Monday, September 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

 My historical fiction book group met virtually this weekend. The book we read was Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is a wonderful writer. I loved The Secret Chord. I was a bit hesitant to read another plague book just now. To Calais, In Ordinary Times by James Meek was such an extraordinary read that I thought, “That’s enough plague.”

However, I dove in and was captivated from the start. Anna Frith is a young widow with two very young children living in a small English mining village in 1666. Her husband died in a mining accident. Her father is a violent drunk. She has to fend for herself. She keeps sheep and works as a housemaid for the Rector and his wife, and also helps serve at the manor of the local gentry, the Bradfords. The Rector’s wife, Elinor, is a saint of a woman, who sees Anna’s intelligence and teaches her to read and allows her to dream.

Everything changes when a traveling tailor comes to the village and boards at Anna’s house. He brings light and laughter into the cottage, as well as hope of a new love. But before they can act on their attraction, he receives a shipment of cloth from London and sets to work making clothes. Soon, he falls ill with the plague. Although his dying plea to Anna is that she “burn everything,” it is impossible for her to carry through. People want the bits and pieces of clothing they paid for. Before long, plague is racing through the town.

The rector, Michael Mompellion, preaches to the village about sacrificial love. He says they should quarantine rather than flee, which would carry the plague far beyond the village. His flock agrees, except for the lord and his family who think themselves too important to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Over the next year, half of the town dies of the plague, directly or indirectly. Anna is witness to all the humanity and inhumanity of the people she has known all her life. She draws closer to Elinor as together they try to bring comfort and healing to the dying, while Michael tends to the practical and spiritual needs of his charges. But things keep going from bad to worse.

Anna is an inspiring character: clear-eyed, generous, compassionate, and imperfect. Because of Anna, the book is hopeful rather than depressing. Only the epilogue didn’t quite fit. It did wrap things up neatly for Anna, but seemed far-fetched after the gritty realism of her life in her village. However, despite my dissatisfaction with the epilogue, I would recommend Year of Wonders. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser

 Having been reminded of my spree of middle-aged male mid-life crisis books, I decided to read The Promise of Elsewhere: A novel by Brad Leithauser.

(An aside, why are so many novels stamped with the subtitle: “----:a novel”? )

This middle-aged protagonist, Louie Hake, is in his forties, which seems too young to be middle-aged, but his mid-life crisis is significant. He is divorcing for the second time. His wife was caught (very publicly) having an affair and ran off with her lover. Louie is an art history professor at a small liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, so he spends a good deal of his professional life explaining that he does not teach at the University of Michigan.

He is, at the same time, arrogant about his intellectualism and insecure about being a fraud. He’s also bipolar and has synesthesia. Finally, he has just received a diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease. He’s slowly going blind. So there’s a lot going on in his head.

As a way to escape from his life for awhile, he submits a plan to his department chair for a course on four great architectural masterpieces: the Pantheon in Rome, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. He embarks on a journey to see them all. However, he gets stalled in Rome, then side-tracked to London, then side-tracked again to Greenland. Along the way, he decides to stop taking his lithium, with predictable results. He meets and spends time with a few strangers, also on journeys of self-discovery, and all their stories come out bit by bit.

Louie’s life is a mess. He’s not a likeable character or an unlikeable one. He’s just a mess, bumbling along, self-absorbed but desperate for connection. The book is sprinkled with little insights into the human condition. And many of Louie’s rants and uncharitable thoughts are funny. But in the end, there isn’t much point to Louie’s grand journey and I don’t see that there has been any real growth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Anxious People: A novel by Fredrik Backman

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

Way back in time, I read a series of books about middle-aged men who suffer a loss of some kind and then meet someone or someones new and have a sort-of rebirth. In the midst of this spate, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and enjoyed it. So I requested Backman’s latest,  Anxious People: A novel, from Netgalley and was fortunate to have the request approved.

This is a feel-good book with quirky characters who are thrown together on the fateful day when a desperate person attempts a bank robbery, fails, and flees the scene only to stumble upon an apartment viewing, inadvertently turning the crime into a hostage crisis.

The crime(s) are handled by two small-town policemen, who happen to be father and son. The hostages include a retired couple who have taken to flipping apartments as projects, a young couple about to become parents, an elderly woman ostensibly looking for a place for her daughter while waiting for her husband to park the car, an obnoxious, hard-nosed banker whose hobby is to go to open houses to see how the other half lives, an amateur actor, and the real estate agent. We get to know these people in part through the interviews with the police and in part by their interactions with one another. They are kind-hearted odd ducks, all carrying baggage of one kind or another.

