Friday, June 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Coldwater Confession by James A. Ross

Coldwater Confession by James A. Ross is the second book in the Coldwater Mystery series. It is as entertaining as book one, Coldwater Revenge. This novel can stand alone, but to get the most out of the family drama, reading book one first is recommended.

Set in Coldwater, a small lakeside town in upstate New York, Coldwater Confession is an intense psychological thriller focusing on the fraught relationship between two close but very different brothers. Joe Morgan is the local sheriff, a job inherited from their father, “Mad Dog Morgan.” (Mad Dog was murdered years ago. The murder remains unsolved.)  Tom Morgan is a lawyer and financial whiz, who returned to Coldwater (in book one) for a variety of reasons and stayed on to try to get his head straight after a traumatic reintegration into the town. (He helped his brother with some intense law enforcement and was nearly killed.)

Tom is now living on Pocket Island, trying to renovate an old Frank Lloyd Wright house and help start a school for wayward boys. However, none of this is making much progress and he’s beginning to second guess the feasibility of the projects. More pressing, and probably equally futile, is Tom’s attempt to smooth the path towards reconciliation – or at least pragmatic communication – between Joe and his estranged wife. The family dynamics are complicated. Not only is brother Joe a womanizer who probably deserves to lose his wife, but there is also a lifelong rivalry between the two brothers, and their widowed mother, who drinks heavily, unhelpfully takes sides. Mrs. Morgan likes to keep secrets and refuses to talk about her tempestuous relationship with her dead husband or the warped upbringing of her sons.

Things heat up when a stunning young woman arrives in Coldwater. Maggie grew up in the town but moved away as soon as she could. Now she has returned to take a job as an elementary school teacher. Both brothers are physically attracted to her. She is not averse to flirtation and maybe something more (even though she is in her mid-to-late twenties and they are pushing forty.) But she’s dealing with too much else to pursue or be pursued. Her relationship with her father is frayed and that with her stepmother is toxic. Moreover, her mother, who is mentally ill and deep in denial, keeps stirring the pot. And it’s possible the mother’s mental illness is now manifesting in the daughter.

The psychodynamics are compelling enough in this page-turner, but there is more. Someone is creeping around on Pocket Island looking for something. Arsonists set fire to Tom’s house. And the local low-level criminals that Joe treats as nuisances have gotten themselves mixed up with a truly dangerous character or characters – and Joe is nearly ambushed as his father had been.

The author neatly weaves together the threads (including the murder of their father) for another action-packed thriller that will leave readers eager for the third installment. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

I love old books. For one thing, if they have to be retrieved from the remote shelving of the local library and the pages are yellowed, you know they were not created by AI. The old-fashioned writing style can be both challenging and charming. In the case of The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, when the author is determined to make a point or elaborate on a theme, he goes off on verbose tangents. But there are gems hidden in the prose, sometimes insightful and sometimes clever and amusing, that make all the verbosity worthwhile. The many references that I don’t get make me all the more pleased when I do recognize something historical or obscure. And the stories draw me in by virtue of their strangeness.

The Green Hat was a popular novel back in 1924. I had never heard of it or of the author until I saw it referenced in The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale. Intrigued, I wanted to read it.

The novel starts slow, primarily because of those verbose tangents. The author is making a point about England – the old aristocratic England that was fading away post WWI. It’s a novel ostensibly about a woman, an idealized woman, but actually the focus is more on the men in her sphere. Her name is Iris Storm, maiden name March. The old aristocrats care about her. They adored her as a child. But they are ashamed of the woman she has become. (She sleeps around.) She has been twice widowed. Her first husband, a favored, honorable young man of their circle, committed suicide on their wedding night. Her fault, she admits.

The narrator is another aristocratic young man, a friend of Gerald March, Iris’ alcoholic twin brother. He first meets Iris when she comes to visit her brother after an absence of ten years. The narrator is smitten with her, but in a detached sort of way. He is almost accidentally present at key points in her tale, but remains on the fringes of her drama. From this vantage point, he tells her story as it was revealed to him in little bits over the next couple of years.

