Tuesday, July 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh delivers reliably enjoyable Historical Romance. Someone to Romance, the 8th book in the Westcott series, is light-hearted fare (despite some dark backstory) with a smart heroine and hero who are fun to root for.

Jessica Archer is the younger sister of the Duke of Neverby, whose love story was told in the first book of the series. At that time, the Westcott family was turned upside down when Jessica’s cousin’s father, the Earl of Riverdale, was revealed to be a bigamist. His children were thus illegitimate. Jessica’s cousin/best friend was disinherited and snubbed by the ton. Although Jessica had been looking forward to her first season, she gave it all up because her cousin could not take part.

Now years have passed and Jessica realizes it’s time for her to seriously consider getting married and taking her place in the world. The problem is, while she has many admirers, she wants love. She wants romance.

Gabriel Thorne is not, at first glance, a likely candidate. Although he is a titled gentleman, he fled England many years earlier and found a place with his mother’s cousin in Boston. He is now a very wealthy member of the American merchant class. He has no desire to return to the country of his birth; however, duty calls him home.

The two cross paths under unfavorable circumstances and there is a rather instantaneous mutual dislike. But they meet again in London in ton settings and an attraction builds. Jessica slowly learns the truth about Gabriel’s past. She is able to harness her training as a duke’s sister to support him as he returns to society and as he seeks to displace the cousin who is trying to usurp his place.

Although the plot lines and character traits can become repetitive over the course of too much Regency Romance reading, authors with Balogh’s skill can keep stories fresh and readable. This is a delightful series that continues to hold my interest.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber

Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, Sebastian Gage, are back to solve another murder in A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber. It is early January 1832, and the detective couple are at a house party held at the duke and duchess of Bowmont’s estate, celebrating Twelfth Night. The duchess is a new friend and Kiera, despite being six months pregnant, is enjoying herself, though the drinking and the traditional fun of naming a “lord and lady of misrule” is getting a bit wearying as the night wears on. When one of the duchess’s sons offers to lead a ghost tour of the catacombs, Kiera and Gage follow along. Their holiday is cut short when a newly-dead body is discovered amongst the skeletons. It is in a state of decomposition, two to four weeks by Kiera’s estimation, and cannot be positively identified. However, the best guess is that it is the body of the duchess’s son-in-law, a man that is not well liked by the family. And a wound to the skull makes it clear a murder had taken place.

Kiera and Gage are once again called upon to investigate foul play. And, to Kiera’s dismay, it appears likely the culprit is a member of the duchess’s family. Or it might be the lover of the duchess’s daughter, a man that had previously been a thorn in Kiera’s (and Gage’s) side but who was beginning to be more of a friend. (He has been in previous novels.) Kiera is disturbed by the fact that people she has come to care for are clearly lying and hiding something.

The family dynamics in the duchess’s household are complex. Kiera and Gage uncover more secrets than they care to know on the way to finding the murderer. They are helped by their loyal servants, Anderley and Bree, who are hiding a secret of their own, and by Kierra’s brother Trevor, who was also at the party.

The mystery is well-plotted and the interpersonal relationships are moving. This is a wonderful series for those who enjoy historical mystery with a strong dose of romance. Start with book one: The Anatomist’s Wife.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Dublin Student Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor’s novels about general practitioners in a fictional small town in Ireland set around the 1960s caught my attention several years back. I started reading my way through them, but stalled 2 ½ years ago with An Irish Country Courtship. Because I’m looking for some “comfort reads,” and because my local library has partially reopened with curbside service, I decided to move on to book six, A Dublin Student Doctor.

This novel jumps back in time to the 1930s to show Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly’s medical school days in Dublin and his introduction to the woman he is re-courting in the 1960s, Kitty O’Hallorhan. It uses a somewhat clunky framing device to get us from “current day” into O’Reilly’s memory. O’Reilly and his young partner, Dr. Laverty, are on their way home from an outing when they come across a bicycle vs. car accident. The victim is one of O’Reilly’s friends/patients, Donal Donnelly. He has a bad head injury. An ambulance is on the way, so O’Reilly arranges to accompany Donal to the hospital in Dublin, a few hours away. There, he will be operated upon by an old classmate of O’Reilly’s, who is now a brain surgeon. O’Reilly spends the night in the old student quarters and reminisces about his student days.

