Wednesday, December 30, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, ed. by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

 I don’t read many short story collections but made an exception for Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America.

This thoughtful collection, edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, shows slices of rural young adult life through short stories (prose and graphic art), poetry, and essays. They show the diversity, optimism, and love of place felt by young people living in small communities hours from big cities. The main message is that rural Americans are not stereotypes.

While targeted towards teens and young adults, the audience should not be limited to younger age groups. It’s a reassuring look into the minds of the next generation.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021

 My favorite reading challenge is the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, now hosted by The Intrepid Reader. I'm signing up for the Ancient History level, 25 historical novels to be read in 2021. 

Thank you to the Intrepid Reader for hosting!

Here are links to my 2021 reviews:

1. Death Comes to the Rectory by Catherine Lloyd

2. Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

4. A Lady's Formula for Love by Elizabeth Everett

5. The Bear Pit by S.G. Maclean

6. The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

7. The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

8. After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

9. Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

10. Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

11. Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

12. How to Train Your Earl by Amelia Grey

13. An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Diardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow

14. Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster

15. Book of Love by Erin Satie

16. The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

17. The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque

18. A Wicked Conceit by Anna Lee Huber

19. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

20. Ridgeline by Michael Punke

21. Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

22. A Betting Woman by Jenni L. Walsh

23. A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

24. Dangerous Lover by Mary Lancaster

25. A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

26. The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney

27. The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller

28. The Duke Who Loved Me by Jane Ashford

29. In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

30. Raphael: Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey

31. Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

32. Olav Audunsson. I. Vows by Sigrid Undset

33. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

34. New Grub Street by George Gissing

35. In All Good Faith by Liza Nash Taylor

36. An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley

37. The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

38. The Social Graces by Renee Rosen

39. Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce

40. Unmasking the Hero by Mary Lancaster

41. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

42. A Reckless Match by Kate Bateman

43. Miss Lattimore's Letter by Suzanne Allain

44. Night Came with Many Stars by Simon Van Booy

45. The Magician by Colm Toibin

46. Unmasking Deception by Mary Lancaster

47. The Woodcock by Richard Smyth

48. Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

49. Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

50. Unmasking Sin by Mary Lancaster

51. Olav Audunsson. II. Providence by Sigrid Undset

52. Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman


 It's been years since I signed up for reading challenges. A few years back, I overcommitted and found I was stressing over my reading and reviewing more than I was enjoying it. But I'm ready to dip my toe back in. I'm starting off with The European Reading Challenge, sponsored by Rose City Reader.

The goal is to read books set in different European countries or by different European authors. This should overlap pretty easily with historical fiction, so I'm shooting for the Five Star Deluxe Entourage level-- five or more books.

Now let's see if I can remember how to set up my sidebars to record my progress.

Happy 2021 everyone!

1. (England) The Bear Pit by S.G. Maclean

2. (Italy) Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

3. (France) Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley

4. (Portugal) The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque

5. (Norway) Olav Audunsson. I. Vows by Sigrid Undset

Saturday, December 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

 It’s not light Christmas reading, but Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards is a compelling psychological thriller that kept me turning pages. It’s the second book in the Rachel Savernake series. Since I recently read Gallows Court (book one), I thought I should keep going before I forgot all the details. 

Much like the first book, Mortmain Hall is multi-charactered and complex. The plot is held together by the protagonist/anti-hero, amateur detective Rachel Savernake, and her enthralled sidekick, crime reporter Jacob Flint.

In a roundabout way, Rachel and Jacob reunite after an unsavory murder trial. The obviously guilty man is suddenly cleared when his ridiculous alibi is supported by a high-ranking government official/war hero. Jacob is poking into the crime for his newspaper. Rachel is peripherally involved, since this particular murder is linked in some way she has not yet figured out to the murder of a man she was trying to help. (This is an impossible book to summarize. There are far too many murders and suspects. The trick is figuring out what they all have to do with each other.)

In the course of his investigation (during which Jacob is almost framed for murder), Jacob comes into contact with a female criminologist/author, Leonora Dobell, who has made a hobby and a career of re-examining miscarriages of justice. She asks him to take an invitation to Rachel.

Leonora is fascinated by “the perfect murder.” She invites three notorious people, accused of murder but exonerated, along with Rachel, to her country home, believing they all belong to some sort of club. Jacob sneaks along for the ride at Rachel’s invitation.

The pieces to the puzzle fall into place slowly. When two (or maybe three) more murders occur at the house party, Rachel is the one who finally figures everything out. The denouement takes place as an old-fashioned detective story reveal: all major players are summoned into one room while Rachel narrates the crime and names the criminal. Meanwhile, a violent storm rages outside. The drama of the final scene would probably play better in a movie. It was a bit overwrought on the page. However, the unfolding of the plot was very satisfying. Rachel is a brilliant detective and a cool-as-a-cucumber heroine. Poor Jacob is a bit of a useful bumbler, but charming after a fashion. The show really belongs to Rachel. It’ll be interesting to see where the author takes this series next.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Once Upon a Duke by Erica Ridley

 I had fun reading Forever Your Duke by Erica Ridley, so when I saw that Book One in the 12 Dukes of Christmas series was a kindle freebie, I downloaded it for a second light-hearted holiday Romance.

Once Upon a Duke introduces the northern England mountain town of Cressmouth (pronounced Christmas by the locals), the village where the spirit of Christmas lasts all year round.

Noelle Pratchett (the Christmasy cuteness does get a bit cloying) is a devoted resident of the town. Abandoned on the steps of Mr. Jacob Marlowe’s castle as a baby, Noelle has striven all her life to be useful so that she will belong, be needed, and not be abandoned again. She has taken on the position of clerk to the castle and is known for her organizational abilities. When Mr. Marlowe dies, and the whole village gathers for the reading of the will, Noelle helps to keep the village traditions running smoothly, even when an old flame arrives to turn her life upside down.

Benjamin Ward, the fifth duke of Silkridge, is Jacob Marlowe’s grandson. He learns of his grandfather’s death from his solicitor. Benjamin and his grandfather have long been estranged. Benjamin attributes that largely to the fact that his birth caused his mother’s death. His grandfather has never forgiven him for that. But more importantly, five years earlier, Marlowe invited him “home” to Cressmouth, then stole his most prized possession, a locket with a portrait of his mother. Benjamin plans to return for the reading of the will, claim the locket, and leave Cressmouth forever.

Benjamin has made his life one of duty, filling his role in Parliament with a vengeance. He has just one reservation about returning to Cressmouth: Noelle Pratchett. They had once been friends, until his visit five years earlier when he kissed her. Then his grandfather stole the locket and Benjamin fled Cressmouth without saying goodbye. That was all for the best, since he could never make a life with a nameless orphan. He’s a duke after all.

The locket is Benjamin’s only inheritance from his grandfather, but it comes with conditions. He has to finish the renovations on the castle’s aviary, install a partridge, and christen it with champagne. This means Benjamin can’t leave at once.

