Friday, December 31, 2021

THE TBR 22 IN '22 CHALLENGE

 Just in under the wire -- my 100th post of the year!!!


I'm signing up for a challenge to read 22 books off my TBR pile over the next year. The challenge is hosted by Rose City Reader and the sign-up page can be found here


Hopefully this will help me put a dent in my pile. Thank you to Rose City Reader for hosting!

Links to reviews will be posted below.

1. The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Thursday, December 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington. The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes

I am squeezing in one more book review before the end of the year. One of my Christmas presents this year was the biography, Wellington: The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes. I wanted to balance the biography of Napoleon with one of Wellington. 


This book is only about 300 pages, as opposed to Napoleon: A Life, which was nearly 1000. So it is nowhere near as comprehensive, but as a trade-off is a much quicker read. Despite its brevity, it presented a detailed, balanced discussion of Wellington’s life with a concentration on the military history. It whet my appetite to learn more about the man, but not right away.

If you’re interested in a very good overview, one that gives a good sense of the man and his accomplishments (though less of a sense of the times), this biography is just right.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2022 NETGALLEY AND EDELWEISS READING CHALLENGE

 For 2022, the second reading challenge I'm signing up for is the Netgalley and Edelweiss challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews. See the sign-up link here

I'm going for the Silver level- 25 books, with the hopes of getting through my Netgalley queue.



 Thank you to Socrates Book Reviews for hosting.

My links will be listed below.

1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

2. Violeta by Isabel Allende

3. Argo by Mark Knowles

4. The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart

5. Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

6. The Meddler by Kate Archer

7. Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson

8. Earl on the Run by Jane Ashford

9. The Lady Tempts an Heir by Harper St. George

10. Unmasking the Duke by Mary Lancaster

11. How to Be a Wallflower by Eloisa James

12. The Great Passion by James Runcie

13. Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

14. A Perilous Perspective by Anna Lee Huber

15. Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

16. End of the World House by Adrienne Celt

17. Desperately Seeking a Duchess by Christi Caldwell

18. Unmasking the Thief by Mary Lancaster

19. Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

20. Remember Love by Mary Balogh

21. How to Steal a Scoundrel's Heart by Vivienne Lorret

22. The Book Woman's Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

23. Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

24. The Nurse's Secret by Amanda Skenandore

25. The Rake's Daughter by Anne Gracie

26. Blame it on the Earl by Jane Ashford

27. Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

28. How to Woo a Wallflower by Virginia Heath

29. The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford

30. Friends in Funchal by K.G. Fleury

31. The Proposition by Madeleine Roux

32. Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

33. Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

HISTORICAL FICTION READING CHALLENGE 2022

 It's that time again! Signing up for reading challenges. 

I'm starting with The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Intrepid Reader. The sign-up link with rules is here



Last year I went for the "Ancient History" level, 25 books, and blew right past it. I squeaked past the next level, "Prehistoric"- 50 books. So this year, I'm going out on a limb and setting 50 as my challenge. 

To wrap-up last year, a link to my 2021 challenge with links to all review is here.

I'll tally my 2022 books with links to reviews below.

Thank you to The Intrepid Reader for Hosting again!


1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

2. Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

3. The Master by Colm Toibin

4. Violeta by Isabel Allende

5. The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

6. Argo by Mark Knowles

7. The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart

8. Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

9. The Meddler by Kate Archer

10. Lady Odelia's Secret by Jane Steen

11. Earl on the Run by Jane Asher

12. The Lady Tempts an Heir by Harper St. George

13. The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

14. Unmasking the Duke by Mary Lancaster

15. The Paying Guest by George Gissing

16. The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

17. How to Be a Wallflower by Eloisa James

18. The Great Passion by James Runcie

19. Ireland by Frank Delaney

20. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

21. A Perilous Perspective by Anna Lee Huber

22. Archangel by Andrea Barrett

23. The Runaway Duchess by Joanna Lowell

24. Desperatelty Seeking a Duchess by Christi Caldwell

25. Unmasking the Thief by Mary Lancaster

26. Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

27. Remember Love by Mary Balogh

28. How to Steal a Scoundrel's Heart by Vivienne Lorret

29. Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

30. The Book Woman's Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

31. Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

32. The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally

33. The Nurse's Secret by Amanda Skenandore

34. The Devil and the Viscount by Mary Lancaster

35. The Rake's Daughter by Anne Gracie

36. Blame it on the Earl by Jane Ashford

37. How to Woo a Wallflower by Virginia Heath

38. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

39. Friends in Funchal by K.G. Fleury

40. Louisville Saturday by Margaret Long

41. The Proposition by Madeleine Roux

42. Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh

Monday, December 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: All the Living by C. E. Morgan

All the Living by C. E. Morgan is a short gritty contemporary novel set on a hardscrabble Kentucky tobacco farm.