The reader is sucked in as the narrator reveals what he learns, little by little. Always, the reader is aware there is more going on than meets the eye. The men are supercilious and a bit ridiculous as they adhere to their old beliefs and ideas of correct conduct. Iris stands outside of their rules. She goes her own way. And that means they have to shun her, even as they keep tabs on her. But she is as trapped by her own moral code as they are by theirs. And I get the sense that this is all an elaborate metaphor for post-war England.

The big reveal at the end is a nice twist, although it’s hardly the moral shocker to twenty-first century readers that it might have been at the time. If you can find a copy of this novel, give it a try. It’s quite fascinating.

Monday, May 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman

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

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies
is the newest release by Alison Goodman. The title may put you in mind of a warm/fuzzy mystery/romance with the cover illustration indicating the Regency Era. All of this is correct, but insufficient to describe this page-turner of an adventure story. It’s lengthy, but a quick read. It’s a book one, so not all loose ends are tied up, but it ends on a relatively satisfying note.

Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister Julia are the ladies in question, though Julia is usually very well mannered. It’s not quite a society yet, but they are aided, at times by Charlotte, Lady Davenport, and there is room for more help in the future.

Augusta (Gus) and Julia are twins (not identical), unmarried, and 42 years old. So in the eyes of the ton, they are inconsequential and, to some extent, invisible. They have an inheritance and so a degree of independence. Julia was almost married two years earlier but her fiancé died in an accident. Gus is a more determined spinster, but she refuses to consider herself old and useless. The fact that their younger brother, who is now an earl, has always resented Gus and is now cruelly pleased to be head of the family and able to treat her with disdain is not making her life easier. And worst of all, Julia has recently been diagnosed with a canker of the breast, a disease that has taken other female relatives, including their mother.

However, Gus is indomitable. Owing Lady Charlotte a favor, she (and Julia) undertake to retrieve some incriminating letters Charlotte had written to a scoundrel of a lover who is now blackmailing her. The mission turns dangerous but succeeds. Gus is thrilled. And hooked on adventure. The fact that middle-aged, unattached ladies are underestimated gives them an edge. When the chance arises to undertake a rescue mission of a lady being imprisoned in the country by her evil husband, Gus is thrilled. She is even more thrilled when she thwarts a highwayman along the way and discovers he is actually a gentlemen who can be trusted – even if he is a convicted criminal. 

A relationship blossoms between Gus and this highwayman, Lord Evan, despite Julia’s insistence (and Lord Evan’s) that any further contact is too dangerous. However, Gus is unable to refuse to help others in need and she is not above enlisting Lord Evan’s help. She is also determined to prove that he is not guilty of the crime he was convicted of. 

The adventures continue. The danger mounts. And Gus and Lord Evan cannot stay apart. 

This novel blends historical fact into the unlikely but thoroughly enjoyable storyline. Each of the adventures is based on ways that women and girls were abused and held powerless by the laws of the times. Readers will be aghast and indignant and root all the more for the success of the sisters and their accomplices. And this reader will eagerly anticipate the next installment.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin

In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin is a newly released work of medical historical fiction. Set in 1900, in Baltimore and New York, it follows the story of Hannah Isaacson, a young Jewish female physician. During her training, watching the poor obstetrical care provided by male physicians and appalled by the dangerous abortions being performed by midwives (who were being driven out of business by the rising interest in hospital-based deliveries and who needed new sources of income), Hannah makes it her mission to provide better care for pregnant women.

During her time at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, she not only learns medicine but also how to work around male egos in order to accomplish her goals. (She has to let them take the credit for her ideas and work.) Painfully, she also discovers that too many men are not to be trusted.

Nevertheless, she lands her dream job, an obstetrics residency at Mount Sinai in New York. But her troubles are only beginning. 

