Saturday, December 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Matrix by Lauren Groff

I saw matrix by Lauren Groff was getting a lot of buzz in the historical fiction world. Then I read it was set in an abbey in medieval England, in the twelfth century. The protagonist, Marie, is an illegitimate noblewoman. Her father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, establishing a connection of sorts to Eleanor of Aquitaine. My favorite family in my favorite historical time period—I had to read it.

Marie is excessively tall, ungainly, unattractive, illegitimate, and poor. So, she is considered unmarriageable and therefore useless. However, because she has connections (Empress Mathilda and Eleanor) she is sent, at the age of seventeen, to an abbey to take over as prioress. Marie has no religious calling and no desire for this position. Worse, when she arrives, she discovers it is small, impoverished, and in the midst of a plague. 

Marie is headstrong, passionate, intelligent, and fierce (much like Eleanor, who she loves and idolizes.) The arc of the novel is the process by which Marie comes to terms with the life she will have to live and then turns the abbey into a monument of female empowerment. Marie is able to turn the abbey not only into an enormously prosperous one, but also a haven for women where they can thrive according to their talents. Marie is an ambitious, prideful woman, but she is also generous and loving. Her theology is unorthodox, to say the least, but her devotion to her charges is complete.

This is a powerful literary work with luminous prose that pulled me into the twelfth century. Marie is a woman of her time and ahead of her time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Sin by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster’s latest Regency Romance release is Book 3 in her Pleasure Garden series, Unmasking Sin.

This series is tied together by the somewhat scandalous attendance of the heroine of each novel at a masked evening of entertainment at the Maida Pleasure Gardens. It is a place for dancing and slightly risque fun for members of London Society, but it is also frequented by the lower classes and criminal elements and a good deal of drinking and carousing goes on. Each of the heroines has her own reasons for going there, which do not include finding a lover, but...

Lady Rebecca Cornish is this novel’s heroine. Although in her early twenties, she has already been widowed twice, earning her the title of Black Widow. Her reputation is further tarnished by accusations that she murdered her most recent husband (and probably first husband as well.) Rebecca is being besieged by her late husband’s uncles who are waging a campaign to see her prosecuted and to take away her son to be raised more respectably.

To that end, they have hired solicitor/investigator Ludovic Dunne to find proof that she killed their nephew. Dunne has a solid reputation for this kind of work and he trails Lady Cornish to the Pleasure Gardens, expecting to find she has slipped out for an assignation.

Instead, he finds a composed, extremely beautiful woman, whose vulnerability and fear he senses. He continues to investigate, but shortly realizes he is on the wrong side of this investigation. He works to uncover the truth, which he is certain will exonerate her, but in the process loses her trust.

The plot centers on finding out who is behind the rumors and what they stand to gain from them, rehabilitating Lady Cornish’s reputation, and, at the same time, unearthing the reason for Dunne’s crusading efforts against injustice of all kinds. Along the way, they fall in love.

This is a fast-paced adventure with strong male and female leads. The good guys are very good. The bad guys are nasty villains. It’s a fun Romance for whiling away a few hours.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

 As part of my plan to increase my knowledge of the Regency Era, I thought I really needed a better handle on Napoleon. I knew the basics: French General, French Emperor, lover of Josephine, defeated at Waterloo. Also that he was not only a brilliant military commander but also an innovative administrator. But, overall, kind of a bad guy.

Wanting more detail, I plunged into what is called the definitive biography, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. This is a superb biography. It did, unfortunately, take me a very long time to read and bogged down my reading progress in general. (I took a couple of breaks, but always felt guilty reading other things.)  I finally finished it today. I’m pleased to note that my basic knowledge was basically correct.

This is a comprehensive birth-to-death biography. The bulk of the detail is centered on his military career, which makes sense. However, for a reader like me who zones out when the battle tactics are described in depth and who skips over battlefield maps, it was more than I needed. It was fascinating in a big picture way, but the details will never stick with me.

More impressive to me was the way the book touched on the personality of the emperor, showing his hubris and his (possibly feigned at times) humility, his wit, his sang-froid, and his extraordinary charisma. His micro-managing attention to detail boggles the mind. His superhuman energy (especially in his younger days) is hard to fathom. And his intelligence, memory, and analytical skills are as impressive today as they were to his contemporaries. 

It’s impossible to come away from this biography unimpressed with Napoleon. At the same time, without the benefit of being exposed to his personal charm, it was impossible for me to come away from it favorably impressed in the balance. The wake of death and destruction his ambitious empire building left across Europe was enormous. And despite his protestations that everything he did, he did for France – he was clearly doing it for personal glory and profit. I found myself astonished by the magnitude of his victories, yet rooting against him the whole time.