Aloma, a naive young woman, orphaned at a young age and brought up in a settlement school, has dreams of escaping her life of poverty and deprivation through music. She’s a gifted pianist, though perhaps not gifted enough. She’ll never know unless she can move on. With no resources to strike out on her own, she settles for teaching music at the school. Until she begins seeing a young farmer, Orren. Their dating consists of going for drives and having sex in his truck.

But Orren’s life is upended when his mother and older brother are killed in a car accident and he inherits the farm. He has to take on a huge responsibility at a young age. He asks Aloma to come with him and she says yes, without hesitation. But almost immediately, she begins having regrets.

Orren is swamped by work and by grief. Aloma is overwhelmed by loneliness and dissatisfaction. Worst of all, they are unable to effectively communicate. 

Aloma finds solace at a local church where she is given a job playing piano for the services. Eventually, she is permitted to use the instrument for practice during the week. She spends more and more time there, away from the farm, both because of the piano and because of the preacher. Because Aloma and Orren are not married, she didn’t mention him at first. And then she doesn’t mention him because of a growing attraction between herself and the preacher.

The novel evokes the dirty, backbreaking labor of the farm, the monotony of the days, the loneliness, the fear of failure, and the difficulties of a struggling relationship when neither partner knows the right way to express their feelings. It’s a poignant, beautifully written story. I found myself wishing I could revisit the protagonists in a few years to see how they make out.

Friday, December 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

After reading Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, I discovered I’d missed reading Anything is Possible, a collection of short stories in the same vein as Olive Kitteridge, but in the same “universe” as My Name is Lucy Barton and Oh William!. So I added it to my TBR pile and finally sat down to read it.

I don’t know why I always read things that are painful right around the holidays, but this book is this year’s emotionally draining work of fiction.


Anything is Possible
is set primarily in and around the small town where Lucy Barton grew up in extreme poverty and utter dysfunction. Her sister and brother are still there, getting by but damaged. The short stories all circle out from Lucy—friends, cousins, acquaintances, and people who connected with people who connected with Lucy. They are all damaged in one way or another. They all have small, private triumphs and deep, deep scars.

There is a beauty in the stories, as in all Strout’s work. Most of the characters are resilient and have the capacity to be kind. But there is just so much sadness in their lives. So much cruelty. It seems to some degree to be exaggerated, because everyone has so much pain to overcome, but then I think that the realism of that is what makes her books so poignant.

I’ve heard that reading fiction is important for the development of empathy. For me, that’s what Strout’s books are all about. No one does empathy quite as well as she does.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman is a reexamination of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic tale Rebecca. Although I loved Rebecca when I read it several years ago, it’s a book that leaves the reader with a lot of questions. Who was she really and how did she die? The narrator of the novel is the second wife, Rebecca’s replacement, so her interpretation is bound to be biased.

Sally Beauman comes at the story obliquely, using three new narrators and a fourth, Rebecca herself.


On the twentieth anniversary of Rebecca’s death, the now elderly ex-magistrate of the town, who had been a friend to both Maxim de Winters (the jealous husband) and Rebecca, is suffering nightmares and heart troubles. He has long felt guilty over the way Rebecca’s death was handled and the role he had in the inquisition. He was a bit in love with her too (everyone was)but he allowed the case to be closed without looking too carefully at the poor-quality evidence. He wants to go back and reevaluate, to uncover the truth, but still protect the privacy of those involved. The reader follows along with his muddled inquiries and memories, leaving the question still very much unresolved. But the character of the magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is wonderfully drawn. A cranky, stuffy, elderly man who is desperately clinging to his dignity while being cared for by his sole remaining child, his daughter Ellie. 

The second protagonist is Terrence Gray, a young historian who has come to town to work part-time at the local archives, cataloguing the de Winters’ papers. He is very interested in the mysterious Rebecca and has befriended Julyan and Ellie in order to learn what the Colonel knows. The Colonel is slow to trust him. Ellie falls for him. But the reader soon learns that Gray himself has a mysterious connection to Rebecca. At least, he thinks he does – but doesn’t know what it is. He’s as intriguing and multi-layered a character as Rebecca. 

