Monday, December 31, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi

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

What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi is an interesting look at the social history of New York City high society during the Gilded Age. The title led me to think it would be more nitty-gritty details of daily life using Caroline Astor, the queen of New York society, as a focal point, but it was a more generalized picture of life and times of the age. The personality of Caroline Astor is used as introduction and conclusion but it’s not really a book that informs the reader about Mrs. Astor in particular.

The text covers things like clothing, food, leisure activities, and the adoption of new inventions such as electric lights and the telephone. It is a fairly short book and easy to read, but by no means encyclopedic. It reinforced names and impressions of the Gilded Age that I’ve been collecting from other sources. However, even though details jumped out from the pages from time to time (like wow, these guys drank a lot), not much stuck with me after the read was done. It may be the type of book that should be read twice to make an impact.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to Bath by Catherine Lloyd

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

I’m a big fan of Catherine Lloyd’s historical mystery series: A Kurland St. Mary Mystery. It’s like an early Christmas present when each installment is released. Her most recent book is Death Comes to Bath.

It is 1822 and the cozy crime-solving couple has made their way to Bath so that Sir (Major) Robert Kurland can take the waters at the suggestion of his physician. An old war wound is continuing to pain him. Lucy Harrington Kurland is pleased that her husband is being reasonable about his health for once. She’s also looking forward to a little relaxation and has invited her sister Anna along, hoping to possibly do some match-making while she’s at it.

Robert finds the baths to be surprisingly soothing. Aside from the healing properties of the water, he is also pleased to make the acquaintance of a blunt-speaking Yorkshire man, Sir William. Sir William is a wealthy businessman who has some of the same political sympathies as Sir Robert. Unfortunately, he also has three irritating money-grubbing sons, a beautiful but melodramatic too-young wife that he has grown to dislike, and two awful layabout stepsons. William’s physician, who has his hands full with the histrionics of the wife, also hangs about incessantly. While Lucy and Robert both like Sir William, they find it difficult to put up with the rest of the crew. They are neighbors in Bath, so it’s hard to avoid their company.

Then Sir William is found dead in the public bath. Robert is certain he was murdered. Lucy and Robert have a wealth of suspects just in the man’s family and they set themselves the task of finding the culprit.

As always, the relationship between Lucy and Robert is quietly delightful. The mystery is well-plotted, keeping me guessing throughout. And the secondary characters are three-dimensional with some more sympathetic than others.

This series is highly recommended for fans of cozy historical mysteries.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones

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

Sherry Jones writes powerful historical novels featuring strong female protagonists who struggle to succeed in life and love despite overwhelming odds. One of my favorite books of 2014 was The Sharp Hook of Love, a novel of Heloise and Abelard, in twelfth century France. But Jones is not tied to one historical period or type of heroine, making the accomplishments of the novels even more impressive.

Jones’ new release, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, gives us the story of the rise of the early twentieth century American dancer/singer Josephine Baker. Born into poverty, Josephine was an indomitable child despite horrific abuse and neglect. Music and dance were her salvation.

As an African American, Josephine suffered greatly from racial discrimination. In the U.S., she could find work only in shows featuring and catering to other people of color. Her exuberance and enormous talent brought her to the notice of a troop of entertainers going to Paris. There, she found an enthusiastic audience and a new home.

In this novel, readers delve deep into Baker’s psyche. Driven by a need to succeed, to prove herself, and to find love, Josephine Baker made some poor choices, most notably in her love life. Still, for the most part, she used men as much as they used her. She did love and was loved.

She lived through tumultuous times, including WWII in Paris. Not content to lie low and evade the notice of the invading Nazis, Josephine Baker courted danger by serving as a spy for the French Resistance.

The novel does a wonderful job of recreating the larger-than-life character. It does a particularly fine job of showing the childhood and early career of the star, explaining how she became the person she was. Chapters covering her later years were more rushed. I almost would have preferred seeing this as a two-book series so that as much attention could be lavished on her second act as on the first.

Once again, Sherry Jones has given readers an emotion-packed fictional biography of a fascinating woman. I can’t wait to see what will come next!

Friday, December 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

One of the books referred to frequently in Heyer Society was Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance The Unknown Ajax. I happened to be at my local library recently and came across the book, so I bumped it up to the front of my TBR pile.

This novel concerns a large and extremely dysfunctional aristocratic family living out in the country, the Darracotts. Lord Darracott is elderly and a crotchety tyrant. Many years ago, his favorite son joined the military and ended up falling in love with a weaver’s daughter. When he married beneath him, Lord Darracott cut him off. Darracott had other sons and they had sons. So no one really followed what happened to the ex-favorite.

However, Darracott’s eldest son died in an accident along with that son’s son. (It takes a while to sort out the family tree.) Now, to Darracott’s dismay, the son of his (deceased) ex-favorite is next in line to be heir. Darracott summons him (Hugo) to the manor. Since he has presumably been brought up below standards somewhere in the wilds of Yorkshire, Darracott is determined to bring him up to snuff, one way or the other.

Living at the manor is the widow of another son, along with her daughter Anthea and young son Richmond. Anthea is outspoken and spunky. Richmond, the new favorite of Lord Darracott, was a sickly child but is now an odd mix of rebelliously adventurous and reluctantly docile. Darracott has decided Hugo should marry Anthea, but she will have none of that. Darracott has also summoned his other grandsons home to teach Hugo how to be a gentleman.

Hugo arrives. He’s a very large man with a heavy Yorkshire accent that worsens when he’s flustered (or when he wants to appear flustered). Hugh is a military man and he’s not at all happy to discover he is heir to this falling-down old house and its assortment of unpleasant cousins. He is, however, impressed with Anthea.

In a somewhat farcical way, Hugo (called Ajax as an insult by one of the cousins) goes about dealing with the family and learning about the manor. He discovers that smugglers are active in the region, likely hiding goods in the family’s Dower House, and the local law enforcement officials suspect Richmond of involvement. Hugo also falls for Anthea and courts her sweetly, amusingly, and persistently.

The plot requires a lot of set-up but the story is saved from dragging by the ongoing comedy of the situations and Hugo’s calm manipulation of events. The ending is all action-packed confusion staged by Hugo to save the family from calamity. It’s great fun to read (if you can ignore the nagging sense of unfairness – aristocratic privilege saves the day as much as Hugo.)

The Unknown Ajax is a wonderful example of Heyer’s style: witty repartee, smart heroines, and comedy of manners.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Heyer Society. Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer edited by Rachel Hyland

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

I love Georgette Heyer. I’ve mostly read her Regency Romances with a quick foray into her historical mysteries. While some are more engaging than others, they are all pretty wonderful. When I saw Heyer Society: Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer, edited by Rachel Hyland, available for review, I was intrigued. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe literary criticism? Maybe quirky biographical sketches?

In fact, it is just what the title describes: essays about Georgette Heyer. The contributors are a number of authors in different genres united in their love for Heyer’s work. The essays are not dry literary critiques, but rather explorations of different facets of her contributions to literature, particularly Regency Romance, but also her influence on other Romance genres as well as science fiction and detective fiction. Chapters discuss such things as Heyer in film (why haven’t more of her works been made into movies?), the role of cousins in her novels (not only the rather icky question of why so many cousins marry each other, but also the larger importance of cousins in Regency Era society), and what to do with the enormous stumbling block of privilege portrayed in Heyer’s worlds (can we enjoy these very non-diverse books today without guilt?).

