Wednesday, April 24, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel

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

The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel is a gentle yet gripping historical novel. Set in London amidst plague and the Great Fire of 1666, the novel follows Cecilia Thorowgood, a young widow who lost her beloved husband to the plague. She grieves so deeply that her sister is worried for her health and sanity. After a series of doctors fails to cure her melancholy, her sister takes a bold step, bringing in David Mendes, a Jew.

David understands obsessive grief. He has also lost a loved one, a longtime friend. Because the friend was a man, David never confessed his love. As a Jew and a bisexual, David has to take great care in all he does. Falling for an aristocratic Gentile is perhaps even more perilous than falling for another man.

Gentle and understanding, David is able to reach Cecilia in a way no other physician could. They grow dangerously close. But David learns a secret. Cecilia’s sister’s concern is not as altruistic as she wants it to seem. She wants Cecilia cured so that she can be advantageously remarried. She even has a second husband picked out. And when Cecilia learns what David knows, the fragile band of trust is broken. Can it be restored?

The novel is beautifully written. The setting is richly rendered. And readers will find their heartstrings pulled.

Monday, March 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: James by Percival Everett

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

I love re-imaginings of classic stories, and have been excited to read James by Percival Everett, which will be released on March 19. This is a re-imagined Huckleberry Finn, told from the viewpoint of Jim.

Jim is an enslaved man with secrets. He is self-educated (highly educated) and devoted to his wife and daughter. He is also entangled with Huck (as in Twain’s novel.)

Jim learns that he is going to be sold, separated from his family, so he runs off to a nearby island to hide. There, he meets up with Huck, who has just faked his own death to escape from his cruel drunkard of a father. Now Jim knows he will likely be charged not only with running away, but also with killing Huck. The two flee the island.

Jim’s goal is to find a way to earn money to purchase his wife and daughter. Huck’s goal is adventure. While roughly following the timeline of Huckleberry Finn, this novel follows Jim rather than Huck. His adventures and close calls are even more compelling than Huck’s.

The novel shows the agency of enslaved people and the secretly subversive ways they undermine the institution of slavery. It also shows the fear and loss that are embedded in their daily existence. One of their tools is language. Whenever around Whites, they speak “slave,’ but among themselves, they speak in an educated, grammatical way that allows them to mock the ignorance of Whites. One of the most unsettling and even frightening things that Jim can do is to speak “correctly” to a White man. Language is power. Liberation will ultimately require choosing/claiming his own name, James.

This is a powerful novel that turns Mark Twain’s classic on its head. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto is a touching novel of fraught family relationships that explores how lives are upended as survivors react to death.

The story is set in motion when a young man is killed in a car crash. His seventeen-year-old widow, Darlene, is adrift, crushed by the fact that no one will allow her to fully mourn. She is expected to move on and stop talking about something that makes everyone uncomfortable. But Darlene’s love is still so fresh and new that she can’t possibly let go. She keeps reaching for a way to connect with the dead man, to hold on. 

Multiple viewpoints are employed to explore the aftermath of this tragedy as its consequences ripple through other families. Clayton is a factory worker who found the cars and the dead man. He is haunted by the death, but has no way to vent his emotions, until Darlene approaches him wanting to know more about the setting of the car crash. Darlene feels that in some way, her husband is trying to communicate with her through Clayton.

Clayton’s family life is a mess. He is married to a woman, Berta Mae, who is warped by her own childhood trauma. She has always been trying to win her mother’s love and failing. Now she feels her teenage daughter is rejecting her as well. And her husband has pulled away. Berta Mae is desperate to be loved and is growing as embittered as her mother.

Berta Mae’s mother, Aurilla, married the wrong man. She lived a long life of misery which turned her bitter and mean, and left her unable to love Berta. Aurilla’s husband has also (finally) died, and her reaction to his death, after a long marriage, is the exact opposite of Darlene’s reaction to widowhood, after a marriage of less than a year.

