Thursday, March 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy

The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne De Courcy is an interesting look at the role of obscenely wealthy women (meaning women married to or daughters of obscenely wealthy men) in Gilded Age America. It provides mini-biographies of some of these daughters who used their dowries (or settlements) to catch titled husbands. The goal was not necessarily the title for its own sake, but the social cachet of the connection. For Americans whose fortunes were “new money,” the only sure way to scale the fortress of New York Society (ruled by old money knickerbockers) was to acquire a title. Often the dominant force was not the girl herself, but her mother, who used her daughter’s beauty and her husband’s money to force her way into the New York “in-crowd.”

The book does a wonderful job of fleshing out the intricacies of that New York Society. More interesting than the mini-biographies was the detailed explanation of how that society worked. Women ruled that world and used extravagant spending to advertise the success of the men. It was women’s duty to spend lavishly. The parties thrown, the mansions built, the jewels collected, and the Worth gowns worn are reported upon.

The lives of these women, seen from a historical distance, is shallow and sad. The majority of the daughters who bought titles and moved to England were desperately unhappy in their roles. Many of the marriages ended in estrangement or even divorce. 

The Husband Hunters is well researched, well organized, and easy to read. It shines a light on a very small segment of the population during the late eighteen hundreds that has been romanticized in popular culture. One would imagine that stories of fabulously wealthy young American women marrying earls and dukes would have fairy tale endings, but they do not. And a large part of this book left me rather appalled at all the energy invested and money wasted in the cause of snobbery and social climbing. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

 I needed a novel for the European Reading Challenge. I also wanted to read something about men for a change, other than historical mystery/thrillers. So I picked Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey.

The novel covers the years 1499 through 1505 and is mainly set in Florence, Italy. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. During this time period, each completes a masterwork. For Leonardo, it is the Mona Lisa. For Michelangelo, it is his David.

The two artists are as different as could be, and the novel plays up their differences and the rivalry between them.

Leonardo is in his fifties and is at the height of his fame. He is charming, well-liked, and is known as a profligate lover and seducer of many of those who commission work from him. However, he’s also a dabbler, often more interested in his scientific and engineering endeavors, particularly his dream of inventing a means for human flight, than he is in his art. As a result, he has left a string of unfinished works in his wake. He’s always looking for that next project rather than completing what he has begun. Moreover, he’s a bit of a jerk. He’s vain and selfish, self-important and condescending.  When he doesn’t get a commission he wants, he sells himself and his ideas for war machines to Florence’s enemies. When he sees a young artist as a potential competitor, he does everything he can to humiliate and thwart him.

Michelangelo is young, uncouth, largely unknown, devout, and passionate only about his art. When he wins the commission to carve a new statue of David from a massive block of damaged marble, the task consumes him. He’ll do whatever is necessary to complete it. He craves the love and respect of his family and has a few close friends, but he is not the gadabout that da Vinci is. He’s able to respect Leonardo’s work even if he hates the man. Michelangelo, un-charming though he may be, comes across as the better man in this novel.

Leonardo is saved, to some extent, by a chance meeting with a merchant’s wife. He is enchanted by her and, after a time, is able to wring a commission from her husband to paint her. She is the model for the Mona Lisa. From her, he learns something about emotional depth that softens his rough edges.

There is a lot going on in Florence besides the workings of these two. The city is threatened by Borgia’s army and by followers of the Medici. In the greater world, popes die and new popes are named. Their policies will affect the people of Florence. The politics of the times influence the city’s patronage of the artists.

The author knows the subject matter well and is able to make the historical events and the rivalry between the two great masters come alive. In addition, she guides the reader step-by-step through the creation of these two masterpieces so that they are almost visible on the page. This is engrossing historical fiction.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

 I received an arc of this book from the publisher. That did not influence this review.

Kim Taylor Blakemore (author of The Companion) has a new novel that is equally dark, eerie, and wonderful: After Alice Fell.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Marion Abbott returns to her family home in New Hampshire after a stint as a battlefield nurse. Her husband is a casualty of the war. Her return is not a joyful one. Her first action is to retrieve the body of her sister, Alice Snow, from an insane asylum. Alice fell from the roof, or so Marion is told.

