the nearby village of Hunsford. His patron was the insupportably haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Charlotte, destined to be a spinster, took matters into her own hands when she saw Mr. Collins was available and not difficult to catch. She was not in the least drawn to him, but saw life as his wife as preferable to being a burden on her family.

In The Clergyman’s Wife, Charlotte has a quiet, secure life and a beloved baby daughter to brighten it, but she is hemmed in by William’s fussiness, his bowing and scraping to Lady Catherine, and his unsuitability as a vicar. Reluctant to make a wrong step that would draw her husband’s nervous censure, she hesitates to discover what her role should be. She’s stifled.

Her life changes when a local man is enlisted to plant rose bushes near her house. Although the man, Mr. Travis, is a tenant farmer and not a gentleman, he is thoughtful, interesting, and interested. He’s easy to talk to and she finds herself opening up to him in a way she can’t with her husband. Meeting him leads her to start calling on the parishioners and making friends in Hunsford, finding a purpose. But the more time they spend together, the more dangerous their relationship becomes: they fall in love.

The story is lovely because it is so restrained. It is true to the time period, and the characters stay true to the spirit of the original.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is an odd book to ring in the new year. Translated from the original in German, this is a compelling depiction of two late eighteenth century geniuses: Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt.

The first, Gauss, is a mathematician and astronomer. Irritable and antisocial, Gauss’s discoveries are largely made in his head. He has little patience for those who can’t keep up with his thought processes. He did marry and have a family, but his wife died and his children disappointed him.

The second, Humboldt, is an explorer and naturalist, with interests in all realms of science. Best known for an extensive expedition to the Americas, alongside a companion named Bonpland, he was an avid measurer and collector. He feared nothing except women.

This novel presents scenes from each of the men’s lives, interweaving them with a meeting in Berlin, orchestrated by Humboldt, who hopes for a collaboration.

Narrated distantly by an omniscient narrator who, deadpan, scatters in absurdities, the book relies on tell, not show. The technique works extremely well given the subject matter. Although the reader is kept at a long arm’s length from the protagonists, nevertheless portraits of the two men emerge. Readers can derive a sense of wonder at how far before their time these men were, and how much they accomplished.