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!)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

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

The Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis is the 9th book in the Flavia Albia series, historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I’ve been following Albia since book one, The Ides of April, and followed her informer/detective adoptive father, Falco, throughout his 20-book career. So, I’m obviously hooked on Davis’ novels.

The current book is set during Saturnalia, party time in Rome, which is currently under the rule of Emperor Domitian. Albia is looking for work, but discouraged by the holiday break in family discord, which is where she generally finds clients. Her husband, Tiberius Manlius, a soon-to-be retired aedile is still searching out small-time corruption occurring on his watch. However, he stumbles onto dangerous large scale, mob-type criminal behavior by investigating holiday nuts gone bad. Someone is muscling in on the nut trade, making a profit selling rotten product. Needless to say, the threat is bigger than bad nuts.

Albia manages to scrounge up a client, a woman whose husband is allegedly straying, and tackles the investigation while simultaneously attempting to provide a holiday atmosphere for her disorganized household, which now includes Tiberius’ two young recently orphaned nephews. 

The novel is a little slow to start, but that’s because the groundwork must be laid for the interconnecting plot lines. Albia’s trademark cynical observations and snarky wisecracks give the story its familiar voice, but at times, I wanted the mystery to move along a little faster. When it does kick in though, the pace picks up and clues come fast and furious. Albia is a brave and smart investigator and her husband is a reliable sidekick. 

The author manages to bring all the various threads together to solve the mysteries and dispense justice. There are even satisfying glimpses of the old crowd (Falco, Petro, Helena) for nostalgia purposes. The series continues to entertain.

Monday, July 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Man of the World by Layne Maheu

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

Man of the World by Layne Maheu tells a story of the early days of aviation when airplanes were experimental, exciting, and dangerous. In these heady optimistic times, many intrepid investors and adventurers were determined to make it possible for people to fly.

The hero of the novel is Hubert Latham, a restless adventurer who finds a focus for his ambition in piloting a French-designed plane, financed in part by the father of the woman with whom he is hopelessly in love. The woman, Antoinette, loves Latham in return, but she’s married with a toddler son. It’s a little unclear why she married someone else, but it may have been that their families were against the match, though that’s also unexplained since the families had been friendly, vacationed together, and seemed to have been of the same social class. 

A second main character is Auguste, a young man who leaves his father’s farm and the deaf girl he loves in order to follow Latham and his crew. They have taken him on as a mechanic, but he seems to be more of a mascot. They’ve named him “Potato,” half mockingly and half affectionately. He narrates some of the activity surrounding the attempts to take to the air–particularly the attempts to be the first to cross the Channel from Calais to Dover. 

Auguste is aware that Latham is infatuated with Antoinette (after whom the successive planes made by their investment group are named) but he isn’t really privy to their meetings or secret exchanges. His observations of things are always somewhat superficial and bewildered.

The scenes describing the fledgling flights are interesting and Latham’s struggles are heroic. But much of the book is bogged down in long passages where nothing really happens. One of the observers, César, a friend of Latham’s, is given to lengthy philosophical musing. The scenes between Latham and Antoinette are murky and strained. Potato’s guilelessness works to introduce him to this group, but as the story progresses, his presence distracts from the action. Overall, the story has great potential but is so diffused that the pace slowed to a crawl and the plot fizzled to its end.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Lover by Mary Lancaster

 Despite my mountainous TBR pile, I’m always thrilled to add a new favorite writer to my list. I’m currently enjoying the Crime and Passion series by Mary Lancaster. I reviewed Book 1 and Book 2 earlier, and just finished Book 3, Dangerous Lover.

The constant in the series is the delightful crime-solving couple, the unconventional Lady Grizelda and her revolutionary-in-exile husband, Dragan Tizsa.

The most recent novel features Alexandra Battle. After following her criminally charming pianist father across Italy, Alexandra takes refuge in London, respectably caring for children as a governess. She’s very good at it. She finds herself hired to look after a six-year-old girl with a penchant for temper tantrums. The girl is the daughter of Sir Nicholas Swan, a man with a shady, rakish past, also recently returned to England from Italy.

The novel follows the expected trajectory as far as the relationship goes, but takes some adventurous detours. Nicholas is not what he seems. Alexandra’s past comes back to haunt her. And Dragan and Griz, while only secondary characters in this book, do come through to help with their usual panache.

This series is loads of fun, with well-developed protagonists and a charming love story.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: When a Duke Loves a Governess by Olivia Drake

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

Olivia Drake’s Unlikely Duchesses series are fun Regency Romances. See my previous review of Forever My Duke (Book two).  The third book is When a Duke Loves a Governess

Tessa James is the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid and an unknown member of the aristocracy. Her mother died in an accident when Tessa was only six, and she was raised in an orphanage/workhouse, then apprenticed at age fourteen to a milliner. She has been saving her pennies for years, hoping to earn enough to set up her own millinery shop, but realizes she’ll never save enough. So, she’ll have to locate the father who seduced then abandoned her mother, and convince him to loan her the money. The only clue she has about his identity is a gold locket given to her by her mother, with a small coat of arms on the back.

While working at the hat shop, Tessa overhears two ladies gossiping about the duke of Carlin, a widower with a four-year-old daughter. They say the duke has lost yet another governess, because his daughter is an impossible brat. Of course, he’ll soon be seeking another.

Tessa resolves to present herself for the position in order to get her foot in the door of “the ton” to search for clues about her father’s identity. Although she’s not technically qualified and is certainly not of the correct social class, she does have experience caring for children (in the orphanage), and she has some experience with society (eavesdropping at the shop.) But she can’t use those credentials, so she lies.

Carlin is underwhelmed by Tessa’s interview and doesn’t quite believe her story, but she is persuasive and he’s desperate, so he agrees to give her a week’s trial. She does have a way with the girl, so one week extends to another, despite the fact that he learns much of what Tessa told him was untrue.