Marion doesn’t believe she is being told the whole truth. For one thing, what was her sister doing on the roof?

The family home is now occupied by her younger brother, Lionel, his second wife, Cathy, and their teenage son, Toby. When Marion left home to help with the war effort, she left Alice in the care of her brother and his first wife, Lydia. Alice needed care because she was mentally ill. It had always fallen to Marion to care for her. The burden could be overwhelming at times and nursing the wounded was, in some ways, an escape. However, she never would have left her had she known that Lydia would drown, Lionel would marry Cathy, and the pair of them would have Alice committed.

When the director of the asylum tries to deflect Marion’s questions with the answer that Alice did not fall, she jumped, Marion is even more convinced something is wrong. Alice was not violent. Alice was not suicidal. Marion believes she was murdered and she goes about trying to prove it.

The novel is steeped in themes of death, madness, and secrets. The Snow family is hiding many secrets. Marion is hiding a few of her own. 

There is a gothic atmosphere in the book. The fear of madness is a strong element. The fear of being thought mad is even stronger. The more Marion pursues the seemingly wild idea that her sister was murdered, the more she invites comparison with her sister. She is essentially friendless in her old hometown. People have always feared the Snows, as if madness were contagious. And her brother and sister-in-law want to bury the past and move on. 

This beautifully written novel is so suspenseful that it is at times hard to read. I was filled with dread, wondering if Marion was in over her head, then wondering if maybe Marion was not as reliable a narrator as I’d thought (could she be the mad one?). As her world spirals out of control, I had to fly through the pages to see how it would end. Although I was left with unanswered questions, it is nevertheless a satisfying read.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

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

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner is a page-turner. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative voice and was quickly caught by the strangeness of the protagonist’s predicament and her eerily calm approach to it.

The novel begins in 1906 with the interrogation of the narrator, Sophie Whalen Hocking, by a U.S. Marshal who is investigating the disappearance of her husband, Martin Hocking. He was last seen just before the San Francisco earthquake. Sophie does not know what happened to him, but the marshal believes she does.

We then flashback to March 1905. Sophie Whalen is an immigrant from Northern Ireland who first arrived in New York City. Finding life in a tenement and work in a factory to be miserable and hopeless, she answers an ad from a man in San Francisco, a recent widower, who is looking for a wife and a mother to his young (five-ish) daughter. Sophie is intrepid and determined to make a better life for herself. She desperately loves children and wants one of her own to raise. Despite the fact that some of Martin Hocking’s reasons for wanting a mail-order bride seem a bit strange, she is pleased to have been chosen. They are married immediately and move to a lovely home in a nice neighborhood. Sophie believes she is fortunate and won’t dare complain, even if the situation is odd.

The daughter, Kat, has been traumatized and doesn’t speak. Sophie convinces herself it is the grief of losing her mother that has made her mute. Martin is standoffish, uninterested in his new wife (or his daughter), but not cruel or violent. He’s almost too calm. He works in insurance and has to spend most of his time on the road. Sophie is materially well provided for. She makes excuses for him–he is grieving his deceased wife and has walled himself off from further hurt. He just needs time.

Sophie is loving and generous and works hard to draw Kat out and make her feel safe and loved. She’s willing to be patient to earn Kat’s trust and, eventually, her husband’s affection. Meanwhile, little hints about Sophie’s own past are revealed. And inconsistencies in Martin’s tales start adding up.

The tension builds steadily as the reader grows more and more worried for Sophie and Kat. Things come to a head just as the earthquake hits San Francisco. Meissner paints a vivid picture of the quake and its aftermath. With extraordinary strength of character, despite her own suffering, Sophie takes on the task of keeping her loved ones safe.

This is a beautiful, gripping story, rich in historical detail, with a very memorable protagonist. Highly recommended!

Monday, February 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

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

The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George is garnering rave reviews, and they are well-deserved. This delightful Gilded Age Romance (book 1 in a new series: The Gilded Age Heiresses) follows the forced, rushed courtship of American heiress August Crenshaw and Evan Sterling, the duke of Rothschild.

