Wednesday, December 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: A Secret Sisterhood. The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

A Secret Sisterhood. The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is another collection of focused historical biographies of famous women. (See also my review of What She Ate by Laura Shapiro.) This time, the women are all authors. The theme, or focus, of the biographies is on a particular friendship of each author with another female writer whose literary understanding and support were crucial to the careers of the women studied.

Utilizing newly mined resources including letters and journals, the authors of A Secret Sisterhood explore a specific relationship of each of the four women named in the title as well as the importance of female friendships in general.

Jane Austen befriended her niece’s governess, Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright. Despite the differences in their circumstances and despite chronic illness, Anne was one of Jane Austen’s most steadfast supporters.

Charlotte Brontë had not only her sisters as companions, but also an old school friend, Mary Taylor, whose unconventional life challenged Charlotte to be bolder in her writing and in her life.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were pen pals who supported each other through personal and professional crises. That one surprised me. Moreover, George Eliot seemed to be the more sensitive and generous of the two, which also isn’t what I would’ve expected.

Finally, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were rivals as well as friends. They admired one another’s talent and spent very productive time in each other’s company, but they could also be jealous, catty, and back-biting.

Each of the mini-biographies is detailed and interesting. This book is a wonderful introduction to the lives of these writers seen through the lens of their friendships with like-minded women.

Friday, December 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Loving Luther by Allison Pittman

What a wonderful book I just read! Loving Luther by Allison Pittman was utterly captivating.

I’d seen the book on Netgalley and thought about requesting it because the subject interested me: a fictional biography of Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. But I was dissuaded by the cover. (I know that’s not how I should judge a book.) The pretty, rather flirty woman gazing out from the cover made me think the book would be less serious, more of a Romance. And while I certainly read Historical Romance, I admit to being squeamish about reading one featuring Martin Luther as alpha male.

However, at the end of October, with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing his Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and kicking off the Reformation, bits of Luther’s biography made its way into my consciousness in various venues. The fact that he was an ex-monk who married an ex-nun is a great basis for a historical novel. So I decided to give the book a shot.

I’m so glad! This is a beautiful, thoughtful story that explores the emotional and spiritual journey of this strong, independent-minded woman.

We are introduced to Katharina as a six-year-old child, abandoned at the door of an abbey by a weak-willed and impoverished father. She has a good family name and memories of her dead mother, but nothing else. Nothing unless you count her deep faith, inner strength, and innate intelligence. She is befriended by two slightly older girls who teach her the ropes, along with a bit of mischief and subdued subversion.

Katharina grows to young adulthood under the care of nuns. When she comes of age, despite serious doubts about her calling, she sees no choice but to take the veil. The novel portrays life in a nunnery in compelling, realistic detail–the good and the bad.

Although a devoted Christian, she continues to harbor doubts about God’s plan for her. When one of her friends begins smuggling in the writings of Martin Luther, Katharina’s consciousness awakes. She becomes a leader of a group of discontented, similarly questioning women. And when the chance arises, she leads the escape, orchestrated on the outside by Luther.

Luther understands the dilemma facing women who have fled the convent. They have nothing to their names. They can only hope their families take them back or that they will find husbands quickly. As he has an extensive network of friends from many backgrounds, he is quick to arrange introductions for those who need them. In the novel, at least, these introductions lead to happy marriages. Except for Katharina.

There is mutual admiration and friendship between Luther and Katharina from the moment they meet. But she doesn’t jump from the nunnery into his arms. Luther is significantly older, poor, and dedicated to his work. He’s attracted to her, but tries to set her up with someone more suitable, someone with more to offer.

Historically, we know how this is going to work out. Still, the pleasure in reading this novel comes from the way their relationship plays out. So without giving any more of the plot arc away, I’ll just reiterate what a lovely story it is. Pittman does this remarkable true love story justice. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke Knows Best by Jane Ashford

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

I had a mini-vacation and wanted something light and quick to read, so I chose a Romance from Netgalley, although the vacation was in September and the release date isn’t until December, so I won’t be posting this review for a while. . .

The Duke Knows Best by Jane Ashford must take its title from the old TV series Father Knows Best, because the duke is not the protagonist but rather the protagonist’s father, who comes to the rescue in the book’s final chapters. The protagonist, Lord Randolph Gresham, is not a duke, not even heir to a dukedom, but a third or fourth son who has taken a living as a "country parson." Having suffered the tragic loss of a fiancé years before, Randolph is now prepared to return to London to seek a wife.

The heroine, Verity Sinclair, is the daughter of the dean of a cathedral. At twenty-four, she has finally convinced her parents that she deserves a London Season, and she’s determined to make the most of it. She’d going to find a husband who will take her out of her dull, dreary world to go adventuring.

The two are introduced at a small party and Verity, before giving the poor man a chance to open his mouth, announces that she is not interested in living in the countryside. For good measure, she insults those who do. (The incredible rudeness and almost ridiculous presumption in the way she addresses a stranger is jarring. While it’s understandable that she was stunned to realize the first handsome man she meets is exactly the type of man she most definitely doesn’t want, the reader’s initial impression of her is far from favorable.)

London Seasons being what they are, the two cross paths time and again. Verity continues to be unreasonably rude and Randolph tries to simply stay away from her. But at a small house party that includes musical performances by guests, the hostess asks that Verity and Randolph sing a duet. Their passion is ignited as they meld voices. The masterful duet is a stunning success.

Shortly, the Prince, alerted to the new phenomenon, commands a performance and they are unable to refuse. This means forced together time.

The relationship blossoms and they discover how compatible they actually are. There are subplots including a couple of silly young female friends/relatives who want to thwart convention and a Regency Mean Girl who Verity mistakenly befriends early on, believing her to be a fellow adventuress, before she understands how petty and cruel the woman is. Randolph, meanwhile, has troubles of his own stemming from an earlier career mishap that threatens to derail his future prospects in the church.

The story flows along, buoyed by the steadiness and charm of the hero. As Verity matures and changes course, the reader can truly root for the resolution of their difficulties and their ultimate happiness.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

One of the women presented in the culinary biography collection What She Ate by Laura Shapiro is Barbara Pym, a British writer known for her comedy-of-manners novels set in small English parishes in the countryside. They generally revolve around "spinsters" who are active in their churches and communities. Clergy play prominent roles. I’m pretty sure I read a Pym novel years ago, but can’t remember anything about it. After reading the short biography in Shapiro’s book, filled with its food references and snips from Pym’s novels, I knew it was time to read another of her books.

I started with the first: Some Tame Gazelle. The protagonist is Belinda Bede, a 50+ year-old woman who lives with her sister, Harriet, in a cottage next to the vicarage. Belinda is in love with the married Archdeacon, and has been for thirty years. Shy and prim, Belinda spends her time on domestic duties and good works. Her sister, who is younger and more outgoing, makes a project of each new curate who comes to the parish.

The crux of the story is that the comfortable existence of these two women is upset by the arrival of two very different men: Mr. Mold and Bishop Theo Mbawawa. Mr. Mold is an associate of an old friend of Belinda’s. He is of a lower social class, flirtatious, and a drinker, and he finds himself smitten with Harriet. The bishop was once a curate doted upon by Harriet but he has moved on to missionary work in Africa. Harriet has high hopes that he will remember her fondly and possibly propose, but the bishop is rather more impressed by the quiet Belinda. In truth, the women like their lives as they are, and the intrusion of these men into their routines is more unsettling than flattering or romantic.