Carlin is extraordinarily virile and handsome (naturally) and Tessa is beautiful and spirited (naturally.) She helps him connect with his daughter. Moreover, she connects with him. She’s interested in his scientific endeavors. (He spent the last four years traveling the globe, collecting plants and animals to study. He’d never expected to become duke; he was fourth in line to inherit, but a series of accidents and illness left him with the title.) He’s forgiving of her falsehoods and intrigued by her mysterious past. Before long, they are fooling around, despite both of them knowing the relationship can go nowhere.

The plot is busy, with thievery and possible murder alongside the progression of the romance, the reconciliation between Carlin and his daughter, and Tessa’s search for her father. But the author pulls it all together in the end. The hero is sensitive. The heroine is clever and brave. Although the situations are contrived, it’s Romance! I’ll keep following this series.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Eat Plants Feel Whole by Dr. George E. Guthrie

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

Did I think this blog was not eclectic enough? Eat Plants Feel Whole by Dr. George E. Guthrie is different from everything I’ve reviewed before. It isn’t quite what I expected. (I didn’t read the description carefully enough.) Nevertheless, I’m glad to have gotten it from Netgalley. It was a worthwhile read. (Or should be. That remains to be seen.)

I requested the book already very aware of the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet. But as an unrepentant carnivore, I was looking for a not-so-drastic way to decrease meat and increase whole grains and vegetables. I thought this was a vegan recipe book. While there are recipes and meal plans at the end of the book, the first part is more instructional/motivational. 

The author is a wellness physician who guides people toward healthier lifestyles. There are many anecdotes of patients who were able to reverse their diabetes, cholesterol elevations, lose weight, etc. There are also fairly comprehensive discussions of micro and macronutrients–how much do we need? Where can those nutrients best be found?

For readers who want a firm foundation before embarking on a new, healthier lifestyle, this book provides that. For those who want motivation to make a change, this book is certainly inspiring. It’s lengthy for all that, and I found myself skimming a good deal, though I slowed down when parts of the book hit home.

The recipes that I was hoping for come in the second half of the book. I had fully intended to try a few for this review. However, in what I consider a poor omen for committing to this particular lifestyle change, we suddenly have a lot going on in our lives (emerging from our pandemic antisocial stupor), and this review is so long overdue that I didn’t want to put it off any longer. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, I’ll post an update.

For now, this is a comprehensive guide to plant-based eating. If you are someone interested in what all that entails and how it could be beneficial, this book can help.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

 It seems whenever I’ve read anything about Shakespeare, fiction or nonfiction, there has been a tantalizing glimpse of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe somewhere in the background. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, also a playwright and poet, a witty, aggressively misbehaving genius, who died too young. It’s also pretty well established, though difficult to prove, that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth.

A Tip for the Hangman
by Allison Epstein is a superb newly released historical novel that takes what is known about Kit Marlowe and runs with it. Beginning with his impoverished student days at Cambridge, the novel guides Marlowe (and the reader) through the twists and turns of Elizabethan political intrigue and the Protestant-Catholic struggles. By focusing on Marlowe, the story avoids getting bogged down in the historical complexities, but nevertheless presents a richly detailed picture of the problem as well as a fascinating look at the man.

Kit Marlowe is a complicated protagonist. Admired by most, loved by few, and hated by many, Marlowe had a difficult life made more difficult by his obvious, multifaceted genius. His wit could be cruel. He could be crude. He was a blasphemous atheist. His loyalties were to his friends and to the man he loved, not to any greater cause. But it was the “greater cause” that ruled his life and that ended it, though he would have preferred to live long, love well, and write plays.

The pace of the story builds throughout. Marlowe is a conflicted man who sees that each choice he makes has disturbing consequences, and much of the time he is forced merely to choose the lesser of two evils. Choice may not even be the right word, since he is often coerced along the path by events beyond his control, or by mistakes he should have avoided but could not, being the man that he was.

This life of Marlowe’s making is a stew of moral ambiguity. The reader is confronted with the difficult questions and quandaries the artist/spy faced. Epstein’s marvelous writing and careful plotting twine together Marlowe’s art and his reality. The heart-wrenching ending of the book is a masterful culmination of all Marlowe worked for and all he worked to avoid.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache by Jenni L. Walsh

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

A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache
by Jenni L. Walsh is a historical adventure following the escapades of Simone Jules a.k.a. Madame Eleanor Dumont a.k.a. Madame Moustache, a female croupier who made a name for herself in the American West during the Gold Rush era of the mid-nineteenth century. A real-life historical figure, Madame Moustache pops up here and there in the historical record and is known for popularizing the card game “twenty-one” or “vingt-et-un.”

Following a great personal tragedy, the young Simone Jules made her way from New Orleans to San Francisco in order to start anew. She left behind her old life, including a fiancé. Arriving in California, Simone discovered there were few options available to single women, aside from the obvious. But she was not interested in pursuing any of those careers. Rather she wanted to earn her keep by gambling, playing the card game her mother had taught her. Vingt-et-un was unfamiliar to the men of the city, primarily gold miners, and she was able to tap into the riches they were pulling from the ground.

Gold mining was a boom and bust occupation. Therefore, so was gambling. Simone had to pick up and move many times to follow the money, living in circumstances ranging from the dubious comforts of a thriving boomtown to the primitive settings of miners’ camps. Along the way, she loves and loses, and struggles with wanted and unwanted (mostly unwanted) attention from men.