The plot is an unraveling of the failed robbery/hostage crisis as the police try to determine, after the fact, what happened to the perpetrator, who somehow vanished from the scene. There are surprises galore, snippets of wisdom, and a good dose of humor throughout.

Reading this novel was a delightful way to spend a few hours.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 What a stunning writer Elena Ferrante is. Her Neopolitan Quartet left me floored. Her newly released novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is likewise extraordinary.

I don’t know how she does it. Plot-wise, this is a contemporary “dysfunctional family” book and I hate those. Point-of-view-wise, we are in the head (deeply, deeply in the head) of an adolescent girl from ages 12-15, who is full of tween-to-young-teenager angst. (Bleh.) And yet, from the opening pages, I was completely drawn in and could not put the book down.

Giovanna is the daughter of a professor (her beloved father) and a romance novel editor (her doting mother) and life is good. That is, childhood was good. But as she reaches that awkward age, and her body starts to change, she has a self-confidence crisis. When her grades start to suffer, her parents become concerned. One night, she overhears her father compare her face to that of his despised, loathed, hated, ugly sister, Vittoria. Terrified and hurt, Giovanna is compelled to visit her aunt and find out if it’s true.

To say the family is estranged is an understatement. But her parents eventually give in and let her meet her aunt. The woman lives in the neighborhood where Giovanna’s father grew up—the wrong side of the tracks. Her father, through academic achievement, has managed to move up in the world. He claims his sister resents the fact that he got out. He fears Vittoria will turn his daughter against him the way she turned the rest of the family.

That may be true. Vittoria is certainly an unpleasant and untrustworthy character. Nevertheless, Giovanna is as intrigued by her as she is afraid of her. Vittoria does try to turn Giovanna against her father. She insists the girl spy on her parents to see them as they really are.

She does. And she does.

Theirs is not the idyllic family Giovanna once thought.

Over the next couple of years, the family secrets come out, the marriage falls apart, and Giovanna reacts, first self-destructively by acting out and, secondly, slowly, by growing up. It’s a painful process, one that is still in progress at the book’s end.

This is not a novel that I would have chosen to read based on a plot synopsis. But Elena Ferrante is able to make a time-worn story timeless. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Unbounded Night by Mitchell James Kaplan

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

I’ve been waiting for another novel by Mitchell James Kaplan since reading the superb By Fire, By Water, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to review Into the Unbounded Night.

Set in the time of early Christianity, the time of Nero and Vespasian, the Great Fire in Rome, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this novel incorporates a lot of history and a lot of diverse religious thought.

There are numerous characters whose lives we follow. The readily recognizable historical figures (Paul, Stephen, Luke, Vespasian, Poppaea, Nero) have only walk-on roles but they influence the protagonists in ways large and small. And they ground the reader in the time period. The multiple protagonists are not the larger-than-life people of history but the “common” people.

First, we meet Aislin, a young Briton, who survived the massacre of her people by the Romans. Steeped in the belief system of her world, Aislin makes her way to Rome for one purpose, vengeance. Overwhelmed by what she finds there, she struggles to survive and to understand the new world. Inadvertently, she achieves some of the vengeance she sought. 

Another main character is Yohanan, a Pharisee in Jerusalem, dedicated to study of Jewish tradition and to peace. He’s caught up in a time of Roman occupation and civil unrest that upend his life but the violence and personal loss cannot change his fundamental beliefs.

The reader watches these characters and others grow up and grow old. Or die. Many of the characters die, often brutally, which got to be a bit much. Over time, they all interconnect. It was interesting to see how disparate lives can intertwine and influence each other; however, it was also emotionally distancing. As a reader I felt that I was skirting over the surface of their lives rather than being drawn into them.

Kaplan writes beautifully. This is a deeply meditative novel infused with questions about life, religion, death, and sin. It’s a hard novel to read when the world seems to be falling apart yet again, but there is something hopeful in the timelessness of the struggle and the unanswerableness of the questions.

Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum M.D. by Archibald Malloch

 I just finished a beautiful old book, published in 1937, called Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum, M.D. by Archibald Malloch.

MacCallum was a turn-of-the-twentieth century, Canadian-born, Johns Hopkins-trained physician/scientist who devoted his short life to experimental medicine. He started out as a morphologist, most known for his work on heart muscle, and ended up an experimental physiologist. He was also a poet, an author of short stories, and a prodigious letter writer.

The book is primarily a chronological collection of edited letters. The author (Malloch) annotates them so that the story flows well but he very effectively keeps himself out of it as much as possible to let MacCallum be the one to breathe life into his own story. The writing is achingly beautiful, full of dreams, aspirations, love of research, love of friends, loneliness, and also humor, imagination, and optimism. I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband because they were just so striking. 