Written by Heyer superfans, the chapters are enthusiastic, glowing, and fun to read. References to novels I’ve read reminded me of the delightful stories and made me want to re-read. And references to the novels I haven’t gotten to yet have made me even more eager to make time to read them.

This book can be enjoyed by anyone interested in Georgette Heyer, whether you are a die-hard fan, have only dipped a toe in the ocean of her novels, or have not yet read her but are debating where to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Splendor before the Dark by Margaret George

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

It’s closing in on two years since I read Margaret George’s superb historical novel of the formative years of Emperor Nero: The Confessions of Young Nero. Her follow-up book, The Splendor before the Dark has been recently released. Details from the first book are fuzzy in my mind, but the characters come alive again in this novel which could be read as a stand-alone.

Nero has now been Emperor of Rome for ten years. Married to his great love, the renowned beauty Poppaea, Nero rules supreme, paying the barest of lip service to the Senate, employing a competent civil service of freedmen and spies to keep the empire running. He is a good administrator, but prefers spending his time with Rome’s literary elite and in training for racing his own chariot, pursuits considered beneath the dignity of his office.

The book opens on the eve of the great fire (the one where he gained his reputation for fiddling while Rome burned.) In fact, he had been out of the city (performing on his cithara) when he got word of the fire and raced back. In this novel, he throws himself into the firefighting efforts, risking his own safety, demonstrating a great deal of concern for the poor and common people. It was a little difficult overcoming a learned bias against Nero to buy into this heroic image but I pushed on through to see the aftermath of the fire.

Much of the city is destroyed, giving Nero an opportunity to rebuild Rome according to his own wishes. Some of his plans are good for the city and its inhabitants, like widening the streets and forbidding wooden overhangs that are fire hazards. But his main project, a huge new home for himself with fountains, parks, and a massive room with a revolving removable ceiling, was simply a monument to his own ego – as well as being a drain on the treasury.

Nero was popular with the people of Rome. He was generous with bread and circuses and, at times, opened parts of his palace for the people to view. But a broad swath of the senators and leaders saw him as a tyrant. There was considerable unrest in the aftermath of the fire with rumors sprouting that he had been responsible for it to clear the real estate he coveted. Disturbed by the rumors, Nero, who believed the fire had been accidental, started looking about for a scapegoat. He embraced the idea that it had been the Christians, coming to believe it himself, and began a large-scale persecution.

When a plot arose to assassinate him, something of a tradition in ancient Rome, particularly among Nero’s family, he was warned just on time. The plotters were executed or allowed to commit suicide and the confiscation of their property helped to refill the treasury so that Nero’s building binge could continue.

George is able to take the reader inside Nero’s head. He is a mass of contradictions: completely confident of his right to have whatever he wants, whenever he wants, certain in his decisions, and yet, wounded by criticism of others and given to moments of self-reflection. After which, he manages to conclude that he is right and others are wrong.

Nero’s reputation has been rehabilitated to some degree by recent scholars and George paints a balanced picture of a ruler with positive as well as negative traits. Rome did enjoy a period of peace under his reign, before the empire started unraveling at its seams. He did patronize the arts and inspired architectural and engineering feats in pursuit of his goals. And yet, it’s hard to embrace Nero as a great man when he is such a megalomaniac. He was nowhere near as great and beloved as he believed himself to be. I’m not sure if I’m meant to pity him when the inevitable downfall occurs, but I don’t.

Margaret George’s historical fiction is well-researched and vividly detailed. These two novels of Nero are highly recommended.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Earl to the Rescue by Jane Ashford

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

Interestingly, as I started to read Earl to the Rescue by Jane Ashford, I noticed it is a re-release of the 1980 novel titled Gwendeline. Whether this explains the less-steamy nature of the novel or whether the author generally prefers to shy away from more explicit sex in her books, this is a refreshingly sweet Regency Romance despite some dark undertones and a tendency toward melodrama.

Gwendeline Gregory is a recently orphaned eighteen-year-old gentlewoman whose father gambled away the family resources and whose mother’s reputation was no better. Gwendeline hardly knew her parents since they buried her away on a country estate while giving themselves over to a hedonistic lifestyle. They died in a carriage accident, leaving her with nothing.

Despite an inborn resilience and stubbornness, as well as a conspicuous beauty, Gwendeline has nothing to fall back on and she’s beginning to despair. The estate is just days from being sold off to pay creditors. Then Alex St. Audley, Earl of Merryn, pays a call.

The earl is young, wealthy, strikingly handsome, and possesses a forceful personality. He introduces himself as a friend of her parents. He’d come to take over care of the daughter of these friends, having just learned she existed. However, he was expecting a young child. He has to adapt his plans on the fly. Although Gwendeline initially resists being managed, she has no other choice. She finds herself carted off to London to be housed and brought into society by the earl’s mother.

Gwendeline adapts well to the ton. She’s beautiful, charming and intelligent. She is befriended by another debutante and hires an ex-governess to be a companion in the townhouse provided to her by the earl and a concerned group of her father’s old friends. Yet the earl’s story doesn’t quite add up. She can’t find out who these other friends are. It is shockingly unacceptable for her to be "kept" by the earl alone. And people drop references to her parents that make her aware that they were even worse than she’d realized. Most disturbingly, she is stalked by a "friend" of her mother, whose interest in her is blatantly unsavory.

All the while, the earl pops in and out of her life, always seeming to be present when she needs a helping hand, but mostly keeping his distance. She is intrigued by him, though frustrated by the suspicion he is hiding something.

Eventually, all the old secrets come to light, but not before she is abducted, twice, and rescued each time by the earl. Of course she has fallen in love with him, but doesn’t understand that he has also fallen in love with her.

Gwendeline pulls off the feat of being naive, yet smart. The earl is controlling, yet not quite arrogant. The antagonist is chilling and convincingly evil. The remaining supporting characters are entertaining. I’m glad Sourcebooks brought this novel back for Romance fans to enjoy.

Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A History of France by John Julius Norwich

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

I’ve read a couple of John Julius Norwich’s histories and although the style is rather old-fashioned, focusing on great men/great events, I’ve found them to be very useful for providing broad, sweeping, big-picture narratives.

Norwich died in June, but managed to complete his final work, a labor of love: A History of France (which is also published, I think, as France: A History: From Gaul to deGaulle.)

In just 400 pages, Norwich races through the history of France up to WWII. It’s a book for those who want to know about France but need a place to start. He works his way chronologically through the major leaders in the pre-king stage, then through the kings, then through the Napoleons, and finally through the Republics. He writes in a chatty way, interrupting himself with entertaining anecdotes (often mildly racy and essentially the only place where women enter the picture, except, of course, for Joan of Arc.) In this way, he succeeds in delivering a vast amount of information painlessly.