Rothschild inherited the title along with its heavy responsibilities and enormous debts. The fate of hundreds of tenants, his widowed mother, and his two nearly-of-age-to-debut sisters hang on his ability to turn things around. He has been trying to economize and to earn a small living by illicit prize-fighting, but that will never be enough given the size of the hole they are in. His only hope to preserve the family name is to marry a wealthy heiress. His mother has picked one out for him: the visiting American, Violet Crenshaw, younger daughter of an Iron Works magnate.

The Crenshaws are in London for two reasons. The first is to visit a friend, a fellow heiress who was forced to marry an old, rather evil duke who needed money. The second is for Mr. Crenshaw to establish business contacts in London. Unbeknownst to the daughters, there is a third reason. Mrs. Crenshaw is desperate for the increased social status that a titled son-in-law would bring her. Mr. Crenshaw is equally desperate for the business opportunities such a connection would bring. The couple is anxious to sell their younger daughter to a man (any man) with a title. To their glee, they learn of Rothschild’s financial embarrassment and set about making the sale. Never mind that Violet is unwilling. (Neither of the parents think to offer up August. They don’t think anyone would be interested in a girl so “mannish.”)

August, the elder and stronger of the two, is determined that her sister not be condemned to an unhappy marriage with a stranger who only wants her money. Seeing that her parents will not be persuaded and have rationalized their own greed and status hunger with the argument that Violet does not know her own mind, August takes matters into her own hands. She decides to appeal to the duke. Certainly, the man cannot want an unwilling bride.

Rothschild doesn’t want an unwilling bride. However, he simply cannot believe a woman would be unwilling. At the same time, he is not particularly interested in Violet. He would prefer the fiery August. Understanding that it is all the same to Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw, he chooses the elder daughter. To his befuddlement, August is equally unwilling. He hadn’t anticipating having to persuade a bride. Moreover, he’s under a time constraint that makes a long courtship impossible. He pushes too hard, too quickly, alienating August even more.

August is a business woman. She has put a great deal of effort into the iron works and is justified in believing her father values her work. So it comes as a shock to her that he would prefer a titled son-in-law and a domesticated daughter to the business partner she believed herself to be. She feels betrayed and more determined than ever not to wed the duke. 

Rothschild falls hard for August, precisely because she stands up to him. He is quick to learn from his mistakes and shows a good deal of personal growth. To her credit, she is able to appreciate his efforts to understand her. She comes to see his predicament and admires his dedication to duty. However, she still doesn’t want to be coerced by her parents into marriage.

The courtship becomes a combination of wooing and negotiation.

The sparks between the two are believable. The character development works very well. The parents are odious, but August’s supportive siblings lessen the horror of the family dynamics. The plot works well because the obstacle to their happily-ever-after ending is very real and more or less insurmountable. They will find a compromise. Love conquers all, of course, in a Romance. Yet there is an underlying twinge of realism in this novel that reminds the reader that marriage in the Regency period was no fairy tale.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Duchess If You Dare by Anabelle Bryant

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

Duchess If You Dare by Anabelle Bryant is the first in the Maidens of Mayhem series. To be released next month, it is a new addition to the genre of Regency Romance adventure. It involves a sex-drenched plot in a nominally Regency setting. The setting permits the novel to have a duke (Aylesford) for a male protagonist which in turn creates the main obstacle to the relationship: dukes can’t marry commoners. (Although as the duke himself points out often, “I am Aylesford. I do what I want.”)

The female protagonist is no ordinary commoner. Scarlet Wynn is the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute who died a violent death at the hands of her client. Scarlet is also a superhero crime fighter, a member of the Maidens of Mayhem, a group of four women dedicated to protecting the downtrodden women of London’s stews. 

The plot hinges on the disappearance of a young seamstress/part-time brothel worker, Linie. Linie designed and sewed Scarlet’s unusual outfits: trousers, split skirts, disposable cloaks, and lots of pockets for hiding knives. Scarlet is determined to find her. Linie was also the special favorite of Aylesford’s good-for-nothing younger brother. The brother is concerned by her disappearance. So Aylesford takes on the challenge of trying to determine what happened to the girl.