What gives this book particular depth and poignancy is that the young physician/scientist contracted tuberculosis while a medical student. Although in earlier letters the dreaded diagnosis is only hinted at, he worked in a place where the symptoms were very readily recognized, tuberculosis was rampant in American society, and his older brother was also a physician. John MacCallum undoubtedly knew his diagnosis and prognosis from the very first. 

He devoted himself to work, accomplishing an extraordinary amount in his short years, despite his physical limitations. He made friends wherever he went, and his death was hard felt by a large community of medical and non-medical people from Canada to Baltimore to Berkeley. 

He also had two romantic friendships with women with whom he corresponded for many years. It’s unclear how the relationships might have progressed had he been healthy, but it does seem that his illness put up a wall against marriage, even if he had been inclined to pursue it. The book has a very early-twentieth-century way of preserving the anonymity of these women, referring to one as “Miriam,” which was not her real name, and the other as “the poetess.” It’s frustrating not to be able to identify who they were and it seems time erased the trails. And yet, their identities don’t really matter.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how MacCallum will write to a friend, to his parents, to his mentor, and to his brother letters covering the same event, written within a couple of days, and put different spins on it for each audience. He might use the same turn of phrase a couple of times, but then elaborate on or play down his thoughts on what he’d done or what took place. It gives a more rounded picture of the man and really humanizes him.

I love epistolary novels, and this book reads like one. It makes me wish people still wrote like this. Instantaneous communication is wonderful, but what a loss for the literary world and for future historians to think that people’s voices won’t be preserved in this way for posterity.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean

 England in the mid 1600s, under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, was a scary and oppressive place to be. I don’t know much about that time period, but S.G. MacLean’s historical thriller series featuring the captain of Cromwell’s Guard, Damien Seeker, is teaching me quite a bit.

Seeker is utterly loyal to Cromwell and works closely with the chief government spy, Thurloe. In the previous two books, starting with The Seeker, the reader is introduced to this strong, complex military man who is feared and hated by many on both sides for good reason. However, we also learn that he can be gentle and kind to those in need. And that he certainly does have a heart.

At the end of book two, Seeker is forced to walk away from the woman he has come to love because he can’t serve Cromwell and look away from her brother’s treasonous leanings. 

In book three, Destroying Angel, Seeker has been sent north to the Yorkshire moors to connect with the Major-General sent there to keep order and to look into the possible return of a banished Loyalist, Thomas Faithly. Faithly had been in exile with the young King, and it is supposed that he has returned to his ancestral estate to drum up support. This sort of thing, rooting out Royalists, is all in a day’s work for Seeker, but there are complications.

Seeker is originally from Yorkshire—not Faithly Moor, where he has been sent—but the area around it. And it was in Yorkshire, as a young man, where personal tragedy changed the course of his life. I don’t want to introduce spoilers for the first two books, but Seeker’s marriage was destroyed and he lost contact with his daughter. With nowhere else to turn, he fled to join Cromwell’s Army and the bitterness and cruelty of that life made him what he is today. He is very, very good at soldiering--cold, demanding, and relentless. (He’s also very good at solving political mysteries.) 

Now that he is back in his old stomping grounds, his past comes back to haunt him.

There is a lot going on in this book. Seeker not only has to search for Faithly, but he also becomes involved in solving a murder of a young girl, the ward of the town constable, a loyal Cromwell supporter. The town is also undergoing an upheaval because of the arrival of a “trier,” a rigid Puritan examiner who has been called in to try the local rector who has been accused of not being Puritan enough. Bitter, long-held grievances between villagers are at play, and Seeker has to sort through what is important and what is not. There is also fear of witchcraft and those who would hunt witches. Although at first it is a lot to take in and keep track of, the reader just needs to keep following the protagonist. Seeker is as clever as ever at untangling the threads until it all comes clear.

These are fascinating novels. Thrilling and disturbing. We keep rooting for Seeker even as the cause he serves becomes more and more corrupt. At some point, there will have to be a reckoning as Cromwell’s England becomes just as evil as the regime it replaced, moving farther from the ideals that drew Seeker to the fight. I’ve got the next book on hand and am anxious to see what comes next.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen

 Every once in a while I get an urge to pad some of the many gaps in my historical education. One of these gaps is the Spanish-American War. Buzz words I remember are “yellow journalism” and “Remember the Maine.” After reading the novel Hunting Teddy Roosevelt I wanted to learn more about Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. What was that all about?