O’Reilly knew, from the age of thirteen, that he wanted to be a doctor. He had obstacles to overcome, the first being his father’s adamant disapproval. But O’Reilly stuck to his guns, paying his own way. Family dynamics are one plot arc.

There are two other main arcs. One is O’Reilly’s love life. Early on, he meets Kitty, a student nurse. They start spending time together, but only very little time as they are both busy. O’Reilly is hesitant to commit to the relationship because of the demands of medical school. Too hesitant.

The final arc is his progress through medical school. He has the support of a “study group” which includes the future brain surgeon. They are a tight-knit group, with varying degrees of dedication to their studies. The work is difficult but fascinating. In addition to the studying, O’Reilly has to overcome his natural empathy for the patients without becoming hardened to their suffering.

It’s an interesting look into the life and times of medical students in Dublin in the 1930s. There are vaguely ominous political rumblings in the background. The author takes pains to describe the medical evaluations and surgical procedures O’Reilly would have been exposed to. Some of it has an info-dumpy feel to it, but it does make the setting seem realistic. Also realistic was the hard drinking for relaxation and the sexist outlook of the group of men. There was a female medical student rotating with them, and they accepted her as a colleague, but there was never a thought of including her outside of the wards. They had to work in pairs and she was left to partner with Fitzpatrick, an obsequious, annoying student who sucked up to the attendings and threw a wet blanket on all their fun. She was really a non-character, but at least there was a female medical student.

Taylor’s novels are comforting reads. The characters are good-hearted. The conflicts are middle-of-the-road. Most are resolved happily and those that aren’t are poignant rather than tragic. There are several more in this series and I’m sure I’ll return to it again.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lincoln Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

My book group is meeting virtually tonight to discuss our latest pick, The Lincoln Conspiracy. The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th president and Why It Failed, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch.

Before Lincoln took office, a determined group of southern white supremacists, who feared the government was coming to take away their slaves, decided the only thing to do was assassinate Lincoln before his inauguration. Fortunately, their plans were leaked. Allan Pinkerton, a well-established private detective with a strong agency (including women agents) signed on to investigate the plot and protect Lincoln.

The book is a solidly researched quick read that sets up the plot with interesting period detail. Although the outcome is known, it is nevertheless gripping to watch the events unfold.

The Lincoln Conspiracy is a strong addition to the vast field of history about Abraham Lincoln.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Who Wants to Marry a Duke by Sabrina Jeffries

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

Who Wants to Marry a Duke by Sabrina Jeffries is the third book in the Duke Dynasty series. I haven’t read the first two, which is not my usual practice, but it’s easy to jump into this series in the middle. These Regency Romances are based on the adult children of the thrice-married Lydia Fletcher, a duchess. It seems she married three dukes in succession, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Her sons have decided to investigate. The murder mystery is an interesting subplot and, unusual for Romance/Mysteries, the case is not solved over the course of the book. This provides quite a hook for subsequent books in the series.

In book 3, Marlow Drake, the Duke of Thornstock, known as “Thorn” (because all Regency Romance heroes have names like this) has been reared mainly in Berlin, but returns to take up his responsibilities after the death of his father. At a ball, part of the marriage mart, he meets a strange young woman, Miss Olivia Norley, under “cute” circumstances. They crash into one another and he spills his drink on himself. She offers to help clean it with sodium bicarbonate, which she happens to have in her reticule, and champagne. They retire to a private room, he takes off his jacket and vest, and she gets out the spot. Olivia is an aspiring chemist. She’s also young, beautiful, and naive. So he attempts to take advantage of her. She is innocent enough to go along with it, apparently not realizing that young gentlewomen don’t make out with strange half-dressed dukes at balls. Her stepmother catches them at it and demands that Thorn appear in the morning with an offer of marriage. He is furious, believing it a trap, and blames Olivia.

Nevertheless, he appears in the morning and makes the offer. She realizes that he doesn’t actually want to marry her, so she says no, angering her stepmother and infuriating Thorn even more.

So, the setup didn’t leave me very favorably impressed with the hero.

The story picks up eight years later. Thorn, having been pegged by the step-mother to be a rakehell, decides to live down to the reputation. He’s a duke. He can get away with it. Olivia, meanwhile, has gone on to pursue her interest in chemistry. (Her uncle is a chemist.) And she’s pretty content. But their paths cross again when Thorn’s stepbrother hires Olivia to test his father’s remains for arsenic poisoning.