Aylesford is largely ineffectual. He believes he can solve the problem by throwing his ducal weight around, but that gets him nowhere. Meanwhile, Scarlet haunts the seamy underbelly of London looking for clues. Their paths keep crossing. Realizing they can help one another, but mostly drawn to each other by uncontrollable desire, they join forces. However, they make little progress, partly because every time they get together to discuss the case, they end up making out. The sex scenes become lengthier and more intense and the plot takes a back seat until the mystery is largely solved by someone else.

The novel does give a nod to the inequities of the political/economic system and plight of women in Regency England. And it does have a super-strong female lead who has no need of a man to fight her very literal battles, but only needs a man to love. Unfortunately, for me, the relationship between the two was unconvincing and focused so much on sex that I couldn’t have finished the book without skimming.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Bear Pit by S.G. Maclean

 Among the best historical thrillers I have read are the books in the A Captain Damian Seeker Novel series by S.G. Maclean. Set in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, the books focus on the exploits of Damian Seeker, captain of Cromwell’s guard. The first book is The Seeker, and you should really start there. I bought book four, The Bear Pit, while reading book three, but I’ve been holding off reading it because these books are so amazing I don’t want them to end. (The fifth book, which I fear is the last, will be out in paperback in the fall, and I’m trying to wait till then to buy it. I might not be able to wait.)

Seeker is a busy, busy man, given Cromwell’s increasing unpopularity and the numerous factions that are attempting to eliminate him: Royalists, Republicans, foreign governments, disaffected one-time adherents. The head of Cromwell’s intelligence agency, John Thurloe (Seeker’s direct boss) is overwhelmed with all the reports he’s receiving and can’t keep up with the threats. It’s Seeker’s responsibility to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

On a personal level, Seeker is also busy. The long-lost daughter he retrieved from the north is now living under an assumed identity in London, helping to serve in a tavern. The owner of the tavern, Dorcas, is a smart, good-hearted woman in love with Seeker, and he takes what comfort there that he can. However, his heart still belongs to Maria Ellingworth, sister of a radical Republican lawyer. Their relationship was thwarted by politics and family loyalty. But when their paths cross accidentally, after two years of no contact, it’s clear they are both suffering from being apart.

Seeker also has to keep tabs on Thomas Faithly, a “turned” Royalist that he recruited as a spy, but whose loyalties he can’t be sure of. 

If all that isn’t enough, there is a bear somewhere in the bowels of London that has been feasting on human flesh. Bear-baiting, once a popular gambling sport, has been banned. Supposedly, all the bears were shot. Bear-hunting would normally be below Seeker’s pay grade, but the victim of the attack was an old army buddy of Samuel Kent, Samuel being a coffeehouse owner who Seeker would consider a friend if he had friends.

The politics of the times have been so well portrayed throughout the series that they are treated a little more lightly in this book. The reader is already immersed so it’s easy to follow what’s going on. The stakes are high for Seeker, since he must always, above all else, serve Cromwell’s interests, but his own interests are getting harder to set aside. I’m rooting for Seeker, not Cromwell.

This series is phenomenal. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lady's Formula for Love by Elizabeth Everett

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

A Lady’s Formula for Love
by Elizabeth Everett is not your usual Regency Romance. Rather than a simple frolic showcasing Regency London as a playground for the idle rich aristocracy, this novel shines a splash of light on the disgruntled of the times: the poor and working class, middle class, LGBTQ people, and women. There are even people of color in the novel, though their roles are small. (Really, the only ones enjoying themselves in this time period were the wealthy white men.)

The heroine is Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, a young widow and brilliant scientist. She is nursing old wounds because her deceased, significantly older husband had tried to quash her brains and turn her into a gentlewoman hostess, the appropriate role for the wife of an earl. He criticized her looks, her outspokenness, and her desire for physical affection. Upon his death, somewhat freed by it, she formed a ladies’ club, the Athena Retreat, for women to come together, support one another, and pursue various scientific endeavors. They pretend it’s merely a social club, but even that is enough to stir animosity among those who don’t belong and find the idea of women socializing to be an outrage.

Meanwhile, Chartists are advocating for universal male suffrage, and some of the protests are growing violent. One group, led by Adam Winters, has begun exploding canisters of gas that poison the lungs of innocent bystanders or those sent to quell the protests. The British government must spring into action.

