Thursday, October 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Woodcock by Richard Smyth

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

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, richly detailed (detailed about things I’m not overly interested in–tide pool biology, cricket...yet strangely compelling nonetheless) historical novel that will gently tug at your heartstrings, The Woodcock by Richard Smyth is a must read. 

The pace is gentle and it took awhile to immerse myself in the slow rhythm of the story, but the tension built continuously and I had a hard time putting the book down. It can be funny at times, yet has a menace to it like a horror story. I knew it would end badly, but I didn’t know how it would end, and I needed to know.

The story is told in the first person by two of the main characters, alternating POVs. The first is Jon Lowell, a naturalist who makes his living writing articles for journals (and one book!) about the creatures inhabiting the seashore, the tide pools, of the tiny north England village Gravely. He’s a handsome young man, in his early twenties, though he seems older at first. He lives quietly. He wants to live quietly, absorbed in his odd work, work that is engrossing to him but bizarre or amusing to the other residents of the town.

The second narrator is Harriet Lowell, Jon’s wife. She’s introduced to us that way, as if her role in life is simply that. She’s a native of Gravely, a small town girl. She is surprisingly, and very noticeably, beautiful. (Jon takes some pride in that.) She does love her husband. But she also has a rich inner life that Jon knows nothing about. He’s never bothered to ask. She spends a lot of time with the town preacher, Reverend Aldridge, which annoys Jon only because he doesn’t like the man and is not, himself, religious. Mostly, he doesn’t care what she does with her time so long as she doesn’t inflict the preacher on him. Whether Jon’s absent-ness bothers Harriet or serves her purpose isn’t made clear. Harriet is an insular character, reflective, intelligent, and wounded.

The book opens with outsiders coming to town.

One is Jon’s longtime friend, David McAllister, a successful novelist, lady’s man, handsome, beefy, and brave. Although polar opposites, the two are best friends, soul mates. They make each other laugh. (Their banter is hilarious.) But David is also an alcoholic and a bit of a lost cause.

More momentous is the arrival of the Americans, Maurice Shakes and his two beautiful daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor. Shakes is a man with a dream: he wants to build a tourist attraction to outdo Coney Island, a large pier and amusement park with all the amenities early twentieth century technology can provide, on the shore of backwater Gravely. A beguiling salesman, he cons the people of the town into accepting his vision, all except Reverend Aldridge, who sees it as evil, Harriet, who sees it as dangerous, and Jon, who isn’t against the idea so much as he is mistrustful of change. It seems unlikely the tourist attraction would be good for the local wildlife.

Shakes is a whirlwind and development moves quickly. But more disruptive for our protagonists are the two daughters. Cordelia ensnares David–or maybe doesn’t. And Jon finds himself drawn to Eleanor. It’s painful to read Jon’s self-absorbed pursuit of a woman he barely knows while he justifies his neglect of his wife.

Although the plot is fairly straightforward, there are many swirling undercurrents. They offer a variety of possibilities for resolution – none of them good – so that the story is satisfyingly complex. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Deception by Mary Lancaster

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

The second book in Pleasure Garden, Mary Lancaster’s new Regency Romance series, is Unmasking Deception, to be released this month. The book stands alone, but the first book, Unmasking the Hero, is a delight, so you may want to read that one first.

The current book is an entertaining romp. The hero, Lord Dominic Gorse, the youngest son of a marquess, is a ne’er-do-well going to ruin ever since his father refused to buy him a commission. He drinks, gambles, fools around, and hangs out with other low characters. Until one of his gambling companions is murdered after one of their drinking/card playing evenings, and half the man’s money and one of his expensive cuff buttons is found at Dominic’s door. He is arrested and, after a slapdash trial, sentenced to deportation. Fortunately for him, he manages to escape from Newgate prison.

Viola Dove is a clever, pretty, adventuresome, but poor young gentlewoman. The fate of her family is in her hands. She must marry for money. However, on a night out with friends (at the Pleasure Garden), she runs into a stranger, Dominic Gorse, who is fleeing from Bow Street Runners. She trusts him instinctively and helps him escape.

The two work together to hide him from the law while they solve the mystery of who actually killed Dominic’s gambling acquaintance. 

The hero and heroine are fine characters and the romance between them develops in a believable fashion. The adventure is lively and the side characters entertain. The villain is truly villainous.

Unfortunately, the villain resorts to kidnaping Viola. (This isn’t really a spoiler because the reader can see it coming from a mile away.) While I recognize that Regency Romances recycle plots and recombine elements into new stories all the time, the kidnaping-the-heroine thing is painfully overdone. Or maybe I somehow stumble on a disproportionate number of romances using that device to move the plot along. I managed to plod on past it because the rest of the novel was sweet and fun enough. However, I swear the next time a heroine is kidnaped by a villainous pseudo-suitor, I’m dropping the book at once, not even bothering to see if she requires rescuing by the hero or manages to escape on her own. Both have been done to death. 

Aside from that disappointment, I’ll continue to follow the series. Surely there won’t be another kidnaping in the Pleasure Garden series.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician by Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibin’s new novel, The Magician, a fictional biography of Thomas Mann, is superb. Using beautifully precise language, in a tone echoing the quintessentially German twentieth century writer, Tóibin takes us inside Mann’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be.

The novel marches us through the events of Mann’s life while keeping the focus inward (as it seems Mann did.) Despite the turmoil in the world around him, Mann was deeply introspective rather than outwardly focused. The dissolution of the Mann family business, Mann’s love for (and frustration with) his family, his repressed desire for handsome young men, and his conflicted thoughts about his beloved Germany were all fodder for Mann’s writing. Mann lived through WWI then watched in disbelief as Hitler rose to power. He and his wife were forced to flee to Switzerland then to the U.S. during WWII. His initial moral cowardice, refusing to outright condemn the Nazis until it became safe to do so, is convincingly and somewhat sympathetically portrayed. When he finally did take a political stance, he threw himself into it, only to be disillusioned when accused of being a communist during the Cold War. (That’s a vast simplification. For the complexities, read the novel!)

The Magician chronicles Mann’s creative process by showing him gathering inspiration for and piecing together the themes of his masterpieces, but does this with a light hand. The reader is told that Mann retreated to his study every morning to write, but rather than a play-by-play of his daily writing struggles, we see how his creative self-absorption shaped his relationships. 

The book humanizes Mann, presenting him as an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who happens to also be a towering literary genius.

Unfortunately, my TBR pile has just grown substantially, as I not only have to read more of Mann but of Tóibin as well.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Night Came with Many Stars by Simon Van Booy

In the depths of the previous surge of the pandemic, when things were locked down, there were a lot of online events that I wanted to attend. I wish I had sampled more of them while the opportunity was there. One of the events I did “attend” was an author talk at my local independent bookstore. Simon Van Booy spoke about his new novel, Night Came with Many Stars. It’s a literary family saga set in Kentucky. It’s primarily a historical novel, although there are interwoven time frames, some of which are more contemporary. 

The novel begins in 1933 with Carol, an adolescent girl, around thirteen or so, who lives out in the woods with her abusive alcoholic father. He is rotten through and through. Carol hasn’t been to school or church since her mother died. She scrapes by on her wits. One night, her father loses big in a poker game. With nothing left to gamble, he bets his daughter and loses. The winner gets to keep her on weekends as a cook and housekeeper. The reader sees where this will lead, hopes to be wrong, but isn’t. Carol escapes eventually, helped out by a man who knows her father and despises what he has done, who takes her to two women who run a backwoods abortion home. There she finds a makeshift family and some marginal security, though she lives in dread of her father coming to claim her.

