Sunday, January 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Ilsa by Madeleine L'Engle

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

I can’t claim to know anything about Madeleine L’Engle except that she wrote the marvelous A Wrinkle in Time. When I saw this re-release of her 1946 novel, Ilsa, available on Netgalley, I was eager to read it. This is her second novel, written for adults. It’s been out of print for ~60 years.

Ilsa is about unhappy, unfulfilled people, primarily Henry Porcher (pronounced Puh-Shay) and Ilsa Brandes. They meet as children. Ilsa is a three years older and Henry is immediately smitten. She’s a wild and independent girl, living off by the sea with her naturalist father. The circumstances of her birth are mysterious. Henry is an unobjectionable child from an extended southern family who look down on pretty much everyone, but particularly on Ilsa and John Brandes. Henry is forbidden to spend time with Ilsa. Whether he might have rebelled against his parents is a moot question because a fire consumes the town and Henry leaves with his family, not to return for many years.

The rest of the novel is taken up with Henry’s wistful pursuit of Ilsa, which consists primarily of him hanging around despite everyone telling him she’s not interested and he should move on. Ilsa marries Henry’s hateful, drunken cousin Monty because he’s handsome and can be charming. Henry goes away to Paris for eight years, has a meaningless fling with yet another cousin, then returns home to moon after Ilsa some more.

There are a couple of cousins who manage to find a semblance of contentment, but most are miserable. Henry eventually learns the truth about how his family is connected with Ilsa’s, which goes a little way to explain why so many of them are such a mess.

There is some pretty writing in the novel. Unfortunately, it’s dull overall. The plot meanders and doesn’t reach much of a conclusion. Much of the dialogue is stilted. The characters, except for Ilsa, are weak. Ilsa has strength and independence, but terrible taste in men.

Although it was interesting to have a look at a novel so very different from A Wrinkle in Time, it’s not a book I would seek out for its own sake.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor

One of the authors I go to when I’m looking for a sweet, feel-good (even a bit corny) read, is Patrick Taylor. His Irish Country Doctor books are consistently enjoyable. So I moved on to Book 4: An Irish Country Girl.

This novel is a departure from the chronological progression of the first three novels which focused on the newly minted Dr. Barry Laverty and his crusty mentor, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. These good-hearted, dedicated physicians serve the small country village of Ballybucklebo. They are supported by the calm, kind, and highly efficient housekeeper, Maureen (Kinky) Kincaid. Throughout the course of the previous books, it’s been demonstrated that Kinky is, in addition to her more down-to-earth talents, gifted with “the sight.”

An Irish Country Girl gives us Kinky’s backstory.

Kinky is preparing Christmas dinner for the two doctors and their friends. While the doctors are at a party prior to dinner, Kinky entertains the local children with a story from (about) her youth. A young man in her town defied the fairies and was horribly punished. At a suitable stopping point in the fairy tale/ghost story, Kinky dismisses the children and gets back to work. As she prepares the dinner, she reminisces about her youth and the young man she met and fell in love with.

It’s a pleasant enough story with scattered exciting events and some tender family moments. Overall, though, the pacing was uneven and I found the love story to be unconvincing. It’s a love-at-first-sight romance, and I always find those unsatisfying. The device of Kinky remembering the story was also strained as every minute detail is relayed. While that helps put the reader into the moment, it made Kinky’s storytelling feel false.

All in all, it was nice filler in the series, but didn’t feel necessary. Although, maybe as I get farther into the series, I’ll better appreciate this glimpse into Kinky’s life before Ballybucklebo.

Monday, January 16, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty is a contemporary novel about dysfunctional relationships. It uses one day in the lives of three couples (and their children) as a pivot point. One day, an impromptu barbecue is held in the backyard of one of the couples, and the event that takes place impacts all their lives.

Each of the couples is happily married, with husband and wife well-suited to one another, aware of the necessary compromises, etc. As groups of friends, however, they have little in common and don’t mesh well. Nevertheless, they have this barbecue and this thing happens.