The insights and commentary are gently humorous. The action is subdued but the novel is nevertheless highly entertaining. Barbara Pym has often been named on lists of "underrated" novelists. Her books have an enduring charm. My to-read pile just keeps growing!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a 71-year-old veteran of three wars (1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War) has found a niche for himself, traveling through the isolated Texas countryside to bring the latest news to small towns. Captain Kidd schedules readings of newspapers and, charging ten cents a head, makes a living more or less.

After a reading in Wichita Falls, he is approached by an acquaintance and asked to deliver a ten-year-old girl to her family in San Antonio. Her aunt and uncle have offered a fifty-dollar gold piece for her return. Abducted by the Kiowa at age six, Johanna Leonberger witnessed the slaying of her parents and siblings. However, she no longer remembers anything but her adopted Kiowa family and her Kiowa ways. She is terrified and withdrawn.

Captain Kidd doesn’t want the job. The girl is wild and desperate to return to the Kiowa. The journey is long and treacherous. But he’s a good man and knows that she is better off in his care than anyone else’s, so he takes on the task.

The novel follows their journey, during which they slowly learn to trust one another. Captain Kidd risks his life for her more than once, and she understands this and reciprocates by attempting to learn to speak English and behave as he tells her she must. His empathy for her situation is heart-warming.

Stylistically, the book took some time to adjust to. All dialogue is reported--there are no quotation marks--which is annoying at first. But eventually the story fits the style. The beauty of the language shines through.

The journey comes to an end, of course, and Captain Kidd must decide between his duty to the law of the land and his duty to the child.

While the plot arc is a bit predictable, the story is emotionally compelling and it is well worth the time to travel along with these artfully rendered characters.

Friday, November 24, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to the School by Catherine Lloyd

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

I like cozy historical mysteries, and one of my favorite series is the Kurland St. Mary Mysteries by Catherine Lloyd. The most recent release is Death Comes to the School.

Lucy (now Lady Kurland) and her husband, Sir Robert, have been married for three years. (It is 1820, in the small English village Kurland St. Mary.) It’s been three years since they’ve had a mystery to solve. They have been going about doing the things that landed gentry do and are well regarded by the people of their village.

Unfortunately, all is not well between them. Lucy has miscarried twice and is confused and miserable. She is not used to "failing" and feels she has failed at marriage and heir-producing. Robert is at his wit’s end trying to figure out how to behave towards her. Moreover, the pain in his injured leg is back, making him miserable as well. Communication has all but broken down between them, which puts them almost back at square one in their relationship.

It is Christmastime. Lucy has been occupying herself with plans for a village party and ball, as well as some matchmaking on the side. But it isn’t enough to keep her thoughts from returning to the miscarriages, especially since people keep asking after her health.

And then, the recently-hired school teacher is found dead at her desk, stabbed in the neck. The woman was universally disliked, with no apparent family or friends. But she had no particular enemies either.

In addition, nasty unsigned notes are turning up all over the village. Lucy and Robert feel the two things must be connected, but are at a loss for how to connect them.

As always, the two go about collecting clues while dealing with their own problems, managing the affairs of town, and helping friends and family. In this book, the relationship is primary with the mystery a bit in the background. It is intriguing and the plot holds together well, but I was more concerned with how Lucy and Robert would resolve their differences that with who killed the school teacher.

The series continues to charm. This novel could probably stand alone, but to truly appreciate the story start with book one, Death Comes to the Village.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

Laura Shapiro is a journalist/food historian whose latest book, What She Ate, is a culinary biography of six very different women. Shapiro looks at the lives of Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown by examining their writings and what is written about them to see how food and cooking influenced their lives and work. The premise is that we can better understand these women by understanding their relationship to food. It’s a unique presentation, written in clear, sympathetic prose. I’d never heard of Dorothy Wordsworth or Rosa Lewis, so their chapters were particularly interesting.

As biographies, the short chapters are merely introductions, but the approach taken by Shapiro manages to pack a lot of information into small packages. And she succeeds in showing the centrality of food–cooking it, eating it, and writing about it– for each of the women. An enjoyable read!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil's Feast by M.J. Carter

I’ve been hooked on the Blake and Avery historical mystery series ever since my book group read The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter. The second novel, The Infidel Stain, was quite different but just as wonderful.

Now, in The Devil’s Feast, the narrator/naive sidekick--Captain William Avery--is forced to play an even larger role since Jeremiah Blake has been thrown into debtors’ prison on a trumped up charge. Avery is not quite the brilliant hard-boiled detective that Blake is, but he’s learning.

After visiting Blake in prison, Avery dines at the Reform Club. The Club not only is renowned for its lavish menus and famous chef, but is also where Matty (a girl who aided the detecting duo in the previous book) has found a job that takes her off the streets. Avery is as anxious to see Matty again as he is to sample the cuisine.

Unfortunately, after a sumptuous feast, one of Avery’s fellow diners is taken ill and dies a gruesome death. The following day, Avery is recruited by members of the Club’s board to investigate. The victim was poisoned.

Within the restaurant and the chef’s circle of acquaintances, Avery finds a whole host of unsatisfactory suspects. He has no idea how to proceed. His reputation for this kind of work is almost wholly the result of his partnership with Blake. Nevertheless, he goes about collecting as much information as he can.

The plot moves along with a slow, steady build, picking up steam when Avery and Blake are reunited once more. The setting revolves around the dining room with its lush descriptions of the gourmet food. The stakes are raised as an upcoming diplomatic dinner with important political implications is threatened by the possibility of another poisoning. Kitchen intrigues and professional rivalries heat up as accusations fly and corruption is unmasked. Sorting it all to find a poisoner before it’s too late is a daunting task.

The partnership between the once-idealistic Avery and chronically cynical Blake is as enjoyable in Book Three as it was in Book One. This book could probably stand alone, but I recommend reading them in order.

Friday, November 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Hero of the Empire. The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard

My book group’s next assignment is Hero of the Empire. The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. I was very happy with the choice since this book has been on my to-be-read list for a while. I was impressed with Destiny of the Republic and now am also going to have to read River of Doubt.

As the title suggests, this is the story of Churchill’s imprisonment during the Boer War and the remarkable escape that catapulted him to fame and jump-started his political career. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced read, chock-full of history that I didn’t know but should. While Churchill comes across as a rather insufferable young man, his courage, intelligence, and extraordinary good luck vindicate his high opinion of himself.

The book not only informs the reader about the early career and adventures of this future prime minister, but also provides a very readable, short and clear explanation of the Boer War, the reasons for it and the major players.

Well-researched, organized, and engaging, this book is highly recommended.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is an unusual book. A historical novel that is melancholy, gothic, and tense, it is introduced with an old-fashioned historical note, followed by a contemporary prelude in which a middle-aged widower out walking his dog comes across a ruined tombstone in a bedraggled old graveyard. He is intrigued by the inscription and attempts to discover the story behind it. The stone was put up in 1793, dedicated to a Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, whose writings, according to the dedication, were much admired. The widower’s attempt is thwarted by a paucity of information. This is the segue into a story that is actually about Julia’s daughter, Lizzie. The widower never reappears.

Although the introduction seemed a bit clunky at first, it does emphasize the author’s point about historical voices, particularly women’s voices, being lost to us.

Lizzie is the daughter of an early feminist radical. Lizzie loves her mother, barely tolerates her stepfather, and has bonded with her mother’s sole servant, Hannah, who helped raise her. However, Lizzie is no longer a child, though she remains as innocent as one. She falls in love with and marries a builder/property developer, Diner Tredevant.

