Friday, December 30, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Women Medical Doctors in the United States before the Civil War by Edward C. Atwater

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

Women Medical Doctors in the United States before the Civil War: A Biographical Dictionary by Edward C. Atwater is a true labor of love. The author compiled a list of 280 women who received MD degrees during the 13-year period from 1849 (the year the first woman received an MD) until the start of the Civil War. Medical school itself was nothing like what we know today. Regularly-trained physicians competed for patients with other doctors trained as homeopaths or as water cure experts. Given the primitive range of treatments available to regular doctors, outcomes were often better for patients treated with homeopathy or water cures. Female physicians generally tended to women and children, and often lectured to the public on health and hygiene. But there were women serving their communities in the same capacity as male physicians in this early time period.

The book lists the women alphabetically and provides as much biographical information as the author could cull from census records, newspaper or periodicals, books (some of the women wrote books or pamphlets), and occasional letters. Some of the women left behind enough of a record to piece together a glimpse of their lives, while others remain a blank, with only the barest demographic information available. In many cases, it isn’t even possible to know for sure if they practiced medicine after earning their degrees. Other women not only practiced but taught in medical schools.

Despite the encyclopedic nature of the book, it is surprisingly readable and oddly fascinating. It’s a difficult book to get through all in one sitting, but it’s a great book to read in bits and pieces.

Anyone with an interest in the history of medicine might like a copy of this book for their shelves.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

I’ve fallen behind with Lindsey Davis’ Flavia Albia Mysteries, set in ancient Rome, so I got books 3 and 4 for Christmas. I’ve just finished book 3: Deadly Election.

Flavia Albia is the adopted daughter of the famed informer/spy Marcus Didius Falco, whose stories I devoured. Albia is similarly hard-boiled, a determined and intelligent detective. Although she reports that being female limits her inquiries to discovering cheating husbands etc, she has in fact solved her share of murders mixed with political intrigue. While I still find her wry cynicism less convincing than Falco’s, I enjoy the complex mysteries she solves and her evolving relationship with magistrate Manlius Faustus.

In Deadly Election, Albia is back in Rome, recuperating from her most recent adventure (see book 2, Enemies at Home.) The family auction house is holding a summer sale, despite the fact that most people flee Rome in the heat of July. Albia, as the family representative, is more or less supervising so she is notified when a corpse is discovered in a lockbox the auction house has up for sale. Intrepid and responsible, she sets out to identify the victim with hopes it will lead to the murderer.

At the same time, Faustus comes to her for help (and for company.) He is acting as campaign manager for an old friend, Vibius Marinus. Faustus asks Albia in her capacity as informer to dig up dirt on the opponents. She’s game, but is disturbed by rumors about Faustus’ friend. The tangled relationships between the candidates make it unlikely that Vibius Marinus is as devoted a family man as Faustus believes him to be.

The pieces fall into place after a second body is found in the same trunk.

Albia is growing more confident and more mature. Faustus remains a strong support and all-round steady character. It’s taken some time for this series to grow on me but I’m glad I stuck with it and I’m looking forward to book 4.

Monday, December 26, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Spy's Son by Bryan Denson

My history/historical fiction book club us meeting in early January to discuss The Spy’s Son by Bryan Denson. It’s very recent history, written by a journalist, so it’s different in content and style from the usual history and biography that I read. The story of CIA agent turncoat spy Jim Nicholson is a rather horrifying narrative of a despicable, self-serving man whose ego and sense of entitlement led him to betray his country out of greed. (He was also narcissistic and a bully to his long-suffering wife, who got out when she could, but not before having three children with him.)

Nicholson is caught and sent to Federal prison. While the backstory dragged a bit, the account of the cloak-and-dagger surveillance and eventual takedown of the spy sucked me in. It’s hard to fathom this stuff going on in the real world.

If Nicholson’s first act wasn’t bad enough, his subsequent manipulation of his own youngest son, an emotionally fragile and eager to please young man, will leave readers cringing. Nathan Nicholson’s gullibility could only be excused by his devotion to a father whose motivations he couldn’t see clearly.

Those who enjoy spy stories will surely find this real-life account gripping.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae is a newly released first book in a cozy mystery series that adds in an additional enticement– the detectives are book shop owners. I decided to give it a try even though it’s a contemporary novel and I tend to prefer cozy mysteries that are historical.

Four women (Janet, her best friend Christine, and their two adult daughters, Tallie and Summer) have decided to move to the tourist town of Inversgail in the Scottish Highlands and take over a bookstore. (The owners are selling.) The plan is to add on a tea shop and bed-and-breakfast. The four women have talents and backgrounds that should help ensure success (a librarian, social worker, lawyer and investigative journalist, respectively.) Christine is from Inversgail and wants to move back to care for her aging parents. Janet, who is the main protagonist, used to vacation in the town with her husband, from whom she is recently divorced after discovering he cheated on her.

The four arrive in town and begin to get organized in advance of the big annual literary festival that should help drive traffic to their store. Right away, they are visited by Una Graham, who writes an advice column for the local paper and who has also taken up investigative reporting. Assigned to do a story on the new bookshop owners, Una is looking for controversy, not a puff piece. If she can’t find controversy she has no problem inventing it.

The women are put off by Una, but continue on with their business, which includes meeting some of the other locals. Then they head off to Janet’s home. (Purchased long ago by Janet and her husband to be a retirement home, the house is now being rented. At least, it was being rented. The lease was not renewed and the renters are, supposedly, dragging their feet about leaving.) They arrive to find the kitchen full of garbage. That’s a lot better than what they find when they try again a few days later. Now, they discover Una Graham brutally murdered in the garden shed.

The local policeman is called in, who also alerts the special crimes division. The professionals begin investigating, but that isn’t enough for the bookstore owners who have a vested interest in seeing the crime solved. They begin collecting clues on their own.

The book is set in a lovely location and the second-chance scheme of the women to run their own business in town is interesting. The mystery holds together in the end. However, the story is slow paced. The women suspect whatever townspeople they come into contact with. The action consists of the women questioning townspeople then listing everything they know and all their new questions on a spreadsheet. The village policeman is sweetly patient with them, but their prying into a murder investigation–and being allowed to interfere– does seem a bit farfetched. Some of the plot elements also seem unlikely, and appear wedged in to make other pieces of the plot work. While it’s a short read and nice to envision a life of book-selling and scone-eating in Inversgail, I wasn’t really engaged in the characters as mystery solvers.

Monday, December 19, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Time for another Georgette Heyer Regency Romance. The Grand Sophy is a fast-paced delight.

The Rivenhall family is in a funk. Lord Ombersley, the patriarch, is a gambler and a skirt-chaser who has run the family estate into the ground. There are a passel of children for Lady Ombersley, sweet but ineffective, to worry about. Fortunately, the eldest son, Charles, has a good head on his shoulders and, to boot, inherited a fortune from an uncle. Unfortunately, the weight of managing the family’s affairs has turned him into a domineering somber bore who has engaged himself to a nasty judgmental woman who plans to fix what she considers wrong with the whole clan.