A parallel plot to Carol’s is set in 1986 and tells the story of Samuel, a kind-hearted boy, and his best friend, Eddy. Samuel has two parents and a developmentally delayed uncle, and the love and support in that family is palpable. They even have it in their hearts to be kind to Eddy, but the boy, raised by a single mother who is flighty and unreliable, cannot catch a break. He gets into trouble again and again. Samuel goes through a rough patch where he almost self-destructs due to a family curse of alcoholism, but gets back on track. (Weird scene here that was the only part of the story that didn’t ring true, IMO.)

There are other characters too, all interesting and all playing a role in the overall story. An omniscient narrator provides vignettes–slices of life-- until the lives of the characters intersect. The writing is beautiful and the storyline is ultimately redemptive. Over time, (it takes generations), the goodness in people overcomes the evil. Even though there are no magical cures for very real difficulties, there is hope.

Thank you to Carmichael’s Bookstore for introducing me to this author!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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

I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Happily, her newest book, Oh William!, is out this month. It continues Lucy Barton’s story, but the books stand alone. You don’t have to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to appreciate Oh William!, but that earlier novel is so lovely it’s well worth reading.

The novel is written in first person POV in a conversational tone. Lucy’s second husband has just died and she is grieving deeply, but that’s not what she wants to talk about. She wants to tell us what is happening with her first husband, William. He’s turning seventy and, despite good health and an ability to continue working as a professor, he’s starting to feel his age and is going through some difficulties.

First, he has begun waking at night with vague terrors, the most common of which is that his deceased mother has come to tell him something.

Second, his wife (his third) leaves him abruptly. He never saw it coming.

And third, while tracing his roots on a genealogy website, he discovers that he has a half-sister. His mother had a daughter before leaving her husband to marry William’s father. She abandoned both her husband and her daughter! William first denies the possibility of this. Then he agonizes over whether or not to try to contact the sister.

Lucy and her ex-husband have a complicated relationship. Despite the pain of their breakup–Lucy left him, in part, because of his rampant infidelity–they have remained close. They are both now also on good terms with their two daughters, though there were certainly rough times in the past. Lucy and William still rely upon one another for support from time to time. They’re older and wiser; however, their personalities have not fundamentally changed. They still know how to push one another’s buttons. And they do. Despite a successful career and a wonderful therapist, Lucy continues to carry the pain of a childhood damaged by poverty, isolation, and abuse. William is aware of her insecurities and is frustrated by them, yet will occasionally stoop to throwing them in her face. They can be wonderfully supportive of one another at some moments, and cruel to one another at others. It is a superbly realistic representation of how relationships can work.

The novel demonstrates the poignancy of aging, the complexities of familial ties, and the fact that no matter how well we know someone we can’t really know them completely. Lucy Barton’s voice draws you in. Elizabeth Strout’s books are highly recommended.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison

I read a fair amount—all right, a lot—of Regency Romance. It’s pure escapism. But it doesn’t give me the same sense of immersion in place and time that general historical fiction does. Despite all the genre Romance I’ve read, I don’t have much actual knowledge of the Regency time period. So, I’ve embarked on a reading spree of British history. The books include The Age of Decadence by Simon Heffer and Victorious Century by David Cannadine. They were both informative in their own way, but lengthy and serious. I wanted something focusing more specifically on the Regency period that would give me more of the flavor of the times, more of the social history.

The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison was just the book I was looking for. Drawing heavily on the personalities of the time period, inserting anecdotes throughout, the book does a wonderful job of giving a broad view of the historical events and a close-up view of some of its notable personalities. Fact-filled yet very readable, I got this book from the library, but plan to buy a copy to keep on my shelf.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Lattimore's Letter by Suzanne Allain

Regency Romance author Suzanne Allain (The Celebrated Pedestrian and Mr. Malcolm’s List) has a new novel out: Miss Lattimore’s Letter.

The heroine, Sophronia Lattimore, is a lovely spinster of twenty-eight who has more or less resigned herself to the position of chaperone to her much younger cousin Cecilia. While negotiating the London Season, Sophie accidently overhears an exchange between two young people who seem enamored of one another. However, the lady is putting the gentleman off, despite promises made to one another, because a more elevated suitor is pursuing her. Sophie is dismayed, partly because she is aware that another worthy young lady of her acquaintance is in love with the suitor. She thinks all parties involved are about to make irreparable mistakes. So she writes an anonymous letter to the elevated lord, gently apprising him of the situation.

Her interference gains the hoped for results. The courtships shift back into the correct pairs and happy marriages ensue.

Then Sophie’s identity as the letter writer is leaked. Sophie becomes a minor celebrity and is sought after for her matchmaking skills. One of those who comes to her for advice is Sir Edmund, an extremely handsome, wealthy, eligible bachelor, whose hesitation around women makes no sense. Although she has a crush on him herself, she agrees to help him meet an appropriate wife.

The parties all move on to Bath. Sophie continues in her engaging way to support her friends, deny that she has any skill at matchmaking, and flirt modestly with Sir Edmund. He seems interested in her, but she can’t believe he could possibly want a penniless spinster. He flirts, then backs off, confusing her. Things may well have progressed towards something more consistent, but they are thrown off track when a man from Sophie’s past appears.

When Sophie was eighteen, she’d fallen head over heels for Mr. Maitland, who had pursued her in earnest, giving society the impression they were all but betrothed. Then he abruptly dropped her and married someone else–a woman of fortune. Mr. Maitland is now a widower with two young children. He begins pursuing Sophie again. He is, unfortunately, the most handsome, charming man in Bath, even eclipsing Sir Edmund.

Sophie doesn’t know what to do. Mr. Maitland is courting her openly. Sir Edmund is much more reserved. She’s enjoying the attention and wants to be married. She just doesn’t know if she’ll end up with two proposals or none.

The novel is witty and sweet. The style is a little old-fashioned but also unconventional for newly released Romance. While primarily in the female protagonist’s point of view, we also get a peek inside the heads of Sophie’s cousin and her aunt, who are on journeys of their own. But we don’t get alternating chapters between the female and male protagonists. We see little to none of Sir Edmund’s thoughts, which helps to keep readers guessing (along with Sophie) as to his intentions. Although, given Romance conventions, his thoughts are not that difficult to guess. Nor is the little twist at the end any great surprise, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Allain continues to charm with her clean Regency Romances. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Reckless Match by Kate Bateman

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

Romance author Kate Bateman has a new series, Ruthless Rivals, and book one is soon to be released, A Reckless Match. The premise sounded lively and I was pleased to receive a review copy. 

Maddie Montgomery and Gryff Davies (the new Earl of Powys) live on estates on either side of the English/Welsh border. Their families have been feuding since the beginning of time. Although no longer violent (they live in more civilized times), the fathers of these two protagonists continued the feud by baiting one another over anything they could think of. Unfortunately, the old Earl of Powys has died, leaving Maddie’s father bereft of a rival.

Also unfortunately, Maddie’s father has lost a significant sum of money on bad investments. They are near bankrupt. The family’s only hope is to marry her off to someone wealthy– most likely Sir Mostyn, a wealthy, lecherous old goat, who has offered her father 2000 pounds for her. He’s twice Maddie’s age. Everyone in the village dislikes him. Maddie is in a quandary.

Moreover, Maddie has been secretly intrigued by her neighboring enemy, Gryff, since they were tussling children. And he has been fascinated by her. Because of the family history, and because of their own personalities, they can only show their mutual interest by teasing and fighting one another. Certainly, Maddie can’t look to Gryff for marriage and economic salvation.

It’s been a while since they’ve seen one another. Gryff was off fighting Napoleon, returning only when he inherited the title and had to abandon his regiment. As for Maddie, she’s been involved with archaeological explorations on the Montgomery lands. But when Gryff does return, sparks fly. Their bickering picks up where it left off, as does their mutual unacknowledged attraction. While maneuvering to meet up with one another to bicker more, they stumble across a smuggler’s cache of brandy. The plot proceeds as they work together to catch the smugglers and bring them to justice.