The third viewpoint we see is Rebecca’s own, through the device of her diaries showing up after all these years. Someone is mailing the diaries and other personal effects once belonging to Rebecca to her few surviving friends/relatives. Eventually, Julyan, Gray, and Ellie read these diaries. Each has a different reaction to them. Even in her diaries, Rebecca is an unreliable narrator. 

Finally, the fourth narrator is Ellie. She has grown up knowing and not knowing the story of Rebecca, only ever approaching her through the stories she’s heard. She’s curious about her but also frustrated with the hold the woman still has over her father and now, over Terrence Gray. But with the arrival of the diaries, she feels she finally understands the woman. Rebecca’s influence changes the course of Ellie’s life too. 

This book does a beautiful job of echoing the gothic, mysterious air of the original, while expanding beyond the claustrophobic atmosphere of Manderley (the de Winters’ estate) to include other characters and other locales. Rebecca is given a backstory.

As the four narrators piece together Rebecca’s life and events leading to her death, the murky picture presented in the original becomes a little clearer. But only a little. In the end, Rebecca remains a mystery. As she should.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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


Small Things Like These
by Claire Keegan is a novella based on the Magdalen laundries run by the Catholic Church in Ireland until 1996. These laundries, overseen by nuns, used the forced labor of unmarried pregnant women who had been cast off. It was essentially slave labor. Thousands of babies (perhaps tens of thousands as the records have been destroyed or disappeared) died while under the care of the nuns. So these were Church-sponsored “baby farms” where a blind eye was turned to infanticide.

Nevertheless, Keegan has written a loving and lovely book. It focuses on one man, who was born out- of-wedlock himself, but who was raised in a safe, caring environment due to the kindness and compassion of one person. 

The man, Furlong, grew up and overcame the stigma of illegitimacy. He worked his way up in a coal yard that he now runs. He married and had four daughters. He loves his family and works hard to provide for them. Times are hard in his town. A lot of people are suffering, but he and his family are getting by better than most. He’s grateful for that and is generous to those who are worse off. But he nevertheless feels oppressed by something. It might be the lingering feeling of inadequacy from not knowing who his father was. It could be a bit of survivor’s guilt, since he is more financially secure than many of his customers and neighbors. It could be the annoying sense that his wife is so intent on meeting their family’s needs that she is a little resentful of his charitable inclinations.

Just before Christmas, Furlong delivers coal to the convent up on the hill and is confronted by the truth of the rumors about the place. He sees girls are being mistreated. He learns that babies are also being neglected. He knows he’s supposed to keep silent about it. In fact, he’s warned that he should keep silent about it or risk the Church’s displeasure, which would have consequences for his own family. Furlong has to decide what, if anything, he is willing to do.

It’s a beautifully written story that manages to be both chilling and uplifting. Highly recommended!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson II: Providence by Sigrid Undset

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


I just finished reading Olav Audunsson Book II: Providence by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally. What an extraordinary achievement this work is. When I was approved for this book, I also bought Book 1: Vows because I knew I should read it first. I’m glad I did. I don’t think this volume, as wonderful as it is, would stand on its own. To fully appreciate what these characters are going through, the backstory is needed. And the story is very well worth reading as a whole.

Providence picks up where Vows left off. The ill-fated young lovers, Olav and Ingunn, have finally been reunited after years and years of separation, guilt, and despair. They suffered extreme hardship due in large part due to cruelties of their families and society, but also due to their own small errors which were compounded by even greater sins. One thing kept leading to another in that book and they really did seem cursed by Fate. But they are now in a position to find that love will conquer all.

It does not.

Providence is a powerful and devastating book. Set in medieval Norway, the landscape is frozen and harsh. Men are dragged off to war by their kings for conflicts in which they have little stake. And God is ever present in their lives as a force that is more oppressive than hopeful. Reaching out for His grace has far-reaching consequences. Neighbors are far less forgiving than God.

Olav Audunsson is now master of a wealthy estate. He brings his wife Ingunn home. He fully intends to put the past behind them and forgive her completely. (She had a child during their years of separation, a son, born after an adulterous encounter that was less her fault than she believes it to be.) She’s unable to forgive herself. When she miscarries again and again, she comes to believe that it’s God’s punishment for her adultery and, more particularly, for abandoning her son. Olav is unable to bear her misery, so he goes and retrieves the boy from the foster parents, claiming him as his own.