Among the children of the Ombersleys is the beautiful Cecelia, now of marriageable age. She was just about engaged to an extremely eligible and devoted man when her head is turned by a beautiful, dreamy young poet, a younger son of a good family who has no prospects whatsoever. Even his poetry is bad. At the same time, her more eligible suitor has the misfortune of contracting the mumps and having to withdraw from society for a time, which Cecelia takes as a personal affront.

The fortunes of this beleaguered family are about to change. Lady Ombersley’s brother, a diplomat, has been called to Brazil. He must leave his daughter, his little Sophy, behind in England and asks his sister to watch over her for a time and, since it’s time to think of marrying her off, to look about for a match for her. Inconvenient as the request is, Lady Ombersley can not reject her niece or refuse to do her brother the favor.

So Sophy arrives. She is a confident, self-possessed whirlwind, the likes of which London has never seen. A delightful schemer, she assesses the situation in the house at once, and sets her mind to making things right. The household is turned upside down with amusing and fairly predictable results, but it’s a madcap adventure getting to the happy-ever-after. This is classic Heyer Romance and can’t be beat for a light-hearted holiday read.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

CHALLENGE COMPLETED: Back to the Classics 2016

The Back-to-the-Classics Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. It helps me to get to more of the should-reads and they are often among my favorite books of the year. I don’t know why it is always the hardest challenge for me to finish, but this year I made it through all twelve categories! The books, with links to reviews, are below:

1. 19th century:  Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
2. 20th century: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Woman Author: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
4. Translation: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
5. Non-white Author: The Living is Easy by Dorothy West
6. Adventure: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
7. Science Fiction: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
8. Detective Novel: Penhallow by Georgette Heyer
9. Name of a Place in the Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
10. Banned or Censored: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
11. Re-read a classic: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
12. Short Story Collection: A New England Nun and Other Stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman

Thank you to Karen at Books and Chocolate! I’m looking forward to next year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I did it! I finished the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge!

My classic-written-by-a-female-author choice was The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Previously for a classics challenge (I can’t believe it was more than 3 years ago) I read Eliot’s Middlemarch and loved it. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to get to The Mill on the Floss.

This is the story of an ordinary woman, Maggie Tulliver, the daughter of a miller, in a tiny English village on the river Floss. The family is of respectable means, but not as well-off as her father likes others to think. He’s a rather narrow-minded man who feels everyone is out to cheat him and so has had multiple run-ins with other people’s lawyers. He wants his son, Tom, to get an education so that he can be a match for them. To that end, he sends Tom off for private instruction.

Tom is not particularly smart. He’s an upright young man, given to feeling morally superior to everyone else. He has common sense and would make a fine miller, but he’s no scholar. Unfortunately, Maggie got the brains in the family, which makes her a bit rebellious. She also got the heart, which makes her impetuous.

Maggie adores her older brother and is desperate to be adored in return. While Tom is sometimes kind and generous, he disapproves of her sentimentality and rash emotions, and tends toward being a bully and a scold. This is all rather heart-breaking for Maggie in her childhood days, but gets even worse as she grows into a young lady.

In a Romeo-and-Juliet-like twist, Tom’s fellow pupil is the son of Mr. Tulliver’s arch enemy, a wheeler-dealer whose various money-making schemes always seem to infringe upon the rights of the mill. Tom doesn’t particularly like Philip Wakem but Maggie, who treats everyone kindly, visits Tom and befriends Philip. As Philip doesn’t have many friends (due to a physical deformity), he is overwhelmed by Maggie’s affectionate generosity. The children grow up. The Tullivers experience tragedy that is laid directly at the door of Mr. Wakem, and they are forbidden by their father to have anything to do with the Wakems.

It may be expected that Maggie and Philip find a way to disobey the charge to keep apart and that love blossoms between them. But this isn’t the whole of the tale. Maggie’s need to please and her delight when she finds herself admired lead her into a situation where she knows she will hurt the people she loves most, no matter which path she chooses. Worst of all, she will be estranged from her brother.

Many readers will be heartily sick of Tom Tulliver early on in the book, and will wish Maggie capable of turning her back on him as readily as he can shun her. But Maggie, as inconsistent as she is in some areas, is consistent in her determination to be loved by her brother.

This is a beautiful and tragic story. Eliot spends a great deal of time bringing the reader into the small world and rather cramped lives of the Tullivers’ extended family and few friends. The character studies, particularly of Maggie and Tom, are richly rendered. The reader understands how they think and why they do what they do. The omniscient narrator provides details that condemn, but at the same time gives explanations that excuse, their actions. The narrator also offers up insights into the psychology of the characters and more broadly analyzes human nature in such compelling passages that she sweeps the reader along. The events are tragic on a small, personal scale, but that doesn’t make the story any less gripping.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria The Queen. An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

These long books are making it hard for me to blog as much as I’d like. I finally finished Victoria The Queen. An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird. As interested as I am in the Victorian time period, it’s embarrassing that I knew so little about Victoria. This book seemed the perfect way to remedy that.

In 1837, at the age of 18, Victoria inherited the throne of England and ruled for sixty-three years. Not content to be a mere figurehead, she made her political views known and manipulated the ministers from behind the scenes. She was devoted to her husband, her cousin Prince Albert, who did much of the work of the monarchy in the early years of her reign, largely because she was busy bearing nine children. After his death, she mourned deeply for an extended period of time, until drawn back into public life by her interest in what was happening in England and because her grief was assuaged by her scandalous relationship with a commoner, John Brown.

This detailed biography pulls extensively from primary sources to give the reader a picture of the woman as well as the queen. Baird strikes a good balance between lauding Victoria’s accomplishments, explaining her popularity, and discussing her faults and where she fell short. Often, snippets in the queen’s own words are her own worst critiques, showing Victoria’s self-absorption, her complete conviction of her own infallibility, and her neediness. Yet she mastered the art of winning the adoration of her subjects.

In addition to presenting Victoria’s life history, this is a fascinating look at the policies and tactics of the British Empire of the times. It’s lengthy and, at times, a bit repetitive, but overall well-organized and informative, with an extensive bibliography.

For those interested in the Victorian Era and Victoria herself, this is superb biography.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Determined to complete the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge this year, I marched on through my banned book classic: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

I don’t know what possessed me to pick this, and now I’m not exactly sure what to make of it, since it’s quite an appalling and unpleasant book to read. And yet, once I was a quarter of the way into the narrative, I was strangely hooked. The subject matter, superficially, is repetitive and self-absorbed. The style, annoyingly rambling, is not my cup of tea. But this is extreme writing and it packs a wallop.

Miller, the narrator, gives a fictionalized memoir-like account of his Paris revel, written while he was wandering the city, living on the streets, off his friends, and off the minimal proceeds of intermittent low-level jobs. He’s always hungry, sometimes on the verge of starvation. He’s usually drunk. He never actually seems to be writing, although he talks about writing with his artist and writer friends. And he spends most of his time pursuing women, mostly prostitutes, for sexual encounters. From time to time he pines for the wife he left back in the United States, but he’s also infatuated with a woman who is more or less linked with another friend of his. His friendships are all superficial and based on mutual dependency. His deepest emotion seems to be his love for Paris, primarily its seedy underside.

