Friday, December 8, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Day by Michael Cunningham

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

Day by Michael Cunningham starts with a compelling premise–a look at one family on three individual days: April 5, 2019, April 5, 2020, and April 5, 2021. So, before the pandemic, in the midst of it, and as it is fading from attention but certainly not gone. And while I’m not quite sure I’m ready for pandemic stories, I did really love Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, so I thought I’d give this one a try.

The father in the family is Dan, a forty-ish stay-at-home dad who took time off from his rock-star ambitions and is now trying to make a comeback. It’s hard to call it a comeback, though, since his career never really took off in the first place. The mother is Isabel, a driven photography editor for a magazine, who works long hours, makes good money, and is growing depressed over the fact that print magazines are soon to be a thing of the past. They have two children, a tween boy who is wrapped up in his friends and wants to distance himself from his parents, and a six-year-old daughter, a pleaser, who is a bit fey. At the center of the story is Robbie, Isabel’s younger brother (younger being his late thirties.) Robbie is the cool, gay uncle who lives in their attic apartment. Both Dan and Isabel are, the novel makes a point of saying, in love with Robbie. It’s not sexual, just romantic. Robbie is in love with them too. However, he has just been dumped by his latest lover and feels he really needs to get on with his life. He teaches sixth grade and hates it. He was admitted to medical school long ago, but didn’t go, and thinks maybe he should reapply. Mainly though, he feels he needs to move out of his sister’s house–if only he could find something decent in his price range in NYC.

This is all established in chapter one, in 2019. It’s fairly clear that the family is bound together by very loose threads. In 2020, those threads are unraveling, but the characters have nowhere to go. (Although Robbie does get away, to Iceland, where he is stranded.) In 2021, the adults are able to physically separate, but the kids are still trapped.

The writing is quite fine, with a narrative distance that fits well with a pandemicky, claustrophobic, fearful vibe. However, the characters never came alive or seemed like real people. The emotions were analyzed rather than felt. And for all they were living through history, the drama focused on small domestic trials, and the stakes remained small with muted conflicts. One motif of the novel was the Instagram character “Wolfe,” whose daily life events were posted by Robbie with occasional input by Isabel – a sort-of handsome-ish, likeable everyman. The photos were stolen from stock photos on the internet. He wasn’t real but seemed vaguely real. This is how the characters of Day seemed to me.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Dot and Ralfie by Amy Hoffman

Dot and Ralfie by Amy Hoffman is a poignant look at aging in the modern era. It’s realistic, and so it’s rather frightening. For anyone experiencing or facing the inevitable difficulties of growing older, or dealing with family members in that situation, this couple’s tragedies (knee replacements, falls, heart attacks, monetary concerns) are all too recognizable.

Dot and Ralfie are in their late sixties. A lesbian couple who have been together forever, they have their quirks as individuals and as a couple. They have friends, coworkers, and family (Dot has a sister), who are sympathetic to their difficulties, but who can’t really offer solutions (although Dot’s sister tries.) Unfortunately, there is no cure for getting old. There are work-arounds that might help one “age in place,” but all that depends upon the acceptance of the fact that this is the new reality. And yet, it isn’t as bleak as it sounds. Relationships remain important, and the protagonists certainly rely on their relationships.

This is a short novel, and so it condenses the drama into vignettes. Even so, it is a realistic exploration of issues surrounding aging from the unique perspective of a couple in the LGBTQ+ community.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson IV: Winter by Sigrid Undset

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

The fourth and final novel in Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece of historical fiction, Olav Audunsson IV: Winter (translated by Tiina Nunnally) has recently been released. I really can’t praise this quartet enough. Please read the series in sequence — I: Vows, II: Providence;III: Crossroads, and finally, IV: Winter. This new translation manages to be both spare and beautiful.

The novels are set in 13th-14th century Norway, a generation before Undset’s Nobel Prize-winning Kristin Lavransdatter.

The story follows the life of Olav Audunsson from childhood until death. He is a God-fearing man. He inherits property and eventually becomes a wealthy, respected member of his community. And his whole life is centered (for good and bad, mostly bad) around his undying love for his childhood friend, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. Everything happens that one might expect: death of parents, unwise premarital sex, exile, war, murder, unfaithfulness, reconciliation, marriage, birth of children, death of children, estrangements, and religious agony and ecstasy. Even so, it is in many ways a quiet book, with more happening internally than externally.

The tragedy of Olav’s life rivals that of any Greek tragedy. The cascading misfortunes that follow youthful errors haunt him his entire life. His sins are visited upon his children. He is unhappy throughout his life and his actions cause others misery as well. And yet, for all my frustration with him, I also had enormous empathy for him. This medieval man truly lives and breathes on these pages.

Friday, December 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Hearts of All on Fire by Alana White

The Hearts of All on Fire by Alana White is the second book in her A Guid’Antonio Vespucci Mystery series. (See review for book one, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin. It isn’t necessary to read book one first, but historical political mystery fans will enjoy both.)

Set in 15th -century Florence and based on true historical figures, this tightly plotted thriller is hard to put down. The protagonist, Guid’Antonio, is a doctor of law, currently assigned to the case of an old man accused of abusing, killing, and burying his own granddaughter. The man’s guilt is clear. Unless, like too many of the men swirling around this 11-year-old child, the judge decides the girl was a temptress who deserved her fate.

But this is the least of Guid’Antonio’s problems. Hovering over him is the uncertain outcome of his recent diplomatic mission. As ambassador of Florence, he’d gone to the duke of Milan to arrange for the purchase of the town of Imola. Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, wants to keep the town out of the Pope’s greedy hands. Guid’Antonio thought the deal had been done, but the contracts have failed to arrive.