The Netgalley version, unfortunately, did not contain the illustrations or the bibliography, so I can’t comment on those. The bibliography would have been interesting, since Norwich doesn’t cite references as he goes and seems to be relying more on his memory than on specific sources. In fact, part of what makes the book so entertaining is that some of the unsourced anecdotes are a little vague and he admits he may not have the story exactly right. It’s like listening to an accomplished storyteller at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one who has most of his facts right or, at least, close enough.

The history is straightforward and surely oversimplified. This is Norwich’s interpretation after having synthesized a good deal of material over many years. He tells us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, leaving out the nuance and controversy in order to give the reader a framework to build upon. And this framework is something I sorely need since my "big-picture" history knowledge is sadly lacking.

If you’re curious about how France came to be France, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is our book group’s next pick. This relatively short book examines the crucial post-Revolutionary War period when the U.S. was not at all united and was in danger of being unable to fulfill the lofty goals of the war. Having won independence from Britain, the revolutionaries were not quite sure what to do with it. Or, more accurately, each was quite certain he knew what should be done if only everyone else would just get in line.

The men treated in this work, primarily Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, are more usually referred to as Founding Fathers. Ellis uses the term Brothers to emphasize that rather than spreading a mature, protective, paternal wisdom over the newborn nation, these men grew up with it, squabbling all the way.

The first two chapters can be read as background to the extraordinary musical Hamilton. "Chapter One: The Duel" leads us into what the author describes as an anomalous outcome of the brothers’ squabbling: violence and death. "Chapter Two: The Dinner" had me singing The Room Where it Happens in my head. Other chapters discuss Washington’s Farewell Address (who wrote it and what a legacy it was), the collaborative efforts, infighting, and strained friendships among the men, as well as the taboo subject of slavery.

With such fascinating subject matter, the author does an admirable job of focusing each chapter around its theme. Some chapters are less interesting than others and in places he wanders too far into the weeds, but overall there is a good balance of big picture versus close detail. If you feel your historical knowledge of the time period could use a little filling in, this book is a good place to start.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

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

Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, has a new book – A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts.

In late nineteenth-century New York, Alva Smith is a desperate young woman. Reared with her sisters to expect a life of privilege, at twenty-one she discovers how tenuous her hold on that privilege is. She comes from Old South wealth and her pedigree is impeccable, but her mother is dead and her ailing father is nearly bankrupt. Alva needs to marry well and soon.

Despite her initial concerns, she catches a husband with surprising ease. William Vanderbilt, grandson of the railway tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, is looking for a well-connected wife to help the family climb the New York social ladder. He is good-looking, easy-going, and shallow enough to marry simply to please his family. Alva’s connections are not as good as the Vanderbilts believe them to be, but Alva does a grand job faking it. Her fortune is secured, her family saved. Now, she has to live with the consequences.

The novel whisks us along on a tour of the extraordinary pursuits of the obscenely wealthy. Alva has come close enough to ruin to feel some compassion for the plight of the poor. She does invest time and money in charitable programs. But her main occupation is Society. She is determined to cement her position within the Vanderbilt hierarchy by raising the profile of the Vanderbilt family name. With the help of an older gentleman friend, insider Ward McAllister, Alva navigates the difficult waters of society, dominated by Caroline Astor, until the Vanderbilts can no longer be excluded from the upper echelons.

Successful as she is at social climbing, Alva is discontent. She does not respect or love her vapid husband. Conversation between them is merely polite. Sex is an undignified chore. And William spends more time on his boat or with his friends than he does with his wife. At least, he claims to be with friends. Alva remains willfully blind to his many affairs.

Intelligent and driven, Alva throws herself into architectural pursuits, partnering with architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a number of mansions costing millions of dollars.

Eventually, none of this is enough. Alva wants love and passion. And Alva tends to get what she wants.

This novel immerses the reader in Gilded Age society, showing its mores, extravagances, and hypocrisies as well as its preoccupation with absurd shades of status. Alva is drawn as a well rounded character, but it is difficult to sympathize with her. Although her husband’s true character is not at all admirable, he is, in some limited way, pitiable. Alva puts him off from the get-go, having achieved the financial security she desires. She never gives the marriage a chance. It may have been more poignant had she tried and failed.

The book skims more lightly over Alva’s attempts to do good for the less fortunate. More emphasis on these pursuits may have made her a more sympathetic protagonist, but the emphasis on her attempts to spend an unspendable amount of money upstaging her society rivals is likely a more realistic portrait.

A Well-Behaved Woman is a compelling, richly detailed historical novel showing lifestyles of the rich and famous in the Gilded Age. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is an impressive book.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer is as delightful as all her Regency Romances.

Abigail Wendover is a gentlewoman nearing spinsterhood living quietly with her significantly older sister in Bath. They are bringing up their spirited niece, Fanny, who is lovely, vivacious, and an heiress. Fanny is just seventeen and has not yet come out, but she has already attracted the attention of a fortune-hunter, Stacey Calverleigh.

Stacey is nearly thirty and quite broke. He was already disappointed in his hopes of financial rescue when an elopement with a different heiress was warded off. Now, he has set his sights on Fanny.

Abigail is horrified, especially since her older sister is unable to see through the odious man and finds him charming.

Stacey is not the only Calverleigh to appear in Bath. Stacey’s uncle, Miles, has returned from India, escorting the favored son of a local widow who was taken ill there. Miles had been banished to India twenty years earlier by his father and elder brother and was not expected to return. Miles is the black sheep of the family, a man whose lack of family feeling and numerous indiscretions have made him very suspect in the eyes of the ton. He is not particularly welcome in Bath. However, he and Abigail meet cute, a case of mistaken identity, and he is taken with her unconscious charm. She is taken with his sense of humor.

Abigail is determined to protect Fanny from Stacey. Miles listens, to a point, but insists the whole thing is tedious. He admits he dislikes his nephew, but says he has no influence to exert.

The courtship between Abigail and Miles is delightfully entertaining as their relationship develops based on enjoyment of time spent with one another rather than instantaneous profound passion. Miles supports her endeavors, even as he claims it is none of his business. Miles’ reputation may be in tatters for long ago sins, and, even now, he may not behave within the bounds of strictest respectability, but he nevertheless behaves well.

For lovers of "clean" old-fashioned Romance, Georgette Heyer never disappoints.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell

This has been a terrible summer for blogging. I have been reading, just not blogging. I’m currently trudging through a doorstop of a history book that I’ll review when I finally finish. I’ve broken that up with working my way through Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series. Two more to go!

In the meantime, I took a break to read a book in my Netgalley queue that was recently released.

(Thank you to Netgalley! I received the book for free. That did not influence my review.)

The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell is a multi-POV novel set in multiple time periods: early 1900s, WWII, and current day.

Because the early part of the book jumps around so much between characters and time periods, it’s hard to get engaged. In particular, the current day character, Cady, is introduced with both forward moving chapters and chapters that slip into her backstory. Perhaps it’s supposed to give the whirling up-and-down feeling of being on a carousel, but it was frustrating to read at first. The lack of cohesion got tedious. Eventually, the different stories intersected and the novel clicked. This is a novel that rewards patience as it draws to a close as a rich, emotional, multi-generational tale.