The novel is a series of semi-chronological anecdotes. They are not, in themselves, very interesting. But the descriptions underlying it all are extraordinary. He breathes life into characters as superficial as he is. His emotional responses to the ordinariness of walking about, or his job as a proof-reader, or his relief in sponging a meal off an acquaintance, make his actions seems somehow larger. Miller is wallowing in failure and yet, whenever he is about to despair, he finds something to focus his attention upon that lights him up again.

The book was banned for its explicit sexual content. For its time, it was absurdly racy. Now it doesn’t come across so much as boldly innovative as simply crude. Women in the novel are props to be exploited and demeaned. The men, narrator included, are disgusting, with no redeeming qualities except, perhaps, for their willingness to share with each other the little they have. This book doesn’t have a lot to recommend it except for the remarkable prose and occasional flashes of insight, but that is, surprisingly, enough to recommend it. I don’t think I’ll read anything else of Miller’s, but I’m glad to have gotten through this one.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I’m a devoted fan of medieval romance, so I’ve no excuse for not having read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott before now. Fortunately, I chose it for my nineteenth-century classic for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge, and I’m making a last-ditch effort to get all twelve books read. (Now just two to go!)

I’ve read Scott before, Waverly and The Heart of Midlothian, and while I admired the author’s skill and enjoyed both books, they were a bit dated in terms of readability. So I approached Ivanhoe with some trepidation. And it does start off slowly. We are introduced first to a variety of peripheral characters with the principals shrouded in mystery. The reader has to be patient to get into the actual tale.

The hero of the story, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a young Saxon knight who served King Richard on Crusade, much to the annoyance of his father, Cedric, an old-blood Saxon nobleman who despises the Normans on principle as well as for good reasons. (Prince John is causing mischief in England, proving that the Normans are no good.) Cedric has a good friend, Athelstane, who is the last in the line of old Saxon kings. And he has a beautiful ward, the Lady Rowena, who is descended from King Harold. He wants them to wed and found a new dynasty to throw off the Norman oppressors. The fact that Rowena and Wilfred are in love is an obstacle to Cedric’s plans, so he disinherits his son. That’s the backstory.

Now, Wilfred returns in disguise. He comes partly to show Rowena he is still alive and still faithful. But he’s also staying more or less close to his king, who has returned from the Crusade after being freed from captivity in Austria. Richard has come to reclaim England from John. He’s also disguised and traveling in secret until he can amass his followers.

In addition, the reader meets Isaac of York and his beautiful daughter, Rebecca. They are Jews, and much of the plot revolves around the persecution of Jews as well as their avarice and wealth. Scott manages to both expose the bigotry of the times and to reinforce the stereotypes, which makes this part of the book doubly disturbing.

The good guys (the Saxons, Richard the Lionheart, and Robin Hood) must contend with the powerful bad guys (the Knights Templar and the barons supporting John.)  There are sieges, battles, tournaments, and ambushes as well as knights courting their ladies. The adventures pile one on another, interspersed with the narrator’s commentary. It’s great fun, especially with the witticisms of Cedric’s jester and Friar Tuck added in.

I can understand why Ivanhoe is one of Scott’s best known and most popular books. For old fashioned medieval adventure, it’s truly a classic.

Monday, November 21, 2016

E-BOOK PROMO: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

I have this book on my e-reader from Netgalley and I hope to get to it soon.  In the meantime, I'm passing along this promotion for anyone who might be interested!

Here's the blurb from goodreads: 

A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Gene. An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the amazing popular science book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, has a new book out: The Gene: An Intimate History.

As in his first work, Mukherjee mixes the human element (the strivings, successes and disappointments of real people, this time mostly scientists) with a heavy dose of scientific explanation, in order to introduce the reader to a vast topic. The history of man’s understanding of the gene is complex and fascinating. This lengthy book takes us back to Darwin and to Mendel and his peas, and follows the unfolding drama of genetic discovery right up to the present, to the Human Genome Project and the beginnings of gene therapy, with all the ethical and moral dilemmas this knowledge presents.

Mukherjee has a gift for synthesizing large amounts of information and presenting it in a readable, clear way. The most engaging parts of the story follow the important people in the history of genetic discovery. The book gets more bogged down when discussing the science. Although the author’s ability to illustrate complicated ideas in a comprehensible fashion is impressive, the line between going too far into the weeds to explain crucial experiments and skimming over the details to present a summary of the significance of results is a very difficult line to walk. At times, the balance is a bit off. I found myself wanting a more in-depth description of some of the experimental processes. At the same time, I felt that the author’s emphasis on some of the more crucial concepts grew repetitive.

Given the scope of this remarkable book, readers shouldn’t be put off by a little unevenness. To grasp the enormous strides made in understanding life itself that have been driven by an increasing understanding of genes, this book is a must-read. It may not be as compulsively readable as The Emperor of All Maladies, but The Gene demonstrates once again that Siddartha Mukherjee is a brilliant communicator.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Nothing like a good book to absent myself from the real world for a while. I decided to go with a back-to-the-classics challenge book because I wanted to immerse myself in some intense reading. I chose Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad which is my "adventure" pick.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A young man named Jim has romantic visions of going to sea. In the dramas he envisions, he plays an adventuresome and always heroic role. Jim is a fine sailor, good at his craft. He is hired aboard the Patna, a passenger ship chockful of pilgrims, and his mettle is tested. The rusty old boat strikes something and starts taking on water. It’s the dead of night and the pilgrims are sleeping. The seamen in charge of the boat decide to run for their lives. Knowing there are not enough lifeboats for everyone, they try to quietly release one for themselves.

While Jim does not actively participate in preparations for escape, he does, in the end, take advantage of the safety boat. The men are picked up by a passing ship and returned to port, where their crime of deserting ship is discovered. The others take flight again, and Jim is left to bear the full weight of the official inquest.

The punishment meted out by the officials is nothing compared to how Jim is prepared to punish himself. He had been given an opportunity to live out his dreams of heroism and nobility, and he failed. After a nomadic second act, where he tries to outrun his reputation, he is given a true second chance. He’s sent to be an agent at a trading post beyond the end of civilization in a place called Patusan. He can reinvent himself. He can be what he always believed himself capable of being. Until a final reckoning comes.

The plot is straightforward but the psychological drama of Jim’s life is not, and the real story being told is that of Jim’s inner life–something that is not knowable. The narration is an attempt to get at that unknowable story.

What makes this such a remarkable novel is the way in which the story is told. Jim’s adventures are related by a narrator named Marlow, an older, more distinguished sea captain, who is caught up by the notoriousness of the Patna and finds himself captivated by Jim at the trial. Jim tells a pared down truth during the inquest, but confides all to Marlow one evening over supper. On the strength of this slight acquaintance, Marlow takes it upon himself to aid Jim. It gives him a stake in what Jim makes of his life.