This all has the makings of an entertaining romance, but I was not particularly entertained. While there was evidence of an underlying affection between the two, mostly there was a lot of ogling of one another’s body parts and fierce denial of any possibility of mutual regard. It seems that the sparring in their youth consisted of rather intense bullying performed by Gryff, later explained by the fact the he “liked” her, and that’s how boys show they like girls. As an adult, his teasing/bullying takes the form of injecting sexual innuendo into every conversation. Maddie has to pretend she is not intimidated–or titillated– by his suggestive talk. And that was what passed for witty banter. It seemed immature on his part and got tedious to read through.

There was enough to hold my interest in the smuggling plot to finish the book. However, the sibling and cousin pair-ups that were introduced in this book to set up the next books in the series appeared likely to be more of the same, and the romance in this novel was not convincing enough to draw me into the series.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather is one of the lesser known novels by the author of O Pioneers!My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Published in 1923, this is a lovely classic.

Set in Sweet Water, a western town established alongside the Transcontinental Railroad in pioneer days, the novel focuses on the slow decline of its heroine, Mrs. Marion Forrester. At the beginning, she is the charming young wife of a railroad contractor, Captain Daniel Forrester. Many years older than his wife, he’s an old-fashioned aristocrat, benevolent with a strong sense of duty and honor, and a love of beauty. He’s devoted to his wife and, as he ages, comes to depend upon her completely. 

Mrs. Forrester is widely known for her graciousness, her vivacious charm, and her hospitality. Everyone who knows her loves her, although some of the townswomen do so grudgingly. She does act rather superior to other women and tends toward the catty, though that’s not something her many male admirers notice.

The story is narrated by Niel Herbert, a younger man who has admired Mrs. Forrester since he was a boy and she was a young wife. As one of the better educated, better mannered youths of the town, he is able to appreciate her finer qualities. He’s brought up by his uncle, a judge, who is a particular friend of Captain Forrester, so Niel spends many evenings as a young man in the company of the couple. As the Captain ages and his finances decline, Niel helps keep an eye on them. In the process, he discovers that Mrs. Forrester is not as loyal to her husband as he’d thought, a realization that disillusions him but does not completely ruin his image of her.

When the Captain suffers a series of strokes, his wife takes care of him, but with difficulty. She isn’t meant for a life of boredom and drudgery. Often, Niel finds her smelling of alcohol.

Niel escapes Sweet Water for a time, attending architectural college in Boston, but he returns to find the Forresters sunk low and his own uncle ailing. He delays his return to school until after Captain Forrester dies and Mrs. Forrester sinks to new lows. At this point, he gives up on her. It’s only later that he can recall her with any fondness, and even then, he likes to remember her as she was in her vivacious younger days, before his disillusionment.

There is much in the novel glamorizing the settling of the American West, the superiority of the early settlers and ground breakers, contrasted with the inferiority of those in the next generations. Mrs. Forrester’s decline is emblematic of the loss of luster after the closure of the frontier. Niel’s nostalgia for his youth, his memory of Mrs. Forrester as she was, and Sweet Water as it was, make for a melancholy read.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking the Hero by Mary Lancaster

Mary Lancaster has a new Regency Romance series (Pleasure Garden) and book one, Unmasking the Hero, has just been released. 

Grace, the Countess of Wenning, was abandoned by her husband the morning after their wedding. He left no explanation, only a curt note telling her she might go on the wedding trip alone or go live in one of his houses. Her choice. Meanwhile, he embarked on a two-year diplomatic posting to China, one that he had previously turned down.

The backstory is that on that same morning, Oliver Harlaw, Earl of Wenning had found a letter that Grace had written to a lover, decrying her “dreadful marriage.” Devastated, Oliver raced to the ship bound for China to pick up his career where he had left it. 

Gobsmacked, Grace is forced to face the ton and its gossip alone. She decides to brazen it out by socializing wildly and flirting with all comers. She attracts a large circle of admirers, mostly harmless, and learns how to discourage the men who expect too much. She never crosses the line to actual cheating because even though she hates Oliver for leaving her humiliated her, she loves him still. 

Now, Oliver has just returned from two years abroad and must face the wife he discarded but has never ceased to love. During his absence, he’d heard reports of his wife’s wild lifestyle, but also received assurance from a trusted friend that there was no lover in her life.

Oliver is hoping to understand the truth (approaching her—not quite spying, but close to doing so—during a series of masquerades) and to set things right, while Grace, who has learned of his return only from the newspapers and gossip, is bent on revenge.

Suspend disbelief for a bit: yes, it seems farfetched that Grace does not recognize her masked husband right away, but if you accept this, the rest of the plot unfolds in a lively fashion. The protagonists are sympathetic characters who belong together. This is signature Mary Lancaster romance. I look forward to book two.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce

Can it possibly be three years since I read Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce? At the time, I was so charmed by the book that I wished for a sequel. Well, here it is!

Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce continues the adventures of Emmeline Lake, a plucky young woman in WWII London, just before the U.S. enters the war.

Emmy is an advice columnist for a women’s magazine called “Woman’s Friend,” an upbeat if slightly outmoded journal, now headed up by a somewhat bolder editor than Emmy’s previous boss.  The new boss, Mr. Collins, has more journalist cred and is more willing to take on tough issues. Also, he’s the elder half-brother of Emmy’s boyfriend, Charles, an army man. However, sympathetic to Emmy’s causes, Mr. Collins is constrained by the War Ministry and the financial backer of  the journal. Things have to be upbeat, patriotic, and non-critical of the government. Emmy is not given free rein. 

Emmy throws herself into her career with the same impulsive enthusiasm (and compassion) that nearly got her fired from the magazine under its previous editor. However, she has matured and is doing her best to approach challenges more professionally. She loves her job. Her boss is wonderful. And she’s in love. Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, deal with war time nastiness with a typically English humor, keeping calm and carrying on.

Even so, Emmy’s resolve not to rush into trouble again is rattled when she gets an assignment to write on female participation in the wartime workforce. It seems the patriotic women are very willing to participate. In fact, some of them are also very much in need of the paychecks (especially the war widows left high and dry by the government on measly pensions that don’t come close to supporting the children of the dead soldiers.) But women are paid less than men. And there is no support for working women with children. (It all sounds depressingly familiar.) The government nominally supports childcare (nurseries) but there are too few, the hours don’t correspond to the round-the-clock shifts the women have to work, and, worst of all, nurseries have to be requested by the factory owners. Some of these factory leaders see no need to petition the government for childcare for their workers. They figure the women should magically deal with the inconvenient kids by themselves. One boss in particular (where Emmy’s friends work) is firing women right and left while simultaneously benefitting from the government’s campaign to get more women into factory jobs.

Seen through Emmy’s compassionate (plucky) eyes, this wartime story manages to charm while also showing the hard realities faced by women on the homefront. Emmy and her friends lift each other up and help each other bear the unbearable. It’s lovely to read.

I suspect there is a book three in the offing. I hope so!

Monday, September 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Golden Age by Cecelia Tichi

After enjoying the book Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi, I decided to read her previous book, Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Golden Age. Similarly, it’s a short history of the cocktail placed in the historical context of the late nineteenth century. Again, it touches upon a few of the historical events and well-known figures of the times, and gives cocktail recipes for what they imbibed and served (or might have imbibed or served). It’s a short, entertaining book. The cocktail recipes got a bit monotonous, seeming to be mostly slight variations on the same few ingredients. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the oversized role played by cocktail drinking in the Gilded Age. Similarly, it’s a short history of the cocktail placed in the historical context of the late nineteenth century. Again, it touches upon a few of the historical events and well-known figures of the times, and gives cocktail recipes for what they imbibed and served (or might have imbibed or served). It’s a short, entertaining book. The cocktail recipes got a bit monotonous, seeming to be mostly slight variations on the same few ingredients. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the oversized role played by cocktail drinking in the Gilded Age.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet

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

In Regency Romances, the characters are often jaunting off to house parties in the country. Curious about these British country houses, I was pleased to be able to read The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet. The book takes the reader on an architectural tour of country homes through the ages: Medieval through the current day.