The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen, published last year to some critical acclaim, was just the book to bring me up to speed. Roosevelt is the star of the show, but this is more than just a time-limited biography of the man. It’s a more inclusive look at the factors leading to the war and an explanation of how Roosevelt played the out-sized role that he did. The account of the war itself is very detailed and other prominent Rough Riders are also featured. 

The book’s focus is narrow. It doesn’t delve into what else is going on in the U.S. or the world at the time, but it gives enough of an overview to provide context. It does exactly what it needs to do to explain the Spanish-American War to someone whose knowledge of it was far too superficial.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter by Michael J. Sullivan

 I found a bright spot in the gloom. Michael J. Sullivan wrote a fourth book in the The Riyria Chronicles that I somehow missed: The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter.

Many years ago, I discovered the superb high fantasy trilogy, The Riyria Revelations, starring the entertaining duo Royce Melborn (assassin) and Hadrian Blackwater (mercenary) who have teamed up as thieves for hire. The unstoppable pair save the world piece by piece, one adventure at a time. The books are fast-paced, excitement-packed, and delightfully funny. The wisecracking friendship between the two is what makes the books addictive. 

So, when I finished the trilogy, I was thrilled by the release of prequels, The Riyria Chronicles, which filled in the backstory of how the two met and began their journey together. After the third, The Death of Dulgath, it seemed the series went on hold and, though I mourned, I eventually moved on. 

Fortunately, I stumbled on this fourth book and quickly purchased it. Now I’m hooked all over again.

A wealthy whiskey baron from a city once terrorized by Royce (in his early life, when he went by the name “Duster”) hires him to find out what happened to his daughter, Genni, who married a duke from the city of Rochelle. She has disappeared and is believed dead. The grieving father suspects the duke wed her for her dowry then had her killed. If that’s the case, he wants revenge, bloody revenge. He knows “Duster” is capable of devastating a city; he’s done it before.

The pay is good. Royce is willing. Hadrian goes along, expecting, in his cheerfully optimistic way, to find the woman alive.

It should have been an easy job, but they enter a city full of nobility awaiting the appointment of a new king. The old king, along with his whole extended family, has supposedly drowned at sea in a storm. In such a situation, the bishop gets to appoint someone. He intends to appoint himself, but first he needs to get rid of his competition, which is all the nobility of the land, in one fell swoop. To accomplish this, he enlists help from a few of the downtrodden of the town, who possess some dangerous magic. Royce and Hadrian not only have to find the woman and rescue her, but they have to do it before the demons are unleashed. The race is on!

Once again, Sullivan provides a rollicking adventure. The trademark banter between the protagonists is there, but more muted than in some of the previous books. There is some interior monologue that gets a little too earnest as Royce seeks to understand the changes being wrought in his own psyche after so much exposure to Hadrian. It’s necessary character development, but steals a bit of the mystery of Royce.

This book was actually published back in 2017. I’m not sure how I missed it until now. The author has been working on a new series that takes place in the same universe but centuries (millennia?) before. I’ve read one of these, The Age of Myth. While it is great fantasy, it doesn’t have Royce and Hadrian and the humor is missing, so I haven’t followed the series. I’m just hoping Sullivan will find inspiration and time for a book five in the chronicles.

Monday, August 17, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Hunting Teddy Roosevelt by James A. Ross

 I had the pleasure to read this newly released historical novel pre-publication. Highly recommended for historical fiction fans!

A thrilling blend of historical fact and fictional adventure, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt takes the reader on safari with ex-president Teddy Roosevelt as he pursues big game while contemplating an unprecedented third term. But his African exploits may well doom his political career. He encounters predators more ferocious than lions and rhinoceroses, including an assassin with a personal grudge hired by determined political foes. And when an old flame turned muckraking journalist joins the safari, Roosevelt faces a danger even more threatening to his political career: a ruined reputation. With beautifully written detail, author James Ross seamlessly chronicles the hunt, draws attention to the political conflicts and human atrocities of the time, and paints a lush picture of the African wilderness, while presenting Roosevelt as both larger than life and touchingly, vulnerably human.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Flaxborough Crab by Colin Watson

 Back in 2018, I discovered (thanks to Netgalley) the re-released Flaxborough Chronicles of Colin Watson. Starting with Coffin Scarcely Used, which I loved, I started reading my way through several of them. In general, I liked the earlier books better. I got them a bit out of order, and stopped with what I think was the last in the series, but missed some along the way. One of these, The Flaxborough Crab, has been on my kindle queue for quite a while, so I finally loaded it up to read.