Marlow tells the story in a round-about way, interjecting background of peripheral characters and telling some other marginally related stories along the way. Events are not presented chronologically because Marlow moves around and tells the story in bits and pieces to whatever audience is present at the time. Occasionally he comes across characters with something to add to the story, so that is thrown into the mix as well. Jim tells us bits in his own words, but even these words are filtered through Marlow’s narration. As Marlow is constantly taking a step back, and confessing he can’t really understand Jim, he reminds the reader that we can’t entirely understand Jim either, even when we think we do.

Conrad’s prose is impressively overwhelming. Some of the passages I pored over, enjoying every word, particularly some of his character descriptions. At other times, I had to let my eyes skim for a while because it grew exhausting–but I didn’t want to put the book down.

Hurray for the back-to-the-classics challenge! Our copy of Lord Jim has been on our bookshelf for years, but I never would have read it if not for the challenge.

Friday, November 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to the Fair by Catherine Lloyd

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve been reading a great deal more historical mystery in the past couple of years, mainly because I’ve found a couple of fun series that keep me coming back for the next installments. One series I particularly enjoy are the cozy Kurland St. Mary Mysteries by Catherine Lloyd.

Book Four, Death Comes to the Fair, will be released this month. The reluctant pair of detectives, Miss Lucy Harrington and Major Sir Robert Kurland, are attempting to plan their wedding. Robert wants something quick, small, and local. Lucy would like that as well, but she has to bow to the wishes of relatives who insist on a large society bash, preferably in London.

Meanwhile, the concerns of Kurland St. Mary—where Robert reigns and where Lucy has grown up as daughter of the rector and so is intimately involved with the community—take precedence. Currently, that involves a local fair. Lucy guides Robert to take on the responsibility of judging the vegetables, a chore he takes at face value rather than with any degree of tact. He finds the whole thing rather silly. And when it turns out he’s awarded the lion’s share of the prizes to just one man, the verger, he scoffs at Lucy’s concern that it will cause trouble. It’s just vegetables!

Then the verger turns up dead. An accident? Or murder? Can villagers be so disgruntled over the distribution of prizes at a fair that they will resort to murder? Or is there something more complex and sinister afoot?

So, yes, there is an inordinate amount of murder going on around this couple, but these mysteries are all so well crafted that all the mayhem is believably unfortunate.

To get the full flavor of the relationship between the protagonists, you should start with book one: Death Comes to the Village. Roger Kurland is irascible and rather high-handed, but he meets his match with the unflappable Lucy Harrington. In the first few books, they have the argumentative type of relationship typical of the genre that develops into mutual regard and then love. There is a good balance between the mystery solving and the romance.

The current novel starts rather slowly. The relationship is settled and requires little in the way of development, so the interactions between them are fairly bland. And while the fair and the vegetable judging dilemma work well to set the stage, there isn’t a whole lot of tension until things get going. It’s a slow build, but the pace picks up and then you won’t want to put the book down until the clues all fall into place and the intrepid pair are back on solid footing.

This series continues to entertain and I’ll be waiting impatiently for book five.

Monday, October 31, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham

My history/historical fiction book group is meeting next week and the book choice is American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham. This book examines the religiosity of American political life from the founding of the nation up to modern times. Is the U.S. a Christian nation or a nation founded by Christians, and what is the difference?

Well-researched and well-organized, American Gospel is an intelligent and balanced discussion of the importance of God in the nation’s history. Meacham makes clear that freedom of religion was a cornerstone of the founding principles of liberty and justice. The Founding Fathers and more recent leaders who have grappled with religion and politics have generally kept to the message that private religion may be specific and denominational, but public religion, while necessary, is more inclusive and is not exclusively Christian. It matters not so much how we pray, but that we are praying. And no one, not even--or especially not--our political leaders, can say that our way of praying is wrong and should not be allowed.

The book follows a chronological format and is peppered with entertaining anecdotes, particularly when relating Abraham Lincoln stories. (He’s a very funny man.)

For those feeling battered by the particularly fractious and lengthy campaign season, it’s a good book to provide historical perspective and reassurance.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: As Death Draws Near by Anna Lee Huber

I’ve been a fan of Anna Lee Huber’s historical mystery series, A Lady Darby Mystery, since I read the first book, The Anatomist’s Wife, back in 2013. The latest instalment, book five, As Death Draws Near, has recently been released.

Spoiler Alert: This review will mention how the relationship between Lady Kiera Darby and her crime-solving partner, Sebastian Gage, has progressed. So if you want to watch the whole thing unfold, I recommend starting with book one. Really, that’s the way all series should be read!

This story begins with Gage and Kiera on their honeymoon. They have little time to relax and enjoy England’s lake country before receiving a request/command from Gage’s father to proceed to Ireland to investigate a murder. The victim is a relative of the Duke of Wellington. And she’s a nun. The detecting pair are unable to say no to that.

As Kiera and Gage begin their investigation, questioning the nuns in the abbey and people of the town, they discover significant unrest (religious and political) in the area, but no indication why anyone would murder the young Harriet Lennox. The more they dig, the more confused they become. Then a second nun is murdered, raising the stakes even higher.

The issues surrounding the mystery are complex. The questions raised allow the reader to delve into English/Irish and Protestant/Catholic relations in this historical period. It also leads to a good deal of reflection on Kiera’s part. Now that she is not so much a prisoner of her past experiences, she has to contemplate what she wants to make of her future. Although the relationship with Gage is more settled than in previous books and they are more confident of each other, they still have areas to explore. As in earlier books, the combination of mystery and romance is well balanced and guaranteed to keep readers coming back for more.

Monday, October 24, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has been on my list of should-read authors for a long time. I finally decided to jump in with her most recent release, Commonwealth.

This is the story of two ordinary families whose lives intersect when Bert Cousins, a district attorney, shows up uninvited at the christening party of the daughter (Franny) of one of the precinct’s cops, Fix Keating. Bert crashes the party for an excuse not to have to spend time with his own family, children who annoy him and a wife who bores him. Fix is not pleased to see him. However, Bert is thrilled to make the acquaintance of Fix’s gorgeous and incredibly shallow wife, Beverly. The thrill is mutual.

Bert and his wife have four children. Fix and Beverly have two daughters, including Franny. Bert and Beverly have an affair, their marriages dissolve, the children suffer–but perhaps not as much as they would have had the initial marriages survived.

This is contemporary dysfunctional family drama elevated by strong characterizations and fine writing. Rather than dwelling on the affair, the story follows the families in the aftermath, particularly the life of Franny. The children grow up spending summers together and a bond develops among them. There is sickness, troubled youth, and tragedy. The reason their story transcends the ordinary is that Franny meets and falls for a well-known author. Leon Posen is many years older and an alcoholic. He fears his best years are behind him; however, the beautiful young Franny serves as his muse by recounting some of the stories of her youth. He writes them into a novel. The book becomes a prize-winning bestseller. Though he changes names and some details, Franny’s family members find their faults and mistakes on display for all the world to see.