Naturally, during the course of his stay, he is thrown together with Noelle. Their feelings for one another reignite. 

This one was not as entertaining as Forever Your Duke. Benjamin is an unpleasant fellow for much of the book. Yes, he guards his heart closely since his parents both died and his grandfather treated him poorly. But he is a sour man living in a pity party. Noelle’s life situation was worse, but she is a ray of sunshine. Much of that, it turns out, is a need to please because of her own insecurity. I found myself growing impatient with them both. However, they do grow during the book and it achieves its happily-ever-after ending.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: All That I Have by Castle Freeman Jr.

 Many years ago, I somehow acquired two short works by Castle Freeman, Jr.: Go With Me and All That I Have.  I thoroughly enjoyed them both. I reviewed Go With Me. I’m not sure why I didn’t review All That I Have.

However, on Netgalley, I saw a new book offered, Children of the Valley, which is the third book in the Lucian Wing series. It turns out that book one was All That I Have. So, book three is now on my kindle queue, but before I can read it I had to re-read book one and chase down book two.  Book two is difficult to find, but I ordered it from the Book Depository and should have it sometime in mid-January! In the meantime, I re-read book one.

All That I Have
is narrated by a small-time rural Vermont county sheriff, Lucian Wing. Most of his job is small potatoes. He is an elected official and, as he states, most people want the sheriff to do his job, just not on them. So he mostly takes a laid-back approach that he learned from his mentor, the now-retired Sheriff Wingate.

Things get a bit rough when a Russian mafia boss buys a large gated property in one of the towns, visiting only rarely, but storing stuff there. Someone breaks in (most likely Sean Duke, a local delinquent) and steals a small safe. The Russians are angry. They send various goons to locate the safe and beat the hell out of anyone who may know where it is. They are internationally dangerous people, the likes of which the locals have never seen.

Sheriff Wing has to solve the crime, meaning locate the safe, even though he knows the Russians are up to no good. He knows Sean is the thief, but Sean is a local boy and Wing doesn’t want to come down too hard on him–or see him dead.

At the same time, Wing’s marriage is going through a slow-motion marital crisis. He and his wife love one another, but they communicate poorly. This is shown rather brilliantly through Wing’s eyes.

The novel is short, only 164 pages, but a lot of story is packed into those pages. The author does a wonderful job of creating Wing’s voice, showing his laconic dry humor and commonsense approach to sheriffing. I’m thrilled to rediscover this author and can’t wait for book two to arrive, so I can continue the series.

Monday, December 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Forever Your Duke by Erica Ridley

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

I haven’t read any of Erica Ridley’s historical romances before, but this holiday novella, Forever Your Duke, sounded like fun, and I was in the mood for something lighthearted and holiday themed. 

The Duke of Nottingvale owns a vacation home in Cressmouth, a mountain village that celebrates Christmas cheer year round. Its Christmas celebrations are famous, but the duke doesn’t have time to enjoy them. Weighed down by the responsibilities of being a duke, he holds yearly Christmas parties, which he also doesn’t have time to enjoy. This year, he is hosting a party that a bevy of young debutantes will attend, because he has to pick a wife–another duty. The young ladies have been chosen for their breeding, good looks, and suitability to be a duchess. One of the attendees is Lady Gertrude, an eighteen-year-old beauty whose debilitating shyness is her only flaw. She has no particular interest in the duke, but if he doesn’t choose her, her father will marry her off to an old lecher friend who has promised her father a piece of land in exchange.

Gertie is accompanied by a chaperone, her cousin, Miss Cynthia Louise. Cynthia is a thirty-year-old spinster, an orphan raised by her aunt. At her own coming out, twelve years earlier, Cynthia made very little impression on anyone. After six years of trying to attract a mate, playing by society’s rules, Cynthia decided enough was enough. She plays by her own rules now. She lives near Cressmouth and has made friends with the villagers, who call her by her given name. She plays billiards, swears, gambles, goes skiing, and generally has fun. She is not at all what the duke is looking for in a wife. And, although Cynthia is attracted to the duke, her aim is to match him up with her cousin, not win him for herself.

Over the course of a two-week house party, the duke and Cynthia flirt and court and fall in love.

The story is short and sweet. Cynthia is an amusing character and the duke is a nice guy. 

Forever Your Duke is the twelfth book in a series: The 12 Dukes of Christmas. That’s probably more Christmas dukes than I need to read, but I may look up a couple more!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Manuscript by Cathy Bonidan

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

I’ve said it before: I’m a sucker for a good epistolary novel. I also love books about books. So I was thrilled to be approved for The Lost Manuscript by Cathy Bonidan, translated by Emma Ramadam. 

Anne-Lise Briard is on vacation in a picturesque hotel on the French coast when she finds a manuscript in the drawer of the bedside table. A lover of literature, she reads it and is entranced, moved, and intrigued. There is an address tucked midway in the book, so she mails the manuscript back, unsure who might have written it, how long ago it was written, or how it could have ended up in the drawer. 

The manuscript finds its way back to the author, who mislaid it many years ago, gave up on his writing career, and got on with his life. He has no idea how it ended up in the drawer. To add to the mystery, he didn’t finish the novel. Someone else did. And he has no idea how that happened either.

Anne-Lise is not going to let it end there. She is a people person with remarkable powers of persuasion. She begins to retrace, backwards, the progress of the manuscript through the years. She finds the people who have touched it, who it has touched, all of whom have a story to tell.

The novel within the novel is a love story, an unfinished one, that has the power to reawaken love and life in its readers. (I’m glad that excerpts from the novel in question are not included, because they no doubt would have been a disappointment.) The characters who played a role in passing it on all become part of the network working to solve the mystery of the manuscript’s trail and, most importantly, to discover the identify of the second author.

It’s a charming story full of good people who appreciate what books can do. Yes, it’s corny and not quite believable, but it’s lovely entertainment.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

 Phew! I just finished a dense historical thriller, Gallows Court by Martin Edwards. Set in London in 1930, the novel takes us into the corrupt and perverse world of a cabal of London’s richest and most powerful men.

Rachel Savernake is a mysterious heiress, the daughter of a judge famed for harsh justice and for eventually going mad. Recently returned to London after years of isolation with her father, she emerged from seclusion to help Scotland Yard solve a brutal murder. 

The notoriety of that case attracted the attention of Jacob Flint, junior crime reporter for a sensationalist newspaper, The Clarion. The senior crime reporter had been looking into Savernake’s sleuthing when he was hit by a car and fatally injured. Flint takes over the investigation and becomes intrigued with Savernake. When a second, equally brutal murder occurs, Flint is convinced the heiress is somehow involved.

Rachel Savernake is a cold, calculating woman who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard, the police, and Jacob Flint. What is she up to?

There is a large cast of characters and the plotting requires close attention as the murders pile up and the motives become murkier and murkier. With so much going on, Flint is not the only one lost in the confusion. Determination to see the mystery solved pulled me along. The author ties it all together in a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.

Book two in the series, Mortmain Hall, was recently released and I want to get to it soon!