Although Thorn still holds a grudge and mistrusts Olivia, she is excited by the chance to prove her skills as a chemist. She doesn’t understand why Thorn is so mean to her. She’s still attracted to him and confused by his behavior, which includes continuing to try to seduce her. She’s pretty much game for it, as long as it doesn’t interfere with her investigations. She understands the principles of chemical behavior better than people.

Olivia is a wonderful person, open and honest since she doesn’t really know how to be otherwise. Thorn eventually comes around to seeing it. There is also danger and mystery to move the story along, because whoever murdered the dukes is not going to hesitate to murder the woman who can prove the crime.

My description of the plot and characters doesn’t quite do the story justice. It is an entertaining read and the developing romance is fun to follow. Thorn’s internal monologue explains his behavior. He’s not a particularly admirable Romance hero, but he’s not awful.

I am drawn in by the unsolved murders and will likely look for the next book in the series to see how the case unfolds.

Monday, July 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

In my continuing effort to read some of the neglected books on my shelf, I pulled out The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This was a Christmas present in 2018. So it’s a fairly new “old” book.

Essentially a love letter to libraries, the book uses the Los Angeles Central Library as its focal point, spinning the story around a fire that devastated the building and its contents in April 1986. The fire burned for over 7 hours, destroyed four hundred thousand books, and damaged seven hundred thousand more. There were many irreplaceable books and objects in their special collections. For any library lover, reading about the tragedy, “watching” it unfold, can cause a visceral reaction. For the librarians, patrons, and Los Angeles’ citizens, it was a nightmare.

Orlean starts with the fire, but then goes back in time to trace out the history of the library and expand into the history of libraries more generally. We get a journalistic look into how large city libraries are run and how they function in communities. The mission of the public library has changed over time from being a repository of books to being more inclusive community centers.

Paralleling the examination of libraries, Orlean examines the life history of the only person accused as the likely arsonist, Harry Peak. No conclusion can be drawn as to his guilt or innocence, which is frustrating, but it allows the author to examine the socioeconomic environment of Los Angeles as well as theories of arson–the psychology of arsonists and the changing field of arson investigation.

The book is interesting and clearly written, but a bit of a slow read. It’s not a page-turner; the search for a possible arsonist does not have a tense who-dunnit feel, but that wasn’t the point of it. There is a lot of digression, all circling back to the library. The scope is broad but somewhat shallow. The book works as an ode to libraries and to librarians, and those who share the author’s love of libraries will be drawn to The Library Book.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

I’ve found a new historical mystery series! I’ve come late to it but that means the others have already been released so hopefully I can get to them soon.

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean is the first in the series that features the cold, cynical Damian Seeker, an agent in the service of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, in London in the mid-1600s. Cromwell and his forces have deposed and beheaded King Charles, and now must be on their guard against Royalists who plot to bring Charles’ son back to the throne.

England is gripped by fear under Cromwell’s repressive regime. The freedoms promised by the revolutionaries have not materialized. Damian Seeker understands the complexities of the situation, but he has pledged loyalty to Cromwell and he’s standing by that pledge.

When one of Cromwell’s most popular army captains is found murdered on his own doorstep, the guilty party seems clear. Elias Ellingworth, an impoverished lawyer who is known to be critical of Cromwell’s government, is standing over the corpse with a bloodied knife in his hand.

Seeker begins the investigation at once by interrogating the widow. Her story convinces him that Elias is innocent. Truth matters to Seeker. He doesn’t want an innocent man executed. Plus, the real killer is still at large. Seeker sets about finding the real killer. He uncovers a web of conspiracy, multiple suspects, and a couple of unrelated crimes. Moreover, his veiled compassion for some of the oppressed Londoners, including Elias’ sister, Maria, yields something he wasn’t seeking: friendship? Maybe love?

The plotting is dense, with multiple intertwined subplots. Characters have depth. Seeker is one of those thrilling anti-hero types of detectives: fearless, ruthless, brutally effective. His dark, violent past renders him able to kill coldly without remorse, yet he has an inner core of goodness that leads good people to trust him as much as they fear him.

S.G. MacLean does a wonderful job of placing the reader into the time period, bringing us up to speed quickly on the politics at play that set the stage for the intrigues. I’m eager to read book 2!