The novel does a lovely job of making the world come alive and fitting it into the historical context of the day. It’s interesting to see a woman make an unconventional life for herself. Nevertheless, I never really connected with the protagonist, even though I admired her pluck. Her emotions were convincingly described, but I wasn’t moved by them. Maybe it’s because her strongest love was always for her card game. Even so, I recommend this novel for its careful portrayal of a nineteenth-century woman who was determined to live in a man’s world on her own terms.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is one of my favorite historical Romance writers. I’ve been following her A Westcott Novel series since the beginning, seven books ago. The underlying premise is that upon the death of the earl of Riverdale, it was discovered that his marriage had been bigamous. His three children--two daughters and his son (the heir)-- were immediately disinherited and ostracized by the ton. His fortune went to his firstborn, a daughter, who had been raised in an orphanage and then became a teacher there. His entailed properties went to a cousin.

The Westcott family is large and extended. The novels follow the various courtships and marriages of the daughters, the unfortunate wife who was not legally a wife, cousins, aunts, and now, with Someone to Cherish, the disinherited son.

Harry Westcott was twenty years old at the time of his father’s death. He had a couple of weeks to enjoy his new status of earl and head of the family before his world came crashing down. Lost and helpless, he joined the army and fought against Napoleon. He was badly wounded and took years to recover. Now, he lives at an old family estate in the country, Hinsford Manor. His step-sister (the legitimate heiress) owns the property but has essentially given it to him, if he would only take it.

Harry is content with his life, but his family (the whole huge lot of them) worry about him. He’s about to turn thirty and he’s alone. The women decide to throw him a surprise party and do some matchmaking.

The town of Hinsford is small and everyone knows everyone. Harry is treated with all the courtesy and respect that would have been his if he were still an earl. (Although they call him Major instead of milord.) One of the townspeople--Harry’s neighbor, in fact-- is the young widow of the previous vicar. The vicar was a well-regarded zealot who died saving a local youth from drowning. His wife, his helpmeet, is the largely invisible Mrs. Lydia Tavernor. Lydia lived in her husband’s shadow, echoing his good works. She has completed her year of mourning and is beginning to emerge into society. But though she has discovered a few close female friends, she still does her best to remain inconspicuous. It’s difficult being the pious widow of a martyred vicar.

Lydia is determined never to marry again. She’s had enough of overbearing males in her life. But she’s lonely. She wonders what it would be like to take a lover. Specifically, she wonders what it would be like to have an affair with Harry Westcott.

This is not something she would ever act upon. Except, after a quiet evening of cards and music at the home of mutual friends, Harry is prevailed upon to walk her home. They have never had a real conversation before, despite being neighbors, but both enjoy the short walk. As they arrive at her home, a small cottage that she keeps by herself, she asks Harry if he’s ever lonely. Although she doesn’t finish the thought, it’s clear to him what he’s asking and what she’s offering. Nothing happens that night, but he returns the next day to further the friendship, because he is lonely too. Things take their course. Scandal ensues, the culmination coinciding with the arrival of the extended Westcott brood for Harry’s surprise party.

The novel is lovely. The plot unfolds a bit slowly since there is a lot of backstory to cover, largely to catch the reader up on Harry’s family. It’s nice to be reminded of the lot of them, though it would probably be overwhelming (and maybe unnecessary) for readers jumping in here or having jumped in somewhere in the middle. I’d recommend reading the series in order, although it will require a significant investment of time by now.

Harry and Lydia make a fine couple. Harry has a painful past to overcome, but he has made great strides already and finding his own true love is the final step for him. Lydia also has had a difficult past. Her marriage was not what people imagine and it’s a leap of faith to imagine another marriage would be different. 

Mary Balogh has a gift for creating sympathetic characters, protagonists to root for, and a large, warm supporting cast. I’ll continue reading about Westcotts as long as she keeps writing about them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine

 I bought Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine a couple of years ago, because I wanted to have a historical framework for all the period Romances I keep reading. This is, according the to book jacket, “The new, definitive history of the nineteenth century in Britain from one of the world’s most authoritative historians.” 

My intentions were good, but the book was rather an intimidating doorstop, so it took awhile before I got up the motivation to read it.

The book is an impressive undertaking. It’s primarily a political and economic history, walking the reader through the successive prime ministers and their cabinets. It does a good job of presenting the major political questions of the times and explaining where the Tories stood versus the Whigs on the issues, and how that evolved into the Conservatives versus the Liberals. The various wars fought by the British during those years are folded into the timeline, but are not given particular emphasis. The monarchs are mentioned, but take a backseat to the politicians. And there is a smidgen of social history, listing some of the writers and artists of the age. It’s densely written, interesting but not a page turner. The author provides a massive amount of information, but keeps a steady focus to make it a manageable book.

Given that my knowledge of the history was pretty cursory, this was a good place to start for a general outline, but there is no way I could absorb all the political information. Some things stood out as areas I’d like to read about in more depth, but a lot of the other information blurred as I read on. It would be interesting to re-read the book after more in-depth exploration of the time period, but I doubt I’ll have that much motivation. I’ll settle for the big picture this book provided.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Ridgeline by Michael Punke

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

The problem with books about the American West and wars between the Native Americans and U.S. Army is that no matter how beautifully written, they are melancholy; and no matter how exciting, you know how the story will ultimately end.

is a new release by the Western Historical novelist Michael Punke. It is a meticulously detailed (if fictionalized) account of the 1866 battle between the soldiers at the newly constructed Fort Phil Kearny in current-day Wyoming and the combined forces of the Lakota and their allies. Red Cloud was the primary leader, but in this novel, the focus is on the visionary young Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse and his people watch with horror and anger as white soldiers move into the Powder River Valley, a sacred hunting ground, and begin cutting down trees to build a fort.

The army is led by Colonel Henry Harrington, who is more engineer than soldier. His top commanders are a mixed bunch of infantry, artillery, and cavalry men. There are also civilians in the group, including women and children (meaning that this group of white soldiers is here to stay). There is also Jim Bridger, a well-known scout, who is beginning to question his role. 

