Sunday, June 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

 It seems whenever I’ve read anything about Shakespeare, fiction or nonfiction, there has been a tantalizing glimpse of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe somewhere in the background. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, also a playwright and poet, a witty, aggressively misbehaving genius, who died too young. It’s also pretty well established, though difficult to prove, that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth.

A Tip for the Hangman
by Allison Epstein is a superb newly released historical novel that takes what is known about Kit Marlowe and runs with it. Beginning with his impoverished student days at Cambridge, the novel guides Marlowe (and the reader) through the twists and turns of Elizabethan political intrigue and the Protestant-Catholic struggles. By focusing on Marlowe, the story avoids getting bogged down in the historical complexities, but nevertheless presents a richly detailed picture of the problem as well as a fascinating look at the man.

Kit Marlowe is a complicated protagonist. Admired by most, loved by few, and hated by many, Marlowe had a difficult life made more difficult by his obvious, multifaceted genius. His wit could be cruel. He could be crude. He was a blasphemous atheist. His loyalties were to his friends and to the man he loved, not to any greater cause. But it was the “greater cause” that ruled his life and that ended it, though he would have preferred to live long, love well, and write plays.

The pace of the story builds throughout. Marlowe is a conflicted man who sees that each choice he makes has disturbing consequences, and much of the time he is forced merely to choose the lesser of two evils. Choice may not even be the right word, since he is often coerced along the path by events beyond his control, or by mistakes he should have avoided but could not, being the man that he was.

This life of Marlowe’s making is a stew of moral ambiguity. The reader is confronted with the difficult questions and quandaries the artist/spy faced. Epstein’s marvelous writing and careful plotting twine together Marlowe’s art and his reality. The heart-wrenching ending of the book is a masterful culmination of all Marlowe worked for and all he worked to avoid.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache by Jenni L. Walsh

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

A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache
by Jenni L. Walsh is a historical adventure following the escapades of Simone Jules a.k.a. Madame Eleanor Dumont a.k.a. Madame Moustache, a female croupier who made a name for herself in the American West during the Gold Rush era of the mid-nineteenth century. A real-life historical figure, Madame Moustache pops up here and there in the historical record and is known for popularizing the card game “twenty-one” or “vingt-et-un.”

Following a great personal tragedy, the young Simone Jules made her way from New Orleans to San Francisco in order to start anew. She left behind her old life, including a fiancé. Arriving in California, Simone discovered there were few options available to single women, aside from the obvious. But she was not interested in pursuing any of those careers. Rather she wanted to earn her keep by gambling, playing the card game her mother had taught her. Vingt-et-un was unfamiliar to the men of the city, primarily gold miners, and she was able to tap into the riches they were pulling from the ground.

Gold mining was a boom and bust occupation. Therefore, so was gambling. Simone had to pick up and move many times to follow the money, living in circumstances ranging from the dubious comforts of a thriving boomtown to the primitive settings of miners’ camps. Along the way, she loves and loses, and struggles with wanted and unwanted (mostly unwanted) attention from men.

The novel does a lovely job of making the world come alive and fitting it into the historical context of the day. It’s interesting to see a woman make an unconventional life for herself. Nevertheless, I never really connected with the protagonist, even though I admired her pluck. Her emotions were convincingly described, but I wasn’t moved by them. Maybe it’s because her strongest love was always for her card game. Even so, I recommend this novel for its careful portrayal of a nineteenth-century woman who was determined to live in a man’s world on her own terms.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is one of my favorite historical Romance writers. I’ve been following her A Westcott Novel series since the beginning, seven books ago. The underlying premise is that upon the death of the earl of Riverdale, it was discovered that his marriage had been bigamous. His three children--two daughters and his son (the heir)-- were immediately disinherited and ostracized by the ton. His fortune went to his firstborn, a daughter, who had been raised in an orphanage and then became a teacher there. His entailed properties went to a cousin.

The Westcott family is large and extended. The novels follow the various courtships and marriages of the daughters, the unfortunate wife who was not legally a wife, cousins, aunts, and now, with Someone to Cherish, the disinherited son.

Harry Westcott was twenty years old at the time of his father’s death. He had a couple of weeks to enjoy his new status of earl and head of the family before his world came crashing down. Lost and helpless, he joined the army and fought against Napoleon. He was badly wounded and took years to recover. Now, he lives at an old family estate in the country, Hinsford Manor. His step-sister (the legitimate heiress) owns the property but has essentially given it to him, if he would only take it.

Harry is content with his life, but his family (the whole huge lot of them) worry about him. He’s about to turn thirty and he’s alone. The women decide to throw him a surprise party and do some matchmaking.