There is a pervasive loneliness and hurt in the novel, and the reader is propelled along waiting for redemption for the characters. While the young man’s death starts a downward spiral for the characters, it also serves as a catalyst, breaking them out of their ruts and giving them a second chance at life.

This is a beautiful story, thoughtfully told.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Diamond and the Duke by Christi Caldwell

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

The Diamond and the Duke by Christi Caldwell is the third book in her Regency Romance series, All the Duke’s Sins.

Lady Ellie Balfour is the youngest daughter of the cruel Duke of St. James, now thankfully the late duke. She bears the scars of his rages and also the misguided guilt of believing she deserved them because she was a willful child. She was always scheming. When one of her schemes goes awry—or maybe not—leading to the forced marriage of her brother (the new duke) to Cailin (illegitimate daughter of the kindly Duke of Bentley- see book two: Desperately Seeking a Duchess), Ellie isolates herself from her family. Her solitude is broken by the arrival of Cailin’s brother Wesley, a soldier in Wellington’s army.

His kindness to her during those difficult weeks after the wedding is something she will never forget. She falls half in love with him then, but he must return to the war. And when she learns that he is heartbroken because the woman he loves has ceased writing to him, Ellie takes up her own pen and writes, pretending to be that woman. This goes on for more than a year. And then, Wesley is terribly injured on the battlefield.

He returns home a broken man. A scarred, pain-wracked veteran with PTSD. His family, who all love him dearly, are barely able to look him in the eye. Their pity is devastating. He wants nothing more than to be left alone. But there is one person who continually imposes her company upon him, refusing to treat him with pity or disdain: Lady Ellie Balfour.

Ellie helps him through his darkest hours, asking nothing in return. He doesn’t know the guilt she is carrying for deceiving him, the love she bears him, or that fact that she, too, is scarred by violence. Her sunny disposition, wit, and matter-of-fact pronouncements have him (and everyone else) fooled.

Wesley has to find his way back to the world of the living. Ellie has to break out of her own prison of silence and shame. And the only way to do that is with each other.

A poignant, moving love story. There are more siblings in these families. Who will be next?

Saturday, February 17, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Beach of the Dead by Cynthia J. Bogard

 New release!

Beach of the Dead by Cynthia J. Bogard is Book Two of the Heartland Trilogy, picking up where Book One, A History of Silence, leaves off. Although this novel can stand alone, there are spoilers in it for book one, so you might want to read book one first, for maximum punch.

Set in 1986, Beach of the Dead follows Jane Meyer in the aftermath of the murder of her lover, Johnny. Jane is the killer. And while the homicide was justifiable, she knows that any jury in Texas will convict her. So she flees across the border to Mexico, adopting a new name, Ana Jimen├ęz, and a whole new identity. With the help of a kind stranger, which blossoms into the kindnesses of strangers, she makes her way to a beach paradise, Zipolite. (In the native Zapotec language, Zipolite means “Beach of the Dead,” so named because of the strong current that sweeps away unwary swimmers.)

On the beach, she finds a collection of American tourists living a communal lifestyle, taken care of by a local indigenous woman. During the day, life is idyllic. But at night, Ana is haunted by what she has done, by the trauma of her past, and by fear of what the future holds. Can Ana ever feel safe if she is living a lie? 

A beautiful novel of love and redemption, Beach of the Dead is a wonderful continuation of the Heartland Trilogy.

Friday, February 16, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga is an extraordinary book. A work of contemporary fiction, it plays with literary forms, but is nevertheless accessible and compelling. It is divided into three parts. The first comprises short sections in alternating first person voices, each beginning with a question. The second continues the dual narration in a more straightforward way, but includes footnotes to explain cultural references and unfamiliar words. The third part breaks from the narrative and breaks the fourth wall, letting the reader watch a writing class as a piece of theater, where the novel is discussed (picked apart) by the author’s classmates. 

What is the book about? Identity. Colonialism. Passion. Gender. Exploitation. “Woke” politics. You name it.