The text focuses on the houses themselves, along with the owners and architects. There is only a nod to the historical context. The “story” is interesting, but the narrative makes for a rather rambling tour. Details began to blur.

I often found it hard to visualize what the author was describing. There are a few photographs, but not as many as I would have liked. Of course, photographs are not possible for many of the buildings. The author makes the point that a lot of the homes are gone while others have been altered significantly over the years. There are in-depth descriptions of some homes, but sketches or floor plans may have made it easier to visualize what the buildings looked like.

Overall, I think this may make a better reference book to dip into for representative houses of different time periods than as a story to read straight through.

Friday, September 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Social Graces by Renee Rosen

At the height of the Gilded Age, two women ruled New York High Society: Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. Their rivalry was legendary. My first introduction to this battle for supremacy was in Gore Vidal’s 1876, though it was only a small part of that novel. A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler was a more focused look at the jockeying for position by obscenely wealthy women of the times. The Social Graces by Renee Rosen (released this year) is another look at the dueling Grand Dames.

Caroline Astor (THE Mrs. Astor) is the reigning queen. Coming from “old money,” Caroline is a Knickerbocker and the defender of the old guard. It is critically important to hold the line against “new money,” those who have made their fortunes in railroads, oil, etc. The worst of the new-money encroachers are the Vanderbilts. 

Mrs. Astor’s claim to fame is as a hostess. The goal of every wealthy woman in New York is to receive an invitation to one of her parties. The surest way to find yourself excluded from her company is to hobnob with the nouveau riche. Mrs. Astor is like a Gilded Age mean girl, and everyone wants to be in her clique.

But it’s lonely at the top. Mr. Astor spends his time on his yacht or at his club. Or pursuing one of his many affairs. Mrs. Astor’s children are grown and have different values: they want to marry for love not for purposes of buttressing the fortress of Knickerbocker society. And her loyal minions are too intrigued by what’s going on over at Alva Vanderbilt’s place.

Alva Vanderbilt has a reasonably good Southern pedigree, but her family has fallen on hard times. When she snares Willie Vanderbilt, one of the multi-millionaire grandsons of the railroad tycoon, she thinks she’s arrived. But no. Wealth alone is not enough to gain the family entrance to the correct parties. Alva refuses to take no for an answer and embarks upon a frontal assault, determined to snatch away Mrs. Astor’s crown.

The novel explores the struggle in chapters that alternate between the points of view of each of the women. There are intervening chapters voiced by “Society,” a Greek chorus of the combined voices of gossipy women on the fringes of the battle. Caroline and Alva are humanized. It’s possible to see why ruling society is so important—they have no other outlet. Men rule the business world, the political world, the financial world, even the sporting world. Men are permitted affairs. Women throw parties. At most, they support charities, but even this seems to be a way to maneuver in society.

The case made by the novel is that these women, by virtue of their high profiles, were able to break new ground. Alva hires Richard Morris Hunt and builds mansions. Caroline builds the Astoria hotel. In her later life, Alva divorced her husband and remarried. In a time when divorce was unheard of and would lead to immediate ostracism (for the wife), Alva was able to reclaim her position. She also became a supporter of women’s suffrage.

The book is engrossing. The life stories of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt are fascinating. And yet… there is something unsatisfying in reading about the lives of these people of vast wealth who devoted themselves to social climbing or to kicking other climbers off the ladder. The wealth was accumulated through exploitation, but, naturally, they take no notice of this. And their pursuits were largely trivial. Their marriages were unhappy. Their families were dysfunctional. They seem more to be pitied than admired.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The world does not need another review of Malibu Rising, the latest blockbuster novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Nevertheless, as a devoted fan of Reid’s work, I’m throwing this one out there.

The story focuses on the run-up to the annual Malibu party thrown by Nina Riva, a swimwear model and surfer known for her pin-up calendars and posters, as well as for being the daughter of Mick Riva, a superstar singer (who abandoned Nina and her three siblings without a backward glance when they were children.) After the death of their mother (actually, even before that), Nina raised her siblings. Her brother Hud is a sports photographer whose main subject is her other brother Jay, a rising star in the surfing world. Kit, the baby of the family, is just twenty, also a superb surfer, just coming into her own.

Nina is not looking forward to the party. She was just dumped by her tennis pro husband. (Absurdly handsome, wealthy, and winner of numerous grand slams, he ran off with another tennis player. It made all the gossip news, humiliating Nina.)

The close-knit siblings have always relied heavily on Nina, but things are reaching a breaking point. Each of the siblings has secrets gnawing at them, and Nina can’t fix them all. When the party—a drunken, drug-fueled, sex-saturated free-for-all—gets out of hand, it may be the signal that it’s time for radical change for the Rivas.

The novel is fast-paced and angst-packed. The ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ vibe is reminiscent of Daisy Jones, as is the theme of rampant infidelity and its devastating aftermath. The main characters are mostly sympathetic. Even the worst of them is not all bad, though Mick Riva, blaming his narcissism on his own poor upbringing, is pretty close to being all bad. If you’re looking for a quick beach read with an emotional punch, pick up Malibu Rising.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

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

Why do I keep reading heart-breaking retellings of the Fall of Troy? Do I imagine the ending will change?

The latest edition to the genre is Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, a sequel to her earlier work, The Silence of the Girls. I haven’t read book one, but the overall story is familiar enough that book two can stand alone. The Women of Troy picks up the saga in the immediate aftermath of Troy’s fall, telling the story primarily from Briseis’ viewpoint. (I was a bit disconcerted that the novel starts off from the viewpoint of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and several chapters unfold in his perspective. This helps the story along, but it was not ‘the women’s story’ the way A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes was.)

After the episode with the Trojan Horse and the destruction of Troy, the Greeks are eager to sail for home with their loot, which includes the newly enslaved female population of Troy. Briseis, who had been Achilles’ war prize, and who is carrying his child, is now married to Lord Alcimus, so her status has risen to that of a wife. It’s not much of a promotion, but at least she is allowed to roam about at will, unlike the other women who are captives.

The Greeks are also, to some extent, captive. Having offended the gods in myriad ways during the orgy of destruction during the capture of Troy, they are now confined to the beach by ceaseless strong winds that prevent them from sailing away. Without a Trojan enemy to fight, old factions and quarrels are renewed. 

One of the worst of the Greeks is Pyrrhus. He is accorded some respect as Achilles’ son and as one of the heroes of the sack of Troy, having killed old King Priam. None of his fellows is aware of the cowardly way he botched the killing, since he boasts of having done it heroically. Pyrrhus is bitter, indecisive, and insecure, aware that he can’t match his godlike father. He makes up for it by lying, drinking excessively, and bullying those around him.

Briseis, in contrast, is kind, generous, and self-confident, using her position to help the other women where she can. Briseis is a survivor, who makes the best of whatever position she finds herself in. 

It’s a fine re-telling. Briseis is a good choice for a new narrator of the timeless story.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

 It’s one thing to read the thick tomes of Victorian and Edwardian history for the political, socioeconomic, and artistic history of the times, but another thing altogether to get the nitty-gritty history of nineteenth-century daily life, particularly the lives of women. What did they wear for underclothes? How did they clean themselves? What about…excretory functions? What about sex?

