Wednesday, November 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

A Matter of Class is vintage Mary Balogh. I needed something short and sweet.


Lady Annabelle Ashton is the daughter of the very high-in-the-instep Earl of Havercroft. The earl finds himself in a financial bind, so he works hard to affiance his daughter to a wealthy peer who is significantly older and horribly unattractive. The earl assumes Annabelle will sacrifice her life to bail him out. She’s his daughter after all. That’s what daughters are for. Annabelle has other plans. She runs off with a handsome coachman. Although she does it so indiscreetly that they are caught before reaching Gretna Green and before anything happens, she is ruined. Spurned by the ton, she is unmarriageable now. Her father is furious and determined to punish her.

Reginald Mason is the handsome son of a coal magnate. Although Reginald has been raised as a gentleman, technically he is not one. Nevertheless, in the last few months he has adopted the gambling, foppishness, and lazy demeanor of aristocrats, piling up debts until his father can take no more. He insists Reginald must settle down and marry. Reginald’s father has always wanted to break into the upper echelons of society but has always been shunned. He has especially been shunned by his neighbor, the Earl of Havercroft. Now Mr. Mason has a plan: marrying Reginald to Annabelle. The earl needs money. Annabelle needs a husband. If Reginald steps up, the Mason family will finally have the connections Mr. Mason has always wanted. If Reginald refuses, Mr. Mason will cut him off without a penny.

Given little choice, Reginald proposes and Lady Annabelle accepts. 

The storyline shows their bristly courtship, but also traces a few episodes in their pasts when their paths have crossed. As the story unfolds, the reader will likely figure out the twist before it’s revealed, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the story. This is a delightful read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Our book group’s next pick is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. I’m glad I read it after the election rather than before, though it’s a depressing book no matter when/how you look at it.


Applebaum gives a definition of authoritarianism and describes its rise in the twenty-first century. She starts with the rise of fascistic authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, moves through the Brexitism of England, and ends with Trumpism in the U.S.  The root causes are many, but the politics of resentment and the ease of spreading disinformation thanks to the internet and social media are major factors. People who look to authoritarianism are those who are uncomfortable with complexity and want a leader who can pare away the noise associated with diversity of opinion. It’s easier to sit in a bubble or echo chamber and listen only to the voice telling you what you want to hear. Both sides are guilty of this.

It’s difficult to end such a book on an optimistic note. The best she can do is to point out that, historically, factions are the norm and unity is never more than an elusive ideal. I suppose if we sit back with a detached view and watch history unfold, realizing that civilizations go through endless cycles, we don’t need to be overly concerned. Faith in democratic ideals may be on the wane, war may break out, authoritarian regimes may take hold and stamp out democracy for now, but in another few centuries, some brave idealists will once again have a go at it.

Or maybe our children and grandchildren will do a better job of defending it than we have.

It’ll be an interesting book group.

Monday, November 7, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Long Campaign: A Biography of Anne Martin by Anne Bail Howard

With election day just around the corner, I read The Long Campaign: A Biography of Anne Martin by Anne Bail Howard. Anne Martin was a suffragist from Nevada who campaigned tirelessly in the sparsely populated state for women’s right to vote in the early 1900's. At the time, this was a state-by-state issue and Western states were more receptive to women voting than Eastern states. The campaign succeeded, largely due to her efforts.


However, her next endeavor, running for state Senator, was pretty well doomed from the start. Aside from the fact that she was female, and there had never been a female U.S. senator, Martin had made enemies (or at least, detractors) because of some of her earlier work (more militant suffragist work in England and a couple of arrests for protesting) as well as her pacifist stance in the lead-up to WWI. She had hoped the newly enfranchised women of Nevada would recognize the significance of electing a female senator and vote as a bloc, but they did not.

Frustrated by this and by the lack of progress of the national movement for women’s suffrage, Martin turned her attention to writing and her political efforts toward the peace movement.

The biography focuses on her early life and influences, her political awakening, and her activism. It discusses her various connections and friendships, those that were long-lasting and those where she and the friends eventually fell out, usually over politics. Martin could be charming and inspiring, but she was also a hard taskmaster and bull-headed in her opinions.