Cady Drake is a young female photographer who has difficulty connecting with people, largely due to her foster care upbringing. She was a troubled youth, who was fortunate to find stability living with an older woman, an antique store owner named Maxine. When Maxine dies, Cady is devastated. At the urging of her only friend, Cady embarks on a trip to Paris to photograph carousels for a coffee table book. This idea is inspired by the gift of an old carousel rabbit she had once received from Maxine. Inside the rabbit was a box with a photograph of a young woman from long ago, standing in front of a carousel. Cady becomes obsessed with learning who made the rabbit and the identity of the mysterious woman.

Maelle Tanguy is a young Breton woman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. She is a talented sculptor who yearns to make carousel animals. She bravely sets out on her own to apprentice with Monsieur Bayol, the acknowledged master carver. Although he refuses to take her on at first, she impresses him with her spunkiness. He hires her to help his wife with housework, but gradually allows her to take on menial tasks in his workshop, and finally help make the animals. Unfortunately for Maelle, there is a handsome charmer in the workshop, Leon, and she is very gullible.

Finally, there is Fabrice Clement from Provence. During WWII, he was a young resistance fighter in Paris. He survived, barely, to become a writer known for difficult post-modern novels in the war’s aftermath. He then retired to an inherited, falling-apart chateau back in Provence, where he became a cranky recluse.

Fabrice’s chateau was once known for a carousel built for its aristocratic owners by the master Bayol. And, this is the carousel in the photograph Cady found in her rabbit. Maelle is the woman in the photo.

There is a good deal of mystery surrounding all these elements. And the author does a lovely job of piecing it all together. Cady blossoms in France as she never could in her California home.

The novel also beautifully describes the carousel making process in fascinating detail.

I tend to enjoy these types of multi-period novels less than historical novels that follow a more chronological plot line. I don’t like having the flow of a narrative interrupted so frequently. I’m not thrown off by different POV characters so long as their stories are moving in the same direction at the same time, but when the stories are all unconnected for too long, even when I can see that they will eventually connect, I lose patience. That said, I’m glad I stuck with this one until it all came together to its satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a classic dystopian novel written in 1920-21 that was translated and published worldwide at the time, but banned in Russia until 1988. It was the inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984.

The novel is set in a future world on earth, after a 200-year war that changed society completely. People now live in a world made of nearly indestructible glass, their lives on public display. (They are under surveillance by "guardians.") They live according to rigid schedules, everyone rising, working, eating, taking a walk in the square at the same time, even chewing according to regulation. Sex is permitted only when a person receives a pink ticket to "lower the blinds" of their apartment for an hour. The partner is assigned. People are not named, but numbered. Nonconformity is swiftly, and publicly, punished by death.

The protagonist, D-503, is a mathematician, one of the chief builders of Integral, a spaceship designed to spread their ideal society to other planets. He is fully indoctrinated into this totalitarian society, ruled by the Benefactor. He believes himself completely happy.

And then I-330 enters his life. She makes him very uncomfortable. He dislikes her at first, but is sexually attracted to her and she exploits this, leading him to break rules and become reluctantly complicit in hiding her noncomformity. I-330 is one of the leaders of the resistance. Their goal is to hijack Integral and use it to smash the barriers of their glass world. They want to start a revolution that will return freedom to the people.

There is nothing heroic about D-503. He wants to remain in his bubble. But he also wants I-330. He discovers, to his dismay, that he has a soul and imagination. With all these upheavals, his life is a torment.

The resistance permeates society to a greater degree than D-503 realizes. But the state is strong and has a new weapon – an operation that can remove human imagination. Which will prove stronger?

The stark philosophies of the characters provide interesting food for thought. D-503's fear of freedom and his contrasting comfort with the highly intrusive state are chilling. The novel does come across as somewhat dated, since dystopias are now so numerous with much more explicit sex and violence and more in-depth characterizations. D-503 thinks mathematically and is confused much of the time, which makes it a tough read. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how many of the issues are still relevant and likely always will be.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Our book group’s latest book was Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. This journalistic historical account of the Osage murders of the 1920s is a fast-paced, detailed narrative of yet another shameful event in the long history of the exploitation of Native Americans.

In Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation became (theoretically) extraordinarily wealthy when oil was discovered in their territory. Although the land had been ceded to the government, mineral rights had not, and anyone wishing to drill for oil had to pay the Osage.

In practice, although some of the Osage did acquire mansions and servants, they were not allowed to spend their own money without the permission of government-appointed guardians. Deemed incompetent by the government, the Osages’assigned guardians exploited them through various schemes that made the whites much more wealthy than their wards. But bleeding their wards dry was not quick enough for some of the guardians, who wanted more of the money and more direct control.

Members of the Osage Nation began to die, some of outright murder and others more insidiously under suspicious circumstances. Local law enforcement investigated half-heartedly and backed off quickly under threat of violence. Corruption ran deep. As the death count rose, the Osage had nowhere safe to turn.

At this point, the Federal Government stepped in. The newly created FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, was called upon to find out what was going on. Hoover assigned a former Texas Ranger, the incorruptible Tom White, to head the investigation.

White proceeds with determination and intelligence to uncover a widespread conspiracy of greed, racism, and utter moral bankruptcy that is horrifying and, unfortunately, not at all surprising.

The book is well-researched and provides a crisp, clear, devastating story.

Friday, August 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: 1876 by Gore Vidal

Way back in 2011, I read Gore Vidal’s Burr, and didn’t like it. Too dense, too dull, and the protagonists (the aged Aaron Burr and the young Charlie Schuyler) were not sympathetic characters. I couldn’t see why Vidal got such rave reviews. Nevertheless, an interest in the post-Civil War years and the Gilded Age led me to pick up Vidal’s 1876.

Schuyler is now a successful journalist/historian, who has spent the last 39 years in Paris, sending home occasional articles and writing a few books. Against his inclination, he must return to his native country. He arrives with his daughter, Emma, a Frenchwoman through and through, and a princess to boot. He has returned because he lost his fortune in the crash of 1873, his daughter is widowed, and he is desperate to earn enough by his writing to support them both. Additional goals are to find a comfortably wealthy husband for Emma. And to see Governor Samuel Tilden (the reformer who brought down Boss Tweed) elected President. Schuyler believes it likely that he will be appointed ambassador to France if Tilden, a friend, is elected.

The novel traces the political maneuverings of 1876 that culminated in Tilden winning the popular vote by a comfortable margin, but nevertheless having the election stolen by Rutherford B. Hayes. It also follows the fortunes of Schuyler and Emma. Finally, it showcases the New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia of 1876, including its socialites and politicians.

Although the novel started a bit slow, it quickly became engrossing. Vidal’s gift for writing vivid historical detail makes the book truly read like a first person account. He manages to present the complicated politics, the corruption, the role of the press – all filtered through Schuyler’s biased, dry, cynical viewpoint in a way that is depressing and amusing at the same time.

Schuyler as an old man, not in the best of health, in a financially precarious state, yet still very much respected by movers and shakers, is a much more interesting protagonist than the young Charlie in Burr. He is funny. At various times, his observations of people and situations had me laughing out loud.

This book was so enjoyable, I’ve changed my mind on Gore Vidal. Not only do I want to read more of his work, but I’m considering going back and re-evaluating Burr.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh

I love the convenience of requesting books online from my local library. One downside, however, is that I rarely spend time browsing in the library and picking something to read on the spur of the moment. Recently I decided to do just that, and took home an "old" (2010) Historical Romance by Mary Balogh: A Secret Affair.