Monday, November 30, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke Meets His Match by Karen Tuft

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

The Duke Meets His Match by Karen Tuft is a clean Regency Romance with intelligent, interesting protagonists who navigate the path from mutual aversion to betrothal of convenience to love with admirable maturity and common sense.

George Kendall, Duke of Aylesham, is a prickly man whose work for the Crown, something to do with intelligence gathering during the fight against Napoleon, has kept him very busy. He knows he has to marry because he is the last of the ducal line. (Careful exploration by his secretary has located the next in line: a criminal who was transported to Australia). He has had two previous courtships, one that ended disastrously and one that never really got off the ground. However, when the prince (Prinny) summons him to announce he is being awarded the gift of a German heiress to wed, George is horrified. He has no interest in being manipulated by the prince and is under no illusions that the German princess will be any sort of prize. So he tells the prince that he is already betrothed and about to be wed. When the prince asks for the name of his intended, the first name he thinks of pops out of his mouth.

Miss Susan Jennings, daughter of a viscount, is a blue-stocking on her way to spinsterhood. She had one failed near-betrothal when she first came out, but that was many years ago. A studious young woman whose biggest dread is marrying an intellectual inferior, Susan is quite content to be a doting aunt and unmarried daughter. One year earlier, she had an unpleasant encounter with the haughty Duke of Aylesham, and she recently made his acquaintance again, equally unpleasantly, at a London party she attended reluctantly. However, they made impressions on one another, evidenced by the fact that it was her name that popped from his mouth.

George sees no option but to propose to Susan. Naturally, she rejects him out of hand. But when he explains the situation, she reconsiders. 

The novel follows the course of their uneasy courtship. Susan has ample opportunity to show what strong stuff she is made of. George comes to admire her. George has opportunity to show what a reasonable and thoughtful man he can be. Susan comes to understand him better. They fall in love.

The plot is a little strained, but the hero and heroine are sympathetic and make a convincing pair. Recommended for those who like intelligent protagonists and less steamy, more romantic Romance.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Wedding by Patrick Taylor

When I want a simple, heartwarming, non-taxing, holiday read, or anytime I want something reliably entertaining with subdued-to-absent conflict, I turn to Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country series. I’m up to Book 7: An Irish Country Wedding

Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, the sympathetic general practitioner in fictional Ballybucklebo,  is preparing to finally wed the sweetheart from his long-ago medical school days, Kitty O’Halloran. They are very much in love and it should be smooth sailing for them, but there are a few hiccups.

First, O’Reilly’s assistant and would-be new partner, Dr. Barry Laverty, is having second thoughts about small-town general practice. He hates that he has to send every complicated case to the big city hospital for treatment. He has a particular knack for obstetrics, so has signed on to do a fellowship in the city, with the understanding that he has a few months to make up his mind about returning to Ballybucklebo.

The second potential problem is that O’Reilly’s long-standing housekeeper and cook, Kinky Kincaid, is on the defensive, worried that she will be replaced by the new wife. Since Kitty O’Halloran is a nurse who has no intention of quitting her job, Kinky’s place is secure, but she has trouble believing that. And then, she is stricken with a strangulated hernia, requiring a prolonged hospital stay and an even longer recuperation period, which makes her even more nervous about losing her place. O’Reilly, Laverty, and O’Halloran have to convince her she’s indispensable.

Along the way, there are the usual ups and downs amongst the townspeople. Various ailments, some mild, some life-threatening, need to be attended to. And there are a variety of social problems--the rich getting richer and the poor getting taken advantage of--that O’Reilly and, increasingly, Laverty, take a hand in sorting out or ameliorating.

It’s a community of decent people, full of affection for one another, living their lives. The books are a bit old-fashioned and a little bit corny, but that was perfect for a Thanksgiving read.

Friday, November 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Flirtation and Folly (A Season in London: Book 1) by Elizabeth Rasche

Flirtation and Folly (A Season in London: Book 1) by Elizabeth Rasche is an enjoyable and unusual Regency Romance. 

The bare bones of the plot seem fairly commonplace. Marianne Mowbrey, the eldest daughter of the large brood of a country rector and his ineffectual wife, is given the opportunity for a London Season and is determined to make the most of it. (The companion of her exceptionally wealthy Aunt Harriet is away and ailing, and Harriet has requested the company of one of her nieces for a while.) After some missteps and flirtations with the wrong men, Marianne realizes the right man has been there all along.

Nothing new there. But Marianne is not your usual Romance heroine. She isn’t looking for a good match to rescue her family but rather to escape them. She’s tired of taking care of her younger siblings and having to be the family drudge. In fact, her thoughts of them are full of  resentment, not fondness. Her nearest sister, Belinda, is also the recipient of an invitation to London by a wealthy benefactress, and Marianne resents that, too. Belinda is the carefree, charming beauty of the family, and Marianne’s jealousy of her has simmered for so long that it frequently boils over.

Marianne is not a particularly good judge of character. She’s smart but not clever. And her looks are merely average. All she has going for her, really, is that she’s nice, which in vicious ton circles is more of a handicap than an asset.

Marianne’s provincial worldview has been knocked off kilter by the novels she’s read. (She seems particularly addicted to romances.) She is convinced that her true self is that of a romance heroine. (Cute bit of self-referential theme.) Given the opportunity, she expects she will marvelously, miraculously, rise to the occasion and become the toast of the ton.

This doesn’t happen. The weird thing about this novel is that it is unexpectedly realistic. It’s more of a story of a girl coming to grips with her true self than it is a fluffy romance.

There is, of course, a romance embedded in the story. The identity of the hero becomes clear pretty quickly, though not to Marianne. He, too, seems a bit too ordinary to play the role of male protagonist in a storybook. He’s rich, but  he worked for his money. He’s attractive enough but doesn’t turn heads. And his charm lies in his niceness rather than in witty flirtation. He’s not in London looking for a wife, but rather to reclaim, somehow, the family estate that slipped through his father’s fingers. And he has some personality flaws of his own.

Like all good Romances, there is a happily-ever-after ending that the reader can see coming. But on the way to it, this novel has more than the usual depth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O'Farrell

I told myself no more plague books. But I’ve been hearing so much hype about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell that I had to read it. This book is a beautifully written historical novel based on the family of William Shakespeare. It centers on his rather unearthly wife, Agnes, and their children, the eldest, Susanna, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. 

The early lives of William and Agnes are difficult, shaped by violence and loss. Their courtship is furtive, not welcomed by either family, and their marriage is finagled by the pair (primarily instigated by Agnes) with a pre-marital pregnancy. They are happy in their marriage but not necessarily in their lives. William is sinking into depression as he envisions the drudgery of following in his father’s footsteps as a glove maker. Agnes takes charge again, finagling a way to see him off to London, where he will make his name.

Unfortunately, while he is gone, the plague comes to Stratford, sickening first Judith and then Hamnet. The Shakespeares have to adapt to the loss of Hamnet, a loss which leads to the near disintegration of the family.

