Sunday, June 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor

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

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor is a heartbreaking literary historical novel. Set in 1938, on a fictional island off the coast of Wales, the story is narrated by an 18-year-old island woman named Manod.

Manod is intelligent and caring. She’s attuned to the rhythms of island life, but yearns to expand her horizons. Many of the younger islanders have already moved to the mainland in search of better opportunities, and Manod hopes to do so also, but it’s unclear whether their lives improve or if what they sacrifice in leaving is too great a price to pay.


The story begins with two arrivals. The first is a dead whale that washes ashore. As it slowly decomposes, it becomes part of the island, incorporated into children’s games and adult rituals. The second is an invasion by two English ethnographers, who are eager to record the culture of the islanders before it disappears. They enlist Manod’s help as an interpreter/transcriber. She begins to see them as the means for her escape. Yet her admiration for them slides into disillusionment as she discovers how they manipulate their observations to tell the story they want to tell.

As expected, the ethnographers are more interested in creating a compelling story for the book they are writing than in presenting a realistic picture of the people and their customs. In the act of “preserving” the culture, they are instrumental in distorting it.

The language is spare. The pace of the novel is slow, but there is a tension in it that held my interest – a sense of impending doom. The whale is potentially an evil omen. The ethnographers are unprincipled. The culture is slowly dying. And WWII is approaching. This is not exactly an enjoyable novel, but it will make you think.

Friday, June 28, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Feisty Deeds: Historical Fictions of Daring Women (multi-authored)

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


Feisty Deeds: Historical Fictions of Daring Women
is a multi-authored collection of 23 short stories featuring fictional women throughout history, from medieval times to the 1970s. It’s not a book that I can sit and read cover-to-cover, but it’s great fun to dip into. Pick a theme (Gambling with the Unknown; Dangerous Deeds; Moral Combat; or Defying Domestic Authority) and enjoy! There is something here for everyone!

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: A Deceptive Composition by Anna Lee Huber

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

A Deceptive Composition is the twelfth book in Anna Lee Huber’s historical mystery series, Lady Darby Mysteries. It continues the sleuthing careers of Kiera Gage (the one-time Lady Darby) and her husband Sebastian Gage, an inquiry officer for the King. Included now in their team is Kiera’s irascible father-in-law, Lord Gage.


The trio are summoned to Roscarrock, in Cornwall, Lord Gage’s childhood home. The summoner was Lord Gage’s Aunt Amelia, who requested help with the investigation of the murder of her brother Branok. Lord Gage is loath to go. He left Cornwall at age 11, after being embroiled in the family’s smuggling operation. He and his best friend were caught. His best friend was killed. And Lord Gage was sent off to the Navy. He has never forgiven his family for dragging him into the illegal business and for abandoning him when he was caught. However, Sebastian and Kiera feel that, after fifty years, it’s time for reconciliation. Sebastian has always been curious about his Cornwall relations. Moreover, they can’t refuse to help investigate a murder in the family.

Lord Gage warns them that the people in Roscarrock are shifty and untrustworthy. And that they are still smugglers. Nevertheless, they set off. Their company includes the men’s valets, Kiera’s maid, their baby daughter, Emma, and Emma’s nurse. The whole crew becomes involved in untangling the mystery, which includes murder, deceit, and a missing treasure.

Once again, the series delivers a compelling mystery and a deep dive into family bonds and family dysfunction. The Lady Darby Mysteries continue to engage!

Friday, June 21, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Long Island by Colm Tóibín

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

I love Colm Tóibín’s novels. I recently read Brooklyn in preparation for his newest release, Long Island. The new book continues the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant to New York, who married an Italian plumber, Tony Fiorello, and thus became part of a large Italian-American family. Now the mother of two teenagers, she has adapted to a life in Long Island, but she has never quite fit in. She hasn’t been back to Ireland in over 20 years, and feels disconnected from both her old family and her new.


The vague dissatisfaction she feels with her life worsens to a crisis when a strange man shows up at her door. He claims his wife is pregnant with Tony’s baby. And when the baby is born, he intends to leave it on the Fiorello doorstep because he doesn’t want it in his house. Eilis doesn’t want it in her house either. Although she makes her wishes clear, the Fiorellos make plans behind her back to take the baby in.

While Eilis’ position may seem harsh, the utter disregard for her feelings highlights her isolation. When she decides to go back to Ireland for her mother’s 80th birthday, it is clear to Tony and everyone else that she might not return.

As Eilis is dealing with this, the novel turns to two of the people she left behind in Ireland. Her one-time best friend Nancy, who is now a widow, and Jim Farrell. Jim owns and runs a tavern. Twenty-years ago, he and Eilis had a summer romance (unconsummated), back when Eilis was newly married to Tony. One can imagine Eilis and Jim picking up where they left off, except for one complication. Jim and Nancy are now involved, and secretly engaged.