The Duchess of Dunbarton (Hannah) is known to the ton as a breathtakingly beautiful woman who, at the age of nineteen, captured the elderly confirmed bachelor, the Duke. She obviously married for his title and money, while he obviously could not resist her beauty. It is also known that she took many lovers during their marriage, which, incredibly, lasted ten years before he finally died. Now, after an obligatory year of mourning, the Duchess is back in London for a Season and the ton eagerly anticipates her next move.

Constantine Huxtable (tall, dark, and handsome) is the eldest son of an earl, but since he was born two days before his parents’ marriage, his illegitimacy made him ineligible to inherit the title. His younger brother inherited, then died at sixteen, and the title and estates went to a cousin. Mr. Huxtable has not wasted time mourning lost chances, but has made himself as comfortable in society as if he were an earl. That includes taking a mistress each Season in London before retiring back to his country estate.

The Duchess plans to take a lover and she intends that it be Constantine. Although he has always chosen his own mistress in the past, he is willing to be chosen this time. Their affair begins with passion and a mutual agreement that it will be short-term and superficial.

Of course, it is neither.

Both have carefully cultivated their scandalous reputations in order to conceal deeply private pasts brimful of hurt and insecurity. Although both move easily in society, they are lonely. And it doesn’t take long before they spill their secrets to one another and fall in love.

Although predictable, the story is fun and the characters are charming. They tend a little too much towards long speeches pouring out their past woes, but they also engage in witty banter. I haven’t read any of the other books in this particular Romance series but now I’m considering looking up the rest and reading them in order.

Friday, August 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Whatever's Been Going On at Mumblesby? by Colin Watson

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

I’ve been working my way through Colin Watson’s re-released series: A Flaxborough Mystery, starring Inspector Purbright. Without thinking too much about it, I envisioned the series to be infinite and was surprised to learn that there were only twelve books and that the one I most recently downloaded was the twelfth – but I haven’t read that many. I’m reading them out of order! I’m going to have to go back and fill in the missing ones.

I just finished Whatever’s Been Going On at Mumblesby?. Our protagonist, Inspector Purbright, dutifully attends the funeral of a prosperous solicitor who collected antiques in the nearby village of Mumblesby, a village within the district of Chief Constable Chubb, Purbright’s boss. What should have been a mere courtesy – the man’s death was not suspicious – turns into another criminal investigation.

Mumblesby is a snooty village, inhabited by a few wealthy farmers and unpleasant members of the upper class. The recently deceased, Mr. Loughbury, is survived by a common-law wife who is much disdained as a gold-digger. Actually, she is a gold-digger. And she’s unapologetic about it. Moreover, she’s aware that some of the priceless antiques her husband has obtained, from those snooty neighbors, were not acquired in a strictly legal way. Nevertheless, she intends to sell them and reap the rewards.

That doesn’t make her a murderess. Especially since her husband died of natural causes. However, there was a suspicious death in Mumblesby’s past, ruled a suicide by a previous inspector. Now that Purbright is on the scene, and following what appears to be a threat on the life of Mrs. Loughbury, the investigation is reopened.

As is typical in Watson’s mysteries, the story opens in a rather scrambled fashion with abundant clues that make no sense. There are numerous newly introduced characters, presented with biting humor, and a few old favorites like Sergeant Love and Miss Teatime doing their part. It is Purbright’s steady, determined, yet placid investigating that pulls all the loose ends together.

These are not psychological studies of the investigator, or mystery/Romances where the detective and an interfering helper fall in love. The focus is squarely on solving the crime. Even so, the personality of the dedicated Purbright shines through and the narrator’s irony keeps these stories entertaining.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: In the Presence of Evil by Tania Bayard

Christine de Pisan, a brilliant medieval lady of letters, is the heroine of a new historical mystery series. I reviewed the book for the Historical Novels Review (e-galley of book received from Netgalley.) 

See my review here.

Friday, August 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Brave New Earl by Jane Ashford

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

I haven’t been to the beach, but I’m indulging in some summer beach reads. Brave New Earl by Jane Ashford is a soon-to-be released Regency Romance with a sweet story and sympathetic characters.

The earl in question is the Earl of Furness (Benjamin), a widower of five years with a five-year-old son. (Yes, his wife died in childbirth.) He is sunk in mourning to the extent that he rather shamefully neglects his son, partly because the child resembles his wife to a painful extent. The child is growing up to be wild and undisciplined. A succession of nursemaids can do nothing with him. There is a recent addition to the household, a fourteen-year-old orphan boy (Tom) with a wealth of experience in odd jobs, whose good nature and common sense make him a perfect companion/mentor for the boy (Gregory). However, Benjamin is not even aware that Tom is in the house. And Tom is not a long-term solution.

Enter Miss Jean Saunders, a distant cousin of the deceased wife, who has heard tales of the neglected child of the morose earl. The victim of a dreadful childhood, Jean is appalled to think of any child being ill-treated, let alone a relative of hers. She descends on the house in a righteous fury, determined to cart the boy off to his grandparents where she will assure he is cared for and loved. She doesn’t expect the earl to resist, but he does.

Benjamin is irritated beyond measure at the busy-body who has invaded his home. However, he does notice how pretty she is. She notices his good looks as well. He also sees that she has a point; he isn’t being a very good father, while she sees that he is not as disinterested a parent as she feared.

Both have the child’s best interests at heart, though they aren’t exactly sure how to go about improving things. Despite their initial discomfort with one another, they decide to work together to whip Benjamin’s household into shape and do what’s right for Gregory.

Their discomfort turns to passion and love, of course. There are some amusing episodes along the way. There is also the emotional baggage each carries that needs to be overcome.

I’ve read Jane Ashford before, (see my review of The Duke Knows Best), and find her Romances to be light, enjoyable reads.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Summer by Edith Wharton

It felt like time to read a classic, so I chose Summer by Edith Wharton.

Charity Royall is a beautiful young woman who was brought up in the home of a small-town lawyer and his wife in North Dormer, Massachusetts. The tiny, rural town lives in the shadow of "The Mountain," which is home to a community of impoverished, uneducated, hopeless people who are scorned and feared by the whole town. Charity had been born to a woman on The Mountain, but was brought down by Mr. Royall as a young child. He was doing a good deed for a man he had sent to prison for murder, Charity’s father.

Charity lives a lonely, isolated existence as the town’s librarian. She lives with Mr. Royall but she despises him. He’d come to her one night after his wife died, hoping to sleep with her, but she turned him away in horror. Since then, he’s kept his distance.

One day, a young man comes to town to spend time with his aunt while studying local architectural history. In short, he seduces Charity.

There is a stark difference between the colorless loneliness and lack of future that Charity feels before Lucius Harney arrives and the bright, passionate, living-for-the-moment existence that she discovers when she is with him. The romance is bittersweet. The reader knows that this will not work out well. Lucius appears to be gentle and kind to her. However, she feels unworthy of him – she is, after all, descended from mountainfolk, while he is an educated city dweller. Worse, he feels superior to her. The gulf between them makes any marriage so far out of the question that it never comes up until the issue is forced. Lucius may not consider her a suitable option for a wife, but he is perfectly content to use her and let her believe he’s in love.