And life still goes on.

This is an absorbing story, peopled by realistic characters who elicit, in turn, irritation and empathy. While I doubt novels from the contemporary dysfunctional family drama genre will ever rank among my favorites, I am more determined than ever to read Bel Canto.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Chivalry and the Medieval Past edited by Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling

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

I love medieval history. While I mainly stick to biography and straightforward narrative history of particular events or time periods, every once in a while I like to wade through the weeds of more academic history.

Chivalry and the Medieval Past, edited by Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling, is a multi-author collection of essays examining how chivalry is and has been interpreted and how those interpretations influence visions of medieval culture. It seems that as soon as the Middle Ages ended, people were already looking back at it with either nostalgia or disdain. The militarism inherent in the word "chivalry" was either romanticized as a manly virtue or criticized as barbaric.

The contents of the book are as follows:

Introduction: Chivalry and the Medieval Past - Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling
'An Institution Quite Misunderstood': Chivalry and Sentimentalism in the Late Scottish Enlightenment
- David W. Allan
Creating a 'Medieval Past' for the Swedish Orders of Knighthood - Antti Matikkala
'Hung Round with the Helmets, Breast-Plates, and Swords of our Ancestors': Allusions to Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothicism - Peter N. Lindfield
Knights on the Town? Commercial and Civic Chivalry in Victorian Manchester - Rosemary A. Mitchell
'The Dark Side of Chivalry': Victory, Violence and the Victorians - Barbara Gribling
Daze and Knights: Anachronism, Duelling and the Chivalric Ethic in Nineteenth-Century Italy - Steven C. Hughes
The German Crusade: The Battles of Tannenberg, 1410 and 1914 - Stefan Goebel
'Hark ye back to the age of valour': Re-enacting Chivalry from the Eglinton Tournament to Kill Streak - Paul Pickering

While not every topic will appeal to every reader interested in medieval studies, nevertheless I recommend reading them all, since you might be surprised by which essay ends up grabbing you.

There is something interesting to find in each of the chapters, which cover topics ranging from the construction of a medieval past to lend legitimacy to newly established orders of knighthood in Sweden, to the pros and cons of Gothic architecture versus classical architecture in England, to the widespread popularity of historical re-enactment with its claims of increasing historical knowledge, not just providing entertainment. And while the analyses can be ponderous at times, the individual essays were varied enough to create a very readable whole. For those interested in an exploration of how perceptions of the middle ages are always evolving, this book is worth a look.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve enjoyed Mary Balogh’s historical romances in the past and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read her new novel: Someone to Love.

In this sweet romance, the heroine, Anna Snow, has been raised in an orphanage in Bath. At twenty-five, she is now a teacher in the orphanage’s school. She’s made a life for herself filled with purpose and good friends, yet something is missing. Anna is unaware of her true identity and has no family connections.

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, is an atypical hero. Unlike the usual large alpha male, Avery is short and lithe. Nevertheless, despite his affectation of constant boredom (an affectation demanded by the ton), he exudes power and danger. Bullied as a child, he serendipitously discovered martial arts. His body is now a lethal weapon, something only he needs to know for his confidence to shine through.

The story begins with the death of the Earl of Riverdale. His son and heir, Harry, is not quite of age and so is under the guardianship of Avery Archer. Everything is going smoothly, until the old earl’s solicitor discovers the existence of a prior claim. The earl had a daughter by his first wife, a secret marriage, and remarried before his first wife died. The children by his second wife, Harry and his sisters, are illegitimate and so disinherited. His legitimate daughter is Anna Snow.

Anna’s strength, independence, and dignity carry her through the terrifying experience of meeting a family who are appalled by her existence and ashamed of her lowly upbringing. She impresses the un-impressible Duke of Netherby. Although at first she doesn’t know what to make of him, Anna comes to appreciate the real man behind the falsely indifferent, impenetrable front.

The relationship develops in a calm, pleasant way, with mature, well-behaved protagonists. They are comfortable with who they are and they should be. They work together to meet the challenges facing them. Avery and Anna belong together and it makes for pleasant reading as they glide into marriage and the post-honeymoon period. I’ll keep Mary Balogh in mind when I’m looking for Regency Romance.

Monday, October 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I was not a big fan of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and I really hated Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I keep trying though, and so, for my Back-to-the-Classics challenge "book with the name of a place in the title" I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. So far, I’d have to give the nod to Anne.

The book is constructed in a rather gimmicky way. It combines letters and a diary, which should give it a boost since I ordinarily love epistolary novels. However, in this case, the artificiality of the style is too striking. Even in the heyday of communication by letters, I can’t see anyone writing letters like these. (The male hero writes a letter to a friend recounting the arrival in his town of a mysterious woman with whom he falls in love. In order to fully explain the mystery, he passes on a diary given to him by the woman.) The diary doesn’t read like a real diary any more than the letters read like letters. The female narrator records the events of only red letter days, and years pass with only rare summary entries. It spares the reader the dullness of day-to-day life and it works as narration, but not as a diary.

Nevertheless, structural issues aside, the novel is a compelling story of a woman who makes a terrible mistake at a young age, falling in love with a charmer and insisting on marrying him despite the counsel of friends and family. He’s a drunkard, a womanizer, and a bully. Once he has her away from her supports, he verbally abuses her and takes a mistress in front of her. He goes on drunken debauches and insults her in front of his friends, most of whom are little better than he is–though they improve with time as they realize what an appalling creature he is.

The woman, Helen, is a gentlewoman with a small inheritance who is being brought up by her aunt and uncle when she makes her disastrous choice. A deep religious conviction sustains her through her trials, but also leads her to believe that, as a wife, she must support her husband and live with the consequences. She suffers a great deal, but sees no option for escape. It’s a horrible commentary on nineteenth century oppression of women.

Things change after the birth of her son. Rather than reining in the wicked father, Helen watches as he does everything possible to corrupt the child. Helen has had enough. She escapes to a tumbled down old house owned by her half-brother who is willing to hide and shelter her. Her identity and whereabouts must be kept secret because her husband is completely within his rights to demand back the child out of spite.

Helen is impressively strong. The young squire who falls in love with her at Wildfell Hall matures into a worthy husband for her, though at the beginning he’s a vain and shallow fellow. And the eventual outcome is satisfying. The main characters are a bit too black-and-white with one pure goodness and one pure evil, but it’s an interesting character study none the less, and a realistic picture of an alcoholic death.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

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

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers has been on my Netgalley queue for months. It isn’t due out until January 2017, but seeing as it’s an epistolary novel, an art form I admire, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer.

The title character is Placidia Fincher, daughter of a respected Southern gentleman farmer, who is rather abruptly wed to Major Gryffth Hockaday. Hockaday is an officer in the Confederate army who has recently lost his wife and has an infant son at home. Placidia is a seventeen-year-old beauty, immediately captivated by the Major. He’s on leave at the time of their meeting. They have only one full day and two nights together as husband and wife before he is commanded back to the field.