The chapters alternate points of view and time periods, going back and forth to the barbecue (with its horrible thing) and the future, which is painfully altered by this disastrous shameful happening that no one can talk about, but that can be hinted about and obsessed over. Each of the barbecue chapters bring us a tiny step closer to finding out what happened, but ends on a cliff-hanger just as an important piece of information is about to be revealed.

The characters and their individual problems were interesting enough, but the book moved slowly as the narrative had trouble taking off. I found myself annoyed with the choppiness and nearly stopped reading, but felt I had invested too much time in the book to give up. I had the impression that whatever the terrible thing was that someone did (or that they all did?) would end up being anticlimactic because the build up took so long.

Once the big secret was revealed, the book actually got better as the characters settled down to healing their wounds and getting on with their lives. There were still a few loose ends to keep the story going until everything could be neatly wrapped up by the end. As it concluded, I found it to have been an interesting plot with likeable characters who grew and learned. It was only the structure of the book that I found off-putting. However, I think it’s the suspense created by this structure that is responsible for the book’s success, so it may be that I was just in the wrong frame of mind for reading it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I held out for a while, not wanting to bring the incredible reading experience to a close, but I finally couldn’t wait any longer. I just finished the fourth and final Neopolitan novel by Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child.

I’ve been addicted to this remarkable story of complex friendship and the detailed narrative of two entwined lives since I first picked up My Brilliant Friend.

Lila and Elena are now grown women. Elena has achieved the two main goals in her life: she’s a respected author and she’s finally in a romantic relationship with the man she’s loved since her childhood, Nino Sarratore.

Lila has remained in Naples and has set about organizing the decaying neighborhood in opposition to the Solara brothers, thorns in the sides of Lila and Elena since childhood. The brothers are now crime bosses and rule much of the neighborhood with legal and illegal businesses.

There is far too much going on to summarize. The plot is important–it’s the story of their lives and it continues through their middle age. Their lives are complicated and rich, and through them we get a glimpse of Italian political, literary, and intellectual debates of the times. But what makes the novels so compelling is not so much the happenings, but Elena’s interpretation of them and the way she connects everything to the push and pull between her and Lila.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is remarkable. The language is always precise and beautiful and I never feel like I’m reading a translation.

The novels go right to the heart of friendship, everything good and bad in a relationship that is intense in its devotion and rivalry. Family dynamics, love, disillusionment, and the satisfactions and dissatisfactions, joys and terrors of parenting are all shown with an intensity that always feels real. Ferrante’s ability to bring the reader completely inside the head of the protagonist, to let us empathize with Elena’s conflicts, her vanities, her doubts. . .even when Elena is behaving badly, stupidly pursuing Nino or descending into pettiness, even when she is lying to herself, she is honest with the reader. The ending is painful but perfect. These books are extraordinary. I don’t often re-read books any more because there is just too much out there to read, but I can see myself starting over again with book one.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is a Regency Romance writer whose novels I consistently enjoy. A couple of months ago I read the first book in her new Westcott series: Someone to Love. The second book, Someone to Hold, will be released next month and I was very pleased to receive a copy from Netgalley.

In Someone to Love, one of the women who suffers the most from Anna Snow’s good fortune is the disinherited Lady Camille Westcott. Camille discovers she is illegitimate and has no claim to her title. Although her newly discovered half-sister would love to share her inheritance with the family she desperately wants to be part of, Camille will have none of it.

Now, Camille and Abby, her younger sister, are living in Bath with their still respectable grandmother. While Abby tries to make the best of the situation, Camille has retreated from society. But Camille is no quitter. She answers an advertisement for a teacher in the local orphanage, the same orphanage where Anna grew up and later taught. Her motivations for doing so are mixed, but primarily she wants to do something. And she needs to discover, if she is no longer Lady Camille, who is she?

On her first day at the new job, Camille meets Joel Cunningham, a local portrait painter of some renown, who was and is Anna’s best friend. He also grew up in the orphanage and teaches there part time. He was also in love with Anna, but knows he has to put that love aside. He’s aware of how badly Camille treated Anna in the past, and he has no desire to see her step into Anna’s old teaching position. The two are predisposed to dislike each other.