The two protagonists are unnamed. One is “the American girl.” A young woman born of Egyptian immigrants to the U.S., travels to Cairo intending to stay. Why? The question is answered and not answered. She is escaping her parents’ divorce. She is running away from an instagram celebrity that has imploded. She is exploring her Egyptian identity. She is finding herself. But she can’t escape who she is: a privileged American who can’t fit in no matter how hard she tries. An educated rich girl who can’t let go of her privilege. And why should she?

But she does get herself an Egyptian boyfriend.

The second protagonist is “the boy from Shobrakheit.” He comes from a small, isolated rural community. He comes from poverty and a broken home. He has been in Cairo for several years, having arrived in time for the Arab spring, a time of innocence (naivete) and hopefulness; he is now living in the disillusioned aftermath. He had been a photographer, a photojournalist, for a brief time wildly successful. Now, he is an unemployed cocaine and tramadol addict. And something of a poet. He meets the American girl. He helps her to navigate Cairo. He moves in with her. He falls in love. Or maybe it isn’t love, but rather need. He is stereotypically controlling and violent, but also tender, frightened, and in pain (physical and psychological.)

This novel is a complex and beautifully written chronicle of their relationship. The characters are flawed, yet sympathetic. A highly recommended read.

Friday, February 9, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

After reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat, I said I had to read more by this author, but not right away. (It’s a draining experience.) I finally got around to reading another, The Black Prince. It’s an equally fine book, but also a rather painful exploration of human nature and human flaws. The protagonist/narrator has a Humbert Humbert vibe.

Bradley Pearson is the first person unreliable narrator. He is a 58-year-old retired tax investigator and aspiring novelist. His account of events in his own life form the basis of this work. It’s told in parts. There is an editor’s foreword, another foreword by Pearson, Pearson’s story “in three parts,” a postscript by Pearson, then four postscripts by other significant characters, and finally, an editor’s postscript. The stories don’t all add up, and the reader is invited to choose who to believe.

Pearson is only minimally successful as a novelist. His post-retirement goal is to finally write his masterpiece, but he is cursed with a perennial case of writer’s block. He believes that escaping to a seaside cottage will unlock his creativity, but a series of events prevents him leaving his London home.

The cast of characters includes his closest friend, Arnold Baffin, a wildly successful author of popular commercial fiction. Pearson sneers at his friend’s success, but admits, reluctantly, to some professional jealousy as well. Arnold is married with a 20-year-old daughter, Julian. His marriage is supposedly solid, but Arnold does play around. His wife seemingly puts up with it, but after one violent argument, where Pearson observes the aftermath, she starts coming on to Pearson. For a number of reasons, he is tempted. But while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

Pearson also has a sister who has been miserably married for years and has just left her husband. The sister is a wreck. Pearson is not particularly sympathetic, but feels trapped into helping her–another reason he can’t just up and leave London. His sister is suicidally depressed.

If this all isn’t enough, Pearson’s ex-wife is newly widowed from her second marriage. She returns to London eager to see Pearson. Her motives are unclear. He despises her. Insists he has no interest in seeing her. Ever. And yet, he does. Again and again. The ex-wife has a parasitic, alcoholic brother, who attaches himself to Pearson.

It all gets very complicated. But Pearson has an epiphany. A life-clarifying insight. He falls in love with Julian.

So, ick. While vaguely realizing this is wrong, he nevertheless marches down the path of seducing his best friend’s 20-year-old daughter, full of self-justification and insistence that this is not just a case of a middle-aged man feeling uncontrollable lust for a near-child. This is true love.

All hell breaks loose.

Once again, Murdoch creates realistic and realistically awful characters, whose plights draw readers in. The deeply psychological twists of the protagonist’s mind and the games the characters play with one another make for gripping reading. Murdoch’s wonderful dialogues break all the rules of dialogue-writing, and yet the conversations propel scenes along. 

While I still prefer A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince is also a superb reading experience.