This is book six in the series. Again, it pits Detective Purbright against the criminal element. Purbright is an intelligent, methodical, and generally unexcitable chief detective in a small English town that sees more than its fair share of crime. The book begins with an off-putting series of sex crimes, off-putting because of the response to them. Watson has an ironic style that doesn’t fit well with attempted rape and flashing. The police seem amused by the crimes and some even hint that some of the women took pride in the excitement of being harassed, commenting also on the relative attractiveness of the victims.

However, that aside, the plot (typically far-fetched in this satirical crime novel series) holds together. The author’s skill at humorous description remains the best part of the book. The story is sped along by the reappearance of Miss Teatime, a fiercely intelligent con artist who has the habit of becoming embroiled in the adventures and aiding Purbright, but whose motives are generally mercenary.

While my enthusiasm for the series has faded somewhat over the years, I still find that once I start one of the books, I can’t put it down. I’m carried along by the old-fashioned dry wit of the narrator. If you like old-style British humor, this series delivers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: When Life Was Young: At the Old Farm in Maine by C.A. Stephens

 After the thrilling dark historical mystery, The Black Friar by S.G. MacClean, I changed gears and read the simple, old-fashioned story, When Life Was Young: At the Old Farm in Maine by C.A. Stephens. Written in 1912 and available as a free download at the Gutenberg Project, this is a sweet memoir about a young adolescent boy’s first year on his grandfather’s farm in Maine. The boy’s father (and the fathers of some of his cousin’s, sons of the grandfather) died in the Civil War, and the children, male and female cousins, six in all, were sent to live with their grandparents. 

The story is told by “Edmund’s son,” the last of the children to arrive. He is twelve years old, the youngest of the boys, older than two of his female cousins. Terribly homesick at first, he adapts to life on the farm, helped first by the novelty and then by the close-knit family and homespun adventure. Despite the hard work and some difficulties with one particular cousin, it’s a good life for a child.

The book takes the reader through nearly a year of Maine farm life. The work is described in detail, as are the “simple pleasures:” a fair, a camping trip, fishing, and a game of hoarding apples that has the whole family taking part good-naturedly in some petty thievery. 

There is some similarity to The Little House books, except that this is a boy’s recollections and the people stay put in the East. The grown narrator does a fair amount of retrospective moralizing but, overall, captures well the mind-set of a shy young boy coming of age in a safe haven following tragedy. A sweet book and a pleasant read.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean

 The second book in the  Damian Seeker series by S.G. MacLean, The Black Friar, is as superb as the first, The Seeker

Picking up where Book 1 left off, Damian Seeker continues in his role as the captain of Oliver Cromwell’s guard. It’s a difficult job, protecting the Lord Protector, when plots are springing up right and left. The main antagonists are the Royalists, but there are also Fifth Monarchists (religious fanatics) as well as the generally disenchanted folks who once supported Cromwell but who speak against him now that he has assumed the role of king. For them, he’s no better than the deposed and executed tyrant.

Amongst the disenchanted are those honest people we met in book one, Elias Ellingworth, an impoverished lawyer and pamphleteer, and his sister, Maria. Seeker and Maria have begun an affair. For these star-crossed lovers, there is no viable future. Seeker knows it’s only a matter of time before he will have to arrest Elias, and possibly Maria herself. Keeping such a relationship secret with so many spies watching each other is also a dangerous undertaking.

As the book opens, a dead man is found walled into an old monastery. The body is too well- preserved to belong to the centuries-old location or to the Blackfriar’s clothing he’s wearing. Seeker recognizes the man, a spy who was supposed to have died months earlier, a spy whose funeral he witnessed. The man was deeply embedded in uncovering something. Seeker’s superior, Thurloe, assigns Seeker to find out what the spy had learned that got him killed.

At the same time, children are going missing in the city. Not many, but the coincidence is too striking for Seeker to ignore since their circumstances are not typical of runaways or street children.

Seeker is good at his job. He’s known and widely feared throughout the city. He navigates the swirling conspiracies within the government with intelligence and cynicism. He’s kind to the lowly but ruthless to those who fall afoul of the law.  And if he has to choose between his duty to Cromwell and his love for Maria. . .

Again, the various threads of the mystery are thickly interwoven. The historical background is fascinating. And Seeker’s personal battles are as gripping as the political ones.

I have book three on my shelf and book four on order. These books are great!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

As a child, I read The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and had a typical reaction to them. I wanted to be a pioneer girl. I absorbed all the romance of the frontier spirit of that little girl, admiring her pluck and wanting to be able to do all the old-fashioned, simpler-times things she could do. The tribulations she faced made the reading more exciting but, like young Laura, I felt secure that the adults in her world would take care of the adult problems while she fought her own more minor battles.

As an adult, I re-read the series with my own daughter and loved the books all over again. This time, I was able to read between the lines and recognize the tragedy and hardship that lay underneath the optimism of the child.