Naturally, their initial dislike turns to grudging respect to love. Again, what makes Balogh’s novels shine is the characterizations of her protagonists. They are warm, intelligent people who deal with their problems in a mature, reasonable way. They have misunderstandings but don’t let them get ridiculously out of hand. They are frank, honest, and amusing.

It’s wonderful how Balogh can take the nastiest of characters from book one and show her in a different light—the same person, but with a believable change of heart and emotional growth. I don’t know who will be the focus of the third Wescott book, but I’m sure I’ll read it!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis

I kept going with Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series. I’m on a roll. Book 4, The Graveyard of the Hesperides was also a Christmas present. I decided to keep reading while the characters are fresh in my memory.

This book counts down the days of the week until the wedding of Flavia Albia and Manlius Faustus. Naturally, the hard-boiled informer is not about to spend her time planning a wedding. That task was given over to her younger sisters, with help from her parents. Albia has crimes to solve.

Her husband-to-be, anticipating the end of his term as an aedile, has embraced a new career as a building contractor. He’s busy renovating the house they will live in and he has also inherited a job renovating a bar in a seedy part of town. The bar is known for an old tale that the previous owner murdered a barmaid and buried her in the courtyard. This just added color to the place until bones were discovered during the renovation. Now Albia and Faustus feel obligated to find out the truth.

Albia goes about the investigation with her typical cynically humorous style. Hanging around the poverty/crime/vice-ridden locale brings back memories of her traumatic childhood as an orphan in Britain. So, in addition to her detective work, Albia spends time reflecting on her life, her good fortune in being rescued and adopted, and her upcoming wedding. Faustus continues to be a perfect match for her. Although involved in the investigation, he’s a busy man and leaves the bulk of the work to her. He doesn’t nag her to take care or chastise her for running risks. He has complete faith in her competence, enough to tease her when things are going badly.

Of course, one set of remains turns into several. Ultimately, I was able to figure out who-dunnit before Albia did, but there were enough twists and turns to keep me interested throughout. This is a series that grows on you. I hope marriage doesn’t turn the pair dull, but Lindsey Davis is skilled at keeping a series fresh and entertaining, so I look forward to book 5.

Monday, January 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: A Pinch of Poison by Alyssa Maxwell

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

I started the year off with a cozy historical mystery-- Book two in the series A Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery: A Pinch of Poison by Alyssa Maxwell. I enjoyed the first book, Murder Most Malicious, so I was happy to see where these two amateur sleuths went next.

Lady Phoebe is the Lady half of the pair, the middle granddaughter of Lord Wroxley. Eva Huntsford, her lady’s maid, is the other. The two are good friends despite the difference in their social standing and have teamed up before to solve a murder. This time they have teamed up to work on a charity drive to raise awareness and collect goods for war veterans and widows in the towns surrounding the Wroxley estate. The local girls’ school (once attended by both Phoebe and Eva, and now attended by Amelia, the youngest granddaughter) is the sight of a celebratory dinner. After speeches, during dessert, the headmistress drops dead, the obvious victim of poisoning.

Once again, the inept Chief Inspector is called in, fortunately accompanied by Constable Miles Brannock, a man who helped solve the first murder and who is attracted to Eva. Also shortly appearing on the scene is Lord Owen, an old family friend and eligible bachelor whose interest in Phoebe is more than friendly.

There are plenty of suspects, but Eva and Phoebe can’t accuse women or students simply because they are unpleasant. The sleuths must discover a motive and look for proof. The constable is glad of their help since it would be awkward for him to have to question well-bred females. As Phoebe and Eva investigate, they learn those in the school are hiding a multitude of secrets, some poignant, some suspicious, and some dangerous.

The mystery is interesting and the women are independent-minded and clever. The male supporting players are content to step back and let the women take the lead, and the two prove up to the task once again. Eva is the more sensible and empathetic. Phoebe forges ahead with an ingrained authority and self-confidence, but has an irritating habit of immediately betraying any confidence related to her.

The books are light and readable. The characters are not particularly deep but if you’d like a cozy mystery with a Downton Abbey-esque flavor, give the series a try.