It’s a difficult book to read because the author does such an incredible job of making grief real. The focus is not on the plague’s widening circles of death and the universal fear it causes, as was the case in other novels I’ve read recently. Rather, this is an intimate look at the loss of one person and how it affects those around him. It’s something to think about as the overwhelming death tolls from our own era’s plague seem to become more about statistical losses than about individual lives gone. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander

Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander is a conventional-type biography (first published in 2008 and re-released this spring) of an unconventional Baltimore woman in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Mary was the daughter of B&O railroad tycoon, John Work Garrett. A typically ruthless “robber baron,” Garrett amassed a fortune and became one of the leading citizens of the city. During the Civil War, when Baltimore tottered on the edge of the North/South divide, Garrett threw in with Lincoln despite the Southern sympathies of many in his family, largely because he believed it was in his economic interest (and Baltimore’s) to do so.

John Garrett was no philanthropist, but he was a good friend of both George Peabody and Johns Hopkins, exceedingly wealthy Baltimoreans who left huge bequests to found institutions in the city after their deaths. Mary Garrett, who served as her father’s secretary, was witness to this large scale philanthropy and absorbed its lessons.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her father’s increasing dependence upon her business acumen, Mary was not allowed to pursue her own interests or to marry. Although her brothers were given significant roles in the family companies and became millionaires, Mary was given only a “small” allowance and her expenditures had to be approved. This was painfully frustrating for a woman who possessed a better head for finance than either of her brothers.

However, many of the restrictions placed upon her disappeared after her father’s death, when she received roughly a third of the family fortune.

Unfortunately for the family’s long-term relationships, the bequests were all intertwined and caught up in the value of the railroad stock. This led, down the road, to a falling out between the siblings and especially between Mary and her sisters-in-law.

Mary’s share, whether or not she had been cheated out of a significant sum by her brothers’ accounting irregularities, was substantial, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country. As she was unmarried, the money remained hers to control. Mary was determined to use it to help women.

To that end, with the help of four close female friends, she established a prep school for girls in Baltimore. Then she turned her attentions to the newly-established Johns Hopkins Hospital and University. Part of the bequest of her father’s friend Hopkins was supposed to establish a medical school in conjunction with the university. However, the Johns Hopkins endowment was also tied up in B&O stock. When the railroad’s fortunes declined, the money for the university began to run out. The medical school was hopelessly behind schedule and seemed doomed to fail.

Mary Garrett is best remembered for her program of “coercive philanthropy.” She spearheaded fund-raising for the medical school, eventually contributing nearly the entire sum herself, but set conditions on the gift. The main condition was that women must be admitted on the same basis as men. There were medical colleges for women at the time, but they were recognized to have inferior resources to those of medical schools for men. Coeducation for physicians was a practically heretical ideal, but Mary was determined to push for it.

The biography does a wonderful job of demonstrating just what an uphill battle it was to found the Johns Hopkins Medical School on a co-educational principle. 

The book also shows aspects of Mary’s personal life: her circle of friends, her falling out with her family, her health issues. She was an intensely private person, so these parts of her life are less well fleshed out than her more public philanthropies.

Mary Garrett was, in any case, a fascinating woman, and this well-researched biography is highly recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: How to Fool a Duke by Mary Lancaster and Violetta Rand

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

How to Fool a Duke (The Husband Dilemma, Book 1) by Mary Lancaster and Violetta Rand is a short and sweet Regency Romance. 

Lady Sarah Drimmen is a guest at the hideaway castle/estate of Lady Whitmore, a mysterious older woman of great wealth and aristocratic bearing who has established a community of artistic young women who, for one reason or another, need to withdraw from society for a while. Sarah’s reason is, on the surface, straightforward. Two years earlier, a betrothal arranged by her parents fell through when the young duke rejected her after their first meeting. She was only sixteen at the time, but severely hurt. Her parents’ reaction to her failure stung as much as the duke’s rejection. 

Sarah is a talented singer. Very talented. So she retreated to the Whitmore estate to concentrate on developing her voice under the direction of a master teacher. Her parents believe she’s attending something more along the lines of a finishing school, to pick up the polish she so sorely needs if she’s ever going to attract a suitable husband.

In fact, Sarah’s plans are more complex. She wants the polish and musical skill to make an impression upon the ton, but primarily in order to capture the heart of the duke so that she can reject him this time.

The duke of Vexen (Leonard) is a patron of the arts, so he is more than happy to be summoned to the Whitmore estate for an art show as its guest of honor, even though he has never heard of the place before. From the moment he arrives, and happens upon the loveliest girl he has ever seen singing with the voice of an angel, he is hooked. He thinks he has seen her somewhere before, but can’t quite place the memory. Made aware that she is a lady of gentle birth, he understands that he can’t trifle with her, but he pursues her nevertheless. The second time he hears her sing, he remembers where they met. She was the rambunctious child throwing apples at him from a tree when he went to meet the woman he was supposed to marry. He climbed up next to her, threw a few apples himself, and was charmed. But he could not, in good conscience, marry a child. He had no idea she would be devastated by the rejection he thought was honorable. And he had no clue that her mother had thrown it in her face that he had rejected her as an unsuitable hoyden.

He can’t figure out why she doesn’t remember him. Not until he kisses her and she rejects his attentions, winning her revenge.

Fortunately, Lady Whitmore is following the progress of the relationship and sets him back on track. Sarah is already regretting her plot. 

The relationship should be in for smooth sailing, except that one of the duke’s ex-mistresses has arrived for the art show. A widow, she wants to be a duchess, and will stop at nothing to snare Vexen. Also, Lady Whitmore is hiding a rather significant secret herself.

This pleasant Romance with likable protagonists, a sweet omniscient “guardian angel,” and a nasty antagonist is a fine addition to the genre.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Wedding by Dorothy West

 It’s nearly time for our (now virtual) history/historical fiction book group meeting. Our current choice is The Wedding by Dorothy West. 

West is a twentieth-century American author and journalist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. Her best known work is The Living is Easy, a novel that I admired but didn’t particularly like because of the awfulness of the protagonist. I thought West had written more novels, but she was more of a short story writer and journalist. Her only other novel, which wasn’t published until 1995, is The Wedding.

The Wedding
is set among a community of upper middle class Black professional elites living (or summering) in Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s.  The novel takes place in the days preceding the wedding of the youngest daughter of the Coles, a prominent couple whose marriage of convenience is unraveling after years of infidelity. The narrator casts back in time to describe the lives of generations of Coles and Shelbys, the hard work and sacrifice that brought the current generation to the point of professional success and social respectability. Along the way, the families deal with racism, classism, and “colorism.”