Violet’s stepson is a government agent. Well aware of Violet’s expertise in chemistry, he asks her to create an antidote to the gas. Unfortunately, as she works on it, word leaks out somehow and she becomes a target. In order to protect her, her son brings in another agent, Arthur Kneland, a skilled bodyguard, one of the best. Arthur is looking forward to retiring, buying a farm in the north country where he grew up, and one last well-paying assignment will set him up. Guarding one female from disgruntled protesters should not be that difficult. As long as he doesn’t get distracted. . .

Of course, he does. From the beginning, Arthur and Violet are seized with undeniable lust for one another, which blossoms into love. The novel leans a bit too heavily into the sex scenes to drive the plot along, but there is also character development, the opening up of their hearts as they confess their inner hurts, and the denouement of the political danger. It took a while for me to get involved with the story because the plot seemed too farfetched, but the characters were both amusing and poignant and the underlying theme of female empowerment made it a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Visitor's Guide to Jane Austen's England by Sue Wilkes

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

A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England
by Sue Wilkes provides historical context for fiction set in the Regency period (~1811-1830)—fiction that deals with the upper class, or at least the middle class. This book is particularly suited to readers of Austen and her contemporaries and/or readers of Regency Romance.

The book is presented as a guidebook for those entering Regency England (mainly London) who need a primer on social customs, how to travel, what to wear, how to address others, how much money you’ll need and what to spend it on, how to go about finding a mate, etc. The book is well-researched and footnoted and quotations from Austen and others are sprinkled throughout. It’s a light read that accomplishes the task of providing details of the period, without analysis or any deep dives into the material.

If you’ve ever wondered why fictional characters set in Regency England are doing what they do, or been curious as to what particular social tidbits mean, this book provides an informative peek into the world.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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

I’ve read many different takes on the Trojan War story. I don’t know why I’m addicted to it. It’s always painful and tragic. I know what’s going to happen and the outcome never changes. And yet, I keep reading them because the stories are so compelling.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
is the latest addition. This is a story of the Trojan women. Haynes frames it as the project of Calliope, a muse, who sees that war is more than the endless tale of men sacking cities and showing off their strength. She wants to inspire her poet to focus on the women who suffered equally or more so, whose sacrifices were every bit as great, and who behaved with as much courage or as much perfidy as the men. But rather than focus on one or two women, from pre-war to post-war, Calliope wants the poet to show them all. The tragedy is personal and collective. 

The story is told in vignettes and takes place primarily in the war’s aftermath. The main characters are the well-known Trojans: Hecabe, Andromache, Cassandra, Briseis, etc. A few chapters focus on the goddesses and nymphs. And there are chapters that show the points of view of some of the Greek women. (Penelope’s letters, full of longing, annoyance, and humor are some of my favorite chapters.) 

While most of the stories are familiar, there are some (Theano, Laodamia, Oenone, etc.) that I hadn’t heard of before. They were all moving in different ways.

The writing is beautiful and the scope of the book is impressive. I think this book will be best enjoyed by those who already have a grasp of the basics of the war and some of the main players so that the short stories have the relevant context. But it could also be read as an introduction to the Trojan War, seeing it first from the viewpoint of the women who lived through it and bore the consequences of it.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

 Atomic Love by Jennie Fields is a complex character-driven historical novel AND a page-turning thrill to read. I enjoyed a previous book by this author, The Age of Desire, so was looking forward to this one. I loved it even more than The Age of Desire.

Rosalind Porter is the heroine of the novel. A brilliant young physicist, she was the only female scientist to work on the Manhattan Project, a role she came to regret after the bomb was dropped. She was interested in atomic energy for its potential role in non-weapon applications, and had believed the bomb would only be used as a deterrent. She has since left the world of science and works as a salesclerk in a jewelry store.

Guilt over the bomb is not the only thing that drove her from science. While working with the Manhattan Project, she fell in love with one of her coworkers, Thomas Weaver. They had a torrid affair. Initially supportive when she fell into a depression, he suddenly reversed course and dumped her flat. Worse, he wrote a report to their superiors condemning her instability. She hates him now. Sort of.

It’s now five years later, and Weaver is reaching out to her. She refuses to see him and his persistence is distressing.

Then, she is approached by an FBI agent, Charlie Szydlo, who has reason to suspect Weaver may be selling secrets to the Russians. He encourages her to reconnect with Weaver and find out what she can.