The book blurb emphasizes the historical and political aspects of the novel. It is set during the time of the French Revolution. However, the characters are located in England and all news from abroad is second hand. The political upheaval is background for the novel and never rises to primary importance. Lizzie’s mother’s radical circle believes in the goals of the Revolution yet they are distressed, to varying degrees, by the violence. Ripples, primarily economic, affect Lizzie and her husband. With war impending, no one will buy Diner’s luxury homes.

The plot centers on the relationship between Lizzie and Diner. It is clear from the book’s opening chapters that Diner is a dangerous man. Their marriage is a claustrophobic one. Lizzie remains devoted to her family even as Diner tries pulling her away. As his development project fails (and it seemed doomed to fail even before the French troubles sapped the economy further), he becomes gloomier and scarier. Trapped and increasingly isolated, Lizzie doesn’t know all that the reader knows, so there is a constant undercurrent of suspense.

Dunmore’s writing is lovely and the plot moves at a steady pace, building to a frightening climax. I couldn’t guess which way the story would go. I requested the book based on the blurb, and while the book does not deliver exactly what the blurb promises, what it does deliver is even better.

Monday, October 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: After Anatevka. A Novel Inspired by Fiddler on the Roof by Alexandra Silber

After seeing this favorable review in the Historical Novels Review, I had to read After Anatevka. A Novel Inspired by Fiddler on the Roof by Alexandra Silber.

I’ve seen the musical, of course, on stage and the movie version. Of the three daughters’ love stories, the romance between the middle daughter, Hodel, and her scholar/revolutionary suitor, Perchik, captivated me most. So I was intrigued by the idea of a novel that filled out the back stories of these two and followed them into exile in Siberia.

Hodel tries to find Perchik, but is imprisoned for over a year, kept away from him by those who hope she can shed light on his work. A political prisoner, Perchik has been sentenced to labor in the salt mines in Nerchinsk. Hodel is aware of his socialist ideals but knows no particulars. She can name no names. Her ignorance frustrates her captors, but likely it is that ignorance/innocence that saves her from a worse fate. Eventually, she is allowed to join Perchik as one of the "voluntary wives," women who have chosen to share their husbands’ exiles. As you would imagine, life is brutally hard in Siberia.

The story intersperses scenes from their struggles in Nerchinsk with vignettes from their pasts. Particularly sweet and thought-provoking are Hodel’s memories. They are imbued with tradition and familial love, linking this novel beautifully with the enduring message of the play. The author also weaves a back story for Perchik, the brilliant revolutionary who grew from an unloved, unwanted orphan, to a disillusioned wastrel of a scholar, to an impassioned leader, and above all, a man deeply, passionately, devotedly in love with Hodel. While his story is convincing and interesting, it was less emotionally moving than Hodel’s.

After Anatevka is a heart-wrenching re-imagining of Fiddler on the Roof. This is the early 1900s in Russia and these are Jews and Revolutionaries. Impending doom hangs over the lovers; yet the novel is not oppressive. Perchik is an idealist who truly believes a better world is coming. Hodel has a deep religious faith. And the love they feel for one another not only allows them to endure hardship, it inspires others to endure.

Friday, October 27, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Butterfly Farmer by Lynn Hoffman

I took advantage of a short plane ride to read a novella I’ve been anxious to get to: The Butterfly Farmer by Lynn Hoffman. I’m a fan of his contemporary relationship-based novels which are peopled by relatable characters in poignant situations. (He has also written a memoir, Radiation Days, which is highly recommended.) Hoffman is a poet and a culinary expert who has published nonfiction books on beer, wine, and rum. So naturally, the writing is beautiful and the novels are rich with descriptions of food and drink. Although far from being a foodie myself, I can appreciate the sensual details of cooking and eating, and I love how integral food and drink are to the progress of the romance.

In The Butterfly Farmer, Jonathan Motaro has recently lost his wife to cancer. Taking stock of his life, he realizes that he was much more dedicated to his marriage than she was, and he’s not quite sure what to do with the loss of it. His wife had been a passionate gardener. He continues puttering out of habit until, inspired by the presence of a butterfly, he is awakened by a desire to create a butterfly-friendly garden on his island home.

Simultaneously, divorcee Julia Clewitt, newly turned forty, buys herself a sailboat. The divorce, eleven years earlier, has left her commitment shy. The sailboat is her refuge.

Jonathan is a good cook and food-lover; Julia is a chef turned teacher of chefs.

One day while sailing, Julia notices the swath of green that is Jonathan’s butterfly garden. The two meet. A relationship begins. The story is sweet, gentle, and touching. There are difficulties, anticipated and unanticipated with a twist that surprises. The compelling characters, the wonderfully rendered island atmosphere, and the food you can almost taste make this a book you’ll want to read in one sitting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Philippa Jane Keyworth

A while ago, I reviewed Philippa Jane Keyworth’s Regency Romance The Unexpected Earl for the Historical Novels Review. It was sweet and fun, so when I saw that her current novel, Fool Me Twice, was a kindle freebie I grabbed it.

Caro Worth is a strong-willed, determined young woman of good birth who has been thrown out into the world orphaned, abandoned, and destitute. She does have a brother who should be her support, but he ran off to the West Indies to make his fortune after deciding she was sullied and unworthy of him. (It isn’t exactly clear why he decided that, but he was wrong.)

Given the world she lives in, Caro has no choice but to make her way to London for a Season and find a rich husband. She is accompanied by a single maid and manservant who follow her devotedly and depend upon her for their livelihood. In order to set up a household and appear "independent," it is necessary for Caro to have money. So she invents an alter-ego, an illegitimate half-sister, Angelica, who frequents the gaming hells to acquire cash.

The hero of the story is the wastrel second son of a straight-laced viscount, Honorable Tobias Fenton. Unable to please his father, Fenton has taken the tack of exasperating him instead. Nevertheless, his heart is good and he is cleverer than he seems. He is the first to put two and two together and realize that the demure, respectable Caro Worth and the flirtatious, scandalous Angelica Worth are one and the same.

Beautiful and vivacious, Angelica attracts the wrong man and compounds the error by winning a great sum of money from him. He determines to have her for his mistress and Caro is caught in the web of her own deceit.

Fortunately, Caro has friends, among them Fenton, who is smitten. When she realizes she can rely on friends and doesn’t have to go it alone, her prospects change.

The plot is a bit far-fetched and Caro, when desperate, is inclined to take bad situations and make them worse. Plus, a petty irritant is how often people are described as "saucy" throughout the book, especially at the beginning. However, the story is light-hearted and fast-paced and the banter between Angelica/Caro and Fenton was entertaining enough to keep me reading until I was drawn in by the charming character Fenton grew to be. Fans of clean historical romance with a hint of danger should enjoy Philippa Jane Keyworth’s books.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Rose and Poe by Jack Todd

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

A few years ago, our local theater staged a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I usually love when they do Shakespeare, but I wasn’t crazy about this one. Too much otherworldliness and spectacle.

Nevertheless, I enjoy re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays and I was curious to see how the author, Jack Todd, would tackle The Tempest with Rose and Poe.

Rose is a warm, generous woman. Orphaned as a child, she’s brought up by a witch of a grandmother. Rose gets pregnant. The father feels he is too good for her and she thinks so too, so she determines to raise her baby by herself. Despite the unfairness of her world, Rose never holds grudges (except against her grandmother) and she comes to be loved by the community of her small, isolated New England town. Her son, Poe, is different, but Rose refuses to let that be a problem. Huge, six-fingered and six-toed, monstrously strong but gentle as a lamb, Poe is "simple." In spite of everything, he and Rose carve out a life for themselves raising goats and selling cheese.