This means the familial inheritance will go to an illegitimate heir who is not really Olav’s offspring. If Olav’s relatives ever found out, he’d be in big trouble for allowing the estate to pass outside the family line. It also means if Olav and Ingunn ever do have a son, he’ll take second place to the older boy. For all Olav insists it doesn’t matter to him, it does. He treats the boy as decently as he can, but he just doesn’t like him. And this drives even more of a wedge between him and his wife.

Ingunn is not the only one sunk in despair over a guilty conscience. There is also the matter of Olav’s crime. He murdered the man who seduced Ingunn and hid the evidence. All to protect her honor, of course. He grows increasingly desperate to make his peace with God but if he confesses, he’ll have to do penance, the truth will come out, and everything gained by the original secrecy will be lost. Ingunn and the boy will be harmed. Ingunn insists he can’t do that to her. So he continues to live with the unconfessed sin, growing more and more taciturn and withdrawn.

Ingunn is not a healthy woman to begin with and multiple miscarriages strip her of any strength she might have had. She’s also a terrible housekeeper/female head of an estate. The only time she shows any gumption is in defense of her son. She’s a shadow of her former self. She loses all her beauty. She’s a millstone around Olav’s neck. And yet, they still love each other with the fiercely strong remnants of their original love.

Things go from terrible to unbearable as Olav and Ingunn struggle with their despair. Every once in a while, Olav is overcome by religious conviction, but it’s leached away by Ingunn’s dependency and the knowledge that her ruined life is his fault.

This book is incredibly bleak, as this pared down plot summary shows. And yet it’s beautiful in its harsh way. The characters are so realistic, so human, that it’s impossible not to empathize with their pain.

I don’t know when Book 3 will be released but I’ll certainly read it, hoping things might turn around for Olav, but expecting they won’t.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser

Every once in a while I like to read a book about reading books. This time, I chose Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser. Her credentials for this sort of work are outstanding. She’s a professional reviewer, the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, and has authored several (mostly nonfiction) books.


The chapters are broken down into 1. Character and Plot; 2. The Space Between; 3. Novelty; 4. Authority; 5. Grandeur and Intimacy; 6. Elsewhere; and 7. Inconclusions. She discusses some of her favorite authors and favorite works and how they fit under each of these interwoven categories. It’s primarily a literary critic chatting about how she approaches reading. My favorite part was actually the Prologue, titled “Why I Read.” The crux of her answer was that she reads for pleasure. Considering that reading is her job, it’s wonderful that she still finds it a pleasure!

She writes the book as a conversation, inviting the reader to silently engage with her. To some extent, that engagement came about naturally as I either fervently agreed with her or thought: I’m not sure I agree, or I don’t quite understand. But some chapters were more engaging than others. 

The book ends with a list of 100 books to read for pleasure, some of which were discussed in the text and others which were not. This is both a great jumping off point for more reading and a bit of a burden for someone whose TBR pile is already heaped up and tottering over.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but I didn’t feel it lived up to the promise of the prologue.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Matrix by Lauren Groff

I saw matrix by Lauren Groff was getting a lot of buzz in the historical fiction world. Then I read it was set in an abbey in medieval England, in the twelfth century. The protagonist, Marie, is an illegitimate noblewoman. Her father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, establishing a connection of sorts to Eleanor of Aquitaine. My favorite family in my favorite historical time period—I had to read it.


Marie is excessively tall, ungainly, unattractive, illegitimate, and poor. So, she is considered unmarriageable and therefore useless. However, because she has connections (Empress Mathilda and Eleanor) she is sent, at the age of seventeen, to an abbey to take over as prioress. Marie has no religious calling and no desire for this position. Worse, when she arrives, she discovers it is small, impoverished, and in the midst of a plague. 

Marie is headstrong, passionate, intelligent, and fierce (much like Eleanor, who she loves and idolizes.) The arc of the novel is the process by which Marie comes to terms with the life she will have to live and then turns the abbey into a monument of female empowerment. Marie is able to turn the abbey not only into an enormously prosperous one, but also a haven for women where they can thrive according to their talents. Marie is an ambitious, prideful woman, but she is also generous and loving. Her theology is unorthodox, to say the least, but her devotion to her charges is complete.

This is a powerful literary work with luminous prose that pulled me into the twelfth century. Marie is a woman of her time and ahead of her time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Sin by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster’s latest Regency Romance release is Book 3 in her Pleasure Garden series, Unmasking Sin.