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners
by Therese Oneill tackles these fascinating but often difficult to tease out questions, taking the answers mainly from contemporary “self-help” books for women, largely written by men. (And men pretending, for the purpose of authorship, to be women.) Mansplaining has been around forever! Misguided and condescending as these pseudo-medical tidbits can be, Oneill’s snarky presentation manages to make it funny rather than infuriating.

The book is informative, but in a big-picture, getting-the sense-of-things manner, rather than providing the more granular analysis (I hate that expression, but it’s currently in vogue) of historical data that novelists might want for historical accuracy. And readers of historical romance might end up with a jaundiced view of the next novel they pick up—things weren’t that rosy! But this is all good stuff to know, and this book is every bit as entertaining as a novel.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

BLOG TOUR BOOK REVIEW: Along Came a Lady by Christi Caldwell

Welcome to my blog tour book review! Thank you to Netgalley for this e-galley.

Billed as a reverse My Fair Lady, Along Came a Lady by Christi Caldwell is a lovely just-released Regency Romance, the first in a new series. I haven’t read this author before, but I’ll definitely be following this series.

Rafe Audley is the illegitimate son of the Duke of Bentley. Since age thirteen, he has been raising his siblings alone, with no help from the man who sired him. Growing up in a coal-mining town, he went early into the mines and has risen to the respected position of foreman. Despite the dangers to himself and his younger brother, and despite the lack of opportunity for his sister, Rafe is proud of his accomplishments and has no wish to ever meet the father he despises.

Edwina Dalyrmple is the illegitimate daughter of an earl who acknowledged her once upon a time, but then cut her off in deference to his wife. Alone in the world, unable to take a place in “Polite Society,” Edwina embarks on a career as a governess-of-sorts to young women who have the opportunity to rise socially but need polish. If anything, Edwina knows the rules. She would give anything to regain her place in her father’s heart, but, in the meantime, she has to guard her reputation carefully and stay out of his sphere.

When the Duke of Bentley decides he wants to acknowledge Rafe’s existence, he hires Edwina to teach the coal miner how to behave properly, then bring him to London. Rafe, infuriated, is dead-set against it. However, Edwina will not take no for an answer. She’ll give him those lessons whether he wants them or not.

This is a fun story with surprising depth. While Rafe can be very rude and bullying, he also has a heart and turns contrite before losing the reader’s sympathy or Edwina’s. Edwina is an intelligent, feisty heroine whose reliance on perfect manners and sometimes forced good humor make her more than a match for Rafe’s scowling sulks. The sex scenes are steamy, which could seem a bit hypocritical given the protagonists’ judgey-ness of their respective parents’ extramarital indiscretions, but they recognize this. It leads to better understanding and self-awareness. These two belong together. They earn their HEA.

From the publisher:

Christi Caldwell is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sinful Brides Series and the Heart of a Duke Series. She blames novelist Judith McNaught for luring her into the world of historical romance. She enjoys torturing her couples before they earn their well-deserved happily ever after. Originally from Southern Connecticut, Christi now resides in North Carolina, where she spends her time writing and being a mommy to an energetic little boy and mischievous twin girls who offer an endless source of story ideas. Learn more at

Friday, August 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley

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

After my recent spate of serious reading, I needed something light. I picked a Regency Romance from my Netgalley queue: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley.

The Honorable Frederick Eversley is a twenty-six-year-old confirmed bachelor and man-about-town. Good-hearted and certainly no rake, he simply enjoys his life as it is, being wealthy and unencumbered. When his mother asks him to accompany her to his cousins’ house in the country, he acquiesces, but reluctantly. His cousin Thomas is a twenty-three-year-old Mama’s boy. His cousin Phoebe is a lovely young girl who lacks any spirit. Fortunately, the trip is only to last a few days. His mother is going primarily to fetch Phoebe to London for a Season.

Frederick would be even more reluctant if he were aware that his aunt’s purpose in sending her daughter to London was not only to catch her a husband, but specifically to catch him.

Miss Eleanor Denham, Phoebe’s dearest friend and neighbor, is being pursued by Thomas, the Mama’s boy. She considers him a friend but no more. Devoted to Phoebe, she’s sympathetic when she learns Phoebe has no interest in going to London and no interest in Frederick Eversley. Phoebe has formed an attachment to another neighbor, whose title is insufficient in her mother’s eyes.

So, on the basis of a slight acquaintance, Eleanor schemes to make Frederick appear to be a trifler with young lady’s affections, to throw Phoebe’s mother off. The scheme fails, only serving to make Eleanor look bad and to put a wedge between her and Frederick when they might otherwise have been friends.

Off the young folks go to London for a social whirl. Thomas must learn to be more self-sufficient. Phoebe must avoid the attentions of any number of men attracted to her beauty. And (and here is the Romance) Frederick and Eleanor must clear up their misunderstandings and find their way to each other.

Interestingly, as I began the book, I found it to have a noticeably old-fashioned tone. It followed the Regency Romance conventions, but the conversations seemed stilted, the conflict was minimal, and there were no sparks. Reading more about the book, I learned it was a re-release of a novel by a writer popular in the 1960s and 70s.

I’m partial to clean rather than excessively steamy Romance, so I enjoy older Romances (like those of Georgette Heyer.) But here, I found the love story so subdued as to be a bit dull. It was interesting, though, to consider how Regency Romance has changed over the years–and also how it remains the same.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: In All Good Faith by Liza Nash Taylor

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

In All Good Faith by Liza Nash Taylor is an uplifting historical novel set in the eastern U.S. in the era of the Great Depression. It follows the intertwining fortunes of two strong women, May Marshall Craig and Dorrit Sykes.

May was the heroine of a previous novel, Etiquette for Runaways, and this continues her saga. Married now to the man she has always loved, Byrd Craig, she continues to work at her family’s small-town market, a store that is slowly failing, while her husband struggles to support the family on a lawyer’s salary when no one has money to pay him. He has to take a job in Washington D.C., doing important work, but work that allows him only the weekends to spend at home. His reaction to life’s setbacks is to double down on his determination to be the provider. Whenever May broaches the topic of an entrepreneurial idea of her own, he shuts her down. With faith in her own business sense and the strength of her product, she forges ahead secretly.

Dorrit is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a WWI veteran, fallen on hard times. Her mother died in childbirth and her older brother ran off to join the merchant marines. Her father is a skilled mechanic, who pins his hopes on inventing a better mousetrap. Dorrit takes in sewing, entertains herself with Nancy Drew mysteries, and agonizes over questions of faith. (Her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, would likely have survived had she not refused medical intervention until it was too late.)

The novel takes the reader along on the winding paths of these two characters. At first, the misery index is fairly high. I was engaged with Dorrit’s story from the first, but took a little longer to click with May. Once their paths intersected, things began to look up for both, and I settled in to the read with more hopefulness. I enjoyed seeing how they coped with adversity. The story carried me along to its satisfying conclusion.

The novel works very well as a standalone, though I do wonder if my initial detachment from May was a result of not having read the first novel. While this one does provide May’s backstory, I might have benefitted from the unfolding of her history in book one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: New Grub Street by George Gissing

Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming walking into a bookstore to browse or wandering the library when I pop in to pick up a book. There is SO MUCH to read. So when I happen upon a reference to a great writer from long ago whose works have dropped off the radar, I have mixed emotions. Can I really squeeze in a book published in 1891 by a writer I’ve never heard of?

The answer, of course, is yes!

George Gissing was a prolific English novelist of the late nineteenth century, who was mentioned a few times in The Age of Decadence. One of his best works is thought to be New Grub Street, which follows the lives of several literary men and women of modest to moderate talent and scant means trying to make their names in the 1880s. 