Monday, November 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is on her ninth Westcott novel. Someone Perfect is being released tomorrow. I love the Westcott romances with all the intricate family relations. They are going far afield now to more peripheral members. There are still a few more to be matched up, so those Balogh addicts among us don’t have to fear running out. Moreover, this novel’s heroine links up with a hero who also has an extended family with some young folks who will need spouses eventually. It isn’t a given they will all get books of their own, but it’s comforting to know they are out there waiting.

That said, Someone Perfect was a bit disappointing. It was a sweet romance with emotional depth and fine characters. But too many new folks were introduced who didn’t seem important to the plot. It may be a setup for future books, but I won’t remember them all by the time their books are out. And there was too much repetition. We’d be led by the hand into a scene so we’d know what to expect, the lovely scene would unfold as expected, and then one of the protagonists would, with internal monologue, repeat for us what had just occurred. A little less of that would have made the novel more engrossing.

Justin Wiley, the Earl of Brandon, was a sweet happy child, even with the death of his mother in an accident when he was ten. He handled the remarriage of his father to a woman who seemed to quarrel with everyone. He had a step-sister, fourteen years younger, whom he adored. So, what happened? He was banished from the household in his early twenties and essentially disappeared until his father died. Then he returned to take up the responsibilities of an earl. He immediately sent his stepmother and step-sister to the country and did not visit that sister for two years, until after his stepmother died.

His step-sister, Maria, hates him. She wishes nothing to do with him, even though he had once been the light of her life.

Estelle Lamarr is one of the peripheral Westcotts. She lives quietly in the country with her twin brother. She’s a friend of Maria’s. When Brandon comes to claim Maria and bring her “home,” Estelle is put off by his cold, harsh demeanor. Yet when he asks her to visit his estate to help Maria accommodate to her new situation, Estelle recognizes that he isn’t cruel. She agrees to go.

That is the setup. Brandon has to learn to let his past and present merge, and to let the walls he has built up be broken down. Estelle has to decide whether she really wants to live a secluded life or to be surrounded by people—by family. They both have to learn to be vulnerable and honest with one another.

There are no real surprises here, but the characters are easy to pull for. And I’m glad to be left with the impression that there will be more in the series.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

I don’t, as a rule, laugh out loud while reading in a public place. However, I was deeply immersed in Georgette Heyer’s witty comedy of manners, Sylvester, when a fast-paced scene piled up the clever silliness until my giggle could not be contained. 

I love Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances.

Although the style is a little dated and some of the plots start to feel a bit familiar (I suspect she did them first!), the hilarious banter and outrageous situations never fail to entertain. Sex is only  hinted at but the passion is strong. Her books are comfort food.

Sylvester is a duke in need of a wife. He is well known to be perfectly correct in all his doings. He treats his underlings with courtesy. He gives his peers no reason to complain. He is a womanizer, but insists he never gives the young ladies who throw themselves at him any expectations. He confines his peccadillos to ladybirds. If he were informed that people considered him too high in the instep, he would have been shocked. He doesn’t put on airs. But the thing is, he doesn’t have to put them on, they are part of who he is.

He has numerous acquaintances but only a few close friends. The only two people he truly cares about, after the death of his twin brother, are his invalid mother and his nephew. The boy is only six and is being spoiled by Sylvester’s widowed sister-in-law, whom he despises. 

Sylvester is the boy’s guardian and so he needs to marry so that he can take over the boy’s care altogether. (The boy’s mother wouldn’t actually mind that, but recognizes it would look bad for her to abandon her son to Sylvester after she’s been badmouthing him for years.)

Phoebe is a country gentlewoman being raised by her horse-crazy father and a severe stepmother. She is not beautiful and, with her stepmother breathing down her neck, she does not shine in company because she’s so afraid of saying anything wrong. In her favor, her deceased mother was a very close friend of Sylvester’s mother. And her grandmother (if I have this right) is Sylvester’s godmother. Although she is not much of a prize (she had one London Season and didn’t ‘take’) Sylvester considers the match for his mother’s sake.

Phoebe, when apprized of what’s going on, wants none of it. When Sylvester appears at her father’s country home, apparently to woo her, she runs away—into a winter storm accompanied only by a brotherly friend. Sylvester believes himself to have dodged a bullet and so sets off to return to London. But on the way he comes across Phoebe and her friend, who have had an accident on the road.

The two are thrown together away from the hovering and criticism of the stepmother. And they hit it off. Sort of. They also annoy the hell out of each other. But their interactions amuse them both as well as the reader. Their future together seems assured.

Except Phoebe has a secret. After her failed London Season, she wrote an anonymous novel skewering the ton. A publisher picked it up. It will soon be released. The villain of the piece was based on Sylvester because of his superciliousness and his devilish eyebrows. She is unable to stop the publication or even change that unmistakable physical description. When the book comes out, everyone recognizes Sylvester. His dignity is assaulted. She could have done nothing worse.