This series is tied together by the somewhat scandalous attendance of the heroine of each novel at a masked evening of entertainment at the Maida Pleasure Gardens. It is a place for dancing and slightly risque fun for members of London Society, but it is also frequented by the lower classes and criminal elements and a good deal of drinking and carousing goes on. Each of the heroines has her own reasons for going there, which do not include finding a lover, but...

Lady Rebecca Cornish is this novel’s heroine. Although in her early twenties, she has already been widowed twice, earning her the title of Black Widow. Her reputation is further tarnished by accusations that she murdered her most recent husband (and probably first husband as well.) Rebecca is being besieged by her late husband’s uncles who are waging a campaign to see her prosecuted and to take away her son to be raised more respectably.

To that end, they have hired solicitor/investigator Ludovic Dunne to find proof that she killed their nephew. Dunne has a solid reputation for this kind of work and he trails Lady Cornish to the Pleasure Gardens, expecting to find she has slipped out for an assignation.

Instead, he finds a composed, extremely beautiful woman, whose vulnerability and fear he senses. He continues to investigate, but shortly realizes he is on the wrong side of this investigation. He works to uncover the truth, which he is certain will exonerate her, but in the process loses her trust.

The plot centers on finding out who is behind the rumors and what they stand to gain from them, rehabilitating Lady Cornish’s reputation, and, at the same time, unearthing the reason for Dunne’s crusading efforts against injustice of all kinds. Along the way, they fall in love.

This is a fast-paced adventure with strong male and female leads. The good guys are very good. The bad guys are nasty villains. It’s a fun Romance for whiling away a few hours.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

 As part of my plan to increase my knowledge of the Regency Era, I thought I really needed a better handle on Napoleon. I knew the basics: French General, French Emperor, lover of Josephine, defeated at Waterloo. Also that he was not only a brilliant military commander but also an innovative administrator. But, overall, kind of a bad guy.


Wanting more detail, I plunged into what is called the definitive biography, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. This is a superb biography. It did, unfortunately, take me a very long time to read and bogged down my reading progress in general. (I took a couple of breaks, but always felt guilty reading other things.)  I finally finished it today. I’m pleased to note that my basic knowledge was basically correct.

This is a comprehensive birth-to-death biography. The bulk of the detail is centered on his military career, which makes sense. However, for a reader like me who zones out when the battle tactics are described in depth and who skips over battlefield maps, it was more than I needed. It was fascinating in a big picture way, but the details will never stick with me.

More impressive to me was the way the book touched on the personality of the emperor, showing his hubris and his (possibly feigned at times) humility, his wit, his sang-froid, and his extraordinary charisma. His micro-managing attention to detail boggles the mind. His superhuman energy (especially in his younger days) is hard to fathom. And his intelligence, memory, and analytical skills are as impressive today as they were to his contemporaries. 

It’s impossible to come away from this biography unimpressed with Napoleon. At the same time, without the benefit of being exposed to his personal charm, it was impossible for me to come away from it favorably impressed in the balance. The wake of death and destruction his ambitious empire building left across Europe was enormous. And despite his protestations that everything he did, he did for France – he was clearly doing it for personal glory and profit. I found myself astonished by the magnitude of his victories, yet rooting against him the whole time.

Monday, November 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

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


Mary Balogh is on her ninth Westcott novel. Someone Perfect is being released tomorrow. I love the Westcott romances with all the intricate family relations. They are going far afield now to more peripheral members. There are still a few more to be matched up, so those Balogh addicts among us don’t have to fear running out. Moreover, this novel’s heroine links up with a hero who also has an extended family with some young folks who will need spouses eventually. It isn’t a given they will all get books of their own, but it’s comforting to know they are out there waiting.

That said, Someone Perfect was a bit disappointing. It was a sweet romance with emotional depth and fine characters. But too many new folks were introduced who didn’t seem important to the plot. It may be a setup for future books, but I won’t remember them all by the time their books are out. And there was too much repetition. We’d be led by the hand into a scene so we’d know what to expect, the lovely scene would unfold as expected, and then one of the protagonists would, with internal monologue, repeat for us what had just occurred. A little less of that would have made the novel more engrossing.

Justin Wiley, the Earl of Brandon, was a sweet happy child, even with the death of his mother in an accident when he was ten. He handled the remarriage of his father to a woman who seemed to quarrel with everyone. He had a step-sister, fourteen years younger, whom he adored. So, what happened? He was banished from the household in his early twenties and essentially disappeared until his father died. Then he returned to take up the responsibilities of an earl. He immediately sent his stepmother and step-sister to the country and did not visit that sister for two years, until after his stepmother died.