For the most part, the Lakota are intelligent, brave, and thoughtful. They are brutal only when necessary. Crazy Horse is a brilliant strategist, but is also humble enough to listen to the wisdom of others and to accept responsibility without demanding praise or credit. The white soldiers, on the other hand, with few exceptions, are argumentative, vainglorious, and largely incompetent. They drink too much. They are undisciplined and ill-trained. The villain of the novel, Lieutenant Grummond, is the worst of the worst, even mistreating his pregnant wife.

Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, the author sets the stage for an epic battle. Some chapters are less gripping than others, occasionally slowing the pace in the first part of the book. But overall, the multifaceted stage setting works, bringing the reader deeply into the time and place. The tension is there from the beginning, building slowly, until the action explodes in the final chapters.

This is a wonderfully written Western that is an old-fashioned historical adventure but with more modern sensibility. It’s not a feel-good story, but it is a satisfying read.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The first of Emma Donoghue’s books that I read was Slammerkin, many years ago. Although un-put-downable, I didn’t like it: it was too brutal, the protagonist too awful. I didn’t return to the author until Room, which everyone insisted was a must-read. And it was. Donoghue is an extraordinary writer. I read her most recent historical, The Pull of the Stars, and decided I really need to work through her backlist. So, I just finished The Wonder.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, it is after the famine years of failed potato harvests, but the land is still drenched with poverty and is just staving off hunger. People need to eat to live, a tragic fact when there isn’t enough food. But what if they didn’t?

So when one little girl stops eating on her eleventh birthday, and goes without food for four months yet remains healthy and happy, the small community celebrates the miracle. The girl’s elderly doctor sends a off a report, convinced that he is involved in a great medical discovery. The child’s parents and priest are convinced they are nurturing a future saint. All that is needed is proof. A committee of townsmen sends for two nurses to watch over the child, Anna, for two weeks, to confirm that she is eating nothing. One nurse is a Catholic nun. The other, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, is an Englishwoman, a nurse trained in the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale.

Lib arrives in the Irish backwater with her mind closed, her decision made. She isn’t there to confirm the miracle, but to expose the fraud. She’s appalled by the weather, the food, the accommodations, and the fanatical superstitious religiousness of the local people. She mistrusts them all, wondering how many are in on the fraud and how many are simply gullible. She’s unimpressed, too, by the Catholic nun who is more concerned with obeying orders than with the child.

Over the first few days, Lib concentrates on discovering how food is being surreptitiously delivered. When she can find no evidence of this, she starts focusing on Anna. Why won’t the girl eat? And as it becomes clear that Anna is starving to death, Lib’s main concern becomes saving the child’s life.

Donoghue immerses the reader in the world of the protagonist, whose own murky backstory is only slowly revealed to the reader as the puzzle of Anna also starts to become clear. The novel’s momentum builds as Lib and the reader come to appreciate the strength of all the forces combined against the child, including the child’s own will.

The Wonder is beautifully written, horrifying, sad, and ultimately hopeful. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Coldwater Revenge by James A. Ross

I don’t generally read contemporary thrillers, but having enjoyed the historical thriller, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt by James A. Ross, I decided to try Book 1 of his A Coldwater Mystery series: Coldwater Revenge.

Tom Morgan, a high-powered corporate lawyer arrives in his old hometown of Coldwater (just south of the Canadian border) for a short family visit. He calls it a vacation, but he’s come home because his mother broke her leg and his younger brother’s family could use a bit of help caring for her. His brother, Joe, is a busy man. Joe is the local sheriff, who inherited the position, with all it entails, from their father.

The two brothers are both hard-driven, grasping, intelligent men, but there the similarities end. Tom fled the small-town life, leaving behind a failed romance and the disillusionment of discovering his father was not the hero he’d thought him to be. Joe embraced it all.

No sooner does Tom return home when a local ne’er-do-well, Billy Pearce, is discovered drowned in the lake, clearly murdered.

The murder interests Tom because that failed romance from his past was with Susan Pearce, Billy’s sister. Susan is back in town as well, working for a pharmaceutical research company, a start-up with very shady business practices. Tom may not have Joe’s skills at criminal detective work, but he knows a good deal about shady business practices. Joe enlists Tom’s help, partly because he can use it and partly to keep him from zipping back to New York to deal with an urgent corporate legal mess. Tom stays, partly to help but partly because of Susan.

The investigation branches out to include local small-time drug dealers, big-time pseudo-researchers, a jaded priest who might be a pedophile, and potential terrorists. As Tom casts his net wider, he finds he can’t even exclude Susan from suspicion, or even Joe.

The plotting is taut; the characters are intriguing, and the setting is vividly described. Even though contemporary thrillers are not my usual fare, I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why She Wrote by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman and Kaley Bales

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

Why She Wrote: A Graphic History of the Lives, Inspiration, and Influence Behind the Pens of Classic Women Writers
by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman, and Kaley Bales is an interesting book highlighting female authors presented in an original way. 

Eighteen authors are showcased including well-known figures like the Brontes, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Louisa May Alcott, as well as more obscure writers like Elizabeth Gaskell, Frances E.W. Harper, Edith Maude Eaton, and others.

Grouped into sets of three, the text explores six themes that loosely tie each of the three together. Short biographies are provided, followed by a few pages of a graphic novelization of an event or turning point in the author’s life.

While the biographies are necessarily short and cursory, they are a fine jumping off point for those interested in these writers and an encouragement to seek out more. The graphic history portions provide vignettes that help to fix the information in the reader’s mind and individualize the women.

Bibliographies are given for each author and there is also a list of resources for further reading.