These are wonderful, wonderful books. Each time I’ve read them, I wished there were more. And though I understand the concept of ‘historical fiction,’ like many readers, I was curious to know how much was fact and how much was fiction.

In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser explores the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder and gives a more factual account. Meticulously researched and cleanly written, Fraser brings that frontier girl back to life, fixing the chronology, filling in the gaps, and analyzing the factors that shaped the life of the amazing author of the Little House books. The foibles of the Ingalls family, the struggles faced by Laura and Almanzo in their adult life, and the controversy over the shared editing process between Laura and her daughter, Rose, are addressed in a straightforward fashion. Bringing this all out does nothing to tarnish the image of the fictional/semi-autobiographical pioneer girl, but rather rounds out the life of the author and helps to demonstrate how impressive her achievements truly were. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox.

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

I just finished The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox. I’ve been dipping into some history of medicine lately, so this book caught my eye on Netgalley, even though it goes WAY back in time–back to the “invention” of medicine.

The author is a historian, known for his work on Ancient Greece. I should have recognized from this that the book would be pretty dense and academic; in other words, way over my head. But even so, I found much to appreciate in the information being presented. The author is clearly knowledgeable in his field and his enthusiasm for the subject and for his theories pulled me in. He was able, at times, to make it relatable to 2020, surprising me with how up-to-date the book is, given how in-depth the study was. When it wandered too deep into the weeds, I had to take a step back and let it wash over me, but I imagine that for scholars of ancient Greek history, the things I found less interesting are exactly the things that would excite debate.

In short, the author looks at the development of “medicine” as a craft. Surely there were healers before there were doctors, but he makes a distinction between the two. Starting with the famed doctors named in the Iliad, who were concerned mostly with treating war wounds and who attributed much non-traumatic (and some traumatic) sickness and healing to divine intervention, the book moves on to the body of work comprising “Hippocratic” medicine, which progressed beyond looking to gods/goddesses for explanation to looking at man/woman as part of Nature with innate illnesses. There was something more scientific in their methods, even if they got just about everything wrong.

The bulk of the book, and Fox’s central argument, goes to build a case for ascribing a portion of the Hippocratic corpus, namely books 1 and 3 of the Epidemics, to that actual person: Hippocrates. Not being a Greek scholar, it all sounded plausible to me, but what really impressed me was how much is known from the fifth century B.C. The author is trying to nail down the identity of real people living millennia ago and placing them within narrow 50-60 year time periods. I was struck more by the methodology than by the argument.

My overall impression is that this book can be read through a number of different lenses and so may appeal to a broader audience than historians of Ancient Greece or medical historians.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh delivers reliably enjoyable Historical Romance. Someone to Romance, the 8th book in the Westcott series, is light-hearted fare (despite some dark backstory) with a smart heroine and hero who are fun to root for.

Jessica Archer is the younger sister of the Duke of Neverby, whose love story was told in the first book of the series. At that time, the Westcott family was turned upside down when Jessica’s cousin’s father, the Earl of Riverdale, was revealed to be a bigamist. His children were thus illegitimate. Jessica’s cousin/best friend was disinherited and snubbed by the ton. Although Jessica had been looking forward to her first season, she gave it all up because her cousin could not take part.

Now years have passed and Jessica realizes it’s time for her to seriously consider getting married and taking her place in the world. The problem is, while she has many admirers, she wants love. She wants romance.

Gabriel Thorne is not, at first glance, a likely candidate. Although he is a titled gentleman, he fled England many years earlier and found a place with his mother’s cousin in Boston. He is now a very wealthy member of the American merchant class. He has no desire to return to the country of his birth; however, duty calls him home.

The two cross paths under unfavorable circumstances and there is a rather instantaneous mutual dislike. But they meet again in London in ton settings and an attraction builds. Jessica slowly learns the truth about Gabriel’s past. She is able to harness her training as a duke’s sister to support him as he returns to society and as he seeks to displace the cousin who is trying to usurp his place.

Although the plot lines and character traits can become repetitive over the course of too much Regency Romance reading, authors with Balogh’s skill can keep stories fresh and readable. This is a delightful series that continues to hold my interest.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber

Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, Sebastian Gage, are back to solve another murder in A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber. It is early January 1832, and the detective couple are at a house party held at the duke and duchess of Bowmont’s estate, celebrating Twelfth Night. The duchess is a new friend and Kiera, despite being six months pregnant, is enjoying herself, though the drinking and the traditional fun of naming a “lord and lady of misrule” is getting a bit wearying as the night wears on. When one of the duchess’s sons offers to lead a ghost tour of the catacombs, Kiera and Gage follow along. Their holiday is cut short when a newly-dead body is discovered amongst the skeletons. It is in a state of decomposition, two to four weeks by Kiera’s estimation, and cannot be positively identified. However, the best guess is that it is the body of the duchess’s son-in-law, a man that is not well liked by the family. And a wound to the skull makes it clear a murder had taken place.