Charlie is an extraordinarily complex man. He was captured by the Japanese and spent time in a prison camp where he was tortured. He has PTSD and physical scars, including a ruined hand. Worse, the woman who was supposed to be waiting for him, a woman he loved deeply, took one look at him upon his return and broke things off. Nevertheless, he is a caring, competent, intelligent man–a much better match for Rosalind.

Rosalind and Charlie grow close during the spying. However, Rosalind’s feelings for Weaver are also reawakened.

Also, the Russian threat is real.

Beautifully written, passionate, and intense, this book is highly recommended.

Friday, January 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to the Rectory by Catherine Lloyd

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

Death Comes to the Rectory is the eighth and last book in the A Kurland St. Mary Mystery series by Catherine Lloyd. I’m sorry to see this come to an end, although, to be honest, I was beginning to wonder how on earth this couple could continue to have their important life events interrupted by the murders of friends, family, employees, and acquaintances. 

In this book, Lady Lucy Harrington and her ex-military husband, local magistrate Sir Robert Kurland, are entertaining family for the christening of their new daughter Elizabeth. While the relationship between the couple remains loving, respectful, and somewhat subdued, there is little left to develop as far as plot arc goes. In this novel, the most likely murderer is Lucy’s father, a rather unpleasant man who has never treated Lucy fairly, but whom she loves nevertheless. She’s in a quandary because it is Robert’s duty to investigate the murder and, if necessary, see her father imprisoned and tried. For once, she doesn’t want him to be impartial. And this leads to some old-married couple bickering which is not as much fun to read as the earlier fraught romance.

The victim is Lord Northam, who is married to Robert’s exceedingly nasty cousin, Henrietta. Henrietta’s mother (Robert’s aunt) has recently married Lucy’s long-widowed father (the most likely murderer.) It’s quite a tangle. Because of the christening, numerous other relatives are there, including Lucy’s uncle and his wife and their son. Her uncle is an earl and is supercilious and entitled. The son is a wastrel. That aunt is aloof but generally respectable. They are tangled up in the mess too, since the son owed a huge gambling debt to the dead man. And then there is Robert’s old military friend, Captain Coles, who has been named godfather to the baby. For some reason, he is present at all the wrong places at all the wrong times and can’t keep his stories straight.

As usual, the mystery makes for fun reading as the sleuthing couple digs around and tries pulling apart the threads of an increasingly knotted mystery. Rather than no suspects, there are far too many. The reader is pulled along to grow suspicious of first one, then another, until the murderer becomes apparent and is revealed.

This is a lovely cozy historical mystery series from beginning to end. I recommend starting with book one: Death Comes to the Village.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Confessions of a Curious Bookseller by Elizabeth Green

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

This book was hard-going, but I’m glad I stuck with it to the end. Fortunately, with the epistolary format, it was a pretty quick read because the protagonist, Fawn Birchill, is not someone I’d want to spend a lot of time with.

Fawn is a mid-fifties-aged woman who owns and runs a used book store in Philadelphia. It’s in a rundown old Victorian home and she lives above the store. The building is on its last legs and she doesn’t have the resources to maintain it. Her ongoing struggles with the building mirror her struggles with her falling-apart life.

Fawn had a difficult childhood. Her father was also in retail, running an unsuccessful general store, using his two daughters as his workforce. Fawn’s resentment of her “lost childhood” fuels a lot of her dissatisfaction with life. She refuses to visit her dying father, and avoids her mother and sister. Instead, she makes a family of her three salesclerks (or tries to) and spends time with the lonely, elderly woman who rents an apartment in her home. (The attention she gives to this woman is her most redemptive characteristic, even if she does rob her to pay the bills.) She also lavishes attention on cats.

So far, so good. But Fawn is a terrible businesswoman and her store is just eking by. When a new bookstore opens two blocks away, a modern store with coffee, book signings, and events, Fawn is unable to compete. Or, maybe it isn’t the competition. Fawn’s store was likely to fail all on its own.