The town of Hinsford is small and everyone knows everyone. Harry is treated with all the courtesy and respect that would have been his if he were still an earl. (Although they call him Major instead of milord.) One of the townspeople--Harry’s neighbor, in fact-- is the young widow of the previous vicar. The vicar was a well-regarded zealot who died saving a local youth from drowning. His wife, his helpmeet, is the largely invisible Mrs. Lydia Tavernor. Lydia lived in her husband’s shadow, echoing his good works. She has completed her year of mourning and is beginning to emerge into society. But though she has discovered a few close female friends, she still does her best to remain inconspicuous. It’s difficult being the pious widow of a martyred vicar.

Lydia is determined never to marry again. She’s had enough of overbearing males in her life. But she’s lonely. She wonders what it would be like to take a lover. Specifically, she wonders what it would be like to have an affair with Harry Westcott.

This is not something she would ever act upon. Except, after a quiet evening of cards and music at the home of mutual friends, Harry is prevailed upon to walk her home. They have never had a real conversation before, despite being neighbors, but both enjoy the short walk. As they arrive at her home, a small cottage that she keeps by herself, she asks Harry if he’s ever lonely. Although she doesn’t finish the thought, it’s clear to him what he’s asking and what she’s offering. Nothing happens that night, but he returns the next day to further the friendship, because he is lonely too. Things take their course. Scandal ensues, the culmination coinciding with the arrival of the extended Westcott brood for Harry’s surprise party.

The novel is lovely. The plot unfolds a bit slowly since there is a lot of backstory to cover, largely to catch the reader up on Harry’s family. It’s nice to be reminded of the lot of them, though it would probably be overwhelming (and maybe unnecessary) for readers jumping in here or having jumped in somewhere in the middle. I’d recommend reading the series in order, although it will require a significant investment of time by now.

Harry and Lydia make a fine couple. Harry has a painful past to overcome, but he has made great strides already and finding his own true love is the final step for him. Lydia also has had a difficult past. Her marriage was not what people imagine and it’s a leap of faith to imagine another marriage would be different. 

Mary Balogh has a gift for creating sympathetic characters, protagonists to root for, and a large, warm supporting cast. I’ll continue reading about Westcotts as long as she keeps writing about them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine

 I bought Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine a couple of years ago, because I wanted to have a historical framework for all the period Romances I keep reading. This is, according the to book jacket, “The new, definitive history of the nineteenth century in Britain from one of the world’s most authoritative historians.” 

My intentions were good, but the book was rather an intimidating doorstop, so it took awhile before I got up the motivation to read it.

The book is an impressive undertaking. It’s primarily a political and economic history, walking the reader through the successive prime ministers and their cabinets. It does a good job of presenting the major political questions of the times and explaining where the Tories stood versus the Whigs on the issues, and how that evolved into the Conservatives versus the Liberals. The various wars fought by the British during those years are folded into the timeline, but are not given particular emphasis. The monarchs are mentioned, but take a backseat to the politicians. And there is a smidgen of social history, listing some of the writers and artists of the age. It’s densely written, interesting but not a page turner. The author provides a massive amount of information, but keeps a steady focus to make it a manageable book.

Given that my knowledge of the history was pretty cursory, this was a good place to start for a general outline, but there is no way I could absorb all the political information. Some things stood out as areas I’d like to read about in more depth, but a lot of the other information blurred as I read on. It would be interesting to re-read the book after more in-depth exploration of the time period, but I doubt I’ll have that much motivation. I’ll settle for the big picture this book provided.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Ridgeline by Michael Punke

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

The problem with books about the American West and wars between the Native Americans and U.S. Army is that no matter how beautifully written, they are melancholy; and no matter how exciting, you know how the story will ultimately end.

is a new release by the Western Historical novelist Michael Punke. It is a meticulously detailed (if fictionalized) account of the 1866 battle between the soldiers at the newly constructed Fort Phil Kearny in current-day Wyoming and the combined forces of the Lakota and their allies. Red Cloud was the primary leader, but in this novel, the focus is on the visionary young Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse and his people watch with horror and anger as white soldiers move into the Powder River Valley, a sacred hunting ground, and begin cutting down trees to build a fort.

The army is led by Colonel Henry Harrington, who is more engineer than soldier. His top commanders are a mixed bunch of infantry, artillery, and cavalry men. There are also civilians in the group, including women and children (meaning that this group of white soldiers is here to stay). There is also Jim Bridger, a well-known scout, who is beginning to question his role. 