All the while, Mr. Royall tries to warn her, earning only her anger and hatred. He’s an unpleasant character as well, significantly older and prone to drunkenness. But he provides a sort of safety net for her. And eventually, she needs that safety net. She becomes pregnant. Lucius takes off with vague promises to return.

Charity decides to run back to the Mountain where she believes her people are, but discovers pretty quickly that she can’t return to that community of despair. She cannot raise her own child there.

With nowhere to turn, she finds Mr. Royall coming to her rescue. He still wants to marry her and provide for her. Passively, she lets this happen too.

The story is depressing as many of Wharton’s works are. It’s beautifully written and Charity’s musings and distraction as Lucius becomes her whole world illustrate wonderfully the all-encompassing nature of a first love. Charity’s naivete and almost determined blindness to reality are heartbreaking but realistic. The reader (and Mr. Royall) can see that the young man is using Charity. But it’s easy to see how she falls for him nevertheless. The ending is ambiguously painful. Is she fortunate to have Mr. Royall’s devotion to fall back on? Or was it her inevitable fate to end up miserably trapped in a life with him?

Monday, July 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Blue Murder by Colin Watson

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

I keep coming back to Colin Watson’s entertaining British detective series: A Flaxborough Mystery, featuring the unflappable Inspector Purbright.

Blue Murder is a new release of a book originally published in 1979. In this installment, muckracking newsmen and a female research assistant have arrived in Flaxborough from London after receiving a tip that pornographic films are being made by local villagers. Unfortunately for them, a traffic accident brings them to the immediate attention of the police. Then, the teaser published in their London paper incites the ire of Flaxborough’s mayor. He’s a hot-headed Scotsman, easily manipulated by pranksters who get him to challenge the leader of the muckrakers to a duel in order to defend the honor of the town. This, too, is a matter for local law enforcement, much to Purbright’s chagrin.

In his usual unexcitable, methodical way, Purbright keeps tabs on local troubles and tries to calm things down without inserting himself too much into the mix. In early chapters, his profile is pretty low. It’s the London reporters who take center stage.

There is a lot going on and the plot is pretty convoluted, but stick with it and things gradually fall into place. The tip the reporters received is a false one. To save face, they need a way to back out before it gets any worse. Using the excuse of riled and unpredictable villagers, they contrive a fake kidnaping of the star reporter. But that plan goes horribly awry.

Now Purbright has no choice but to step in. With his faithful sidekick, detective Sydney Love, as well as a few others of Flaxborough’s finest, he digs in to unravel a plot that has its beginnings in an unsolved death from a few years past.

Once again, wry humor carries the novel. Purbright’s detecting style is a delight. And while his character remains rather enigmatic to the readers, we do at least learn he is married. (Was that evident before? How did I miss it?)

These novels are quick, delightful reads and I look forward to more of them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora's Boy by Lindsey Davis

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

Having recently completed book 5 in Lindsey Davis’ historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, The Third Nero, I was thrilled to have the chance to review book 6, the newly released Pandora’s Boy.

With this latest installment, the series has recaptured its momentum and I enthusiastically recommend it. However, the series should be read from book one, The Ides of April. (For ultimate enjoyment, start with Silver Pigs, the first book in the preceding Marcus Didius Falco series – but that’s not crucial for this series featuring Falco’s daughter, Flavia Albia.)

When we left Albia and her new husband, plebian aedile Manlius Tiberius, the outlook for his recovery from the wedding-day lightning strike was looking promising, but he was not yet out of the woods. Things take a turn when his ex-wife, the unpleasant Laia Gratiana appears with a job for Albia. A friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter has been found dead in her bed, possibly poisoned, possibly the victim of a love potion.

Albia turns down the job. She wants nothing to do with any friend of Tiberius’ ex. But the moment her back is turned, Tiberius disappears. No explanation. He’s even taken off his wedding ring. Albia, whose job it often is to find missing husbands, is unable to find her own. The frightening suspicion of her loved ones is that he is suffering from a post-lightning strike fugue state. Desolate, Albia decides to bury herself in her work. She takes the case.

Small, tragic domestic troubles never remain small and domestic. The more Albia digs, the more she uncovers, most of it only peripherally related to the question at hand: how did the girl die? There are criminal gangs active in Rome. Albia (and her adopted father Falco) have come across these dangerous characters before and do their best to avoid them. But Albia’s investigations keep crossing into their territory and she’s going to have to deal with some gangsters before she solves the mystery.

This novel demonstrates Davis’ talent for conflating ancient Rome with modern day tropes: hippies/earth mothers, foodies, bratty overindulged teenagers, and organized crime. The results are vastly entertaining even if a bit farcical for a historical novel. Also, (spoiler alert) Tiberius does reappear. The relationship between Albia and Tiberius is sweet, loving, and amusing. They complement one another’s working styles. And Tiberius has an admirable ability to stand back and let Albia do her work.

For fans of tongue-in-cheek historical mysteries, Lindsey Davis’ novels are pure fun.

Monday, July 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Dear Mrs.Bird by A.J. Pearce

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

Historical fiction fans may want to keep an eye out for the new release: Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce, a wonderful WWII novel set in London during the blitz.

I had to struggle a bit through the first chapter. The protagonist was, at first, too awkwardly perky and naive. But I rapidly warmed to her.

Emmy Lake is doing her part by volunteering to answer phones for the fire brigade at night and working as a secretary by day. But she dreams big. She wants to be a journalist – a war correspondent She believes she’s gotten her big break when she sees a help wanted ad: the newspaper is hiring a "junior." But when she does get the job, she’s distressed to discover she’ll be sorting mail and typing for the advice columnist at a failing, old-fashioned women’s weekly magazine.

Once this premise is established and Emmy deals with the situation she’s found herself in, the narrative voice settles down and the book takes off.

Emmy is an optimist and she makes the best of an unpleasant situation. Her boss, Mrs. Bird, has ridiculously outdated ideas about what is suitable for an advice column. Nothing about the war or anything hinting about relationships can be addressed. Not many women bother writing to Mrs. Bird, but unacceptable letters far outnumber acceptable ones. Emmy is tremendously upset by Mrs. Bird’s callousness. She wants to help. She starts answering letters and signing them with Mrs. Bird’s name.

Meanwhile, her own life suffers a few bumps. Her boyfriend jilts her. Bombs keep falling. It gets harder and harder to keep calm and carry on. The crises grow more serious and the story’s poignancy increases as the losses hit closer and closer to home.

Emmy’s great fault is impulsiveness and her judgment is faulty at times, but her heart is definitely in the right place. She’s brave, persistent, and loyal. And she and her best friend Bunty amuse and entertain.

The subject matter gets heavy and Emmy does a lot of growing up, but a light-hearted strain runs throughout the novel. Its feel-good ending will make you feel good! I find myself wishing for a sequel.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis

I can tell time is passing too quickly when I realize I’ve fallen behind on a series that I love. I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome since the Falco days. When Falco retired from informing, his adopted daughter Flavia Albia took over. I reviewed the previous novel, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, in January of last year. So I’m months behind on this one: The Third Nero.