Placidia is left in charge of a farm that is on the verge of failing. There are a few "servants" still in place, and Placidia is uncomfortable as mistress of a household where she is a stranger. She has to learn how to manage the farm, take care of a baby, and protect the property and its inhabitants from roving bands of raiders. She has to do this alone.

It’s years before Placidia is reunited with her husband, during which time tragedy and scandal descend upon her with such ferocity, it’s unclear if their love can withstand it. (They had known each other less than a week. Had they known each other at all?)

The story opens with letters from Placidia to a sympathetic cousin. Placidia is under arrest at the request of her husband for crimes committed while he was away.

The narrative unfolds slowly through guarded letters from Placidia, through the scant love letters that reached their destination during the war, and from concerned letters of family members. The time frame abruptly shifts to letters of descendants sorting through what might have happened, aided to full understanding at last by the revelations in Placidia’s diary. Although the narrative is somewhat choppy because of this format, it helps to keep crucial details hidden and add an element of suspense. One might guess the true culprit, but there’s enough doubt to keep the reader turning pages. Placidia’s strength in the face of her struggles make her a worthy heroine.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

Here’s a book to lose yourself in: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. Doig is another historical fiction legend whose books have loomed out there but that I had never tackled. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the second novel in The Montana Trilogy and in a rather heretical move for me, I started in the middle of the trilogy. The novel is complete in itself so it doesn’t matter that it’s the second of three. Nevertheless, I now have to go back and read English Creek, because this is the kind of sweeping historical saga I love.

The story is narrated beautifully by Angus McCaskill, one of a pair of nineteen-year-old men emigrating from Scotland to find better lives. His partner, the enthusiastic leader of the adventure, is Rob Barclay. Rob has an uncle, Lucas Barclay, who left Scotland years before to settle in Montana. Every Christmas, Lucas sends $100.00 back to his kin, evidence of his success in the bountiful America.

Although terrified of water and reluctant to cross the Atlantic–a reasonable fear given what they go through in steerage–Angus is ready to follow the charismatic Rob to the end of the earth, believing that the free land awaiting them in Montana is worth the risk.

Once across the Atlantic, crossing the US is easy, but finding Lucas is harder than they thought. And when they finally locate him, in a tiny idea of a town called Gros Ventre, he’s not the same man they remember. Still, he takes them under his wing and helps them embrace the challenges of the new world.

In time, they stake their claims to plots of good Montana land and begin lives as sheep farmers. There are good times and bad. The life is hard, but working side-by-side, they scratch out a measure of success. Rob marries and settles in. For Angus, it’s more difficult. He falls in love with the school teacher in the next settlement, Anna Ramsey. Meanwhile, Rob sends to Scotland for his young sister, Adair. Rob is certain Angus and his sister will make a good pair.

Rob is used to getting his way. He wouldn’t have, this time, except that Anna rejects Angus’s proposal. On the rebound and tired of life alone, and because Adair is intelligent, quiet, and a reasonable enough choice, Angus marries her after all.

Life goes on.

The novel carries us from 1889 through the end of WWI, taking us along through major changes in the western US and the world. As historical fiction, it immerses the reader in time and place, but more than the epic history so wonderfully presented, it’s the people who make this such an engrossing read.

The families are buffeted by the hardships of homesteading in Montana and by the difficulties inherent in marriages and in friendships. Angus is as steady as they come, but his hard-headed obsession with a woman who doesn’t want him eventually costs him dearly. Rob, ever convinced that whatever he does is right, cannot come to grips with the fact that his closest friend no longer will follow wherever he leads. This is one of those stories that wraps you up in the lives of the characters and breaks your heart.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

This past week, I took care of a deficiency in my novel reading: I think I may have been the only person who hadn’t yet read Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart.

This fast-moving historical novel is based on a true-life character, Constance Kopp, who became a female deputy sheriff in Paterson, N.J., back in the early 1900s.

Constance and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, live on a farm outside of town, essentially hiding from the world, having had a fear of strangers instilled in them from birth by their now-deceased mother. Norma prefers animals and farmwork to people so the isolation doesn’t bother her. The significantly younger Fleurette, extremely pretty, pampered, and innocent to the point of gullibility, wants more interaction with others because she loves drama and being admired. And then there’s Constance. Her motivating concerns are revealed through the course of the novel.

Tall and imposing, Constance has a no-nonsense approach to life. She’ll do anything to take care of her sisters. Previously, that has meant housework and farmwork and worrying about finances. This changes when, during a trip into town to shop, they are involved in an accident. A reckless driver plows his car into their horsecart. Although their injuries are relatively minor, the cart is ruined. The driver, Henry Kaufman, owns one of the local silk mills. He’s a belligerent bully who has no intention of taking responsibility for the damage he’s done. When Constance presses for payment, Henry unleashes his squadron of thugs on the Kopp sisters. He’s employed these men as strikebreakers in the past, and they know how to instill terror.

The Kopps endure bricks through their windows, an attempt to burn down their house, death threats, and most horrible of all, threats to kidnap Fleurette. Although Constance has enlisted the help of local law enforcement, discovering an ally in the attentive Sheriff Heath, it is Constance’s bravery and commonsense response to each new threat, as well as her determination not to cave in to the powerful factory owner, that brings the adventure to a satisfying conclusion.

The quirky Kopp family guarantees an enjoyable read. Book two is out now and I’ll make sure it doesn’t take me as long to get to that one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation

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

In recent years, historical fiction fans have been treated to a number of exciting, emotionally compelling novels about women during WWII. Mostly focusing on aviators, spies, or women involved in the Resistance, they also show how women coped with trying to survive and protect their families while living under occupation. The stories generally are based on real life situations, and it’s fascinating to contemplate the strength and resiliency of these women and what they accomplished.

Having enjoyed a number of these books, I was excited by the upcoming release (October 18) of Anne Sebba’s nonfiction account: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation.

The book is exhaustively researched with extensive notes. It includes examples of women from many walks of life whose levels of resistance versus adaptation varied widely. It also includes women who were viewed as collaborators, and raises questions about just what "collaboration" meant. One important point raised was how differently Jews in France were treated by both Nazis and the non-Jewish French population as compared with women resisters, during and after the war. Moreover, women’s roles were deliberately downplayed by men in power after the war, who seemed unable to admit just how dependent the fight had been on females. It’s an eye-opening and sometimes difficult book because of the injustices exposed. For all these reasons, it is well worth the read.

That said, it often reads as a string of anecdotes and the thread of what the author is trying to say gets lost. Organized into chronological sections, each section bounces from one woman to another as if simply to squeeze as much of the author’s research in as possible. It’s difficult to keep the players straight, and for that reason, each woman’s individual story loses its appeal. While the anecdotes were interesting, the book as a whole tended to drag. I ended up not so much interested in the narratives of the individual lives, but more in the overall impression created by so much determination and sacrifice, much of which went unacknowledged until recently.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

My book group is meeting soon, and the choice this time is The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

This is a poignant family drama, covering 2+ generations of Turners, a large family centered in Detroit during the Great Recession and collapse of the housing market. At issue is the family home on Yarrow Street. Although all thirteen of the children had grown up and moved away, the matriarch of the family, Viola Turner, had continued to cling to the devastated property until a final illness necessitated her removal to the suburban home of her eldest son, Francis.