Friday, May 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Undercover Duke by Sabrina Jeffries

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

I enjoyed book three in the Duke Dynasty series by Sabrina Jeffries, Who Wants to Marry a Duke, despite not having read the first two books. The series includes a murder mystery (at least three murders) that remained unsolved, but hinted at, at the end of book three. It left me intrigued enough to want to learn whodunnit.

Book Four, Undercover Duke, solves the mystery satisfactorily, but the romance fell flat.

The basis for the series is that Lydia Fletcher married three dukes in succession, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Her sons, by different fathers, have teamed up to solve the case. Previous novels have matched up two of the sons with feisty brides. The remaining son, Sheridan Wolfe, Duke of Armitage, has no wish to marry. When he was young, he had fallen in love with a woman who died of consumption before they could wed. He never wants to feel that pain again.

However, he is drawn to Vanessa Pryde, a distant cousin, who he first met about a year and a half earlier. She has an awful mother who is trying to marry her off. But Vanessa has carried a torch for Sheridan ever since they first met and is uninterested in anyone her mother pushes at her.

The hero and heroine refuse to admit that they are interested in one another. Vanessa pretends to be chasing after a playwright (who happens to be a close friend of her cousin, one of Sheridan’s step-brothers.) She is hoping to make Sheridan see that she is no longer a child and to make him jealous.

For his part, Sheridan is jealous. But he gets assigned the task of investigating Vanessa’s awful mother, who is one of the suspects in the murder investigation. So he pretends to court Vanessa to get close to her mother, while pretending to Vanessa that he is helping her make the playwright jealous. (This is NOT the most convoluted part of the plot; that would be the relationships between the brothers. I hadn’t found it hard to follow book three without having read the others, but this one suffers from the lack of detailed backstory. It would probably be best to read the whole series in order.)

Vanessa is a pleasant, intelligent heroine, who is far too forgiving of Sheridan’s lies and far too guilty about her own rather minor deception. Much of the book is overwrought worrying that could be readily dispelled by a simple conversation. Instead, she tries to win him over with sex.

Sheridan refuses to fall in love, but has no qualms about lusting after Vanessa. The novel relies too much on sex to drive the relationship and fill pages. His primary emotions seem to be jealousy and uncontrollable desire. He just isn’t likeable as a protagonist.

There is some entertaining banter, but also some clunky conversation. And the dialogues during sex were awkwardly corny/strained.

Overall, I think this book would have been more enjoyable had I been more invested in the series. I shouldn’t have started mid-series.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Wicked Conceit by Anna Lee Huber

I have yet to be disappointed by one of Anna Lee Huber’s A Lady Darby Mystery novels, set in Scotland and London in the 1830s. The latest release is A Wicked Conceit.

The detective couple Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, Sebastian Gage, are about to become parents. Having just returned from solving their last crime (in A Stroke of Malice), they had decided to take a break from investigative work until after the birth of their baby. No such luck.

An anonymously authored book has just been published based on the life of a leading figure of the underworld, Bonnie Brock Kincaid. This criminal villain has crossed paths with Kiera and Gage several times before. Although ruthless, he has a soft spot for Kiera, especially since she helped him find his younger sister, Maggie, the only person he truly cares about. Gage can’t stand him and doesn’t trust him.

The anonymous book throws an unwelcome spotlight on Kincaid, endangering his enterprises and emboldening his rivals. The book is a mixture of truth and falsehood. Unfortunately, one of the falsehoods is that Lady “Dalby” and the criminal had an affair and that the baby she now carries is not her husband’s. All of society knows that Lady Dalby is a thinly veiled reference to Lady Darby.

If the book weren’t bad enough, theaters throughout Edinburgh adapt the story into wildly successful plays. Once again, Kiera is the subject of malicious gossip.

As a sidenote, the plays make Kincaid out to be a swashbuckling hero, and a rash of petty crimes imitating his partly fictional exploits has broken out. The police are furious, Kincaid is furious, and Gage and Kiera are furious. All parties are desperate to discover the author, especially when rumors of a sequel start circulating.

Kiera and Gage begin investigating authorship, but when the publisher is murdered, they find themselves seeking the killer. The tension is heightened by Kiera’s imminent due date. AND, for added conflict, Kiera has not yet told Gage a family secret she learned in the previous book. She fears that when he finds out, he’ll be devastated. And angry at her for not telling him sooner.

A Wicked Conceit is fast-paced and well-plotted. The relationship between Kiera and her husband is strong, but still has a few kinks to be worked out, which keeps the romance angle fresh. The series continues to impress! 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

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

I’ve been reading a string of “contemporary” novels lately, and thought this—Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau—was another, until I realized the setting is 1970s Baltimore. So it’s about fifty years ago, which puts it more into the historical realm, even though it feels contemporary to me. (The fourteen-year-old narrator refers to the back of the station wagon as “the wayback,” a nostalgic jolt. I don’t think anyone calls it that anymore.)

Mary Jane is from a straight-laced, uptight, Roland Park family. Her father is a lawyer who ignores her. Her mother is a housewife who keeps house rigidly, and who has taught Mary Jane how to cook with a military precision, as well as how to behave properly. When Mary Jane is asked to be a summer nanny for the five-year-old daughter of new neighbors, her mother agrees since the father is a doctor. (They don’t know he’s a psychiatrist. They are disturbed by the fact that he’s Jewish, but her mother decides his being a doctor makes up for that.)

Mary Jane is shocked and excited by her first day of work. The parents are relaxed to a fault; the house is a mess; there is no cooking or cleaning, No discipline. But the whole family is kind, warm, and loving and the precocious daughter is a delight. After a short time, the real reason they need a nanny is revealed. The couple will be hosting one of Dr. Cone’s patients, the rock star Jimmy, and his wife, the movie star/singer Sheba for the summer. Jimmy is a recovering heroin addict and Dr. Cone is his therapist. The couple needs to remain incognito, and Mary Jane is sworn to secrecy.