With all this, he does not need new trouble. Nevertheless, trouble rains down. During a holiday party at his house, one of the guests drops over dead. The physician who performs the autopsy (the only female physician in Florence and Guid’Antonio’s ex-lover) finds evidence that the man was poisoned by mushrooms. Mushrooms fed to him by a young servant in Guid’Antonio’s house. A series of necessary interactions with this physician causes his new young wife to grow jealous and mistrustful. And maybe she has cause to be.

The author deftly combines meticulous historical accuracy, top-notch plotting, and a compelling cast of characters to create a gripping not-to-be-missed thriller. I hope there is a book three!

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Gentle Conquest by Mary Balogh

Gentle Conquest is vintage Mary Balogh. Originally published in 1987, it is one of the classics by this author, now republished as an ebook. In her preface, the author invites comparisons between her older books and her new ones. For me, while it is clear the genre has evolved, it is impossible not to enjoy this author’s work, vintage or new.

Ralph Middleton, the new Earl of Chartleigh, is just twenty-one and such a mild, bookish young man that his mother despairs of him. Why doesn’t he drink, gamble, and chase women like a real man should? She decides the only thing for it is to quickly find him a wife, and hopes family responsibilities force him to grow up quickly.

In fact, in most respects, Ralph is more mature than his peers. He has strong ideas about caring for his tenants and his political consciousness leans toward helping those less fortunate. He is secure enough in himself to let his mother’s criticisms roll off his back But he isn’t averse to taking a wife. Especially once he meets the girl his mother has picked out for him.

Georgiana Burton, daughter of Viscount Lansbury, is only eighteen and already a handful. She likes to think of herself as a rule-breaker, too high-spirited to be reined in by the ton. (In reality, she’s immature and a bit full of herself.) Be that as it may, she is still under her father’s rule, and he is threatening to send her back to their dull country estate if she gets into one more scandalous scrape. His wife suggests a better alternative: find Georgiana a husband. Then her behavior will be his problem, not theirs.

When Georgiana discovers she is to be courted by, and is expected to wed, the boy-faced, mild-mannered Earl of Chartleigh, she is furious. How dare her parents saddle her with such a milquetoast! In a fit of pique, she decides she will marry him. At least it will get her out from under her father’s thumb. She’ll pretend to be docile and shy until they are wed, and then she will trample the poor fellow underfoot and live the freewheeling life she desires.

Things don’t go exactly as Georgiana expects. She is unexpectedly charmed by her gentle husband. He doesn’t object to her follies, which somehow makes her regret them.

Their relationship would develop apace except for a wedding night disaster. Georgiana experiences pain. Ralph backs away. The marriage is not consummated. The rest of the plot essentially revolves around the necessity of and scheming around finally consummating the marriage. While the novel is very sex focused, the sex is not graphic. It’s a very sweet story with both characters demonstrating increasing maturity and understanding.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

First published in 1930, Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield is a semi-autobiographical novel that is chockful of droll British humor. The diarist is an upper-middle-class woman living in Devonshire. She is the wife of a land agent (Robert) and mother of two young children (Robin and Vicki). Robin is mostly away at school and Vicki is under the care of an emotional French governess. They have a forbidding cook and a succession of housemaids. So what does this provincial lady do all day long? The protagonist’s time is taken up with paying calls, failing at growing bulbs, shopping for things she can’t afford, taking occasional vacations with her single friend, Rose, attempting to manage her children, and clubbing (in the old-fashioned sense of the word.) She views it all with a jaundiced eye and relates it in an irony-laced tone that had me, at several points, laughing out loud. 

This is one of those books that no description of plot can do justice to. The voice of the heroine is what makes this story sing. It’s a very quick read. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Lord by Celeste Connally

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

For some reason, I’ve been reading a rash of books lately centered on the trope of sane women being locked away in asylums when they become inconvenient to men.

In Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Lord by Celeste Connally, the heroine is Lady Petra Forsyth, daughter of the Earl of Holbrook. Petra is a determined young woman, an excellent horsewoman, independently wealthy, but who lost her fiance/lover three years earlier in a tragic accident. Although her grief has waned over time, no other man could ever win her heart. Nor does she want to be won. Why give up her independence? She announced at a society event that she is determined to remain unmarried.

This doesn’t sit well with the men of the ton who don’t believe in female autonomy. It especially bothers her uncle, her dead mother’s sister, who feels her father has been too lenient in her upbringing and is allowing her to bring shame upon herself.

Petra has no patience with the man and goes about her business in London. There, she is reunited with her childhood friend (and friend of her deceased fiancĂ©), Duncan. They are now estranged and she isn’t sure she trusts him. She also discovers that a dear friend of hers has died. Maybe. A footman insists that he has recently seen her alive.

Petra begins investigating and grows increasingly intrigued and worried as it becomes apparent that numerous aristocratic women are being sent for treatment to a home hidden out in the country, under the care of a Mr. Drysdale. Some of them have died and others are not heard from again, while their husbands jaunt around London looking well-pleased.

Readers familiar with the trope will figure out what is going on before Petra does. And then will go along for the ride as she throws herself into her investigation. She’s brave and feisty, but shows poor judgement often enough to become annoying. (For example, although she knows women are being drugged and carted away, when she is offered wine by a particularly odious, untrustworthy man, and the wine tastes “off” and she starts feeling dizzy, she decides the thing to do is guzzle the glass.) Nevertheless, she sticks to her purpose and, fortunately, can rely on Duncan more than she thought.

This is the first novel in a new series. Although I liked the supporting cast (especially Duncan and Lady Caroline), I’m not drawn in enough by the protagonist to make it likely I’ll return for book two.