The issues are complex. The family dynamics are painful. There are few characters to admire: most are either pitiable or awful. The sketches of the individual life stories are interesting, but it takes awhile for the story to pull together as a whole. Once it does, it barrels towards a conclusion that I had not seen coming. Although initially I found it slow going, more intent on its message than its plot, by the end it was riveting. The tragic ending was weirdly satisfying. I’m interested to see how our group’s discussion goes.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Sex and Sexuality in Georgian Britain by Mike Rendell

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

Sex and Sexuality in Georgian Britain
by Mike Rendell is a look at sex, the sex trade, and attitudes about sex in the 1700s in Britain. It starts off with presenting the prevalence of prostitution, particularly in London, and defines the strata of prostitutes from the lowliest “bunters” and “bulk mongers” to the highest and priciest courtesans. Mini-biographies of the best known courtesans are given.  There is also a nod to the rampant gonorrhea and syphilis during these times. The book provides anecdotes to show how people had sex (primarily how the rich and titled did), how they dealt with unwanted pregnancy and with infertility, and how women and the poor were exploited. There are chapters on homosexuality, flagellation, and the emergence of art and literature focused on sex.

In short, the book delivers on what the title indicates it will be about. There are interesting facts and anecdotes in the text. But, although it was organized into chapters, it read as a string of material that didn’t hold together particularly well. There was not enough historical context to explain why any of it was particular to Georgian Britain. There was no thoughtful analysis of the information. In the end, I felt as though I had just read a long list.

Friday, October 23, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Bonjour, Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

One of the books I wanted to read after Au Revoir, Tristesse, was the main book that inspired Viv Groskop: Bonjour, Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. A novella written by the seventeen-year-old Sagan, it launched the career of the author and the cult of personality surrounding her.

The protagonist, Cécile, is a seventeen-year-old girl living with her widowed father after a stint in a convent school. He is a shallow skirt-chaser trying to hold onto his own youth. He does love his daughter, but is happy to have her follow in his carefree, self-indulgent footsteps. They embark on a two-month summer vacation in a rented villa on the Mediterranean, along with her father’s current mistress, a young woman named Elsa. 

Things are progressing happily and lazily. Cécile meets a young law student named Cyril who is summering in a nearby villa, who teaches her to sail. He’s rather an upright young man, but they have a strong physical attraction that grows as time goes on. They eventually become lovers.

Things change abruptly with the arrival of Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s deceased mother, who is organized, morally strict, and conventional. It surprises Cécile to discover the woman is in love with her footloose father. The woman’s calm, measured, grown-up behavior, along with her mature beauty, catch the father’s attention. Before long, he transfers his affection from Elsa to Anne. This is not out of character for him, since he never sticks with one woman for long. But what is out of character is the sudden announcement that he is going to marry Anne.

Cécile is horrified. She doesn’t want the dull, conventional life that she and her father will be doomed to live as “Anne’s husband” and “Anne’s step-daughter.” Even though she does admire Anne and, at times, appreciates the woman’s goodness and forebearance, Cécile doesn’t want her coming between her and her father. She doesn’t want to live a conventional life, and can’t believe her father would be happy either. So, Cécile sets out to sabotage the relationship. She works to bring Elsa back into the picture, knowing her father will inevitably cheat on Anne. 

While it’s tempting to see Cécile as a horrid, spoiled, jealous child – which she is – she also comes across as pitiable. The story is seen from Cécile’s point of view, which is full of contradictory emotions and confusion. Her actions stem from an emotional stuntedness and an adolescent narrowness of focus. The universe revolves around Cécile. She revels in her power and is terrified by it. She regrets the outcome she engineers even as she continues to press for it. Throw in an element of Fate, and the results are even worse than Cécile plotted. She will move on, but she won’t ever be able to forget what happened, or to return to the unencumbered “happiness” of her previous life.

This is a very quick, straight-forward read with surprising depth.

Monday, October 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

 I can’t have a Regency Romance binge without including a novel by Georgette Heyer. This time, I chose Arabella.

Arabella Tallant is the eldest daughter of The Reverend Henry Tallant, a second son and hard-working vicar in northern England. The vicar and his wife are blessed with eight children. They are gentry and, while not exactly impoverished, eight children is too many to launch into society. Therefore, Mrs. Tallant has pinned her hopes on Arabella. If she marries well, she can help bring out her sisters and support her brothers’ careers. Mrs. Tallant’s old friend, Lady Bridlington, is Arabella’s godmother and has agreed to sponsor her debut in London during the Season.

Arabella is a sensible girl, fully aware that the family’s fortunes are dependent upon her making a good match. She’s excited by the opportunity but a little unnerved by all it entails. 

She is sent off to London with a chaperone. The journey will take several days, but it’s an adventure to Arabella. She’s enjoying herself until her coach breaks down. It’s cold and rainy and her chaperone has taken a chill. Rather than await the arrival of a rental coach from the next town, which will take hours, Arabella insists on seeking succor at a house she sees close by. Her father has taken in travelers in similar positions so she sees nothing untoward in the imposition.

The owner of the house is Mr. Robert Beaumaris, a “Nonpareil,” fabulously wealthy and a favorite of the ton. He is single and thus is constantly under siege by marriageable girls and matchmaking mothers. He assumes Arabella is another girl laying a trap for him and gives voice to the disparaging assumption to his companion, a charming young lord, when he thinks she’s out of earshot. She is not.

Infuriated, Arabella accepts his reluctant dinner invitation, during which she charms the young lord but gently snubs Beaumaris. This intrigues him since he’s never been snubbed. She also pretends to be a wealthy heiress escaping to London because she’s tired of the local fortune-hunters pursuing her. She wants to be in a place where no one knows of her wealth. (This is important for the plot, but for me, it was the weakest part of the story. She didn’t have to lie about an inheritance to make her snub of Beaumaris effective. It was a bit too contrived.)

At any rate, she reaches London. Her godmother sets about introducing her around. One of the men Lady Bridlington hopes will deign to notice Arabella is Mr. Beaumaris. It turns out that the man is so much in fashion that having him accept an invitation will make any party an instant success. If he will but pay a few moments attention to a girl, her position is immediately elevated. Beaumaris does all this AND takes her out driving. Arabella shortly become the most sought-after debutante of the Season. Unfortunately, Arabella learns her popularity also has something to do with rumors of her wealth, a rumor that she inadvertently started. This thwarts any chance of eventual success because any suitor will eventually find out she has no fortune.

Also, Lady Bridlington warns her not to take Beaumaris’ attention seriously. The man is a rake. And he is out of her league. Arabella takes the warning to heart.

Beaumaris is not exactly pursuing her. He is amusing himself with ensuring her success. At least, that’s what he tells himself. But he has guessed that she isn’t wealthy and he’s curious how she’ll extricate herself from the lie. He’s enchanted by her wholesomeness and by the fact that she is not taken in by his charm. She actually brushes him off!

Things take a turn for the serious when Arabella discovers some of the disadvantaged people (and animals) in London and refuses to look the other way. First she rescues a young chimney sweep and second, a mongrel dog, each time relying on Beaumaris to find places for them after her initial altruism runs up against reality. At this point, he falls hard for her. To his dismay, even though he believes she might feel the same, she won’t trust him enough to confess her original lie. Tangled in her own web, she refuses his proposal.