The book is an interesting look at a woman who was a pivotal figure in her time, but who is largely forgotten in ours. Currently, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that women were excluded from the democratic process when it is so self-evident that women are every bit as deserving of the vote as men. The hard work and sacrifices of the women (and men) who fought so hard for equality a century ago should not be forgotten. And the right to vote should not be taken for granted.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath

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

Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath is the second book in The Merriwell Sisters series. I haven’t read book one, but this novel stands well on its own. It’s set in 1826, so just after the Regency period, but it reads the same as a Regency Romance.


Miss Diana Merriwell is a commoner who works incognito as a gossip columnist and investigative reporter. She’s the middle daughter (of three) of a criminal, and her difficult upbringing has made her strong and independent. Her older sister recently married an earl, thrusting Diana into a new social circle. She adapts to it easily and is pleased that it affords her ready access to the subjects of her gossip column.

One of these subjects is Giles Sinclair, son of a duke. Giles has a very big problem. Four years earlier, he learned from the dying duchess that he is actually illegitimate. So he is not heir to the dukedom. This is terrible, because Giles has always wanted to eventually right the wrongs of his father. The current duke is a penny-pinching, cruel man who neglects his estates and tenants. Giles and his father have never gotten along because Giles is good to the core, even if he pretends to be a reprobate to irritate the duke.

Giles intends to one day set things to right in the dukedom, but knows that if his father’s secret comes out, the actual heir, his uncle, will inherit. And this man is even more morally bankrupt than Giles’ father. 

At the novel’s opening. Giles learns that something or someone is threatening to reveal the duke’s secret. Then, abruptly, Giles’ father dies and Giles inherits. He’s in a quandary. He’s a little afraid he’ll go to jail for impersonating a duke, but he’s mostly afraid of his uncle inheriting and causing more harm to innocents.

The only one he trusts to go to for help is Diana. The two have known each other for a while and they enjoy verbally sparring. They pretend to dislike each other, but deep down what they feel is attraction. However, Diana refuses to entertain the notion that she cares for Giles because her life lessons have taught her that men are not to be trusted. Giles recognizes that he’s attracted to Diana, but he refuses to woo and marry anyone since he knows he’s not the peer of the realm he must pretend to be.

The two embark on a quest to discover the truth and maybe break the law to continue hiding it, all for the greater good. On the way, they fall ever more deeply in love.

This is a quick, entertaining romance in the enemies-to-lovers trope, or maybe frenemies-to-lovers is a better description. The dialogue contains some jarring modernisms, and Diana’s journalistic fact-finding adventures are glaringly lacking in credibility, but it remains a fun love story with two likeable protagonists.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is an engrossing historical novel that explores, from multiple angles, Rembrandt’s first major masterpiece, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.


Set in Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century, the story is told from multiple viewpoints. Dr. Tulp is the ambitious surgeon who hopes the lecture he will give while dissecting a corpse at the annual guild meeting will catapult him to high political office. René Descartes, the French philosopher/mathematician, is attending the public dissection hoping it will help him in his search for the seat of the soul. Jan Fetchet is a merchant trading in curios – and in human corpses. Rembrandt is, of course, the young painter, who has been commissioned to paint the members of the surgeon’s guild. He will decide to incorporate the corpse into his painting. And then, there is Aris the Kid, a young thief sentenced to be hanged, who claims to welcome death because his life has been one long misery. The only bright spot in his life is Flora, a friend from youth who briefly became his lover. She is carrying his child and comes to Amsterdam to try to save him. But she is always one step too late. Aris’ corpse will be the dissection specimen.

The story is imaginative and yet feels wholly credible as the author dives into the stories of each of these people and weaves them into a history of the painting. This novel should appeal to art lovers and historical fiction fans.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson III: Crossroads by Sigrid Undset

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

I’ve been following the story of Olav Audunsson (also known as The Master of Hestviken) in the new translation of Sigrid Unset’s masterpiece set in 13th-14th century Norway. (The translator is Tiina Nunnally.) The story is told in four volumes. I’ve read Book I: Vows and Book II: Providence, and reviewed them previously. The current book, Book III, is called Crossroads. I highly recommend reading them in order or the power of the story will be lost.