Kiera and Gage are once again called upon to investigate foul play. And, to Kiera’s dismay, it appears likely the culprit is a member of the duchess’s family. Or it might be the lover of the duchess’s daughter, a man that had previously been a thorn in Kiera’s (and Gage’s) side but who was beginning to be more of a friend. (He has been in previous novels.) Kiera is disturbed by the fact that people she has come to care for are clearly lying and hiding something.

The family dynamics in the duchess’s household are complex. Kiera and Gage uncover more secrets than they care to know on the way to finding the murderer. They are helped by their loyal servants, Anderley and Bree, who are hiding a secret of their own, and by Kierra’s brother Trevor, who was also at the party.

The mystery is well-plotted and the interpersonal relationships are moving. This is a wonderful series for those who enjoy historical mystery with a strong dose of romance. Start with book one: The Anatomist’s Wife.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Dublin Student Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor’s novels about general practitioners in a fictional small town in Ireland set around the 1960s caught my attention several years back. I started reading my way through them, but stalled 2 ½ years ago with An Irish Country Courtship. Because I’m looking for some “comfort reads,” and because my local library has partially reopened with curbside service, I decided to move on to book six, A Dublin Student Doctor.

This novel jumps back in time to the 1930s to show Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly’s medical school days in Dublin and his introduction to the woman he is re-courting in the 1960s, Kitty O’Hallorhan. It uses a somewhat clunky framing device to get us from “current day” into O’Reilly’s memory. O’Reilly and his young partner, Dr. Laverty, are on their way home from an outing when they come across a bicycle vs. car accident. The victim is one of O’Reilly’s friends/patients, Donal Donnelly. He has a bad head injury. An ambulance is on the way, so O’Reilly arranges to accompany Donal to the hospital in Dublin, a few hours away. There, he will be operated upon by an old classmate of O’Reilly’s, who is now a brain surgeon. O’Reilly spends the night in the old student quarters and reminisces about his student days.

O’Reilly knew, from the age of thirteen, that he wanted to be a doctor. He had obstacles to overcome, the first being his father’s adamant disapproval. But O’Reilly stuck to his guns, paying his own way. Family dynamics are one plot arc.

There are two other main arcs. One is O’Reilly’s love life. Early on, he meets Kitty, a student nurse. They start spending time together, but only very little time as they are both busy. O’Reilly is hesitant to commit to the relationship because of the demands of medical school. Too hesitant.

The final arc is his progress through medical school. He has the support of a “study group” which includes the future brain surgeon. They are a tight-knit group, with varying degrees of dedication to their studies. The work is difficult but fascinating. In addition to the studying, O’Reilly has to overcome his natural empathy for the patients without becoming hardened to their suffering.

It’s an interesting look into the life and times of medical students in Dublin in the 1930s. There are vaguely ominous political rumblings in the background. The author takes pains to describe the medical evaluations and surgical procedures O’Reilly would have been exposed to. Some of it has an info-dumpy feel to it, but it does make the setting seem realistic. Also realistic was the hard drinking for relaxation and the sexist outlook of the group of men. There was a female medical student rotating with them, and they accepted her as a colleague, but there was never a thought of including her outside of the wards. They had to work in pairs and she was left to partner with Fitzpatrick, an obsequious, annoying student who sucked up to the attendings and threw a wet blanket on all their fun. She was really a non-character, but at least there was a female medical student.

Taylor’s novels are comforting reads. The characters are good-hearted. The conflicts are middle-of-the-road. Most are resolved happily and those that aren’t are poignant rather than tragic. There are several more in this series and I’m sure I’ll return to it again.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lincoln Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

My book group is meeting virtually tonight to discuss our latest pick, The Lincoln Conspiracy. The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th president and Why It Failed, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch.

Before Lincoln took office, a determined group of southern white supremacists, who feared the government was coming to take away their slaves, decided the only thing to do was assassinate Lincoln before his inauguration. Fortunately, their plans were leaked. Allan Pinkerton, a well-established private detective with a strong agency (including women agents) signed on to investigate the plot and protect Lincoln.

The book is a solidly researched quick read that sets up the plot with interesting period detail. Although the outcome is known, it is nevertheless gripping to watch the events unfold.