Things eventually sort out. That is, Beaumaris sorts them out. He is one of those superheroes of Regency Romance who is able to fix all problems by virtue of his good sense, steadiness of character, and gobs of money. And Arabella is the innocence and light he has been missing without realizing it until he finds it.

The story is sweet and fun. There is entertaining light banter. It’s all very innocent. Even Arabella’s brother’s descent into vice is easily remedied and works to good purpose. It’s silliness, but Heyer’s novels are like comfort food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Au Revoir, Tristesse. Lessons on Happiness from French Literature by Viv Groskop

Au Revoir, Tristesse. Lessons on Happiness from French Literature by Viv Groskop grabbed my interest when I saw the title. Surely, I thought, this must be ironic. The last place I would go for happiness lessons would be French literature. 

But the author is in earnest. The book is a guided stroll through some of the best known French novels with an explanation of what each teaches about different facets of happiness.

Viv Groskop is an Englishwoman who yearned, from a young age, to be French. The book is part memoir, as she explains her youthful love affair with the French language, literature, and culture, while looking back at it from a more mature perspective. Along the way, she introduces the reader to a dozen novels (some/many of which are rather depressing or alienating in the main) picking out the silver linings to demonstrate a happy message contained within. It’s a refreshing outlook. Moreover, it made me want to delve into a couple of novels I’ve never read and re-read a couple that I have.

Groskop is a journalist and comedian, so the writing style is light-hearted and comic. It can get to be a bit too much, as the author drives home, in each chapter, how absorbed she was in her project to become French before she realized that was impossible, and, by the way, she can speak French really, really well. But that’s nit-picky on my part, and probably just jealousy because I can’t.

In short, this is a fun book about books.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 Emma Donoghue writes beautiful novels with unforgettable characters of remarkable depth. But they are depressing books. The Pull of the Stars, the newest release is an immersive look into the life of a nurse in Dublin in 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic, toward the end of World War I. (If you think things are bad now—and they are—these characters are going through worse.)

Julia Power is a single woman, turning thirty, living in a small apartment with her younger brother who returned from the war unable to speak. While he takes care of the home, she goes to work each day in the Maternity/Fever ward of the hospital. This is a tiny closet of a room for the lying-in of pregnant patients with the flu.

There are not enough doctors or nurses to go around, and Julia finds herself placed in charge of the ward when one of her superiors sickens. She has three critical patients to care for over the course of her next twelve-hour shift. When she asks for help, a volunteer is assigned to her, Bridie Sweeney, a twenty-two-ish young woman who was orphaned and brought up by nuns. Remarkably, the girl is good-natured and thrilled with the chance to work in the maternity ward. She learns quickly, doesn’t complain, and is gentle with the patients. Julia finds herself fascinated by and drawn to Bridie. Over the course of the next couple of days, Julia and the reader learn what a horrific upbringing Bridie had.

Obstetricians are also in short supply. A woman doctor has been hired to help out, Dr. Kathleen Lynn. Dr. Lynn is a Rebel who took place in an armed uprising against the government months earlier and spent time in prison. Rumored to be continuing her rebellious activities, Dr. Lynn is being hunted by the police. Julia is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. All she knows is that the uprising was violent and people died. However, after talking with Dr. Lynn, she comes to understand the viewpoint of the Rebels. While she does not condone the violence, she admires Dr. Lynn’s courage and agrees with the goals.

As Julia cares for the changing roster of patients in her care, she calls upon every bit of experience she’s had and knowledge she has gleaned from watching others, to save the few lives that she can. The descriptions of difficult labors and of some subsequent deaths are not for the faint-hearted. Donoghue does not shy away from graphic details. It makes for gripping, heart-wrenching reading.

It’s difficult to read yet another pandemic/plague book, one that is also saturated with economic injustice and political turmoil. There are a couple of bright spots and a hint of hopefulness, but The Pull of the Stars left me thinking, sadly, that we haven’t made much progress in the last one hundred years.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Footman and I by Valerie Bowman

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

I’ve been bingeing on historical romance. The latest is The Footman and I by Valerie Bowman (the first book in The Footmen’s Club Trilogy.)

The premise is that four gentlemen friends getting drunk together one evening make a pact to help one of them, Lucas Drake, the Earl of Kendall, find a bride. Lucas had previously been engaged, but the woman threw him over for a man with what she thought would be a greater title.  Then Lucas’s elder brother died and he became an earl. Now he needs a wife but wants someone who loves him for himself, not for his wealth and title.

In order to find such a lady, his three friends decide that one (who is married) will host a house party, invite a number of young debutantes, and let the others attend disguised as footmen. That will give Lucas a chance to observe the ladies to see how they treat servants. (It’s unclear how that will show Lucas that they aren’t interested in his title if they ever do meet him as earl, but at least he’ll see if they are nice people.) His friends make side bets on who can maintain their disguises the longest.

Miss Frances Wharton, the daughter of a baron who has gambled away the family fortune, will be attending the house party against her will. Frances finds members of the ton to be dull and arrogant. Moreover, her mother is determined to see her matched with an old bachelor who is among the dullest and most arrogant of all the gentlemen she has met. However, he’s willing to take her (buy her) because she’s young and pretty.

Frances is not interested in the things most debutantes care about. Her interest is politics, particularly an Employment Bill sponsored by the odious Earl of Kendall, whom she has never met but despises by reputation.

On the first day of the house party, Frances and Lucas (the footman) meet while she is trying to evade her middle-aged suitor. It is love at first sight. They engage in rather more conversation than ladies and servants are likely to do, and then start meeting in secret in the library over the next few days. Conversation focuses on politics, but they engage in more than conversation. 

The premise is a bit silly. The protagonists behave in ways that seem very farfetched from the get-go. Some of the conversations are strained. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining romp and I find myself curious to know what romances are in store for the other two false footmen.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Misleading the Duke by A.S. Fenichel

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

Misleading the Duke by A.S. Fenichel has a beautiful, original cover and a fun premise. It’s the second book in the Wallflowers of West Lane Regency Romance series based on four strong women who rebelled against society and authority and who were sent to Wormbattle finishing school by their frustrated parents. There, they bonded, taking on the name of the Wallflowers.

This book works as a standalone, but I do think reading book one first would have helped me get my bearings. Backstory was provided, but it seemed that whatever it was that set the protagonists off on the wrong foot had been presented in the first book even though it belonged more to this story. As it is, they enter this novel behaving badly toward one another and it takes awhile to get to like them as characters.

Nicholas Ellsworth is a duke and a spy. His past is dark and murky, but now he wants to retire and settle into the dukedom he has inherited. He knows he needs to marry and is content with the arrangement made to wed Lady Faith Landon, one of the Wallflowers. She, however, is less content to marry a man she’s never met; apparently, the previous book had to do with the lengths she went to in order to find out what kind of man he was. He was not happy to be spied upon, and decided he didn’t want to marry her. Being a gentleman, he apparently was waiting for her to “cry off.”