Their neighbors, Prosper Thorne and his daughter Miranda, are good to them. Prosper has given Poe purpose by assigning him the task of building a stone wall. Miranda, who is young, athletic, and beautiful, has been a friend of Poe’s throughout their lives. However, Miranda has gone off to Boston to college, returning home for vacations and to check on her father. Prosper is in the early stages of dementia.

Throughout her life, Rose has faced daunting challenges in her quest to mother Poe. Despite her circumstances, she succeeds. But the true test comes when Poe emerges from the woods one day carrying the beaten, bloodied, near-dead Miranda. He stumbles across the path of the local sheriff and is unable to say more than "get help." Poe is immediately arrested. The town turns against Poe and as Rose fights to protect him they turn on her, too.

Rose is a character to adore: uncomplicated, feisty, loyal, and loving. Grateful for the blessings that come her way, seeing things as blessings that others might grumble over, she decides on a goal and single-mindedly pursues it until she accomplishes it.

The story put me in mind of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill, another book in which an oddball outcast finds himself falsely accused of assaulting a female friend. The characters are quite different but the themes are similar.

You don’t have to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy this novel (released this month). And if you are, you don’t have to have liked it very much to like Rose and Poe. And those who love The Tempest are sure to find Rose and Poe an impressive re-imagining.

Monday, October 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball

I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And then, I lost the book! I turned my house upside down looking in all the places I usually stash books, and couldn’t find it anywhere. It was one I really wanted to read, so I bought it. I’m glad I did.

Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball is the story of a woman at the very fringes of Queen Elizabeth’s court who became the first, or one of the first, professional female poets in England.

Emilia’s position was always precarious. The daughter of a court musician, she was an exceptionally skilled musician herself. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother made the difficult choice to send her to be fostered at the home of a countess who had very liberal views on female education. Emilia learned Latin as well as court skills. A beautiful girl, she attracted attention but generally of the unwanted kind, since her rank was too low to interest any young lords in marriage. The early part of the book glides quickly over her early years setting up what is to come.

Eventually, Emilia’s patron remarries and she is cast back upon her family: her mother, dying of consumption, and a host of cousins, particularly the concerned, motherly Lucrezia, who explains to Emilia that she comes from a family of converted Jews, some more converted than others.

Emilia has another supporter as well. The generous-hearted (and significantly older) Lord Hunsdon, Henry Carey, the cousin of the queen, has known her since she was a child. He watched her grow up, continued to treat her kindly after she is essentially abandoned by her other court friends, and sends aid and a well-respected physician to her home to treat her mother. Emilia’s fondness for him grows and she agrees to become his mistress, after seeking counsel from Lucrezia. With his backing, she returns to court where she is accepted by many and shunned by others. The female intelligentsia of the court are particularly welcoming.

As time passes, Hunsdon, who is one of the queen’s top military leaders, must spend significant time away from London. Plus, he is aging. Emilia enjoys a great degree of independence because her status as his mistress is known. She meets William Shakespeare and is attracted to his intelligence, charm, and good looks. His flirtation excites her adventurous spirit. She becomes Shakespeare’s lover as well.

Emilia is a strong-willed, passionate woman, who fights for her right to be taken seriously despite her gender. She makes some bad decisions, but has a forgiving nature and generally manages to smooth troubled waters with graciousness.

Emilia is a bold, fascinating character and this novel does a lovely job imagining her story.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil

Time for some nonfiction. My son, in college, wants to eventually study exoplanets, so when I saw this book in the library, I thought: why not?

Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system. Apparently, in the last few years, astronomers and physicists have been discovering new planets at a blistering pace. It isn’t surprising that there are scads of these planets or that their diversity is staggering. What I found more surprising was that the first one was discovered in 1992–which is really just yesterday. I feel like I’ve known all my life that out there in the vast infinity of space there are gazillions of planets. (We watched Star Trek, after all.) But what we all knew wasn’t proven with what was "seen" (in the weird mathematical way that physicists see things) until the first exoplanetary system was discovered in 1992.

exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil is a readable, fairly simple overview of the exploding field of exoplanet research. It explains how recent advances have made study of deep space more feasible, leading to the necessary abandonment of previous "chauvinisms" or at least acceptance of new paradigms. Again, for someone whose view of planetary science was shaped by science fiction, none of these new discoveries seem so revolutionary. But maybe the realization that Diamond Worlds, Ice Worlds, Rogue Planets, and even, possibly, non-carbon-based life forms, are not fiction is what make this such a fascinating field of study.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna

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

I really enjoyed Harmony Verna’s first historical novel, Daughter of Australia, so I was pleased to have a chance to read her latest, Beneath the Apple Leaves.

The setting is now the farmlands of Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh, and the time-frame is WWI. Verna does a wonderful job of placing the characters (and the reader) into the scene.

The female protagonist is Lili Morton, an orphaned farm girl living with her older sister and brother-in-law. Her life has been a nightmare, with an abusive father (now dead), a brother-in-law who is just as bad if not worse, and a sister who is kind but addled from the trauma of trying to protect Lili. Nevertheless, Lili is generous, sweet, hard-working, and, by necessity, remarkably competent.

The male protagonist is Andrew Houghton, son of a coal miner who has promised his father (now dead in a mining accident) that he will do something else with his life–not throw it away in the mines. Sent to live with an aunt in Pittsburgh, Andrew first finds a job working for the railway with his uncle. But a horrible accident puts an end to that.

Andrew’s uncle is a good man, but life has beaten him down. Originally from Germany, with a last name of Kiser, this uncle (as well as the aunt and cousins) discover that the prejudices of their fellow Americans make it impossible to continue living in the city. They move to a rundown farm in the country, where life just keeps getting harder.

The one bright spot is that Andrew meets Lili. He adjusts to his new life with a calm, clear-eyed viewpoint and a steadiness that helps support his family when everything else falls apart around them. He and Lili make a perfect pair, although first they have to overcome misunderstandings and insecurities that keep them apart.

Like Daughter of Australia, Beneath the Apple Leaves is a sweeping novel that depicts good but troubled people struggling through adversity to ultimately find love and contentment. Historical fiction fans can dive in and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Our history/historical fiction book club is meeting soon and chose The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, an amazing book that I read in one sitting, wrenching me out of my reading slump.

The book is fiction, but written as an intertwining collection of short stories with a "memoir-like" feel to it, even though it jumps from one point of view to another. The primary narrator is a Vietnam veteran named Tim O’Brien, who has a squishy relationship to the author because it is fiction, not really memoir or autobiography. This gives the whole narrative a real but unreal tone, which meshes with the narrator’s ruminations on the telling of war stories and how-impossible- it-is-to-get-at-the-truth-but-it’s-all-true. It has an immediate feel, even when a character is looking back, and an honest feeling whether or not it’s true.

Each chapter is a story in itself, anecdotes about a company of soldiers in Vietnam. Reminiscent in a way of All Quiet on the Western Front, these are very young men who don’t really have a "big picture" view of the war, who are focused on personal survival and the survival of their buddies. It shows the awfulness of war: its tedium, terror, discomfort, dehumanization, guilt, and ongoing trauma, as well as the closeness of the interpersonal bonds and the giddiness that comes with surviving.