Book III continues seamlessly from where Book II ends. Olav is master of the profitable estate called Hestviken. He’s still young (late thirties), handsome, and healthy. However, he grieves the loss of his wife, Ingunn, who was the love of his life, despite their terrible experiences apart and together. Olav has resolved never to remarry or take a mistress because he still feels bound to her.

He has an heir, Eirik, who he has claimed as his own, although the child was fathered by a man who raped Ingunn. Eirik is growing to manhood. Although the reader can have flashes of sympathy for him, he’s not a likable boy. He’s given to whining, boasting, and lying. However, he senses that his father doesn’t like him – which is true – and that makes his desperate personality more understandable. Olav has never let on to anyone that Eirik is not his biological child. Even to himself, he accepts Eirik as his son. But there is also the question of his natural son, Bjorn, born to Torhilde, the woman who was once the housekeeper of the estate. Bjorn is a beautiful boy and Olav wishes he could have more to do with him than he does. 

Basically, Olav is a hot mess. He’s always been a deeply religious man, but he’s oppressed by the weight of his sins and wallows in conflicted feelings of unworthiness. He is deeply connected to his estate, but is bored by it. He mourns Ingunn, but still feels attracted to Torhilde. He leaves Hestviken for a short commercial voyage to London, during which he nearly sleeps with a very young married woman who reminds him of Ingunn. He has a religious experience and seriously considers becoming a monk. Yet throughout, he is incapable of making a significant change in his life and continues muddling along.

Eventually, war comes to his corner of the world and he sets off to take part. This reminds him of his soldiering days in his youth. He exhilarates in battle. He’s severely wounded. Good men are lost, but he survives and returns home. One expects that the clarity he felt in battle will not remain in peacetime, and he will return to his indecisiveness and wallowing.

It’s difficult to explain why this book is so compelling. Olav is not a particularly admirable character. In many ways, he’s rather weak. Still, the author gives such a convincing portrait of a medieval Norwegian “everyman” that I’m hooked. There is one more part to this quartet. I’m anxious to see how Olav’s story ends.

Friday, October 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

Quite some time ago, a friend of mine lent me A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. This past weekend I finally grabbed it from my toppling-over TBR pile to read on a long plane ride to a wedding. It was the perfect “travel” book. It’s also based on real-life Belle Époque characters so it fits into the historical fiction genre.


April Vogt, an auction house’s continental furniture expert, is in an unsettled marriage. Her husband, a Wall Street financier, recently admitted to a one-night stand with a coworker. She needs some time to herself to decide her next steps. Fortunately, she is summoned to Paris to sort and appraise the contents of an apartment that has been sealed for seventy years, an apartment chock-full of antique treasures, including a previously unknown portrait by Italian Belle Époque painter Giovanni Boldini. The subject of the painting was the French courtesan Marthe de Florian. Marthe was the one-time inhabitant of the apartment and all the treasures inside belonged to her – gifts from her lovers.

April is overwhelmed by it all, especially by a cache of journals kept by Marthe. Using the excuse that the journals will establish provenance for the articles in the house and thus raise their value, she dives into the life of the courtesan.

In the meantime, she begins to fall for the attractive French lawyer representing the estate, Luc Thébault. Luc is tricky to work with because he puts his client, one of Marthe’s descendants, first, but gradually the two become collaborators in the effort to uncover Marthe’s history. Also, Luc flirts with her and makes sure she doesn’t work too hard. He convinces her to enjoy more of Paris than just the dusty apartment. His attention gives her renewed faith in herself.

The book works in two timelines. The first follows April’s attempts to do the best job possible for her auction house, to learn as much as she can about Marthe, and to decide whether to dump her husband or work on the marriage. The second is told in Marthe’s voice through her journals. Marthe, one of the most sought-after courtesans of the age, is obsessed with the granddaughter of Victor Hugo and is in love with the painter Boldini. She’s a fascinating character.

One of the best things about the book is its Parisian setting. April adores Paris and shares the scenery, the wine, and the food with the reader so that you’ll end up wishing you were in Paris too.