As this book opens, he’s still waiting and she still wants to get to know him. He’s grumpy and she’s devious, arranging to capture him alone for a week in a friend’s country home. (This bit of plotting was rather farfetched, but it set the rest in motion.)

Nick’s past comes back to haunt him, threatening not just the budding relationship but also their lives. The book is heavily weighted with graphic violence, more so than sex, which is unusual for a Romance. This allows Faith to show what she’s made of. (Nick, too.) Love comes quickly to the pair, but it takes them a while to believe that the other feels the same way.

The friendship between the four women is one of the strongest parts of the book, and it will be interesting to see how the other three fare in the world of Romance. I suspect this will end up not being my favorite book in the series.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Love According to Lily by Julianne Maclean

 Things are pretty depressing in the world right now.  Lately, even my reading has been more serious. I needed some historical romance for the pure escapism.

Many years ago, I never read category romance, although I certainly read historical love stories. But when I did decide to sample the historical romance genre, I found the stories, for the most part, to be entertaining, quick, and light-hearted fun. One of the first books I read was Love According to Lily by Julianne Maclean. It made me a convert. I’ve often wanted to go back and re-read it now that I’ve read so much more of the genre, to see if it still struck me as unique, but it had gone out of print and I couldn’t find it.  About a month ago, I thought of it again, and discovered that it would be re-released. I was so excited I pre-ordered it for my kindle. 

Lady Lily Langdon is the twenty-one-year-old sister of a duke who has been in love with her older brother’s best friend since she was a child. The friend, Edward, Earl of Whitby, is twelve years older and is known to be a terrible rake. However, Lily remembers fondly the kind, playful way he treated her when she was young. Also, when she was not so young, she stupidly ran off with a Frenchman, and Whitby was one of her rescuers (along with her brother.) Unfortunately, Whitby has never thought of Lily as anything but his friend’s baby sister.

Lily needs to move on. A potential suitor has come to a shooting party at her brother’s estate and Lily’s mother is encouraging the match. Complicating the issue, Whitby will be there too.  Lily’s sister-in-law, who sees where Lily’s heart lies, tells her to flirt openly with Whitby to show him she’s no longer a child and that she’s interested in him.

Under normal circumstances, this likely would not have worked. But this party is different. Whitby arrives ill and grows increasingly ill as the weekend progresses. It appears he has the same thing that killed his father, Hodgkin’s disease. Not only is he likely dying, but dying without heir, leaving his sister in the clutches of a cousin who is very bad news.

Lily spends time caring for him while he’s sick and feverish. It occurs to her and to Whitby’s sister that there is time for a wedding and quick impregnation. So Lily sets about seducing Whitby.

How well does this plot stand up to a re-reading? Frankly, it’s a bit weird.

The author goes to great, great pains to show that Lily is no longer a child. A twelve-year age difference is not insurmountable, particularly back then. And there are plenty of romances that show the woman as the instigator. Her particularly aggressive nature, while he is in bed likely dying, is more the weird thing. I couldn’t help but think if the roles were reversed, it would come across as horrifying.

However, the book runs the gamut of emotion, from long unrequited love, to intense passion, to grief, fear, and painful regret. Whitby’s illness adds another dimension to the story. While I don’t think I’ll be reading this a third time, I’m glad to have had the chance to read it twice.

Monday, September 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

 My historical fiction book group met virtually this weekend. The book we read was Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is a wonderful writer. I loved The Secret Chord. I was a bit hesitant to read another plague book just now. To Calais, In Ordinary Times by James Meek was such an extraordinary read that I thought, “That’s enough plague.”

However, I dove in and was captivated from the start. Anna Frith is a young widow with two very young children living in a small English mining village in 1666. Her husband died in a mining accident. Her father is a violent drunk. She has to fend for herself. She keeps sheep and works as a housemaid for the Rector and his wife, and also helps serve at the manor of the local gentry, the Bradfords. The Rector’s wife, Elinor, is a saint of a woman, who sees Anna’s intelligence and teaches her to read and allows her to dream.

Everything changes when a traveling tailor comes to the village and boards at Anna’s house. He brings light and laughter into the cottage, as well as hope of a new love. But before they can act on their attraction, he receives a shipment of cloth from London and sets to work making clothes. Soon, he falls ill with the plague. Although his dying plea to Anna is that she “burn everything,” it is impossible for her to carry through. People want the bits and pieces of clothing they paid for. Before long, plague is racing through the town.

The rector, Michael Mompellion, preaches to the village about sacrificial love. He says they should quarantine rather than flee, which would carry the plague far beyond the village. His flock agrees, except for the lord and his family who think themselves too important to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Over the next year, half of the town dies of the plague, directly or indirectly. Anna is witness to all the humanity and inhumanity of the people she has known all her life. She draws closer to Elinor as together they try to bring comfort and healing to the dying, while Michael tends to the practical and spiritual needs of his charges. But things keep going from bad to worse.

Anna is an inspiring character: clear-eyed, generous, compassionate, and imperfect. Because of Anna, the book is hopeful rather than depressing. Only the epilogue didn’t quite fit. It did wrap things up neatly for Anna, but seemed far-fetched after the gritty realism of her life in her village. However, despite my dissatisfaction with the epilogue, I would recommend Year of Wonders. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser

 Having been reminded of my spree of middle-aged male mid-life crisis books, I decided to read The Promise of Elsewhere: A novel by Brad Leithauser.

(An aside, why are so many novels stamped with the subtitle: “----:a novel”? )

This middle-aged protagonist, Louie Hake, is in his forties, which seems too young to be middle-aged, but his mid-life crisis is significant. He is divorcing for the second time. His wife was caught (very publicly) having an affair and ran off with her lover. Louie is an art history professor at a small liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, so he spends a good deal of his professional life explaining that he does not teach at the University of Michigan.

He is, at the same time, arrogant about his intellectualism and insecure about being a fraud. He’s also bipolar and has synesthesia. Finally, he has just received a diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease. He’s slowly going blind. So there’s a lot going on in his head.

As a way to escape from his life for awhile, he submits a plan to his department chair for a course on four great architectural masterpieces: the Pantheon in Rome, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. He embarks on a journey to see them all. However, he gets stalled in Rome, then side-tracked to London, then side-tracked again to Greenland. Along the way, he decides to stop taking his lithium, with predictable results. He meets and spends time with a few strangers, also on journeys of self-discovery, and all their stories come out bit by bit.

Louie’s life is a mess. He’s not a likeable character or an unlikeable one. He’s just a mess, bumbling along, self-absorbed but desperate for connection. The book is sprinkled with little insights into the human condition. And many of Louie’s rants and uncharitable thoughts are funny. But in the end, there isn’t much point to Louie’s grand journey and I don’t see that there has been any real growth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Anxious People: A novel by Fredrik Backman

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

Way back in time, I read a series of books about middle-aged men who suffer a loss of some kind and then meet someone or someones new and have a sort-of rebirth. In the midst of this spate, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and enjoyed it. So I requested Backman’s latest,  Anxious People: A novel, from Netgalley and was fortunate to have the request approved.