It’s not a pretty tale. The men with the most talent (Edwin Reardon and possibly Harold Biffen) are destroyed by poverty, as is an intelligent but horribly selfish literary critic, Alfred Yule. The most successful of the bunch is a hack writer, Jasper Milvain, a shallow fellow who pursues money at all cost, seeking the ultimate jackpot of a wealthy wife. The women (Amy Yule Reardon, Marian Yule, and Maud and Dora Milvain) are mainly downtrodden creatures whose happiness and well-being are dependent on whether or not they have men who can provide for them or inheritances that can be used to secure husbands. The theme appears to be that contentment is not possible without money. Although it’s a crass view of the world, the point is well demonstrated. As the novel drew to a close, I kept waiting for a reversal that would be somehow redemptive. Instead, it became apparent that the good people would be crushed and the not-very-good people would succeed by becoming truly awful people. It was agonizingly realistic. The lack of a pat, emotionally satisfying ending is what made the book so powerful.

Despite being written over a hundred years ago, the novel resonates with today’s issues around what constitutes “good” vs. popular literature, the reliability of journalism, and the dumbing-down effect of “mass media.” The explorations of the psyches of the main characters are fascinating. The story pulls the reader in slowly, but the plot builds and interweaves until it is hard to put down. There are startling flashes of wit and numerous clever passages that I wanted to read out loud to whoever was nearby (no doubt annoying my family.) 

I love books about writers. This one reminded me of Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, though that was based in France in the early nineteenth century. They are both superb classics.

The novel is still in print in various “classics editions” and I was able to get an ebook copy from my library. If this is your sort of thing, it isn’t hard to find!

Monday, August 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Age of Decadence. A History of Britain: 1880-1914 by Simon Heffer

 After reading Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine, I decided to continue the march through the history of the United Kingdom with The Age of Decadence. A History of Britain: 1880-1914 by Simon Heffer. 

At 897 pages, including notes and index, this was a time-consuming read, but the time passed quickly. The political history is seamlessly interspersed with social history, and it provided a wonderfully detailed big-picture analysis of how society progressed (women’s rights, labor movements, Home Rule for Ireland, increased literacy, and the emergence of a financially strong middle class) as Britain began to lose its grasp on its empire. Although generally thought of as a time when England was on top of the world, its wealthy people living decadent, carefree lives, it was actually a time of marked, sometimes violent, political upheaval and severe economic disparity. 

Heffer’s style is engaging, carrying me through this tome in a way that never made reading it feel like a chore. My only complaint is that it left me with too many topics and historical figures I want to explore further.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi

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

What a delightful history book! Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi is a short and sweet monograph that delivers exactly what the title promises. It makes no attempt to be a comprehensive history of the time, but rather provides a tantalizing taste of the roaring twenties, with chapters covering topics such as bootlegging, slang, the “new woman,” cars, aviation, crime, movies, literature, and more. Each short chapter is followed by themed cocktail recipes. While I suspect I will try one of these recipes before getting around to the vegan recipes from Eat Plants Feel Whole, I haven’t made one of the cocktails yet. (They are heavily oriented toward gin and rum, not favorites of mine, and I haven’t any of the other ingredients at hand.)  More likely, I’ll pick one and see if a local bartender will mix it up for me. But whether or not I indulge in the cocktail, I enjoyed the peek at the Jazz Age. I understand there is a companion volume of Gilded Age cocktails. I’ll have to read that one too.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our book group’s next book is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel about the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s. It is a devastating book.

The stage is set with the introduction of the main characters, who live in Southern Nigeria in the early 1960s. There is political unrest and discontent. There is vast socio-economic disparity. But there is peace.

Ugwu is a thirteen-year-old boy from the villages who comes to the university city to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor with high-minded, revolutionary ideals, but who lives a wealthy “ivory tower” existence amongst fellow intellectuals. His lover, Olanna, is the good-hearted, extraordinarily beautiful daughter of a local, corrupt chief–though “chief” isn’t the correct word in that culture. Olanna has a twin sister, Kainene, who is not at all beautiful, but who is a smart, strong businesswoman who knows how to work the corrupt system. Finally, there is Richard, a British journalist/writer who comes to Nigeria for its ancient art, falls in love with Kainene, and stays throughout the war. These characters are realistic, normal people living fairly unremarkable lives.

The novel starts slowly. It has a very character-driven narrative that serves to orient readers in time and place and to make them care about the people. The characters possess various strengths and weaknesses that make them more or less likeable. The relationships shape the drama. All the while, the political tension bubbles under the surface. The people of Biafra, the Igbo, don’t want to be a part of Nigeria (a largely Hausa-Fulani population). They try to secede. When war breaks out, relative privilege shelters the main characters from the worst privations for a while. But the war is inexorable. Eventually, the true horrors of violent killings, air raids, corruption, mistrust, cruelty, and above all, famine and starvation, reach throughout Biafra and are illustrated there on the pages. 

War stories are always depressing. Yet because this one was so recent, it seemed somehow more horrific. So much preventable suffering was largely ignored by the Western world. This is compounded by the knowledge that even though the war ended, the conflict is still ongoing.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson. I. Vows by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Nobel-prize winning Sigrid Undset is best known for her three-volume novel of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, published in 1920-1922. Less well known is her four-volume epic, The Master of Hestviken, otherwise known as Olav Audunsson. It’s also set in medieval Norway, but in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a generation before Kristin Lavransdatter.

Tiina Nunnally has undertaken a new translation of the masterwork. The first volume, Vows, was published last year.

In this superb historical novel, we meet Olav Audunsson as a boy on the verge of manhood, living with his foster family, a family headed by Steinfinn Toresson. He’s treated with a benign neglect alongside the children of the family. Steinfinn and his wife have other problems and don’t pay much attention to what the children are getting up to.

What makes Olav unique is his bond with the eldest daughter, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. When they were children, the two fathers betrothed them in a silly ceremony while drunk. There has been a general acceptance of the betrothal ever since, though no one takes it very seriously except the children themselves. They grow from playmates to best friends. Neither ever questions the belief that they will spend the rest of their lives together.

Olav reaches adolescence. He’s only a year older than Ingunn, but his hormones kick into gear. She adores him, trusts him completely, and is frighteningly innocent. After a critical battle in the adult world, one in which Olav takes part, there is much celebratory drinking and carousing, and Olav and Ingunn slip away and consummate their betrothal. Not a good idea.

Olav is years away from his majority. Ingunn is only about 15. Had the foster parents lived, the marriage might have been rushed ahead, validating the union. But Steinfinn dies of his battle wounds and his wife precedes him, dying rather mysteriously. Ingunn is now a ward of her uncles, who see her as too valuable to give to Olav who, though he may have property to inherit, has no important political connections. Thinking to improve his chances of gaining the bride he thinks of as rightfully his, Olav confesses to the local bishop that he and Ingunn have already slept together. Things go from bad to worse.

The two are parted for years while Olav tries to earn enough clout to claim Ingunn. The unfortunate Ingunn is shelved in a remote estate with an elderly aunt and even more elderly grandmother. It’s a frustrating existence for Olav and a stultifying one for poor Ingunn. 

The novel delves deep into the customs and beliefs of the times. It immerses the reader in the rhythms of their daily lives and the passing of years. It shows how lives are altered by unwise choices and how one mistake compounds another. And yet, through it all, there is a beauty in the love of this pair for one another. It is, according to the author, “the simple story of a man and the people who intervene in his life.” It is that, though Olav was much more active in shaping his own life than Ingunn was allowed to be. Her passivity is painful to a modern reader, but faithful to the historical reality, which makes the novel all that more compelling.

This is gorgeous, epic, old-fashioned historical fiction, in a beautifully fluid translation. I’m looking forward to continuing the saga in book 2.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

 Reviews that I’ve seen of Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng keep coming back to the word beautiful. 