The writing is beautifully stark and evocative. The characters, though presented in snapshots, end up fully realized.

Even for those who don’t think they would be interested in Vietnam War fiction (I didn’t think I would be), this book is a should-read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen

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

Finally! I’ve read a book. This has been a bizarre summer and I’m getting no reading done.

However, The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen is being released this month, and it sounded like a good candidate for bringing me out of my reading slump.

I’ve read a few books in the Proper Romance line published by Shadow Mountain. They are clean romances that are consistently a cut above. The Secret of India Orchard is no exception.

Sophia Elliot, sister of the Earl of Stansworth, has caught the eye and the heart of her brother’s best friend, Anthony Blake, the Earl of Wilshire. He has determined to court her formally. Unfortunately, on the same day that he plans to ask her brother’s permission, he is contacted by his old employer, Lord Braxton, head of spies in the War Department. Although Anthony felt himself happily out of the business when he inherited his title, Braxton has another job for him. A top secret document, naming all the important spies as well as their habits, families, and acquaintances, has been stolen from Braxton’s office. Anthony is the only one he trusts to hunt down the document before it is sold to the French or some other enemy.

Anthony does not like Braxton and wants to refuse. However, that would put all his former colleagues at risk, as well as his friends. Sophia is named in the document. To keep her safe, he must take the job.

The onerous duty requires that he leave immediately, dumping Sophia in a letter which stresses the brotherly friendship he feels for her, to return to the continent and resume his previous undercover activities, which include acting like a devil-may-care playboy.

Sophia is heartbroken.

Two years later, the document is still not recovered. Anthony has traced it to India. Sophia has also decided to go to India for an adventure to take her mind off her continuing heartbreak. There is an alternative marriage mart there for Englishwomen who haven’t had success in London. (Sophia would have had great success but for her continued devotion to Anthony, despite her best attempts to forget him.) Sophia wants to move on. On the other hand, she knows Anthony will be there. . .

Naturally, they are thrown together and the feelings they had for one another blaze back to the fore. To the book’s credit, the love story does not bog down in mutual misunderstandings and petty recriminations. They care for and respect one another too much for that.

In addition to a thoughtful, mature, sweet Romance, there is a page-turning mystery for the two to solve. Who stole the documents and why? There is abundant danger, a little bit of clashing of cultures, and despicable villains–something for everyone! For those who enjoy historical mystery/Romance, this one comes highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

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

The Greatcoats are back. Fans (of which I am one!) of Sebastien de Castell’s fantasy adventure series have been awaiting the release of the fourth and final book, Tyrant’s Throne. Naturally books 1, 2, and 3 should be read first. Then you’ll be pleased that Falcio val Mond, the "First Cantor," and his brothers-in-arms, Kest and Brasti are still together and still determined to save the kingdom of Tristia from. . .well, from everything.

After the last book, Saint’s Blood, it was difficult to see what else de Castell could find to throw at the heroes. They had already battled evil aristocrats, brutal magical foes, and even gods. Despite deep bonds of friendship and loyalty to their dead king’s ideals, and, most importantly, the entertaining banter among the three leads, the series had become increasingly dark and violent. When this novel opened with a threatened public rape, I almost gave up on it without reading further. But I read on past and the story improved, thankfully.

Tristia is still being governed, loosely, by Valiana the Protector of the Realm, Falcio’s adopted daughter. And they are still awaiting the coronation of the heir to the throne, young Aline. But the nobility, each in their own little domains, are unwilling to see a female rule over them.

In the midst of the political maneuvering, Falcio gets to hankering for the clarity of the good old days when his role was to simply pick up his sword and fight for his beliefs. There is too much ambiguity in politics. He finds himself in too many situations where he is tempted to betray the king’s rule of law in order to do what he thinks is best for his loved ones and the kingdom–at least in the short term. Fortunately, his trusted comrades are there to keep him from abandoning the faith.

Tristia is, as always, faced with numerous threats from within, but the more immediate concern is a new threat from without. The barbarians from over the mountains, fierce warriors who intermittently terrorize the border dukedoms of Tristia but who haven’t been considered much of a threat because of technological and strategic inferiority, have found a new warlord. He provides them with weapons and teaches their armies to fight with discipline. They are coming over the mountains and the divided dukedoms of Tristia are in no way prepared for the fight.

Falcio is no soldier. He doesn’t lead armies, he fights alone or in his small band of Greatcoats. This new battle is one that he’s not sure he wants to undertake. Worse, he has to band together with the worst of his old enemies to fight the new ones. Is such a compromise worth it? Is Tristia worth it?

In some ways this book goes back to the basics: nothing magical or supernatural and the story is better for it. The straightforward adventure is a fitting end to a thrilling series.

Monday, June 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo is a sweet and heartbreaking story of the love between Botticelli and his muse, Simonetta Cattaneo, the model for Botticelli’s masterpiece: The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta is the daughter of a minor nobleman in Genoa who captures the eye of a handsome, wealthy, politically-connected Florence noble named Marco Vespucci. By showing appreciation for her love of Dante’s poetry as well as her extraordinary beauty, (mostly the latter, though Simonetta fixates on the former), he woos and wins her. He promises she’ll be the toast of the court of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who is a great patron of the arts. Although she’s a little intimidated by all the wealth and power, and by the sometimes heretical-sounding conversations, Simonetta is eager to immerse herself in the intellectual and artistic company that surrounds Lorenzo.

Marco is right. The court (at least the men) fall at Simonetta’s feet. At Lorenzo’s home, Simonetta first notices Botticelli’s art and then she is introduced to the man. At once, he makes known his desire to paint her. Simonetta is thrilled, though at first it seems wishful thinking on both their parts rather than an actual possibility. Marco doesn’t take to Boticelli, a social inferior.

The marriage between Marco and Simonetta is a happy one at first. He is devoted and she wants to be in love. However, their interests diverge. Marco is a political "climber." Having a wife who is known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, perhaps all of Italy, and who is intelligent and charming as well, helps to make Marco a favorite with the Medicis. But he doesn’t share her love of art, poetry, or literature. He’s a busy man. So when Simonetta is finally allowed to sit for a portrait by Botticelli, and they fill long days with conversations about topics dear to Simonetta’s heart, it’s clear that the marriage is in trouble. Marco’s subsequent behavior makes things worse.

This novel lushly describes the beauty of Renaissance Florence by making Simonetta its emblem. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical attributes and the way she accepts that advantages flow her way because of her appearance yet never seems particularly vain, and her frustration with being seen always as an object make her a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. She retains a sweet naivete even as she challenges expectations and breaks rules.

But even perfect beauty and a generous spirit provide no guarantees against heartbreak. This poignant love story is a wonderful addition to the genre showing artists and the significant others who give them inspiration.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of reviews for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is uniformly praised as one of the best novels about books—a literary historical fiction adventure. I finally sat down to read it.

The protagonist is Daniel Sempere, the son of a rare book seller in Barcelona in the mid-twentieth century. When Daniel is just a boy, his father takes him to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a secret place, in an attempt to help ease his heartbreak over the fading memory of his deceased mother. Daniel wanders through miles of bookshelves to find just the right book to adopt and settles on The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He falls in love with the book and determines to read everything by Carax. However, he discovers that not only is Carax virtually unknown, but that to the rare bibliophiles who have heard of him, the books are secondary in importance to the mystery surrounding him.

Julian Carax was an obscure man whose works were published in limited runs by tiny presses. The books never achieved any success. Carax died in mysterious circumstances. Someone went around acquiring and destroying every copy of his work. Now it seems that Daniel has the only existing copy. The book and Daniel become targets.