Tóibín is able to crawl inside these characters’ heads, making them all tragically sympathetic to start. (At least the three protagonists. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Tony.)  It is impossible to resolve the triangle without a great deal of heartache. I read along, hurting for the characters, unable to guess how it was going to work out, completely engrossed.

While I think Long Island is the better book, I recommend reading Brooklyn first. It’s also superb and will set the stage for the emotionally compelling sequel. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

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

The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club is a new release from Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Set in the summer of 1919, in a British seaside resort town, it explores the alteration of British lives in the aftermath of WWI and the Spanish flu.


Constance Haverhill is a young woman who has lost both her parents and now her job and home. During the war, she helped run the estate of old family friends. But with the return of men from the war, women were booted back to traditional female roles so that men could have jobs, no matter if the women (and their children) had no means of support. For this summer, Constance is serving as a companion to Mrs. Fog, the widowed mother of Lady Mercer (whose estate Constance had been overseeing.) Fortunately for Constance, Mrs. Fog is a kind woman who allows her a good bit of autonomy. (Mrs. Fog has interests on the side that she doesn’t want her daughter to know about.)

While at the hotel, Constance is befriended by Poppy Wirrall, a feisty girl of her own age who runs a motorcycle taxi and delivery service, staffed by women. Poppy takes Constance for a ride, and Constance is hooked. Poppy also introduces her to her mother, widow of a local baronet and a force in the community. And Constance meets Poppy’s brother, Harris, a sour-faced and angry war veteran, a pilot, whose leg had been amputated after a crash. Harris has means to live an idle life, but he wants to fly again, to be treated as the man he has always been, not be shunted aside as damaged goods.

While Constance is enjoying this time with new friends, abuzz with activity, she is acutely aware of the difference between her social class (and some of Poppy’s employees/friends) and that of Poppy and her society friends. Moreover, Constance is pressed by the passage of time to look for employment. The summer will not last forever, and Mrs. Fog will be returning home to her daughter. She will have no further need for a companion. Constance hopes for a bookkeeping job, but fears those jobs will go to men and she will end up a governess.

The plight of women cast adrift in the aftermath of the war is beautifully shown, as is the upheaval in the lives of veterans. Nevertheless, despite the potentially heavy subject matter, this is a light, charming read thanks to the good-heartedness of the protagonists and their enjoyment of what the summer has to offer.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

They say you never get over your first love. Lara Nelson, the protagonist and narrator of Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake, believes that this is not true. Lara’s first love was Peter Duke, a handsome, young, charismatic actor at the beginning of his career. They met at a summer stock theater in Michigan, at a place called Tom Lake. Lara was twenty-four and also an up-and-coming actress. The play was Our Town. Lara starred as Emily Webb. Although brilliant as Emily, she soon discovered it was the only role she could play well. In contrast, Peter Duke was a huge talent who went on to movie stardom.


It is now a pandemic spring. Lara, her husband, and their three adult daughters are in their bubble at the family cherry orchard in Michigan. They are spending long hours every day harvesting the cherries, because someone has to and workers are hard to come by. While they work, the girls ask their mother to tell them the story of her summer at Tom Lake and her love affair with the famous Peter Duke.

The story alternates between the farm/current day and Tom Lake more than 30 years before. Lara thoughtfully relates the story, a compelling story of youth, ambition, innocence, and innocence lost. Lara also narrates the current day, where her love for her family and contentment with the way her life has unfolded shine through.

The book is also an homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play I never liked much but now have a greater appreciation for.

This is a beautiful, poignant, and affirming novel. I have to read more by Ann Patchett. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

I heard good things about The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon, and bumped it to the top of my TBR pile. This is a historical mystery that definitely lives up to its hype.

The novel is inspired by the story of Martha Ballard, a late-eighteenth century midwife in Maine, who kept a daily journal of her work. I read about this fascinating woman decades ago in the award winning biography A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. That nonfiction account puts Martha’s life in the context of the time. I still recommend it all these years later.


In this novel, Lawhon breathes new life into the story by focusing on diary entries recording the rape of one of the townswomen, Rebecca Foster. She named the local judge as one of the rapists. Although The Frozen River is fictional, truthful (painfully true) elements seep through. (Be sure to read the author’s note at the end!)

I don’t want to give away the plot(s). So I’ll just say the writing is superb. The questions that are raised throughout, the desire to see justice done, and the fear that it won’t be, makes this a book that is difficult to put down. The love story between Martha and her husband Ephraim gives the book a soothing, hopeful core while corruption, male privilege, rape, and murder swirl around them. This novel is highly recommended as a must-read for fans of historical fiction.