They have to find their way back to one another over the course of a few over-the-top adventures. When I saw where the plot was headed, and how well it had been set up, I laughed out loud some more.

One of these days I will run out of Georgette Heyer novels despite how prolific she was. Then I will have to turn around and read them all over again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

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

I love libraries. My favorites are large academic libraries with their stacks filled with obscure treasures. My local public library is next. In addition to the great selection in the citywide system, the librarians seem to be able to obtain just about anything I’m looking for. I even love the goofy libraries at vacation spots, more likely provided for show than because anyone is expected to read the odd old assortments. And then there are private libraries… I’ve always wanted a room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a sliding ladder. I’ve settled for books all over my house.

When I saw The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen available on Netgalley, I knew I had to read it.

This new release is a comprehensive history of the library, from idea to execution, with all the myriad cycles of building and destruction (or fading away). It covers the “public” libraries of antiquity, the massive personal libraries of royalty and wealthy men, institutional libraries, subscription libraries, modern-day public libraries, pretty much every form of book collecting for personal use or for sharing. It covers the rise and fall of great libraries alongside the rise and fall of civilizations. It addresses the question of the future of the library. (Have faith! People have been predicting the end of “the book” for as long as there have been books. Libraries, too, will survive in one form or another.)

The Library is an impressive undertaking. It’s comprehensive (a bit lengthy) and detailed (so a bit dry), but my interest never flagged. The resiliency of the library as a concept and as a concrete public service is inspiring. Book lovers, readers and collectors, and all library nerds will find this an interesting and reassuring study of the topic. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Woodcock by Richard Smyth

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

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, richly detailed (detailed about things I’m not overly interested in–tide pool biology, cricket...yet strangely compelling nonetheless) historical novel that will gently tug at your heartstrings, The Woodcock by Richard Smyth is a must read. 

The pace is gentle and it took awhile to immerse myself in the slow rhythm of the story, but the tension built continuously and I had a hard time putting the book down. It can be funny at times, yet has a menace to it like a horror story. I knew it would end badly, but I didn’t know how it would end, and I needed to know.

The story is told in the first person by two of the main characters, alternating POVs. The first is Jon Lowell, a naturalist who makes his living writing articles for journals (and one book!) about the creatures inhabiting the seashore, the tide pools, of the tiny north England village Gravely. He’s a handsome young man, in his early twenties, though he seems older at first. He lives quietly. He wants to live quietly, absorbed in his odd work, work that is engrossing to him but bizarre or amusing to the other residents of the town.

The second narrator is Harriet Lowell, Jon’s wife. She’s introduced to us that way, as if her role in life is simply that. She’s a native of Gravely, a small town girl. She is surprisingly, and very noticeably, beautiful. (Jon takes some pride in that.) She does love her husband. But she also has a rich inner life that Jon knows nothing about. He’s never bothered to ask. She spends a lot of time with the town preacher, Reverend Aldridge, which annoys Jon only because he doesn’t like the man and is not, himself, religious. Mostly, he doesn’t care what she does with her time so long as she doesn’t inflict the preacher on him. Whether Jon’s absent-ness bothers Harriet or serves her purpose isn’t made clear. Harriet is an insular character, reflective, intelligent, and wounded.

The book opens with outsiders coming to town.

One is Jon’s longtime friend, David McAllister, a successful novelist, lady’s man, handsome, beefy, and brave. Although polar opposites, the two are best friends, soul mates. They make each other laugh. (Their banter is hilarious.) But David is also an alcoholic and a bit of a lost cause.

More momentous is the arrival of the Americans, Maurice Shakes and his two beautiful daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor. Shakes is a man with a dream: he wants to build a tourist attraction to outdo Coney Island, a large pier and amusement park with all the amenities early twentieth century technology can provide, on the shore of backwater Gravely. A beguiling salesman, he cons the people of the town into accepting his vision, all except Reverend Aldridge, who sees it as evil, Harriet, who sees it as dangerous, and Jon, who isn’t against the idea so much as he is mistrustful of change. It seems unlikely the tourist attraction would be good for the local wildlife.

Shakes is a whirlwind and development moves quickly. But more disruptive for our protagonists are the two daughters. Cordelia ensnares David–or maybe doesn’t. And Jon finds himself drawn to Eleanor. It’s painful to read Jon’s self-absorbed pursuit of a woman he barely knows while he justifies his neglect of his wife.

Although the plot is fairly straightforward, there are many swirling undercurrents. They offer a variety of possibilities for resolution – none of them good – so that the story is satisfyingly complex.