When we left off, Albia had just wed her aedile, Tiberius, an intelligent, supportive member of the Roman upper crust who aided her with her investigations in the past. Unfortunately, at their wedding, he was struck by lightning. A bit farfetched, but it worked.

Now, they are dealing with setting up housekeeping, Tiberius’ lengthy recuperation, and a new political crisis. Approached by the official spy network of Emperor Domitian with seemingly inconsequential tasks that require a woman’s touch, Flavia Albia becomes aware of a plot against the emperor. Since she and everyone she loves hates the tyrannical Domitian, she is not thrilled to be working for his men. On the other hand, stability is better than chaos. And she needs the funds.

Those interested in getting rid of Domitian have plotted in the past to replace him with a false Nero, claiming Nero was not really dead. Two of these plots have failed. Generally, the impostors get their starts in the east, supported by the Parthians. The newest fake must be rooted out. More importantly, the mole in the spy network who is in contact with the Parthians must be discovered.

At first, Flavia gets so much help from the official spy network that it’s unclear why she is even needed. A good deal of historical background is explained, sometimes rather clunkily, but it is necessary to understanding the convoluted plot.

This is not one of my favorite books in the series. From the plot, to the ironical voice of the protagonist, to the take-a-back-seat role for Tiberius, it seemed forced. Even so, I love returning to this world and will get to the next book sooner.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

For our next meeting, our book club has chosen Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman.

The book is a dual biography of these two adventurous women. Nellie Bly is the better known historical figure. She initially made her name as a journalist by going undercover to write exposĂ©s. However, determined to make her mark on the world and to prove women could be as successful as men, she proposes to her editor that her next project be beating the fictional record for circumnavigating the globe recounted in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Although the idea was rejected at first, as the editor began to realize that someone was likely to undertake the task soon and it would be a greater publicity stunt to send a woman than a man, he gave her the green light.

Elizabeth Bisland was also a writer, but she wrote more literary articles for a monthly magazine. Her editor decided that it would be an even greater publicity stunt to send another woman around the world in the opposite direction to see who would come in first. Elizabeth was reluctant, but seemed to have been given little choice. She was aware it was a race, but Nellie was not.

The book goes into lengthy detail, sometimes absorbing and sometimes rather plodding, describing their itinerary, traveling quirks, hazards, people they meet, impressions of distant locales and peoples, and their thoughts on the undertaking. There are also numerous digressions that give a great deal of detail about things touching upon the various modes of transportation, sights they saw, and the lives of people they came into contact with. An eighty-day race is a fairly slow-paced one, but the book would have been more interesting if some of the extraneous detail was pared away to give it more sense of urgency.

The personalities of the two women were quite opposite and they were differently affected by the venture. In some ways, the short summaries of their lives afterward was more compelling than the story of the race.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Care by Mary Balogh

I’m a sucker for Mary Balogh’s Regency Romances, most recently the Westcott Novel series (starting with Someone to Love.) The latest addition to the series is Someone to Care.

Miss Viola Kingsley was, until two years prior, a countess – the wife of the Earl of Riverdale. At least, she thought she was. Upon the earl’s death, Viola discovered the marriage had been bigamous. Her children are illegitimate and were disinherited. The family circled the wagons and supported one another, so the scandal has more or less faded for the others affected by the earl’s deception. But not for Viola. After a christening party held for a grandchild, Viola snaps. Needing time for herself, she flees.

She isn’t particularly clear on where she wants to go, but the decision is taken out of her hands when her hired carriage breaks down in a small country village and she is forced to wait overnight for it to be fixed. There she comes across an old acquaintance, Marcel Lamarr, who is now the Marquess of Dorchester.

Marcel is a widower, but his wife died in an accident many years earlier. His response was to immerse himself in a life of pleasure-seeking debauchery.

Fourteen years earlier, Marcel had tried to begin a flirtation with Viola, but she, then a virtuous young wife, sent him on his way. When she enters the country inn where he has also been temporarily detained by a transportation mishap, memories of his past attraction come flooding back. He approaches Viola to renew the flirtation.

This time, Viola succumbs. Why not? They spend a lovely day together, followed by a night of passion. In the morning, they decide to run off together for a fling, both recognizing that this is to be temporary.

Naturally, they fall in love. Following some of the usual conventions of Regency Romance, they miscommunicate and pride keeps them from being honest with one another. Before they can part, they are found out in their love nest and, doing the honorable thing, Marcel announces that they are betrothed. For the rest of the novel, they try to wriggle out of the betrothal even though marriage is clearly where they need to be heading.

Sometimes, plots that follow this track get annoying because the hero and heroine just behave stupidly. But Mary Balogh has a talent for writing sympathetic characters that tug at the heartstrings so you can forgive them for making a muddle of things. In addition, she usually twists convention enough that the typical romance plots feel fresh. In Someone to Care, Viola is forty-two years old! Marcel is just shy of forty. A regency romance featuring "middle-aged" lovers with the woman older than the man? Someone to Care is a heartwarming romance and I continue to follow this series avidly.

Friday, June 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Charity Ends at Home by Colin Watson

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

I decided to keep going with the Flaxborough Chronicles. The next book in this charming detective series by Colin Watson is Charity Ends at Home.

Detective Purbright is wearily keeping tabs on increasingly competitive Flaxborough charity drives when an anonymous letter is brought to his attention, a letter that has been sent to three local VIPs: the coroner, the constable, and the newspaper editor. The distressed writer is convinced he/she is in danger. Loved ones are plotting murder. Although the writer does not sign the letter, an enclosed photograph is referred to – but no photo is enclosed.

Purbright is duty-bound to take the threat seriously, but has no idea where to start until a local woman is found dead, drowned in a well. She was active in the local fund-raising community, favoring charities that support dogs. She was not happily married. Naturally, her husband becomes the prime suspect. But how does the letter tie in?

At the same time, a newcomer to town is trying out his own amateur detecting skills. His job is to catch a cheating husband. However, the detective, Mortimer Hive, is not very bright, a drinker, and easily distracted. He bungles his job, but no matter. The person who hired him has decided he doesn’t need Hive’s input after all. The assignment is over.

Hive doesn’t leave town. He’s a good friend of Miss Lucy Teatime (a con-woman introduced in the previous book). Lucy has set up camp in Flaxborough. She is no longer scamming gentlemen looking for lady friends. She’s involved in a new plot, skimming money from charities.

Purbright seems to be impressed by Miss Teatime. It’s difficult to believe he doesn’t realize she is up to no good. Still, she’s courteous and helpful as well as very clever. With her help and with some prodding of Mortimer Hive, Purbright sets about chasing down the murderer.

This book is a bit more jumbled than the others and the humor seems more forced. Mortimer’s ramblings take up a good deal of the book and he wasn’t as interesting a character as the others. Nevertheless, he serves his purpose. The threads are all pulled together to bring about a satisfying conclusion. I’ll take a little break, then return eagerly to this series.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lonelyheart 4122 by Colin Watson

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

Thanks to Netgalley, I’ve discovered British mystery author Colin Watson. (See book one in the Flaxborough Chronicles: Coffin Scarcely Used.) The books largely follow the work of Inspector Purbright, a small-town investigator whose polite, persistent detective skills have solved several murders already.