Daniel devotes his young life to learning about Carax and trying to unravel the explanation for the destruction of the books. Along the way, Daniel grows up, grows apart from his devoted father, falls in love a couple of times and works in the bookshop alongside his father. He also is threatened by a mysterious figure who smells of burned paper and who tries to get the book away from him.

The plot becomes increasingly complex as Daniel meets more and more characters related in one way or another to Carax. As he comes closer to understanding, he also notices more and more disturbing parallels between himself and the author. As he inserts himself into Carax’s story, the danger increases for Daniel and for those close to him.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It has a lengthy set up and the first half reads slowly. The set up is necessary, but the book was very easy to put down and I kept considering switching to something else. Still, I was determined to finish. After about 200 pages, enough of the plot was coming together to keep me reading. Some of the secondary characters were compelling, though I never really warmed to Daniel. The prose was quite beautiful with wonderful imagery, but the unfolding of the story was sometimes clunky.

The novel does wind its way to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and things that seemed coincidental were shown to actually have been carefully plotted. It’s a book I’m glad to have read, but am also somewhat disappointed to find it didn’t quite live up to expectations—which may be a fault of the expectations rather than of the book.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My most recent read is The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small farming and fishing village in Normandy in the time leading up to D-Day. The heroine is Emma, a young, talented baker, who learned her craft from a Jewish baker. "Uncle Ezra" was much beloved by the villagers, but they were powerless to help the day the occupying Germans shot him on a trumped-up charge.

Emma’s bread is discovered by the German commander occupying her town. He decrees she must make twelve baguettes per day for his table and he’ll give her the provisions to do so. It occurs to her to stretch the dough with ground straw so that she can make two extra loaves each day that she secretly distributes. As she gives away the bread, she learns the particular needs of her neighbors, as well as what each is able to provide in return. Slowly, she creates a network of exchange that helps undermine the German oppression and helps her neighbors to survive.

Emma is a wonderful protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She’s judgmental and holds grudges. But she’s also patient, intelligent, and good. She’s pragmatic, dealing with each day as it comes, refusing to indulge in the rather hopeless optimism of those who wait for the allies to liberate them. She also regularly confronts the village priest whose exhortations to attend mass and pray seem to her to fall short.

Other characters round out the village: Odette, the café owner who hides her knowledge of the German language and serves both villagers and enemies with black market goods; Guilhaume, the gentle, large-hearted veterinarian; the Monkey Boy, a cross between village idiot and idiot-savant; the Goat Boy (cruelly named by Emma), a rag-tag member of the resistance; Pierre, an old farmer, veteran of the Great War. There are also collaborators, the beautiful Michelle and the embittered, petty tyrant DuFour. While they are all types, they are also well-developed. Emma has compassion even for those she doesn’t like.

The French villagers have hunkered down in survival mode. Time grinds them down. The Germans, uniformly villainous, murder for the flimsiest of reasons. In this atmosphere of terror and deprivation, they wait for deliverance, doing what they can to support one another and the resistance.

The book has a slow build but then becomes impossible to put down.

WWII fiction is always compelling, but so depressing. Even though they often have uplifting messages and brave, compassionate protagonists, the good people are surrounded by ugliness and the worst examples of humanity. It can be painful to read. Nevertheless, The Baker’s Secret is well worth it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I am a big fan of Ruta Sepetys’ writing. Between Shades of Gray still stays with me as one of the best examples of YA historical fiction I’ve read. Although Out of the Easy was not as memorable for me, it was still an excellent read. Just a different focus. Now Sepetys has returned to the WWII setting in Salt to the Sea. She has a talent for bringing attention to the more obscure atrocities. This time, the novel centers on the evacuation of refugees from East Prussia as the Russians advanced against Germany. The devastation and loss of life among civilians was appalling.

Salt to the Sea is told from four different viewpoints. Joana is a young Lithuanian woman who was repatriated to Germany where she worked as a nurse. Intelligent, stalwart, compassionate, and pretty, she carries a lot of guilt because she has survived where so many, including some close family members, have not. Emilia is a fifteen-year-old, pregnant Polish refugee. She speaks little German but is extraordinarily sensitive and can discern things about people that others do not. Florian is a young German man, an art restorer, who was involved with Hitler’s campaign to steal and warehouse art to put in the private collections of Nazis. Florian was not truly aware of what was going on until it became impossible to ignore. Now, he is on a mission of vengeance. And Alfred is a young Nazi. Cowardly, bullying, perverse, and verging on mentally ill, Alfred is a cog in the Nazi wheel, one of the sailors manning the evacuation boats.

The first three are thrown together in a small group of refugees making their way to Frauenberg, hoping to find a way west, away from the Russian army. There are other misfits in the group: Ingrid, who is blind but fiercely brave; Eva, a bristly older woman; a wise and kindly cobbler who they call "the shoe poet," and an orphaned, six-year-old named Klaus who stumbled upon the group and was named "the wandering boy." Joana is unofficially the leader. She holds them together and champions the weak. Florian, a late arrival, tries to stay detached–his mission pushes him onward, but he needs them even more than they need him.

Short chapters in each of the POVs propels the story onward. The characters’ concern for one another grows along with the readers’ concern as they move toward their goal. Obstacles and dangers are present every step of the way. And even when they reach Frauenberg and have safety within reach, the dangers increase.

This is a heartbreaking novel. It’s painfully realistic and re-emphasizes the horrors and cruelties of war. Sadly, although this is historical fiction, these horrors are not all in the past. Novels like this one are important. News can be numbing. Strangely enough, fiction can sometimes make the human cost more real.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Having so enjoyed the first of M.J. Carter’s Blake and Avery books, The Strangler Vine, I jumped right into book 2: The Infidel Stain.

Three years have passed since William Avery met Jeremiah Blake, when they were paired by officers of the East India Company to find a lost poet in India’s interior. Avery, who remained in India, is Captain Avery now. He has returned to England a war hero with a pregnant wife to settle down as a country squire. It’s not the life he particularly wants. When he is summoned to London by his long-lost partner, he goes–eagerly and warily.

Blake has been working in London as a private inquiry agent for the same men who utilized his services in India. He dislikes them, but he’s good at it and has to earn his keep. He is, if anything, even more jaded and downtrodden. But he’s as clever as ever.

Blake and Avery have been recommended to Lord Allington, a crusader for the destitute of London, for a special task. An impoverished printer was found butchered in his workplace. The police are doing nothing to find the killer. Allington wishes to show the working people that they are not forgotten and that the law works for them as well as the upper classes. He wants the murderer found.

The book starts slowly as Blake and Avery reconnect and start to look for clues. This is more of a classic whodunit than The Strangler Vine, which had more of an adventure element to it. As Blake and Avery collect clues and suspects, the bodies start to pile up. Criminals, blackmailers, printers of pornographic material, political activists, religious do-gooders, Chartists and journalists are all tangled up in the crimes and the two protagonists have to sort it all out before being killed themselves by one faction or another, or before being arrested as murderers themselves.

Avery is not quite the innocent he was in book 1, but he still has many of his illusions intact. He is even more the gentleman than he was before, and, as a member of the privileged class, has a hard time coming to grips with the poverty and desperation he encounters in London. Blake is under no illusions. Always one step ahead of Avery, Blake nevertheless relies on him, even if it means using Avery’s naive blundering as a means to his own ends.