The story is told through Fawn’s email correspondence with her staff, her family, and an old friend/penpal that she has never met in person. Through these epistles, we are introduced to a petty, self-aggrandizing, lonely, and essentially pathetic woman who lies, makes pitiful attempts at manipulating others, and whines. Her attempts to extort help from other local businesses are truly cringe-worthy. Her attempts at snark come across as desperate rather than funny. Just based on these bits of public persona, she is horribly unlikeable.

Fortunately, interspersed with these emails, there are journal entries that show a different side to Fawn. She is unhappy, drinks too much, and shows just enough insight and self-reflection to salvage the character. 

There is a character arc with some growth. It takes the death of her father for her to realize how similar she has been to him and how much of her life she has spent trying to spite him with her own success– success that eludes her. Redemption comes late in the book but patience is rewarded. As Fawn rides off into the sunset, I do hope she’s destined for something better.

Friday, January 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel

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

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel. I guess I thought it would be a history of fabric—who was wearing what, when.  And this book does deal with fabric and, to some extent, fashion, over the course of history, but it is so much more.

The premise is, as stated in the title, that textiles are responsible for the development of world civilization. Is that an overstatement? After reading this book, I’m convinced it’s not. From the very first fibers twisted together to make thread/rope, allowing for our ancient ancestors to begin using tools, up to the creation of textiles made out of microchips, allowing people in the not too distant future to wear their technologic devices, it is textiles that drive advance rather than technological advances improving textiles. Chemistry, arithmetic, banking, transportation, genetics, and pretty much anything you can think of: the desire for new fibers and fabrics have inspired the innovations driving progress.

I requested this book because I am an amateur crafter and have the historical novelist’s interest in fabric. But this well-researched book, with its convincing argument, written in absorbing prose, deserves a wider audience than people (like me) with a passing interest in the development of cloth. It’s a fascinating look at the progress of civilization.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Children of the Valley by Castle Freeman

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

I just finished Children of the Valley by Castle Freeman, jumping right into it after finishing Old Number Five.

When reading books in series that I love, I’ve found that extraordinary books are often followed by books that don’t excite me as much. Unfortunately, that’s the case here. Children of the Valley is an entertaining mystery/thriller. It would work fine as a standalone. In fact, it probably would work better as a standalone. I liked it less because, as a follow-up to Old Number Five, it’s disappointing.

Lucian Wing remains the same brave, dogged, but slow-motion law enforcer, the sheriff of a rural Northern Vermont county. An indeterminate amount of time has passed since the last book, which can be judged somewhat by the aging of Lucian’s mentor, the previous sheriff, Wingate. The current dilemma is that Lucian’s county is playing host to two runaway teenagers, a local boy who made good as a high school football player and a young rich girl named Pamela, who’s gone AWOL from boarding school. Pamela’s stepfather sends a few New York City goons to retrieve her. One of them, a slick lawyer-type, tries to enlist Lucian to locate the girl for them. (There is some question as to the intentions of the stepfather and some hints of abuse.) Lucian finds the pair, but rather than turn them in, he helps them to hide. Lucian’s usual pals (Homer, Cola, and Wingate) join in the fun. Things get violent.

The plot is a bit uneven but holds together well enough. Lucian’s voice and folksy wisdom are as enjoyable as ever. (And by that, I mean very enjoyable.) As an individual book, this is enough to recommend it.

The problem I have is that there’s no continuity to the series. Issues raised in the previous book are not merely swept under the rug; they don’t exist. Lucian’s mother with Alzheimer’s and overbearing brother? Absent. Not even a passing reference. Also, Lucian seems to be chronically looking for a decent deputy. In each of the previous books, we were introduced to wonderful characters, potential new deputies that I would love to have seen more of. They’re gone without a word. Still, if the core cast of characters is maintained without the addition of new long-timers, I can let go of newbies even if I liked them. And minor plot threads, like the declining mother, don’t have to be woven into the next instalment. That wasn’t my main objection.