Book four in the series is Lonelyheart 4122. When two middle-aged women, one unmarried and one widowed, go missing within a short span of time, relatives become concerned and bring the matter to the police. After some gentle questioning, Purbright is convinced there has been foul play and he begins looking into the matter. One thing they both had in common was that they were customers of a match-making agency, the Handclasp House Marriage Bureau. Each had a bit of money that also may have gone missing. Could they have been conned? Were they murdered?

Coincidentally, a con-woman, Miss Lucy Teatime, arrives in Flaxborough, presumably because things have become a bit hot for her back in London. Seeing an advertisement for the Handclasp House, she signs up. Soon, she is matched with a charming old seaman. It’s quite evident that each is trying to con the other. Their mercenary courtship is a delight to follow.

However, Purbright is following also, concerned for Miss Teatime and unaware that she is more than a match for an unscrupulous suitor. But is she a match for a murderer?

With his usual care, Purbright pieces together the clues and hurries to head off disaster.

Lonelyheart 4122 is an entertaining cozy mystery with a splash of dry British humor. This series is a lot of fun!

Friday, June 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

My historical fiction/history book group’s last choice (mine) was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I love his writing and had bought this book a while ago but it’s been sitting on my shelf. Choosing it for the book group ensured I would get to it.

I loved it, though it wasn’t a favorite of the group. Almost aggressively literary in style, it has a disjointed, fragmentary rhythm. It’s a deeply psychological book, so that there is not a lot of action. Rather, the angst-filled protagonist spends a lot of time ruminating. Still, it is so intense and so beautifully written that I was hooked from the beginning. (Not the very beginning. The prologue had me concerned it would be a difficult read.)

The Noise of Time is a fictional "biography" of Dmitri Shostakovich, a brilliant Soviet-era composer whose strained relationship to "Power" defines the book as it no doubt defined his life. Was he a communist? A collaborator? Or simply a man determined to make music despite the misfortune of circumstance?

Shostakovich is not an attractive hero, but he is a realistic one. One by one, he sacrifices his ideals in order to survive and to protect his family and his artistic integrity. (His family survives, but he wonders about his artistic integrity.)

The book is a marvelous study of Soviet oppression and psychological terror. The violence is not overt, but it is unsettling all the same. Read this one to compare and contrast with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. While I enjoyed the Towles’ story much more, maybe it’s better to be unsettled by the story of a real survivor of the Russian revolution than charmed by a fictional survivor’s story.

Monday, May 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman

How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is an informative and entertaining work by a British historian of social and domestic life. It is full of the little details that bring fuzzy impressions of how people actually lived back then into focus.

The book is well-organized to address Victorian life, using as its base the structure of the Victorian day. At each level of society, men, women, and children rose from bed, ate, dressed, worked, studied, and/or played, took care of their physical needs and their bodies, and finally, shut the door to their bedrooms. Goodman flavors the facts she’s gathered with insight from having tried living in Victorian shoes. Sometimes literally.

It is written in a conversational style and is easy to read. However, even though the organization allows it to move at a steady pace, there is no story, no narrative flow. Unfortunately, that means the book is pretty easy to put down and pick up again. So it took far too much time for me to get through it. (Which is only really a problem as far as keeping up my blogging pace.)

For anyone interested in Victorian daily life, this book is a fount of information. I got it from my library but am considering buying it for my shelf.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen

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

I’ve been nursing a horrible cold this week, so I spent as much time as I could under a blanket, reading. I just finished Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen. (Book one of a new series.)

A cozy historical mystery, the novel’s protagonist is Lady Helena, a young woman newly widowed. Her unfortunate husband, Justin, was a gentleman farmer many years her elder. Their marriage had been a happy one, and Helena is stunned and grieving. Justin died by drowning, trying to save a ram that had fallen into a river. At least, that’s the theory.

Helena is the youngest daughter in a large aristocratic family. Very large. It’s a bit difficult keeping them all straight in the opening chapters, but things fall into place fairly quickly. The main thing is that Helena is stronger in spirit than her older sisters and overbearing brother, the Earl of Broadmere, credit her with being. Although everyone has their opinion on what she should do next, she has her own ideas and searching for a replacement husband is not one of them.

With enough to do fending off her probably well-meaning but intrusive family, Helena is not particularly pleased when her husband’s physician, Armand Fortier, an attractive, self-assured Frenchman, presents himself at her door. After offering condolences, he states the real reason for his call. He believes Justin was murdered.

Helena doesn’t want to believe this and so, for a time, she simply doesn’t.

The novel does not proceed as a usual mystery. It’s more of a gentle family saga, with Helena trying to piece her life back together. In her youth, Helena had an interest in following in her mother’s footsteps as an herbalist and healer. But she lost interest when her first fiancĂ©, her cousin Daniel, died unexpectedly. Helena’s mother is now suffering from dementia, and Helena regrets the lost opportunity to learn from her. But she does have all her mother’s old journals. Reading through them, Helena learns a great deal about the woman her mother once was. But unearthing the past leads to shocking, painful truths about her family.

There’s a lot packed into the story–maybe a little too much. A lot of human foibles are crammed in as well as the usual suspects of sin and evil. But the main characters are thoughtful, caring people so I’d be glad to read more about them in book two. The budding romance with its hint of mystery is another reason to look forward to seeing them again.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I just read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down! I hadn’t heard of the book until I saw some buzz on my goodreads newsfeed that made me want to give it a try. It’s odd for me to read two contemporary novels so close together (see Every Note Played by Lisa Genova) but this one had a bit of a historical fiction flavor. The title character, Evelyn Hugo, was a movie star back in the 50s - 80s. (Yikes. I still have trouble accepting that the 80's were "a long time ago.") And this novel is her autobiographical tell-all.

Monique Grant is an up-and-coming journalist whose career feels stalled as a small-potatoes writer for the magazine Vivant. This is particularly galling because she recently chose career over her young marriage. (Her soon-to-be ex-husband chose his career too.) To her shock, and to the shock of her editor, the reclusive Evelyn Hugo has agreed to an exclusive interview with Vivant, but insists that Monique be her contact. Otherwise, no deal. Monique has no idea why.

Even more shocking, when Monique arrives at Evelyn’s home, the star jettisons the magazine interview ploy and explains she wants to tell her life story, warts and all. Given that Evelyn is as well known for having gone through seven husbands as she is for her award-winning performances and decades-spanning career, Monique can’t pass up the opportunity.

Monique has two pressing questions she wants answered. First, as an opener for her book: Who was Evelyn’s greatest love? The second question is a private one: Why Monique?

Evelyn is willing to answer, but not right away. And she has her reasons.

The story is engrossing, heart-breaking, and 100% believable. Even though Evelyn Hugo is not a real person, she very well could be. Navigating the treacherous waters of poverty, sexual exploitation, professional rivalries, and love – Evelyn Hugo is always in control, except when she’s not. She admits she has often been an awful person and eventually proves it to Monique. Nevertheless, she is an admirable heroine; even Monique is forced to admit it.

This riveting story is beautifully told. I’m going to have to look for more of Reid’s work.