This is a heartwarming coming-of-age story. Mary Jane quickly learns that there is a wide world outside of her experience. She learns what parts of her upbringing to appreciate and what parts to shed. She is incredibly naive in many ways, but also wise beyond her years. The ending is a bit abrupt, with a rather pat reconciliation with her mother, but otherwise, it’s a fine look back at being a kid and growing up in the seventies.

Friday, May 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky

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

Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky is a funny contemporary novel that deals with a very unfunny topic.

Wren is a thirty-something grant writer for an international infrastructure NGO (Operation Sewage) whose dreams of being an investigative journalist petered out when she realized she needed a steady salary with benefits. She’s content with her life, which includes a small circle of good friends, a cat, an obsession with The Bachelor, a disappointing string of boyfriends, and a lifelong best-friendship with a successful TV star: Stewart Beasley. Although they see each other infrequently, and bicker frequently, the friendship (which began from birth) is solid. They are each other’s mainstays.

However, the novel opens with Wren receiving word of Stewart’s sudden unexpected death. 

Wren is in shock. She stumbles through the next few days, including the funeral, unable to cry. She finds herself helplessly trying to comfort people who she believes cannot be as devastated as she is. She copes by imagining funeral details for people she comes across, friends and strangers. (These imaginary funerals are bitingly funny.) However, Wren grows increasingly infuriated by the hangers-on, who claim a closer friendship to him than they have, who think they know Stewart better than she does. (Didn’t she and Stewart used to mock these people?)

Wren has always been intimidated by Stewart’s mother, so is surprised when the mother asks her to clean out Stewart’s apartment and sort through his belongings. To do this, she has to work with Stewart’s lawyer friend, George. (The one bright spot. George is a good guy.) If the task was not painful enough, the apartment is descended upon by those same, awful hangers-on, all claiming they are helping when, in fact, Wren sees them as simply trying to get a hold of Stewart’s stuff. As well as asserting their claims to close friendship with the deceased.

Wren’s defense is snark. She’s hurting and it makes her mean-spirited. Most of the time, though, she keeps her meanness in her head, or speaks it only to George, whose sense of humor matches hers. He doesn’t have the history with Stewart and the others so is able, at first, to cut them more slack. 

It’s all a bit overwhelming for Wren. The more she digs into Stewart’s life, the less she recognizes him. She starts wondering if she didn’t know her best friend well at all. 

The novel balances humor and sorrow, making for a bittersweet read, as Wren’s searching clarifies not only Stewart’s life, but her own.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: about grace by Anthony Doerr

 I dove into a backlist novel for my current read. about grace by Anthony Doerr was published in 2004, before All the Light We Cannot See, a WWII novel that I loved. This one is not a historical novel, but it wonderfully illustrates the author’s versatility.

The writing is perfect, drawing me into a story that is slowly paced yet nevertheless compelling. It has a premise that is otherwordly, but so richly detailed that it reads as believable. 

The protagonist, David Winkler, is a hydrologist–a scientist fascinated by water, particularly by snow. He leads a fairly isolated existence, guarding a bizarre secret: he sometimes dreams the future. He has seen horrible, fatal accidents as well as mundane daily mishaps in his dreams, then watched helplessly as the events occur. He foresees his own meeting, in a grocery store, of the woman he will eventually marry. And then, he dreams of his infant daughter’s death in a flash flood. Worse, he dreams of his desperate attempt to rescue her, an attempt that culminates with her drowning in his arms. When rain starts to fall in real life, and the sodden ground can take no more, he desperately tries to get his wife to run with him. Of course, she thinks he’s nuts. And when the dream begins to spool out in front of him in real life, he runs as far as he can, ending up on a remote Caribbean island, where he lives out the next twenty-five years of his life.

David lives hand-to-mouth, his life entwining with that of a refugee couple on the island, who have a young daughter of their own. She becomes something of a surrogate daughter for David, but he never forgets his wife and his own child, Grace. Although he wrote hundreds of letters to his wife, finally begging only to know if his daughter survived, he receives no answer to that most important question. Eventually, he is pulled back to the U.S. to try to find out.

It’s a strange odyssey. Back in 2004, locating a wife and daughter abandoned a quarter century prior was no simple matter, so it makes for an obsessive and dangerous trek. Again, not exactly credible and yet somehow the quest is realistic because of the confident presentation of the minute (and often scientific) details. The novel is a moving exploration of themes of love, family, forgiveness, and the strange workings of fate. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Childhood and Death in Victorian England by Sarah Seaton

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

Childhood and Death in Victorian England
by Sarah Seaton is a depressing book. The author tabulates childhood deaths from inquests during the Victorian era, materials that she found largely online. There is a wealth of data here, but it is mostly presented as anecdotes and lists. These are sorted into chapters based on types of deaths (industrial accidents, other accidents, disease, poverty, child abuse and neglect, etc.) Some of the anecdotes are cursory. Others are detailed and lurid. There isn’t any statistical analysis and the discussion, in general, is superficial. There is no presentation of what childhood was like for Victorian children who weren’t murdered, so it gives a rather biased view of life in Victorian England. Overall, I was disappointed with the book, expecting more from it than a catalogue of inquest findings. But the details that are presented are vivid, and the book serves to demonstrate that crimes against children are not only a modern day scourge.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque

For my next read for the European Reading Challenge, I chose The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque. I’ve read the WWI masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as Flotsam, which I loved even more. I hope to work my way through all of Remarque’s books, so having one set in Portugal seemed like the nudge I needed to pick another one up.

It feels a bit like cheating to use this as a Portugal book, because the setting in Lisbon is pretty shadowy, but that is where the characters are during the “present” of the book.