The two make a splendid pair. Once again, the author describes the settings meticulously and does a wonderful job of incorporating political and historical context. Blake may be a little bit too clever to be entirely credible, but the book is such a page-turner that I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I want Blake to be larger than life. And now I have to read book 3.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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

I just finished a beautiful, melancholy World War II novel, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Two of the main characters, Marianne von Lingenfels, an aristocrat, and Benita Gruber Fledermann, a peasant who married Marianne’s best friend, are introduced at a party in 1938. During the party (at the von Lingenfels country castle), they learn of the rioting and destruction of Jewish businesses and property later known as Kristallnacht. A small group of guests, anti-Hitler intelligentsia, coalesce in their determination to stand against fascism. One of these is Albrecht, Marianne’s husband, and another is Connie Fledermann, Marianne’s oldest and dearest friend, with whom she is more than a little in love. Connie assigns Marianne the task of being "commander of the wives and children." Even though she finds the designation affronting, she takes the task to heart.

The story is told in non-chronological order. The story jumps to the end of the war to find Marianne searching out the wives and children of men who had bound themselves to the resistance. Albrecht and Connie had been among the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler but were caught and executed. During the war, wealth and connections helped spare Marianne the worst of Nazi punishments, but she could do nothing to help her fellow widows. As the war drew to a close, Marianne found Benita and her son Martin, and later, a woman she’d never met but whose name had been on her list: Ania Grabarek, along with her two sons. Marianne brings these families to live with her at an old family castle in the countryside.

The novel tells these women’s stories, what they experienced during and after the war. They are very different but linked through suffering and the desire to protect their children. Each is guarding secrets which are slowly revealed through the course of the narrative.

Although the time shifts in the novel make it a bit choppy, the story holds together well and is, in fact, difficult to put down. The psychological studies of the women are poignant and credible. Marianne is at the center of the book. Extraordinarily strong and full of conviction, she never strays from her sense of duty or her clear-eyed view of right and wrong. While this serves her well as far as moving forward despite aching loss, it does blind her to shades of gray that have influenced the actions of the other women, costing her friendships that might have blunted her own pain.

A varied exploration of the experiences of women inside Nazi Germany, The Women in the Castle is deeply moving, important, and sad.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey

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

I was ready to change gears and read a lighthearted Regency Romance, so I pulled Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey from my Netgalley queue. This novel had a premise that enticed me. An orphaned heiress has reached the age where she must marry, but her heart is already given—not to her guardian, but to her guardian’s best friend. This twist on the "he loves her but it’s not honorable to seduce a young ward" plot line sounded like fun.

Lady Eleanor is the heiress, living with her guardian Cousin Charles and his wife. Charles’s best friend is Sorin Latham, an earl (Lord Wincanton). Sorin practically helped raise Eleanor, and is trusted almost as a member of the family. So when he sees Eleanor at sixteen, after a brief absence, and realizes he has inappropriate feelings for her, he absents himself for 5 more years, thinking to wait until she’s safely married before returning.

Eleanor, however, has no desire to marry any of the men who’ve been presented to her. None of them come close to Sorin.

Sorin returns because his duties won’t wait forever. Naturally, he can’t avoid contact with Eleanor. As they are both in need of spouses, they go to London for the "Season," each pretending to be looking for someone else to wed. Charles specifically asks Sorin to help chaperone Eleanor to keep gold-diggers away, so the two spend a great deal of time together.

Each feels the other cares only as a sibling would. Family and friends can see the sparks flying between them, but they are both so insecure that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they embark on secretive quests to win the other over, without betraying their own feelings, lest it ruin their friendship.

While the premise is cute, they drag it out for the requisite 300 or so pages until it is so tedious I no longer cared whether they got together or not. In fact, in the final confrontation between the two, when Eleanor stares at the obvious but refuses to see it, I found myself wishing Sorin would give up and go home and the two could be miserable-ever-after.

More interesting than the relationship between the two was the rival for Eleanor’s affections, a low-class bully who was so deep in debt he would stoop to anything to entrap Eleanor. He was not an actual rival, since no one could stand him. Eventually, desperate, he sinks as low as he could go to cause a scandal that would force the issue. Eleanor is rescued in the nick of time, but here the book lost me completely. Sorin behaves in a way that is so appalling that all his previous shilly-shallying for the sake of behaving honorably appears ridiculous.

So, despite an initially interesting premise and a few entertaining scenes, this was not a Romance I particularly enjoyed.

Monday, May 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

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

Fictional biography is one of my favorite subgenres of historical fiction, and I particularly gravitate towards novels about writers or important people in the lives of writers. So I was pleased to have the chance to read The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber (to be released this summer). This is a dual fictionalized biography of Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter, the artist and child prodigy, Pamela Bianco.

This is a beautifully written, entrancing book. It is not a story of Margery Williams’ writing career, though her writing is briefly touched upon; it’s more the story of the relationship between mother and daughter, and how that relationship is complicated by Pamela’s early fame and later mental illness.

Margery is portrayed as a solid, loving, steadfast, though sometimes overwhelmed, mother, who is unsure of the correct path to take when her daughter’s artistic genius is discovered. She bows to the wishes of her husband, a more aggressive personality. He lives vicariously through the attention paid to his daughter. Margery, on the other hand, constantly questions their choices, wondering if she should have protected Pamela from the stresses of being a "child prodigy," while at the same time believing that her daughter’s love for painting and talent were too great to suppress.

Pamela, desperate for approval, never feels she is quite good enough. A failed, rather one-sided relationship early in life reinforces Pamela’s insecurities. And then she falls ill with severe depression and battles with mental illness the rest of her life. Margery’s role is to pick up the pieces and lend her support, but she can’t cure Pamela, and this is heartbreaking for her.

The novel delves deep into the emotional roller coaster of obsession, artistry, love, and familial pressures. Alternating between their two points of view, the novel presents different sides to each of the defining events in their lives. Their love, understanding, and forgiveness make this book shine.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Minotaur takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

This novel was a staff pick in a bookstore I was browsing in last weekend. The premise was just so odd, I was intrigued. If you find yourself in the mood for a well-written, sad, and very strange story, pick up a copy of The Minotaur takes a Coffee Break by Steven Sherrill.

The Minotaur is that minotaur, but he is nothing at all what you would expect. An immortal half-bull/half man, he is not mythological but very real, very lonely, and tired.

"M," as he is called by those around him, has settled in to a life as a cook in a steakhouse-type restaurant in a small southern town. He lives in a small trailer park where he has grown comfortable with his neighbors and landlord. He is friends, more or less, with some of his co-workers and tolerates the rest, who try to pick on him because of what he is. M has been around for millenia, so he has a high tolerance level for idiots.

Over the course of a couple weeks, M goes about his business and the reader is treated to the minute details of his daily life and his desperate yearning for companionship. His greatest fear is that the small inconveniences and errors will accumulate to the point where he will have to make a change, move on. His life is a series of moving on, and it wears him down.

Still, hope has not been entirely extinguished. A waitress has come to work at the restaurant who is also different in some respects. M summons up all his courage to make a connection. With so much that can go wrong, is he right to take the leap?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this unique book is just how commonplace the other characters find it to have a Minotaur in their midst. Some people are put off, some are momentarily frightened, but for most, he just is and they accept it. The reader is able to feel empathy for his very human dilemma, even though his alienation is a result of his not being quite human. This should not read as realistic fiction, and yet, it does.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

The next book in our history/historical fiction book group is The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter. One reason I love historical fiction is for the perspective it brings to current day problems. Whenever I start to think we are living in times of unprecedented corruption and instability, a good historical novel reminds me that this stuff has been going on in some form or another for all of recorded human history and probably before that.