Beginning in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's, the novel follows one particular family—Momo, Cassia, and their daughter Junie—and a talented musician, Dawn, whose life skirts the edges of theirs. The plot is fairly simple: circumstances bring the couple together, accumulated traumas pull them apart, and life draws them back together in unexpected ways. I don’t want to give anything away since the emotional punch of the book is in the unfolding of the relationships. The prose is spare and moving. The characters are subtly depicted but fully realized. 

I have to agree: this is a beautiful book.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Raphael: Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey

Earlier this year I read and loved Stephanie Storey’s Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo. I’ve been waiting to dive into her newest book, Raphael: Painter in Rome. Again, Storey brings Renaissance Italy alive through its art and artists. 

Raphael is a handsome, exceedingly charming young man from Urbino, whose life’s ambition is to be known as the world’s greatest painter. He wants to achieve nothing less than perfection. (These ambitions were instilled in him by his father, also a painter.) To achieve these ends, Raphael knows he must make his way to Rome and paint for the pope.

The Vatican in particular and Rome in general are hotbeds of political intrigue. Raphael is told time and again that he’s too nice for Rome. The lovely thing about this novel is that Raphael actually is nice. He succeeds because of it, not in spite of it, sometimes accidentally, sometimes from sheer dumb luck, and mostly because of his talent.

The book is told in Raphael’s voice and he is the only narrator. Although his rivalry with Michelangelo is every bit as tense and competitive as was Leonardo’s, in this novel we don’t get to see the world from both points of view. Raphael’s is the one that matters. He’s tired of being a peripheral figure in Michelangelo’s world and this is his chance to tell his side of things.

Raphael’s voice is witty, youthful, clever, a little bit smarmy—he comes across as every bit the courtier he’s known to be. He is inherently honest, a rare trait for a man in Rome, but learns to lie when necessary. He’s ambitious, but doesn’t let ambition ruin him, choosing to do the right thing even when it means thwarting his own aims.

The novel deals with the politics of the times only through the lens of how it affects the art, in particular the competition between Raphael and Michelangelo. The pope, a true patron of the arts for all his other, numerous flaws, decides that by making them competitors, he can wring the best work out of both. The competition makes for an exciting narrative. But it’s Rafael’s personal journey, independent of Michelangelo, that makes this a beautiful novel.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell

Despite being an avid historical fiction fan, I’ve never read a novel by Bernard Cornwell. Instead, when I decided it was time for me to learn some factual information about the Battle of Waterloo, I turned to Cornwell’s account: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles.

This is a wonderful explanation of the battle. It provides just enough lead-up to orient the reader, then gives a fascinating description of what took place over those four days (with the caveats that some details are unknowable.) While clearly favoring the Duke of Wellington and the British forces, Cornwell also pays attention to the Prussians under Blucher and, of course, Napoleon and his French armies. We learn about numerous commanders and the roles they played. We also learn about the heroics of common soldiers and the enormity of the tragedy. Although I’d known it was a huge battle with great losses on both sides, I hadn’t really grasped how huge, or how near the allied (British and Prussian) forces came to defeat. Even though the outcome is known, (spoiler alert: Napoleon loses!) the book is gripping.

There is a fair amount of repetitiveness in the writing. In some places, I felt it bogged down the narrative, but then again, in other places I was glad for the reminders as the scenes shifted from one part of the battle to another. I decided the repetitiveness helped for overall clarity. I came away with a much better appreciation for what took place.

Monday, July 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

 I saw this post: French Books You Can Read in One Sitting at the Readerbuzz blog and, having read half of them at one time or another, decided to tackle one that was new to me. 

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano (translated by Chris Clarke) is a lovely, sad novella that can be read for the beauty of the language and the intriguing structure and characters. I was pulled into it by the dream-like voice which continued on, with slight variation, through four different narrators. Their identities aren’t really important, except perhaps for Jacqueline (a.k.a. Louki), the female character at the center of the story. The others all tell of their fascination with the mysterious girl. When she speaks, relating her backstory, there is a frankness to it that should dispel the mystery, but doesn’t. It’s almost as if she doesn’t exist, despite drawing the attention of all the men she drifts near.

I’m not a huge fan of literature dealing with alienation. There is a hopelessness to those stories that seems melodramatic and a distance that keeps me from caring too much about the characters. (That distance is largely the point, but still.) Nevertheless, this book is touching and beautifully sorrowful. Of course it is. It’s French!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke Who Loved Me by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford’s newest Regency Romance looks to be the start of a new series. The Duke Who Loved Me is a pleasant romance, but more enjoyable for its side characters, the four young debutantes who are befriended by the heroine, than for the courting couple.

Miss Cecelia Vainsmede is an organized young woman, beautiful and intelligent, who has been managing the financial affairs of James Cantrell, the new Duke of Tereford since he was an orphaned lad of fifteen and she was the nine-year-old daughter of his trustee. As the man was a disinterested guardian, and James needed guidance, Cecelia stepped in to fill the void. She mediated between the two men for ten years, until James reached his majority. They have been frenemies all along. However, in recent years, Cecelia has fallen for James and wishes he would see her differently.

James Cantrell has just inherited the dukedom from a great uncle whom he never really knew. The man was a recluse. When James enters the London townhouse, he learns the man was also a hoarder. The mess is unmanageable. At least, for him. James is fairly good-hearted, but his only concerns are trivial ones: his own comfort and presenting himself to the ton as a handsome, fashionable sportsman. He prides himself on his boxing ability. He’s self-centered and, frankly, not too bright. It isn’t entirely clear what Cecelia sees in him, except for his good looks, their long acquaintance, and the fact that he has been kind to her sometimes in the past.

Cecelia is no longer a debutante. In fact, she’s in danger of ending up “on the shelf.” She’s had proposals in the past, but turned them down, waiting for love. Waiting for James. Things change abruptly when he inherits the new estate and is suddenly weighted down with responsibilities he doesn’t want. It dawns on him that, seeing as he needs a wife and hates that all the ambitious mothers are pushing daughters at him, he can kill two birds with one stone by marrying Cecelia and having her take over the management of his problems. He proposes about as romantically as that and is stunned when she refuses.

Cecelia decides to move on. A handsome, charming-if-somewhat-oily German prince is visiting London. He begins to pay particular attention to Cecelia. This awakes all of James’ competitive spirit and he tries to court her more earnestly. Things go disastrously awry.

James has a need for a very steep growth curve and, for the most part, the novel succeeds in growing him into a worthy husband for Cecelia. Still, it seemed the poor heroine deserved better than either of her two suitors. 

The commentary provided by Cecelia’s four new friends, who have embarked on their first Season and don’t like what they find, adds insight and some humor to the story. I like this author and will likely continue with the series, even though this book was not a favorite.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: All's Well by Mona Awad

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

Magical realism is my least favorite genre. However, I’m occasionally intrigued enough by a blurb for a story to give one of these novels a try. All’s Well by Mona Awad had an interesting premise, so I requested it. I found it impossible to put down.

Miranda Fitch is the unfortunate protagonist. A young woman, once an up-and-coming stage actress, Miranda suffered a fall during a performance of Macbeth which has left her with severe, debilitating, chronic pain. She has tried everything: surgery, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, psychiatry, and large doses of pain killers and muscle relaxants. Nothing helps. Suffering destroyed her career and her marriage. It has aged her beyond her years.

When it first became apparent that Miranda could not return to the stage, her husband urged her to apply for a teaching job in a small theater program at a local college. She was hired and has, for a few years, directed the annual student Shakespeare play. This year, she intends to direct All’s Well That Ends Well, a play she once starred in and remains obsessed with. However, the students, particularly the spoiled and minimally talented female leader of the theater group, Briana, want to put on Macbeth. Since Briana’s parents are the main financial supporters of the college’s theater program, Miranda finds herself backed into a corner by the administration.

