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.