This is a feel-good book with quirky characters who are thrown together on the fateful day when a desperate person attempts a bank robbery, fails, and flees the scene only to stumble upon an apartment viewing, inadvertently turning the crime into a hostage crisis.

The crime(s) are handled by two small-town policemen, who happen to be father and son. The hostages include a retired couple who have taken to flipping apartments as projects, a young couple about to become parents, an elderly woman ostensibly looking for a place for her daughter while waiting for her husband to park the car, an obnoxious, hard-nosed banker whose hobby is to go to open houses to see how the other half lives, an amateur actor, and the real estate agent. We get to know these people in part through the interviews with the police and in part by their interactions with one another. They are kind-hearted odd ducks, all carrying baggage of one kind or another.

The plot is an unraveling of the failed robbery/hostage crisis as the police try to determine, after the fact, what happened to the perpetrator, who somehow vanished from the scene. There are surprises galore, snippets of wisdom, and a good dose of humor throughout.

Reading this novel was a delightful way to spend a few hours.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 What a stunning writer Elena Ferrante is. Her Neopolitan Quartet left me floored. Her newly released novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is likewise extraordinary.

I don’t know how she does it. Plot-wise, this is a contemporary “dysfunctional family” book and I hate those. Point-of-view-wise, we are in the head (deeply, deeply in the head) of an adolescent girl from ages 12-15, who is full of tween-to-young-teenager angst. (Bleh.) And yet, from the opening pages, I was completely drawn in and could not put the book down.

Giovanna is the daughter of a professor (her beloved father) and a romance novel editor (her doting mother) and life is good. That is, childhood was good. But as she reaches that awkward age, and her body starts to change, she has a self-confidence crisis. When her grades start to suffer, her parents become concerned. One night, she overhears her father compare her face to that of his despised, loathed, hated, ugly sister, Vittoria. Terrified and hurt, Giovanna is compelled to visit her aunt and find out if it’s true.

To say the family is estranged is an understatement. But her parents eventually give in and let her meet her aunt. The woman lives in the neighborhood where Giovanna’s father grew up—the wrong side of the tracks. Her father, through academic achievement, has managed to move up in the world. He claims his sister resents the fact that he got out. He fears Vittoria will turn his daughter against him the way she turned the rest of the family.

That may be true. Vittoria is certainly an unpleasant and untrustworthy character. Nevertheless, Giovanna is as intrigued by her as she is afraid of her. Vittoria does try to turn Giovanna against her father. She insists the girl spy on her parents to see them as they really are.

She does. And she does.

Theirs is not the idyllic family Giovanna once thought.

Over the next couple of years, the family secrets come out, the marriage falls apart, and Giovanna reacts, first self-destructively by acting out and, secondly, slowly, by growing up. It’s a painful process, one that is still in progress at the book’s end.

This is not a novel that I would have chosen to read based on a plot synopsis. But Elena Ferrante is able to make a time-worn story timeless. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Unbounded Night by Mitchell James Kaplan

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

I’ve been waiting for another novel by Mitchell James Kaplan since reading the superb By Fire, By Water, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to review Into the Unbounded Night.

Set in the time of early Christianity, the time of Nero and Vespasian, the Great Fire in Rome, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this novel incorporates a lot of history and a lot of diverse religious thought.

There are numerous characters whose lives we follow. The readily recognizable historical figures (Paul, Stephen, Luke, Vespasian, Poppaea, Nero) have only walk-on roles but they influence the protagonists in ways large and small. And they ground the reader in the time period. The multiple protagonists are not the larger-than-life people of history but the “common” people.

First, we meet Aislin, a young Briton, who survived the massacre of her people by the Romans. Steeped in the belief system of her world, Aislin makes her way to Rome for one purpose, vengeance. Overwhelmed by what she finds there, she struggles to survive and to understand the new world. Inadvertently, she achieves some of the vengeance she sought. 

Another main character is Yohanan, a Pharisee in Jerusalem, dedicated to study of Jewish tradition and to peace. He’s caught up in a time of Roman occupation and civil unrest that upend his life but the violence and personal loss cannot change his fundamental beliefs.

The reader watches these characters and others grow up and grow old. Or die. Many of the characters die, often brutally, which got to be a bit much. Over time, they all interconnect. It was interesting to see how disparate lives can intertwine and influence each other; however, it was also emotionally distancing. As a reader I felt that I was skirting over the surface of their lives rather than being drawn into them.

Kaplan writes beautifully. This is a deeply meditative novel infused with questions about life, religion, death, and sin. It’s a hard novel to read when the world seems to be falling apart yet again, but there is something hopeful in the timelessness of the struggle and the unanswerableness of the questions.

Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum M.D. by Archibald Malloch

 I just finished a beautiful old book, published in 1937, called Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum, M.D. by Archibald Malloch.

MacCallum was a turn-of-the-twentieth century, Canadian-born, Johns Hopkins-trained physician/scientist who devoted his short life to experimental medicine. He started out as a morphologist, most known for his work on heart muscle, and ended up an experimental physiologist. He was also a poet, an author of short stories, and a prodigious letter writer.

The book is primarily a chronological collection of edited letters. The author (Malloch) annotates them so that the story flows well but he very effectively keeps himself out of it as much as possible to let MacCallum be the one to breathe life into his own story. The writing is achingly beautiful, full of dreams, aspirations, love of research, love of friends, loneliness, and also humor, imagination, and optimism. I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband because they were just so striking. 

What gives this book particular depth and poignancy is that the young physician/scientist contracted tuberculosis while a medical student. Although in earlier letters the dreaded diagnosis is only hinted at, he worked in a place where the symptoms were very readily recognized, tuberculosis was rampant in American society, and his older brother was also a physician. John MacCallum undoubtedly knew his diagnosis and prognosis from the very first. 

He devoted himself to work, accomplishing an extraordinary amount in his short years, despite his physical limitations. He made friends wherever he went, and his death was hard felt by a large community of medical and non-medical people from Canada to Baltimore to Berkeley. 

He also had two romantic friendships with women with whom he corresponded for many years. It’s unclear how the relationships might have progressed had he been healthy, but it does seem that his illness put up a wall against marriage, even if he had been inclined to pursue it. The book has a very early-twentieth-century way of preserving the anonymity of these women, referring to one as “Miriam,” which was not her real name, and the other as “the poetess.” It’s frustrating not to be able to identify who they were and it seems time erased the trails. And yet, their identities don’t really matter.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how MacCallum will write to a friend, to his parents, to his mentor, and to his brother letters covering the same event, written within a couple of days, and put different spins on it for each audience. He might use the same turn of phrase a couple of times, but then elaborate on or play down his thoughts on what he’d done or what took place. It gives a more rounded picture of the man and really humanizes him.

I love epistolary novels, and this book reads like one. It makes me wish people still wrote like this. Instantaneous communication is wonderful, but what a loss for the literary world and for future historians to think that people’s voices won’t be preserved in this way for posterity.