So far, the novel hasn’t strayed from contemporary realistic fiction. It presents a horrifying picture of chronic pain syndromes. In particular, it demonstrates how chronic pain is poorly understood and how female pain, in particular, is perceived as not quite real. Because the myriad physicians and therapists Miranda sees are unable to find an anatomic reason for her pain, they are dismissive of it. Or are they? They continue to treat her to the best of their ability. However, they grow impatient with her and frustrated by her. Maybe they do believe her, but they can’t help her.

It’s not surprising that Miranda is unpleasant to be around. It’s understandable that she is so miserable that she spreads misery. I wanted to mentally distance myself from her, so I can imagine how her fictional friends, colleagues, and students wanted to avoid her. I found myself growing anxious, knowing that accidents happen and chronic pain can strike anyone. Yikes! Awad does a wonderful job of showing Miranda suffering the throes of pain and loneliness.

Then, things get weird. She meets three strange men, witches of a sort, in a bar. They seem, somehow, to know all about her. They offer her a drink, an elixir, that puts her into a dreamlike state, and they explain that pain can move. From person to person. Miranda discovers she can alleviate her pain by transferring it to others. And, naturally, there are people whom Miranda would like to see suffer.

Miranda is transformed from a suffering, somewhat unpleasant, but generally good person, to a giddy-with-health, sexy, playful, absolutely horrible person.

The magical, otherworldly part of this novel fits right in with its Shakespearean themes. Even though it’s weird, I was drawn into the weirdness. Miranda is such a believable character, that even when the world around her spirals out of control, even when she seems lost in other-worldliness, the story remains grounded in her struggle against what pain had done to her. Even though it’s in the magical realism genre, I was wowed by this thought-provoking book.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller

 The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller is a delightful mash-up of Victorian literature.

Colonel Pickering (of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady fame) is concerned about the young protegee Eliza Doolittle of his friend Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins took a pretty flower-seller from the streets of London into his home and, upon a wager with Pickering, set about turning her into a proper lady by teaching her to speak the queen’s English. Higgins has been so wildly successful (or Eliza has) that she seems a different girl altogether. Perhaps even a duchess or princess. Thus far, the story is a familiar one. However in this novel, Pickering is afraid she is a different girl altogether and the original Eliza may have come to harm.

What else is Pickering to do, but call upon on old army friend, Dr. Watson, to see if Watson knows anything about the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Is he still working? Can he be found?

Watson and Holmes have long since retired. They are old men now. Holmes has taken up bee-keeping in the country. But Watson is intrigued by Pickering’s story. He writes to Holmes, who invites the men to his home, then takes the case.

Holmes has aged. His mental acuity is perhaps not as sharp as it once was. Or, perhaps this case is more difficult than any he has encountered before. Still, he’s determined to solve it. He adopts the persona of a shady American businessman who has come to see Higgins for elocution lessons. Watson is his personal secretary. They begin to investigate.

I was intrigued by the premise. After all, the Pygmalion story is far-fetched on its surface. And it’s possible Sherlock Holmes could put a new spin on the tale. But the author has more in store for the reader than this. The title of the book should have been a clue. He also incorporates the horror story Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the mix.

There is a lot going on in the story but the author manages to make it all work. This is largely due to the wonderful, convincing voice of Watson as narrator and the skill with which the author immerses us in early twentieth-century London. A general familiarity with the three main stories will increase the reader’s enjoyment, but you don’t have to be a Holmes fanatic to get the references.

Friday, July 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney

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

The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney is a newly-released historical novel set in England during the Restoration. (The novel starts in 1665.)

The heroine is a young Catholic gentlewoman, Alethea, sent to London by her stepmother to serve as a a companion to another family. Mainly, the stepmother wanted to be rid of her so her own children would be heirs. Alethea’s beloved older brother, William, had been exiled to France after he killed a man in a duel. Her father is a distant figure. Alethea is quite alone.

In these difficult times (religious persecution and plague), Alethea has to downplay or hide her Catholicism, a fact that doesn’t bother her except when she thinks of her devout, deceased mother.

The woman Alethea is staying with in London (Lady Culverton) takes against her when the man of the house (Lord Culverton) seems to be taking too much interest in her. Alethea is sent off on a fool’s errand while the rest of the household escapes to the countryside to get away from the plague. Clearly, the woman intended Alethea would die. She does not.

Instead, she decides to walk back home to her family estate, Measham Hall, convinced her father, at least, will welcome her.

It’s not a very safe plan and she is almost instantly attacked, but she is rescued by a lowborn, independent-minded man named Jack, who is also walking away from London. They end up in the forest, taken in by a small group of religious dissenters. Alethea adapts quickly, dropping her religion in exchange for theirs, primarily because of their charismatic leader, Samuel.

When this life is disrupted, she begins her trek home anew, this time accompanied by one of the young women from the group. Along the way, Alethea learns her entire nuclear family died from the plague except William, who is still missing. She decides that rather than present herself at the estate, she will impersonate her missing brother, in order to avoid being shunted aside by more distant relatives eager to claim the property.

The novel presents the debates over religion in the Restoration period in an interesting way, allowing Alethea to adopt different beliefs as she goes along, internally and sometimes externally debating the issues. However, in religion, as in pretty much all aspects of her life, Alethea is fickle, adopting whatever beliefs and actions are most convenient at the time, allowing her to get what she wants. She doesn’t have strong convictions and her main moral guide seems to be Machiavelli, whose teachings she reads about in a book gifted to her by Lord Culverton.

Alethea is a sympathetic character at first. She is kind and means well but is almost painfully naive in the ways of the world and suffers for it. However, over time, she learns how the world works and is happy to shed principles in order to arrange things to her liking. She becomes less and less likeable as the story progresses. It’s interesting to watch her transformation and the novel is satisfying as a character study, even though the plot is a bit slow and, in parts, a bit far-fetched. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge by Brad Asher

 History buffs, particularly readers interested in the U.S. Civil War, Kentucky history, or “Lost Cause-ism,” should put Brad Asher’s latest book, The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge on their reading lists.

This newly-released biography of Kentuckian Stephen Burbridge primarily focuses on the 11 months (March 1864-February 1865) when Burbridge was the military commander of Kentucky. Ambitious and fervently Unionist, Burbridge had the unenviable task of shepherding the state through a period of enlistment of Black soldiers into the Union Army. Asher makes a compelling case that it was the commander’s willingness to enlist slaves, a process that resulted in their emancipation and sounded the death-knell for the continuation of slavery in the state, that earned him the enmity of white Kentuckians, whether they be Confederate sympathizers or Unionists.

Burbridge had a storied career that included varying degrees of success as a soldier and commander, followed by the near-impossible tasks of 1) recruiting enough Kentucky soldiers to serve the war effort AND protect the state from Confederate raiders and guerillas, and 2) navigating the wartime and post-war politics of the divided loyalties of Kentuckians. These included those fully committed to the Union cause and those only nominally committed, so long as there was no Federal interference with their “right” to own other human beings. To that mix, one must throw in Confederates returning to the state following the war and swaying the sympathies of the state to the Lost Cause of the South. This succeeded to the extent that, even today, many people have a hard time believing that Kentucky was not part of the Confederacy.

Burbridge, whose zeal for the cause of the winning side should logically have seen him rewarded with post-war political appointments, instead became such a lightning rod for Kentuckians’ anger at the war’s outcome (emancipation) that he became a pariah. He spent the remainder of his life exiled from his home and regarded as the state’s most hated man.

This meticulously researched, readable, scholarly work brings to light a little-remembered Civil War Union leader—little remembered outside of Kentucky, at least—and, through the lens of his life, examines broader issues of historical memory and the enduring myths of the Lost Cause.

Full-disclosure: the author of this superb biography is my brilliant husband! That didn’t influence this review (but it’s the reason I read the book!)