Saturday, March 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy in the Rain by Stephanie Cowell

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

Now available for pre-order!

The Boy in the Rain by Stephanie Cowell is a stunning, emotionally rich novel of illicit love in Edwardian England. It was hard to put this book down.

Robbie is a young, talented painter. Anton Harrington is a wealthy banker who is, at the core, a socialist reformer. They meet when Robbie, thrown out of the house by his uncle, comes to live in the vicarage in Nottinghamshire where the vicar is supposed to tutor him for the university. Anton owns a house in Nottinghamshire and is friends with the vicar.

The two men are swiftly smitten with each other. But love between men is forbidden. Illegal. Anton is older than Robbie, 29 to Robbie’s 19, and there are wounds in his past that complicate matters further. Robbie is an innocent in many ways, but more open and giving.

The novel follows the course of their relationship through its times of comfort and leisure as well as the more frequent times of strain. They pursue their own careers – Robbie becoming a celebrated London portraitist and Anton leaving banking to return to his political endeavors. Communication is sometimes fraught. They break up and reunite. But always, they are better, happier, together. The fact that the world does not permit them to love, and that there is danger in loving, gives this novel its conflict and its poignancy.

The writing is superb. The author climbs inside the hearts of the protagonists and the reader’s heart will break along with theirs. Highly recommended. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight from Paris by Jane Healey

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

Are you up for one more WWII novel? Goodnight from Paris by Jane Healey is a poignant new release for historical fiction fans. Based on real historical events, this novel highlights the experiences of American women who remained in France during the Nazi occupation.

Drue Leyton Tartière was an American movie star in the 1930s who moved to Paris to be with her French husband, Jacques. When the war broke out, Jacques went to work for the Allies as a translator. Drue stayed behind in Paris. Although she had opportunity to escape to the safety of the U.S. (and resume her acting career), she opted to stay in France in the hope of seeing her husband from time to time. She took a job with French radio, Paris Mondiale, broadcasting to the U.S. about the situation in Europe, taking an anti-Nazi stance that put her on their execution list. When the Germans invaded Paris, she fled to a small village nearby where she continued her Resistance work in conjunction with Jean Fraysse, the head of Paris Mondiale.

With cameo appearances by journalist Dorothy Thompson, entertainer Josephine Baker, and Parisian bookshop owner Sylvia Beach, the novel is a who’s who of important American women in France during the war. This is an inspirational story of freedom-fighting against terrifying odds.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Portrait by Iain Pears

The Portrait by Iain Pears is a voice-driven, slow-build thriller. Or horror story. It reminded me of something Edgar Allan Poe might write.

In the early 1900s, William Nasmyth, a critic who rules the London art world, invites himself to visit an old friend, Scottish artist Henry Morris MacAlpine, to have his portrait painted. MacAlpine is living in self-imposed exile on a tiny, remote island off the coast of northern France.

The story is told by the artist as a monologue spoken to the critic. MacAlpine likes to talk while he paints but prefers his subjects remain still. The history of their friendship unfolds, exposing the true natures of both critic and artist. While at first confiding and slightly jocular, the digs MacAlpine makes grow increasingly pointed. And disturbing. At the same time, the weather slowly turns violent so that, at least for the time being, the critic is trapped on the island.

The truth of the situation dawns on reader and Nasmyth alike, bringing the book to a chilling, satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

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

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano is a lovely, angsty contemporary novel of love and family. 

The Padavano family consists of four daughters (Julia, Sylvie, and the twins Cecelia and Emeline). Their father, Charlie, is a dreaming sort of man who is kindness incarnate, but who never manages to make enough money to get ahead and relies on his wife, Rose, for all practical matters. Rose is determined that her daughters will be college-educated, self-reliant, and well-married. (The best laid plans...)

William Waters was a wounded child who grows up to be a depressed young man. A talented (but not talented enough) basketball player, he plays for his college team until sidelined by injuries. Also in college, he meets Julia, falls in love, and is absorbed into the family.