In this adventure set in India in the mid 1800s, two men, employees of the East India Company are sent deep into native lands to look for Mountstuart, a missing poet whose latest work has offended the Company and its wealthy backers.

William Avery is a first-year, low-level soldier who is naive, loyal to the Company, and a romantic devotee of the poet who has disappeared. Jeremiah Blake is a disillusioned ex-officer who has gone native and wants nothing to do with the Company’s orders. However, he has reasons of his own for wanting to find Mountstuart.

There are elements of the "buddy" novel that I always enjoy. The two men are ill-suited at first, but grow to trust and depend on each other. Blake is the hardened jack-of-all-trades who can speak all the native languages, is a master of disguise, and who seems to have a secret knowledge that gets him out of any difficulty. Avery is fumbling and a poor judge of character, but he rides well, shoots even better, and is blessed with what he himself calls "stupid good health," which is crucial given the clime and the various injuries he sustains. He’s a very honorable man, so his disillusionment hits him hard and the reader will empathize.

Mountstuart left Calcutta for the interior ostensibly to find the subjects for his next poem: adherents of the Thuggee cult, murderous natives who kill to please the goddess Kali. An extensive mythology has sprung up around them thanks to their study by a particularly zealous Company commander who has made it his life’s work to root them out. Avery and Blake are in constant danger from the moment they leave Calcutta, but it becomes increasingly unclear who it is that they have to fear.

This dark novel puts the reader squarely into the exotic locale where the intrigues are palpable. The two heroes are easy to root for. And the historical context is top notch. This is a book one, and there are two more in the series so far, so they are now on my to-be-read list.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

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

Released this week: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King is a superb historical novel set in Ancient Rome.

During the latter years of Augustus’ (and Livia’s) rule and during the reign of Tiberius, a Roman patrician named Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the earliest known "foodies," embarks on a project to make himself legendary. Wealthy beyond measure, he has no talent for the usual methods of making a name for oneself in Roman society, and so concentrates on his one particular skill – exquisite entertaining. For this, he purchases a young slave, Thrasius, who has a reputation as a talented cook, paying 20,000 denarii, a ridiculously high sum.

Thrasius proves well worth the investment. Not only is he a remarkable chef and party organizer, but he is astute and literate. Moreover, he’s a good man, which makes this book a pleasure to read.

As a slave, Thrasius is completely dependent on the good will of his master. Apicius is an unpredictable tyrant, making it necessary for Thrasius to measure his words and walk lightly in the household. In his favor, he makes spectacular meals and Apicius’ fame spreads. Ultimately, Apicius hopes to become the gastronomic advisor to the emperor. Unfortunately, obstacles in his way include a former friend and now deadly rival, Octavius, who is in Livia’s favor, and Livia herself, who holds an old grudge against Apicius’ dear friend Fannia. Even worse, he has an enemy in his wife’s cousin, Sejanus, who holds an important position with Tiberius and thus is well placed to thwart Apicius’ rise.

Thrasius works hard to promote his master, knowing that his own future depends on Apicius’ success. Moreover, he falls in love with the personal slave of Apicius’ daughter. Knowing she could be sold or given away at Apicius’ whim, Thrasius must do everything possible to stay on his master’s good side, even while watching Apicius behave in ways that are counterproductive, selfish, and cruel.

The novel is a fascinating look at Rome from a unique perspective. The lush descriptions of the banquet bring the opulence and decadence of the times fully to life. The uncertain lives of slaves and the menace hanging over their patrician masters keep the plot tight and fast paced. Thrasius is heroic as a man with a unique skill attempting to protect those in his sphere as best he can. Apicius is oddly sympathetic as a mediocre man with a narrowly focused ambition, willing to sacrifice everything, even those he loves, in order to be remembered by posterity. King’s story is a convincing portrait of the man. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Merely a Marriage by Jo Beverley

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

I read this book a while ago, but waited to post this review until closer to the publication date.

I’ve read a few of Jo Beverley’s Regency Romances and enjoyed them, so I was startled to see this latest novel, Merely a Marriage, described as her last. I googled her and was sorry to learn that she died in May 2016.

Jo Beverley’s historical romances have always stood out for me because she doesn’t just set them in the Regency period for the manners of the time. (The manners are important, of course; all the rules of courting and social behavior make these books fun escapism.) She also truly seems to know the time period and inserts more historical context into the storylines than is typical. The history isn’t the focus. It’s never heavy-handed and the books are clearly genre romance. But the historical tidbits are an added bonus.

Merely a Marriage takes place immediately following the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth. England is plunged into mourning. Social events are muted. Dresses must be in mourning colors. And the twenty-five-year-old Lady Ariana Boxstall is in a panic. Her father is two years dead and her brother, a couple of years younger than she, has no intention of marrying and filling the nursery with potential heirs. This could be a problem if her brother, Norris, should suffer an untimely death. Their uncle would inherit, and he’s a gambler and a nasty drunkard.

Norris is too young and healthy to be concerned, which irritates Ariana. So, he challenges her: if she’s wed by the end of the year, he’ll marry right after her. Since she retired from society after a disastrous coming out at seventeen, he feels safe. But Ariana is not one to shy from a challenge.

Ariana is beautiful, willful, and intelligent. However, she has a fatal flaw. She’s much too tall. Since she would never settle for a man shorter than herself, her options are limited in the countryside. She has to go back to London to find a wider field of choices. Her mother is happy to take her, and they will stay with an elderly relative who knows all the right people. Unfortunately, she knows some of the wrong people too: her nephew, the Earl of Kynaston, is one of the young men whose mockery made Ariana’s debut so painful. She might have endured it better if she wasn’t so smitten with him at the time. She’s older and wiser now, but still not prepared to share a roof with him. He’s as gorgeous (and tall) as ever, but he’s also still nasty, and he drinks to excess.

Of course, first (and second) impressions can be wrong.

As Lady Ariana shuffles through the men who survive the first weed-out round (tallness), she discovers that she’s even pickier than she thought. Height is the main thing, but not everything. Thrown together frequently with Kynaston, she finds he has more and more attributes on her checklist. Still, she resents him so much and is so certain he’s not interested in her, that she invents sins to assign to him, fabricating a tale of dissipation, rakish behavior, impoverishment, neglect of his estates and family, all to talk herself out of the attraction she still feels.

Kynaston has his own reasons for keeping Ariana at arm’s length despite his attraction to her. The reader will be convinced that he’s actually a noble character long before Ariana admits it. Ariana’s willful blindness to all the clues gets a bit irritating after awhile. She prefers to invent reasons for his behavior and stick to her own version of his life despite all evidence to the contrary. However, once she is told Kynaston’s history, she does an abrupt about face. Now she sees clearly that he is the perfect man—the only man—for her.

Ariana’s matter-of-fact approach to life makes her an interesting protagonist. And Kynaston is fine as the alpha male of her dreams. But her single-minded pursuit of him, including various plans to compromise herself so that he will have no choice but to marry her, get a bit unnerving. She tackles problems with an end-justifies-the-means attitude where the end is always to get what she wants. Since she’s certain that she knows what’s right for everyone, she sees no problem with forcing the issues. And, while she is naturally right that she and Kynaston are meant for each other (it’s a romance, after all), I found her character rather off-putting. Nevertheless, she is surrounded by charming supporting characters and I had fun reading this.