Viola is declining, a fact no one wants to face. However, what brings the siblings (those still living in the Detroit area) back for a family conference is a notice that their mother’s mortgage is underwater. They owe forty thousand dollars and the house is worth, at most, four thousand.

Each of the siblings wants to deal with that news in their own way, but none of the options is good. Francis has his mother’s power-of-attorney, and everyone expects him to take charge as he always has, but they reserve the right to criticize and complain. As for Francis, he has other problems just now– the return of a "haint" that has troubled him since his youth. According to old family lore, the teenage Francis had battled this ghost one night in their home, until told in no uncertain terms by their father that "There ain’t no haints in Detroit."

While each of the siblings puts in an appearance, the novel focuses mainly on Francis, the eldest, and Lelah, the youngest. While Francis has made a stable life for himself, his wife, and their two children, Lelah is living on the edge. Following a failed marriage, she raised her daughter on her own–with help from her family–but is now succumbing to a long gambling addiction. Evicted from her apartment, Lelah has sneaked back to the tumble-down Yarrow Street home, her last possible refuge.

This is an in-depth exploration of family dynamics, the struggles of the middle class and some who have fallen out of it, and of race. It’s a clear-eyed depiction of life in Detroit. Flashbacks into the earlier lives of Francis Senior and a much younger Viola round out the intergenerational saga. Into this is injected a touch of the supernatural. Is the haint real or not?

A wonderful book-club book, I’m looking forward to our meeting and discussion.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished a beautiful book, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This is even better than Rules of Civility, Towles’ first well-received novel.

The gentleman is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who found himself in Moscow, living in the famed luxury hotel, The Metropol, just after the revolution. As the novel opens, in 1922, Alexander is called before "The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs." He is tried and found guilty of being an aristocrat, a traitor to the revolutionary ideals. Most of Russia’s aristocrats either died during the revolution, were executed afterward, were banished to Siberia, or are living as unobtrusively as possible so as not to attract the attention of the Party. Alexander, at one time a revered poet, is too well known to fade away. Fortunately for the count, his poetry was seen as inspirational to the budding revolutionary movement. Therefore, his judges don’t sentence him to death or exile. Instead, they sentence him to house arrest.

Alexander lives in a suite of rooms at the Metropol. Although its glory fades somewhat due to the wars, it’s still a pretty posh place. As part of his punishment, he is removed from his suite and sent to the hotel attic to live in a single tiny room–he has to climb a few flights of stairs to reach it. He can only take a few of his possessions. The rest are confiscated by "the people." If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

Accepting his fate, he commences his new life. The beauty of the book is what he makes of it.

I found this book engrossing. Still, when I tried telling my husband how wonderful it was, I couldn’t convey how it could be so interesting given the limited geography. This is a fascinating time in Russian history, but we learn about it from the perspective of a man in Moscow who must experience it all secondhand. The count spends his days performing rather routine functions. He passes his time wandering about the hotel, eating splendid meals, visiting his barber weekly, meeting various guests, and talking with his friends: the concierge, the head chef, the hotel seamstress. He meets a young girl, a guest at the hotel, whose curiosity and intelligence inspire him to broaden his own horizons by looking around. He even conducts a love affair with an unlikely guest.

Naturally, some of his time is spent reminiscing, either aloud to friends or alone. His past life was glamorous in some ways, but he doesn’t wallow in self pity at being denied the life he expected to live. Alexander makes the best of what he’s given.

Towles’ writing is so superb and the protagonist is so engaging that it all works.

Alexander is a hero to truly admire. He’s kind, friendly, a master of self-control, and able throughout to maintain the well-bred manners of a perfect gentleman. At each setback, he considers the viewpoint of his adversaries, and he adapts. At one point, a well-connected member of the Party who has asked a favor of Alexander compliments him on how well he has reconciled himself to his situation. Alexander responds that being resigned is not the same as being reconciled, giving the reader a deeper insight into his internal struggles. Yet what makes Alexander a truly empathetic hero is that he recognizes how fortunate he actually is. It’s a delight to spend time with a character so steady and so charming. His dry wit lights up the pages, and his ability to see the humor in dark situations clues the reader in to how this imprisoned count is able to enjoy life in spite of its trials.

This book is highly recommended.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In high school, we were assigned Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. I loved it so much I read more. However, so many years have passed, I don’t remember much about any of his novels. So I decided to re-read Hardy for the back-to-the-classics challenge. Although I intended to re-read The Return of the Native, when it came down to it I picked up Tess of the d’Urbervilles instead.

This is a painfully beautiful story of a woman wronged in every conceivable way. I wish I could remember my response to it when I was a teen, because I imagine I see it differently now. Or maybe not.

Tess is the ideal perfect woman. The daughter of uneducated, poverty-stricken, adverse-to-the-idea-of-work farmers, Tess is intelligent, industrious, and strikingly beautiful. Her father is a drunkard who, unfortunately, is told that he is a descendent of the noble d’Urberville line. In order to achieve the wealth and respect he believes he’s entitled to, he tasks his daughter with presenting herself to a rich woman a few towns away whose name is d’Urberville. He’s sure the woman will set them up in style, just because.

Tess is more sensible than her parents, but unable to disobey them. She goes to the home of the d’Urbervilles where she meets the wastrel son, Alec. He gives her a job taking care of the chickens, then pursues her relentlessly. She rebuffs him time and again. However, eventually she is caught off guard and raped.

Tess flees home and has a baby who does not survive. Although she is now a ruined woman, she nevertheless manages to find a job as a milkmaid in a different town. She is as pure at heart as she ever was and all her coworkers are fond of her. There she catches the eye of Angel Clare, a studious young man, son of a parson, who is learning how to be a farmer. He is captivated by her innocence and beauty.

The two fall in love. Angel proposes marriage. Tess resists as long as she can, feeling unworthy of Angel. However, his persistence wears her down. They are wed. But on their first night together, she confesses her past. Horrified, Angel rejects her.

For the remainder of the story, Tess tries to make her own way without Angel. Her living situation goes from bad to worse. She is essentially the only bread-winner for her family and they are no more sensible than they ever were. Through various twists of fate, Alec d’Urberville finds his way back into her life. By the time Angel recognizes the error of his ways, it’s too late.

The story is old-fashioned, but also challenges the social conventions of the time. Tess is a fallen woman and believes herself to be unworthy of Angel’s love, but the reader can’t help but feel indignant for Tess and infuriated at the men in her life–none of whom deserve her. Although a modern reader can feel impatient with Tess’s tendency to let people treat her as a doormat, in the bigger picture one has to see that she’s trapped by her circumstances. None of this is her fault. And that’s what makes this story so tragic. Tess deserves better, but there were no good options in her life.