The Lincoln Conspiracy is a strong addition to the vast field of history about Abraham Lincoln.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Who Wants to Marry a Duke by Sabrina Jeffries

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

Who Wants to Marry a Duke by Sabrina Jeffries is the third book in the Duke Dynasty series. I haven’t read the first two, which is not my usual practice, but it’s easy to jump into this series in the middle. These Regency Romances are based on the adult children of the thrice-married Lydia Fletcher, a duchess. It seems she married three dukes in succession, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Her sons have decided to investigate. The murder mystery is an interesting subplot and, unusual for Romance/Mysteries, the case is not solved over the course of the book. This provides quite a hook for subsequent books in the series.

In book 3, Marlow Drake, the Duke of Thornstock, known as “Thorn” (because all Regency Romance heroes have names like this) has been reared mainly in Berlin, but returns to take up his responsibilities after the death of his father. At a ball, part of the marriage mart, he meets a strange young woman, Miss Olivia Norley, under “cute” circumstances. They crash into one another and he spills his drink on himself. She offers to help clean it with sodium bicarbonate, which she happens to have in her reticule, and champagne. They retire to a private room, he takes off his jacket and vest, and she gets out the spot. Olivia is an aspiring chemist. She’s also young, beautiful, and naive. So he attempts to take advantage of her. She is innocent enough to go along with it, apparently not realizing that young gentlewomen don’t make out with strange half-dressed dukes at balls. Her stepmother catches them at it and demands that Thorn appear in the morning with an offer of marriage. He is furious, believing it a trap, and blames Olivia.

Nevertheless, he appears in the morning and makes the offer. She realizes that he doesn’t actually want to marry her, so she says no, angering her stepmother and infuriating Thorn even more.

So, the setup didn’t leave me very favorably impressed with the hero.

The story picks up eight years later. Thorn, having been pegged by the step-mother to be a rakehell, decides to live down to the reputation. He’s a duke. He can get away with it. Olivia, meanwhile, has gone on to pursue her interest in chemistry. (Her uncle is a chemist.) And she’s pretty content. But their paths cross again when Thorn’s stepbrother hires Olivia to test his father’s remains for arsenic poisoning.

Although Thorn still holds a grudge and mistrusts Olivia, she is excited by the chance to prove her skills as a chemist. She doesn’t understand why Thorn is so mean to her. She’s still attracted to him and confused by his behavior, which includes continuing to try to seduce her. She’s pretty much game for it, as long as it doesn’t interfere with her investigations. She understands the principles of chemical behavior better than people.

Olivia is a wonderful person, open and honest since she doesn’t really know how to be otherwise. Thorn eventually comes around to seeing it. There is also danger and mystery to move the story along, because whoever murdered the dukes is not going to hesitate to murder the woman who can prove the crime.

My description of the plot and characters doesn’t quite do the story justice. It is an entertaining read and the developing romance is fun to follow. Thorn’s internal monologue explains his behavior. He’s not a particularly admirable Romance hero, but he’s not awful.

I am drawn in by the unsolved murders and will likely look for the next book in the series to see how the case unfolds.

Monday, July 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

In my continuing effort to read some of the neglected books on my shelf, I pulled out The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This was a Christmas present in 2018. So it’s a fairly new “old” book.

Essentially a love letter to libraries, the book uses the Los Angeles Central Library as its focal point, spinning the story around a fire that devastated the building and its contents in April 1986. The fire burned for over 7 hours, destroyed four hundred thousand books, and damaged seven hundred thousand more. There were many irreplaceable books and objects in their special collections. For any library lover, reading about the tragedy, “watching” it unfold, can cause a visceral reaction. For the librarians, patrons, and Los Angeles’ citizens, it was a nightmare.

Orlean starts with the fire, but then goes back in time to trace out the history of the library and expand into the history of libraries more generally. We get a journalistic look into how large city libraries are run and how they function in communities. The mission of the public library has changed over time from being a repository of books to being more inclusive community centers.

Paralleling the examination of libraries, Orlean examines the life history of the only person accused as the likely arsonist, Harry Peak. No conclusion can be drawn as to his guilt or innocence, which is frustrating, but it allows the author to examine the socioeconomic environment of Los Angeles as well as theories of arson–the psychology of arsonists and the changing field of arson investigation.

The book is interesting and clearly written, but a bit of a slow read. It’s not a page-turner; the search for a possible arsonist does not have a tense who-dunnit feel, but that wasn’t the point of it. There is a lot of digression, all circling back to the library. The scope is broad but somewhat shallow. The book works as an ode to libraries and to librarians, and those who share the author’s love of libraries will be drawn to The Library Book.

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.