For the most part, the Lakota are intelligent, brave, and thoughtful. They are brutal only when necessary. Crazy Horse is a brilliant strategist, but is also humble enough to listen to the wisdom of others and to accept responsibility without demanding praise or credit. The white soldiers, on the other hand, with few exceptions, are argumentative, vainglorious, and largely incompetent. They drink too much. They are undisciplined and ill-trained. The villain of the novel, Lieutenant Grummond, is the worst of the worst, even mistreating his pregnant wife.

Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, the author sets the stage for an epic battle. Some chapters are less gripping than others, occasionally slowing the pace in the first part of the book. But overall, the multifaceted stage setting works, bringing the reader deeply into the time and place. The tension is there from the beginning, building slowly, until the action explodes in the final chapters.

This is a wonderfully written Western that is an old-fashioned historical adventure but with more modern sensibility. It’s not a feel-good story, but it is a satisfying read.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The first of Emma Donoghue’s books that I read was Slammerkin, many years ago. Although un-put-downable, I didn’t like it: it was too brutal, the protagonist too awful. I didn’t return to the author until Room, which everyone insisted was a must-read. And it was. Donoghue is an extraordinary writer. I read her most recent historical, The Pull of the Stars, and decided I really need to work through her backlist. So, I just finished The Wonder.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, it is after the famine years of failed potato harvests, but the land is still drenched with poverty and is just staving off hunger. People need to eat to live, a tragic fact when there isn’t enough food. But what if they didn’t?

So when one little girl stops eating on her eleventh birthday, and goes without food for four months yet remains healthy and happy, the small community celebrates the miracle. The girl’s elderly doctor sends a off a report, convinced that he is involved in a great medical discovery. The child’s parents and priest are convinced they are nurturing a future saint. All that is needed is proof. A committee of townsmen sends for two nurses to watch over the child, Anna, for two weeks, to confirm that she is eating nothing. One nurse is a Catholic nun. The other, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, is an Englishwoman, a nurse trained in the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale.

Lib arrives in the Irish backwater with her mind closed, her decision made. She isn’t there to confirm the miracle, but to expose the fraud. She’s appalled by the weather, the food, the accommodations, and the fanatical superstitious religiousness of the local people. She mistrusts them all, wondering how many are in on the fraud and how many are simply gullible. She’s unimpressed, too, by the Catholic nun who is more concerned with obeying orders than with the child.

Over the first few days, Lib concentrates on discovering how food is being surreptitiously delivered. When she can find no evidence of this, she starts focusing on Anna. Why won’t the girl eat? And as it becomes clear that Anna is starving to death, Lib’s main concern becomes saving the child’s life.

Donoghue immerses the reader in the world of the protagonist, whose own murky backstory is only slowly revealed to the reader as the puzzle of Anna also starts to become clear. The novel’s momentum builds as Lib and the reader come to appreciate the strength of all the forces combined against the child, including the child’s own will.

The Wonder is beautifully written, horrifying, sad, and ultimately hopeful. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Coldwater Revenge by James A. Ross

I don’t generally read contemporary thrillers, but having enjoyed the historical thriller, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt by James A. Ross, I decided to try Book 1 of his A Coldwater Mystery series: Coldwater Revenge.

Tom Morgan, a high-powered corporate lawyer arrives in his old hometown of Coldwater (just south of the Canadian border) for a short family visit. He calls it a vacation, but he’s come home because his mother broke her leg and his younger brother’s family could use a bit of help caring for her. His brother, Joe, is a busy man. Joe is the local sheriff, who inherited the position, with all it entails, from their father.

The two brothers are both hard-driven, grasping, intelligent men, but there the similarities end. Tom fled the small-town life, leaving behind a failed romance and the disillusionment of discovering his father was not the hero he’d thought him to be. Joe embraced it all.

No sooner does Tom return home when a local ne’er-do-well, Billy Pearce, is discovered drowned in the lake, clearly murdered.

The murder interests Tom because that failed romance from his past was with Susan Pearce, Billy’s sister. Susan is back in town as well, working for a pharmaceutical research company, a start-up with very shady business practices. Tom may not have Joe’s skills at criminal detective work, but he knows a good deal about shady business practices. Joe enlists Tom’s help, partly because he can use it and partly to keep him from zipping back to New York to deal with an urgent corporate legal mess. Tom stays, partly to help but partly because of Susan.

The investigation branches out to include local small-time drug dealers, big-time pseudo-researchers, a jaded priest who might be a pedophile, and potential terrorists. As Tom casts his net wider, he finds he can’t even exclude Susan from suspicion, or even Joe.

The plotting is taut; the characters are intriguing, and the setting is vividly described. Even though contemporary thrillers are not my usual fare, I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.