I have more of Hardy’s work on my shelf, and will have to make time to re-read more of his books now that I’ve reacquainted myself with what a marvelous a writer Hardy is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Infinities by John Banville

Occasionally, I’ll look through the books on my local library’s recommended list and generally end up requesting one that looks interesting even if it isn’t my usual fare.

The Infinities by John Banville falls into that category. At the center of the novel is the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional family: Adam Godley. Adam is a famed theoretical mathematician, a man who stood on end the conventional wisdom about mathematics. However, we don’t get much insight into his brilliance; we have to take that as a given. By the time we meet Adam, he has had a stroke and is essentially non-communicative. Readers do get to glimpse inside his head where his life is flashing before his eyes– only to discover a surprisingly mundane life.

Gathered around his bedside, awaiting his demise, are his second wife and his children. His wife, Ursula, is a timid woman who drinks too much and has never earned the love or respect of her stepchildren. Adam’s son is a rather dull man who has managed, somehow, to marry a beautiful actress. His daughter, Petra, is withdrawn and maladapted to the world. She has a suitor, an unpleasant young man who wants to write Adam’s biography and uses Petra to gain entrance to the household. Yet no one is under any illusions about his interest in Petra.

As a deathbed vigil story, there isn’t much to the novel. The relationships are superficial and the characters are more interested in themselves than each other. Despite Adam’s supposed contributions to mathematics, he hasn’t touched the world very deeply.

The saving grace of the novel is the narrator/observer, Hermes. The ancient Greek gods are still around and occasionally still dabble in the human world. Zeus primarily pops down to earth to chase skirts. Pan makes mischief. Hermes actually cares about people and hangs around to clean up the messes. Hermes also philosophizes about why the gods envy humans and what a burden immortality is.

This is an interesting concept for a novel, but the execution is somewhat weak. It’s fairly short and an easy read, but despite its lofty themes, it’s a forgettable story. If you are, for some reason, looking for a gather-around-the-deathbed novel, I’d recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy instead.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

I was just on a vacation with a long car ride, so I took along one of my back-to-the-classics challenge books. My classic in translation (a particularly lengthy choice) was Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family, by Thomas Mann.

Thomas Mann is a brilliant German writer from the early twentieth century. Buddenbrooks is his first novel, first published in 1901 (when he was 26!). This novel is reported to be largely responsible for Mann’s Nobel Prize in literature. (See my long-ago review for Joseph and His Brothers, probably the best book I have ever read.)

Set in the 1800s in a German city near Hamburg, the novel follows four generations in the Buddenbrooks family. At one time prosperous grain merchants, the intertwined "firm" and family members are unable to maintain their success in the face of changing economic opportunities and personal/familial difficulties. There is no single crisis or poor decision that leads to the decline of the Buddenbrooks, but rather a slow accumulation of miscalculations and bad luck. Not every member of the Buddenbrooks family is blessed with good health and strong business acumen, so the fact that the firm is so closely tied with the family means that when one suffers, the other does as well. Their little victories provide episodes of pleasure and hope–the things that make life bearable–but there is a tinge of pathos even to the victories, because they are so fleeting.

Although this is a long novel, filled with day-to-day anecdotes of the daily life of the wealthy merchant class, it reads quickly. The characters in the novel are aware of the larger picture–the historical events taking place in their lifetimes– but they are only peripherally affected by them. Events are discussed but not experienced, which itself is an interesting commentary on small-city bourgeois society. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, and commercial enterprise form the narrative of the novel. Religion is a balm for some, but dismissed by others, giving it an ambiguous significance. The lovers of the arts–music and poetry in particular– are seen as odd, even exotic, creatures who have little of actual value to contribute. And yet, the novel demonstrates how illusory and unreliable is the supposed stability of mercantile success.

The novel’s greatness (aside from extraordinary writing that shines through translation) lies with the characters, sympathetic even when not particularly likeable. They are very real, three-dimensional people. Their errors are understandable. We root for their small triumphs even while seeing that, in the big picture, small triumphs only postpone the inevitable. It’s a tragic story even if the consequences are not far-reaching or historic. The intimacy of the tragedy makes it even sadder.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Secrets of Wishtide

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

If you like cozy mysteries, I recommend The Secrets of Wishtide, book one in the A Laetitia Rodd Mystery series by Kate Saunders.

Set in Victorian London and surrounding villages, the novel is rich in details of daily life. The detective is a grieving middle-aged curate’s widow who has settled into a life of genteel near- poverty after her husband’s unexpected death. She has family she could turn to for support, a devoted younger brother who is a celebrated criminal defense lawyer, but he has a large brood and an extravagant wife, and Laetitia decides she’d rather find a way to fend for herself. Fortunately, she finds a place to let in the home of a sensible, intelligent widow who lives in a less fashionable district. The two women become fast friends.

More to the point, Laetitia finds a source of income–performing investigations of suspicious activities at the request of her brother. Just on time (Laetitia’s financials are at a strained point), her brother has need of her for a particularly delicate case. A wealthy, powerful politician/businessman is furious because his only son, a young man of great promise, has fallen in love with an impoverished governess. Ostensibly a widow and curate’s daughter, the woman is somewhat older than the son. The politician is certain there is dirt in her past and he wants it dug up to discredit the woman, discreetly, before his son throws his life away and drags the family name through the mud.

Laetitia is willing to investigate the woman’s past, but with the understanding that she will be scrupulously honest. If there’s no dirt to be found, she won’t be party to putting obstacles in the way of the couple.

It turns out there is plenty of dirt to go around. And someone out there is willing to commit murder to keep the secrets secret.

There are enough curves in the road and misdirections to keep the reader guessing. Laetitia’s no-nonsense approach to investigating makes her a likeable protagonist. Her sympathy for the people she comes across, from all walks of life, make it credible that she can get suspects to open up to her.

This is not historical mystery romance in the fashion of many historical mystery series. Laetitia is grieving the loss of the love of her life. There is a stick-to-the-facts police detective, himself an older widower, who is both Laetitia’s nemesis and her nosing-about partner. The respect and kindness between them is refreshing. Even if their methodologies differ, their goals are the same and they don’t get in one another’s way. Perhaps a romance is in the future, but there is no rush to get there.

Often in book one of a mystery series, the author has to establish credibility for an amateur sleuth. Why is it that a librarian or school teacher is so much better at solving mysteries than a trained detective? (Made up examples, I’m not referring to any particular books.) Sometimes the set-up is well done and perfectly believable. Other times, the plotting is somewhat strained. Saunders has taken an interesting tack in presenting Laetitia Rodd. Throughout the novel, she refers to past cases that she has helped to solve. She and the professional detective are already acquainted and he is already aware of her skill, even if he prefers to do his own investigations his own way. And her cases are provided by her lawyer-brother. It’s not as though she’s hung out a shingle. In this novel, this approach works. I had to double check to be sure that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series– God forbid. This was, for me, a rather unique way to be introduced to a new detective, giving her already established credentials, and she proved to be every bit as effective as her fictional reputation. I look forward to more from Mrs. Rodd.