The young man who is ostensibly the narrator of the novel is an unnamed refugee, desperate to leave Europe for America during WWII. He and his wife have traveled the refugee route to finally reach Lisbon, a debarkation point, but here they are stymied by the lack of the necessary papers: passports and visas. The young man is on the verge of giving up, staring out at the ship he’d give anything to be on, that is supposed to sail for America the next day.

Miraculously, as he turns away, he is approached by a solitary man who offers him two visas, passports, and tickets for the boat. All he asks in return is that the narrator stay with him during the night so that he can tell his story.

The man goes by the name of Schwartz, the name on his falsified passport. He is a refugee from Germany who wants nothing but to store his memories with someone else so that they won’t be lost or degraded.

The original narrator is merely a sounding board who occasionally prompts the true narrator of the story to keep on talking as they move from bar to bar over the course of the night.

Schwartz had been a refugee for five years, managing a dreary survival without valid papers in various countries in Europe, when he was gifted with a German passport by a dying man. With that passport, Schwartz was emboldened to return to Germany to see his wife, whom he had not seen or heard from in all those years. She’s still alive and did not follow his parting instructions to divorce him. She (Helen) is secure in Germany, having a brother who is a high-up party hack. But he’s a true Nazi and she hates him and the false security he provides. (He’s the one who denounced her husband, sending him to a concentration camp.)

Schwartz and Helen escape Germany together and embark upon a meandering life heading towards Lisbon. In addition to the usual fears of refugees, they also have to stay one step ahead of her brother, who is determined to find her and bring her back. They have some idyllic weeks, and some harrowing adventures, but keep finding their way back to one another. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Schwartz, his wife’s bravery in the face of adversity stems partly from the fact that she has terminal cancer.

The story is related by Schwartz in a compelling way, but it’s all in the past. We never actually meet Helen and the first narrator never really comes alive as a distinct character. 

The book reminds me in some ways of Flotsam, which also dealt with refugees. But while Flotsam was primarily a story about the ordeal of being a refugee with some love stories tucked in, The Night in Lisbon is primarily a love story. The format of the book—one character looking back to tell a tale—sacrifices the immediacy, muffling some of the horror and despair that was so evident in Flotsam. The floweriness of the language, while making for beautiful reading, made it a bit unrealistic. It was hard to picture this grieving, despairing man, drinking the night away, telling his story in such gorgeous prose. I know I’m not supposed to take it so literally. But I kept comparing it, in the back of my mind, to Flotsam, which much more effectively portrayed the plight of the refugees, and also more effectively conveyed the tragedy of disrupted lives and the beauty of enduring love.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mysterious Lover by Mary Lancaster

 I was caught up in the storytelling of Mary Lancaster’s historical mystery/romance, Letters to a Lover, and was particularly intrigued by the secondary characters, Griz and Dragan (the sister and brother-in-law of the heroine.) Knowing that these two were the protagonists of book one of the Crime and Passion series, I bought the kindle book.

Mysterious Lover is a rather engrossing mystery that I read in one sitting.

Grizelda Niven is the youngest daughter of a duke. Bookish, near-sighted and bespectacled, Griz has the misfortune of being the younger sister of Lady Azalea (from book two), who is a dazzling beauty and social butterfly. Very much in her sister’s shadow, Griz marched through her debut largely unnoticed by society and has continued to fly under the radar of the ton. Deciding to make the best of it, Griz relishes her independence and adopts a scatterbrained persona that allows her to do what she wants and get away with it. 

Dragan Tizsa is a Hungarian exile. A landless gentleman in his native country, he joined the rebellion against the Hungarian emperor and suffered the consequences when the rebellion failed. He had been in training to be a doctor, and served as both an officer and a surgeon in the war. Now, he lives with and serves as apprentice to a London physician who serves the poor.

The paths of the heroine and hero cross one night when they are both attending the opera. Griz’s maid, Nancy, has come to the opera looking for help from Dragan, and is murdered in the alley outside. Griz is the first to find her, followed closely by Dragan. He is arrested. Griz knows he could not be the murderer, so she uses her influence (as a duke’s daughter and the sister of a government agent) to get him freed. Both want justice for Nancy, and, as it seems the police are unlikely to solve the murder, they work together to find the killer.

Griz is a delightfully intelligent woman with a spirit for adventure and a kind heart. Dragan is a born detective who needs a challenge to take his mind off all he has lost. They make a great team and, naturally, fall in love.

The story is well-plotted and moves at a quick pace. I don’t know that all the loose ends were tied up at the end, but it was fun and a satisfying read. What really sold me on the book was the developing relationship. I’m glad the two showed up again in book two and I hope there is a book three in the series.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

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

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a beautiful, gentle historical novel that tells the parallel stories of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the life of the daughter of one of the lexicographers, Esme.

Esme’s mother died when she was very young. She grows up at her father’s feet, literally, in the Scriptorium, a garden shed where a small group works to compile words and definitions for the dictionary. It is a decades-long project, involving hundreds of workers and volunteers, and consuming the lives of the most devoted. Esme is one of these, following in her father’s footsteps as closely as she is allowed, but she’ll never be an equal. As a female, she is a second class citizen, even though she is respected and encouraged by the men leading the project.

As she grows up, Esme learns that the rules of life differ for women. Even the rules of language differ. The dictionary is meant to include only important, significant words. The judges of significance are privileged, educated men. Many words are excluded. Esme collects them. Her obsession with these lost words gets her into trouble, but also defines her.

In some ways, this is a coming-of-age story. Esme experiences the joys and sorrows of growing up under the care of an indulgent, loving father, a devoted maid, and a caring godmother, but she never really gets over the loss of her mother. She is given a great deal of freedom to explore and learn. And while she does branch out beyond the confines of the Scriptorium, she keeps coming back to it as a home and haven. But it is more than just a coming-of-age story, because it stays with her through her maturity to the end of her life.