This novel delves into the historical problems of placing care of women’s health exclusively in male hands. It demonstrates how broader socioeconomic problems affect health care, particularly for women. And it calls out the dangers of limited access to contraception, especially for the poor. While we may be tempted to be thankful for the progress of the last 100 years, such gratitude may be premature. For anyone paying attention, it looks an awful lot like we are heading backwards rather than forwards. This novel deftly illustrates all that is at risk.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux is a French writer who draws on her own experiences in her work, and who won the Nobel Prize in 2022. Her work is readily available in translation, so I dipped my toe in with her memoir-like narrative about her father, A Man’s Place. A short book, it explores her working class father’s efforts to move up in the world and the dignity of his life as it was lived. As his daughter, Annie had more access to education and economic advantage, which took her well into the middle class that her parents aspired to. As the gulf between them widened, and her father aged and then sickened, Annie looked back to reevaluate what he had gone through to create a memoir full of empathy and admiration.

The prose is spare but lovely. 

The style and subject reminded me a little of The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken, although I found Ernaux’s father to be more stoically heroic.

Monday, May 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean

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

Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean is a fun Regency Romance with a moderate steam level.

Lady Lavinia Wynnburn is a middle child and has always felt overlooked. For this reason, she is uncomfortable in social situations and would rather be tucked away in the corner, reading a book.

Alexander Reddington, Duke of Beaubrooke, has a reputation for being a recluse, due to his obsessive interest in botany and the development of new varieties of plants. Currently, he is competing against his old childhood friend and rival, Nigel, for a large grant from the Royal Academy to develop a particular new medicinal plant. The fact that he is now the duke and must marry is a distracting nuisance. At least he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time looking. His father made arrangements long ago with Lord Wynnburn. The heir to the duchy would wed one of the Wynnburn daughters. It is expected that he will choose the imperious eldest, Harriet, or the vivacious youngest, Kitty. But after catching Lavinia reading a novel at a wedding and hiding behind a plant at a ball, he knows that she is the woman for him.

The two are well-suited. (Even if Lavinia’s closest friend is Alex’s nemesis, Nigel.) Unfortunately, they misunderstand their expectations of one another. Lavinia believes Alex needs someone to serve as a social secretary. Dukes, after all, have obligations to society. And now that she is a duchess, and people are taking notice of her, she finds she doesn’t mind society as much as she thought. Alex thought that Lavinia truly did prefer spending time alone, quietly, and would be no bother as he struggled with his experiments. Despite a strong physical attraction, they have trouble connecting.

Things come to a head when Alex fails to attend his own birthday party, leaving Lavinia, once again, looking pitiful in the eyes of the ton. It takes some meddling on Nigel’s part and on that of Lavinia’s sisters to force them to talk things out and find common ground.

Although I was not particularly caught up in any chemistry between them, this is a quick read and a sweet addition to the Regency Romance genre. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer

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

The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer is a heartwarming new release, a contemporary novel about navigating death and grief, and about living life to the fullest.

Clover is a death doula.

This is a relatively new profession/concept for the twenty-first century U.S.A., which tends to treat discussions of mortality as a taboo. Death doulas are trained to bypass the taboos to help shepherd the dying through the process.

Clover is particularly well suited to the task. Her own parents died in an accident when she was just six. However, Clover’s relationship with them was not close. In fact, they died when they were out of the country on one of their many jaunts taken without her. She was brought up by her grandfather, who became her best friend. In fact, aside from an elderly neighbor, he was her only friend. He died thirteen years prior to the period covered in the story – and she was not at his side when he passed, a source of unending guilt.

A combination of extreme introversion and an off-putting profession has left Clover always feeling like an outsider. At 36 years old, the closest contact she has with other humans is with her dying clients.

Clover has a lot of emotional baggage. And yet, her empathy for the dying is extraordinary. If you’ve ever wondered what to say to someone at the end of their life, or to their grieving loved ones, this novel serves almost as a guidebook. It isn’t that she always says the right thing, but that she has vowed never to look away from someone’s pain. She is there for them. She doesn’t want anyone to have to die alone.

And maybe not go through life alone either.

This summary makes this book sound depressing. But it absolutely is not. It’s quite beautiful and life affirming. Recommended!