The thing that disturbed me was that bombs were dropped at the end of the last book. One reason I picked up book three right away was to see how the author would sweep up the mess. Now I’m not sure how to interpret the ending of Old Number Five. Maybe Lucian’s betrayal of his own code of behavior wasn’t really a big deal to him. Which is sad because, for me, it really lessens the impact of the book. And are he and his wife simply settling down as an old married couple? Were they were just joking around at the end of the previous book? It could just have been a joke that I didn’t get. Or maybe it’s just that Lucian is doubling down on the philosophy that whatever the problem, it’s better to do nothing than to do something. I guess it would be consistent with his character to do his best to ignore a problem and hope it sorts itself out, but that’s not always satisfying for the reader.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Old Number Five by Castle Freeman

I am a huge fan of Castle Freeman’s work. I recently re-read All That I Have, in preparation for tackling books 2 and 3 of his Lucian Wing series. I ordered book 2, Old Number Five, and was given an estimated delivery date in mid-January, so I was thrilled to receive it before Christmas.

Old Number Five
continues to follow the adventures of the laconic, low-key, Northern Vermont County Sheriff Lucian Wing. His philosophy of law enforcement is to pretty much let things sort themselves out and, generally, things do. He was a wild youth himself before a stint in the Navy straightened him out, so he has a certain sympathy for boys-being-boys. Most of the people he serves in the small towns in his jurisdiction approve of his approach. He’s cheap, and the various town councils mostly want low-budget law enforcement.

Lucian takes the same laid-back approach to his home life, which is a toxic mess. His wife has essentially booted him out so that her boyfriend, Jake, can move in. She keeps in touch when she needs Lucian to come around and fix things. Since he built the house himself and doesn’t want Jake wrecking it, he does his wife’s bidding in a passive-aggressive manner. It’s a small town, so everyone knows his business. Everyone is on his side. But everyone pretty much agrees that the best approach is to wait it out. His wife, Clemmie, will tire of Jake and come back to him. (Why on earth he would want her back is beyond me. And some of her complaints against him seem valid too. Maybe they are right for each other, but what an awful relationship.)

At any rate, Lucian’s current concerns are numerous. His mother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and he’s not sure what to do about it. A feral dog is increasing its attacks on local livestock and people are spooked. And an attack on a local petty criminal adds to a number of earlier isolated events so that it’s becoming harder to overlook them. The violence is not subtle; it’s more of the literal eye-for-an-eye, chop-off-a-thief’s-hand type, so one might think it’s the work of an oddly Biblically-inspired vigilante. Moreover, the victims’ stories are not believable. They are clearly afraid of worse befalling them should they complain to the law.

Lucian’s approach would be to leave it alone since the victims are not pressing for action. Unfortunately, a big-city, ex-military busybody has moved to the area and gotten himself elected Chairman of the town Selectmen. He insists Lucian begin an investigation, and, when the pace of the investigation doesn’t suit him, he goes above Lucian’s head. The sheriff’s usual feet-dragging method, which has served him so well, isn’t going to cut it.

The writing is tight. The characters are concisely, wonderfully drawn. Lucian is smart and bitterly funny. The novel moves along at a quick pace. The mystery is well-cloaked but clues are sprinkled in enough that the answer slowly dawned on me. And then. . .

It’s a cliché to talk about a “shocking conclusion” but that’s what this was. Appalling, even. In so many ways, it’s appalling. I’m still rejecting what I read, even though it was sort-of brilliant. So now I have to move on to book three.

This series is highly recommended. Start at book one, or even earlier with Go With Me.

Monday, January 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: City of Dreams: The 400-year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder

My history/historical fiction book group has chosen City of Dreams: The 400-year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder for our next discussion.

This book is long. 

The title of the book is a good summary of what the book is about. Anbinder provides a well-researched, exhaustive look at immigration to New York City, starting from the initial Dutch colonists and proceeding up through the current day. Statistics are interspersed with more personal anecdotes to give the flavor of the immigrant experience. The book is informative rather than analytical. It focuses more on what pulls immigrants to the U.S. (economic factors, freedoms) than on what pushes them out of their countries of origin (although the Irish potato famine, pogroms against Russian Jews, and poverty in general are given consideration.) There are references to major historical events (the Civil War, the Great Depression, etc) but this is not a book about American history so context is a bit sketchy. 

There is an immense amount of data in the book. The anecdotes do help to move the narrative along and provide human interest. However, in general a lot of the information washed over me as the details of successive waves of immigration grew repetitive. The research that went into this book is impressive and it provides a strong overview of immigration in New York City, but it’s a difficult book to read in a chunk.