The Padavano daughters are all very different, but live interconnected lives. Julia has her whole life planned out and it will be one of financial success, one where she can continue to structure her sisters’ lives for success as well. She chooses William to be her husband and tries to mold him into the shape of the husband she wants. When he realizes he cannot be enough for her, or for their infant daughter, the depression he has barely kept at bay all his life consumes him, shattering the Padavano women in the process.

This is a tear-jerker of a novel about a family torn apart and put back together again. It is a quiet, beautiful book.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard

In time for Women’s History Month, I just read the newly released A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard.

The novel opens in 1986 after the death (murder) of history professor Johnny Wharton, chairman of the department at a low-tier Texas university. His murderer has not been caught.

Four women, each with a different relationship to Johnny, tell their life stories. The book deals with various aspects of women in academia in the 1970s through ‘80s. The feminist movement, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, and inter-generational trauma are all touched upon.

Maddie is also a history professor in the department. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Maddie is somewhat appalled to find herself in a Texas backwater at a university with no prestige. She moved south to be with her lover, Roz, an academic in another department, who is from Texas and needed to return to care for her aging mother. This was a university where they could both hope to have tenured positions; however, they would have to keep secret their same-sex, mixed-race relationship. The trade-off was worth it for Maddie until she finds herself dumped by Roz and re-evaluating her life.

Liz is Johnny Wharton’s wife. Born and raised in the South, she was brought up to be the quintessential southern lady. She defers in all things to her husband. She asks no questions. She and Johnny had one daughter from whom she is now estranged, though she cannot fathom what went wrong. Liz works part-time as an accountant and volunteers at an animal shelter, but she is pretty much sleepwalking through life, mourning the lost relationship with her daughter.

Jenny is the daughter. She is filled with rage at both her parents and determined to cut them out of her life. She is now in school in Madison and is starting, against her will, to make friends and care about others. But at the same time, she is self-destructive and full of self-loathing.

And there is Jane, a smart but timid graduate student who is scooped up by Johnny as a research assistant. He quickly seduces her, reducing her, as she is well aware, to a stereotype. Yet she hopes, for a while, that his interest will help her to grow beyond her own mousey self-image and allow her to face the abuses in her past.

The trauma each of these women experience is related with sensitivity as horror piles upon horror. Each person in the novel will, at one point or another, express a wish to kill Johnny or at least, that he will be killed. By the book’s end, the reader is glad that someone killed the man. 

This is a gripping novel with sympathetic female protagonists, each with her own strengths and her own blind spots. The reader is taken on a painful but ultimately satisfying journey.

Monday, March 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

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

I’ve been reading some more short story collections lately. How did I not know Margaret Atwood was a short story writer? Her latest collection is Old Babes in the Wood.

This is a moving collection of short stories focused primarily on themes of aging, memory, and loss. Whether you find the protagonists insightful, a little crotchety, or a bit of both will depend upon your perspective, but the truths that emerge in the course of the tales will make you stop and think.

The stories are varied, but Atwood returns to a focus on Nell and Tig, an older couple, happily married for many years who have had good, full lives by most standards, and are now faced with the inevitable. It’s heart-wrenching without being melodramatic.

This is a beautiful collection – as would be expected from this author.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Have you ever wanted to go back to college and take a literature class? Maybe one on short stories? How about one on classic Russian short stories, for example, works by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol? If so, I highly recommend George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. (Subtitled In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.)

Based on a class that Saunders (the author of Lincoln in the Bardo) teaches at Syracuse University, the book presents a series of classic short stories and then demonstrates how they can be read critically to extract more meaning. Saunders discusses how short stories are constructed and why the writer may have made the decisions he did. It’s a fascinating way to look inside a literature course as well as to read and appreciate some great classic short fiction.

Saunders writes engagingly and encouragingly, making these Russian masters more approachable. A highly recommended reading experience.