Esme lives through tumultuous times: the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. She is caught up in the women’s suffrage movement and has to decide how she can best contribute to women’s progress. Her world is jarred and shattered by World War I. As she grows up, the people she loves grow old—all marked by the slow progression of the work of the dictionary, marching through the alphabet, trying to pin down words, to make them static, permanent. But nothing is permanent. The author does such a wonderful job of showing the beauty in the inhabitants of Esme’s world and her attachment to them, that each loss is painful.

This is one of those lovely books that you’ll want to linger over, enjoying the characters, rejoicing and suffering with them. The lives are realistic and fairly narrowly focused, but the story is transcendent. The author packs a lot into the pages. It’s a book I’m going to want to read again.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster

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

Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster is a fast-paced historical mystery/romance set in Regency London. It’s book two in the Crime and Passion series. I didn’t realize this when I requested it from Netgalley, and might not have requested it if I’d known, because I don’t like to read a series out of order. However, this book works very well as a stand-alone.

Unlike most Romances, this novel begins with an already-married couple: Azalea (Lady Trench) and Eric Danvers, Viscount Trench. They have been married for eight years, have two young children, and are still very much in love. However, after the birth of her daughter, Azalea suffered from post-partum depression. (Very much not typical Romance fare.) Though he had no idea what was wrong, Eric supported her. Eventually, she emerged from the darkness of depression, but overcompensated by throwing herself into the social whirl of London. As she grew busier and giddier, she and Eric spent less and less time together. Both want to regain their previous closeness, but pride and fear keep them apart.

That is the backstory. The novel opens with Azalea confronting the terrifying scenario of memory loss. A portion of her life, one party in particular, is a blank. Apparently, she behaved very inappropriately because a man she barely knows implies they have an intimate connection. If that isn’t bad enough, she receives a letter from a blackmailer who claims to have passionate love letters that she has written. If she doesn’t pay him, he will expose her.

Azalea doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t think she cheated on her husband, but she has this terrible blank spot in her memory, and something must have happened. Fortunately, Azalea’s sister and brother-in-law have some expertise in solving crime. (Backstory from book one.) Also, fortunately, her husband is devoted to her and is as determined as she is to figure out what is going on.

The plot is gripping enough and the pace was quick enough to keep me from dwelling on the bits that stretched believability. Amnesia plots are difficult to carry off, but her amnesia was limited enough and explained well enough that it worked. The relationships between husband and wife, and between Azalea and her sister, were heart-warming. The conclusion is satisfying.

And I must have enjoyed it because as soon as I finished I bought book one.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Book of Love by Erin Satie

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

The soon-to-be-released Book of Love by Erin Satie is an engagingly silly and serious romance set in the mid-eighteen hundreds in London. While following some of the conventions of Regency Romance (the hero is a duke, the storyline primarily is one of courtship and marriage), there is more emphasis on the politics of the day, mostly the struggle for women’s rights.

Cordelia Kelly is a gently-reared lady, the daughter of a judge. Pretty, intelligent, and a little too serious, Cordelia is unable to settle for any of the men her parents parade before her. Her father, who once supported her education, now regrets having raised a daughter with a mind of her own. When the family drama escalates, Cordelia escapes to London determined to support herself as a book-binder. For the most part, she succeeds. Although her position is financially precarious, she has a small but loyal clientele. She also has a small group of similarly independent female friends. She isn’t looking for a man in her life. Nevertheless, one finds her.

Alistair Chandros, Duke of Stroud, is a giant of a man. (Handsome, of course, but the description makes him sound like he has a pituitary disorder.) He has a kind heart, and his threatening size has always been a problem. He compensates by playing the fool in order to be less intimidating. He’s played village idiot for so long that no one takes him seriously, despite his wealth and title. And he is riddled with self-doubt, believing his own press. He occupies his time staging pranks, both for his own amusement and to secretly serve the interests of close friends.

During the course of a prank, Alistair crosses paths with Cordelia. She is utterly unintimidated by him and he’s delighted. He manages to find out who she is, and gets a little “stalk-y,” and she berates him for it, charming him even more.

They dance around each other, with Alistair growing a bit more serious and Cordelia learning to enjoy life again. The relationship develops in a believable way.

At the same time, Cordelia pursues her interest in promoting the Petition for Reform of the Married Women’s Property Law and, later, a divorce law granting women the right to sue for divorce. It’s hard to grasp how few legal rights women had in the nineteenth century, and how hard-fought were the battles to win even the first glimpses of equality. It’s an unusually serious subject for a Romance. And while the author doesn’t take us too deep into the weeds, she does make her point.

If you’re looking for a historical Romance with a little more substance, this one fits the bill.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America's First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

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

Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier
by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is an interesting but unsettling read. The book uses the timeline of Daniel Boone’s life as the scaffold for the history of white settlers displacing Native Americans in the near-west frontier, the lands west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi.

The book is, in part, a biography of Daniel Boone. It gives some of his family history as background and follows him until his death. It also retells some of the more famous anecdotes of his life. But it’s not an in-depth biography of the man. It focuses more on the larger history of that “first frontier.” It incorporates the American Revolution, but only as it impacts the western theater. It is primarily a history of the continual, brutal warfare between the settlers and the original occupants of the land.

It is well-researched and reads quickly. Boone is an impressively brave character, but this is no psychological study and I can’t help but think his good points were played up and his bad points ignored. For example, I would have hated to be his wife.

The history is interesting and important, and it’s not something I ever learned in any detail, so I was glad to fill in some of those gaps. My knowledge of Daniel Boone was sketchy and I always envisioned him as more mythical than real. The narrative recounted here is all too real. While the authors attempted a balanced portrayal, there is no avoiding the ickiness of the subject matter.