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!