His step-sister, Maria, hates him. She wishes nothing to do with him, even though he had once been the light of her life.

Estelle Lamarr is one of the peripheral Westcotts. She lives quietly in the country with her twin brother. She’s a friend of Maria’s. When Brandon comes to claim Maria and bring her “home,” Estelle is put off by his cold, harsh demeanor. Yet when he asks her to visit his estate to help Maria accommodate to her new situation, Estelle recognizes that he isn’t cruel. She agrees to go.

That is the setup. Brandon has to learn to let his past and present merge, and to let the walls he has built up be broken down. Estelle has to decide whether she really wants to live a secluded life or to be surrounded by people—by family. They both have to learn to be vulnerable and honest with one another.

There are no real surprises here, but the characters are easy to pull for. And I’m glad to be left with the impression that there will be more in the series.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

I don’t, as a rule, laugh out loud while reading in a public place. However, I was deeply immersed in Georgette Heyer’s witty comedy of manners, Sylvester, when a fast-paced scene piled up the clever silliness until my giggle could not be contained. 

I love Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances.

Although the style is a little dated and some of the plots start to feel a bit familiar (I suspect she did them first!), the hilarious banter and outrageous situations never fail to entertain. Sex is only  hinted at but the passion is strong. Her books are comfort food.


Sylvester is a duke in need of a wife. He is well known to be perfectly correct in all his doings. He treats his underlings with courtesy. He gives his peers no reason to complain. He is a womanizer, but insists he never gives the young ladies who throw themselves at him any expectations. He confines his peccadillos to ladybirds. If he were informed that people considered him too high in the instep, he would have been shocked. He doesn’t put on airs. But the thing is, he doesn’t have to put them on, they are part of who he is.

He has numerous acquaintances but only a few close friends. The only two people he truly cares about, after the death of his twin brother, are his invalid mother and his nephew. The boy is only six and is being spoiled by Sylvester’s widowed sister-in-law, whom he despises. 

Sylvester is the boy’s guardian and so he needs to marry so that he can take over the boy’s care altogether. (The boy’s mother wouldn’t actually mind that, but recognizes it would look bad for her to abandon her son to Sylvester after she’s been badmouthing him for years.)

Phoebe is a country gentlewoman being raised by her horse-crazy father and a severe stepmother. She is not beautiful and, with her stepmother breathing down her neck, she does not shine in company because she’s so afraid of saying anything wrong. In her favor, her deceased mother was a very close friend of Sylvester’s mother. And her grandmother (if I have this right) is Sylvester’s godmother. Although she is not much of a prize (she had one London Season and didn’t ‘take’) Sylvester considers the match for his mother’s sake.

Phoebe, when apprized of what’s going on, wants none of it. When Sylvester appears at her father’s country home, apparently to woo her, she runs away—into a winter storm accompanied only by a brotherly friend. Sylvester believes himself to have dodged a bullet and so sets off to return to London. But on the way he comes across Phoebe and her friend, who have had an accident on the road.

The two are thrown together away from the hovering and criticism of the stepmother. And they hit it off. Sort of. They also annoy the hell out of each other. But their interactions amuse them both as well as the reader. Their future together seems assured.

Except Phoebe has a secret. After her failed London Season, she wrote an anonymous novel skewering the ton. A publisher picked it up. It will soon be released. The villain of the piece was based on Sylvester because of his superciliousness and his devilish eyebrows. She is unable to stop the publication or even change that unmistakable physical description. When the book comes out, everyone recognizes Sylvester. His dignity is assaulted. She could have done nothing worse.

They have to find their way back to one another over the course of a few over-the-top adventures. When I saw where the plot was headed, and how well it had been set up, I laughed out loud some more.

One of these days I will run out of Georgette Heyer novels despite how prolific she was. Then I will have to turn around and read them all over again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

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


I love libraries. My favorites are large academic libraries with their stacks filled with obscure treasures. My local public library is next. In addition to the great selection in the citywide system, the librarians seem to be able to obtain just about anything I’m looking for. I even love the goofy libraries at vacation spots, more likely provided for show than because anyone is expected to read the odd old assortments. And then there are private libraries… I’ve always wanted a room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a sliding ladder. I’ve settled for books all over my house.

When I saw The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen available on Netgalley, I knew I had to read it.

This new release is a comprehensive history of the library, from idea to execution, with all the myriad cycles of building and destruction (or fading away). It covers the “public” libraries of antiquity, the massive personal libraries of royalty and wealthy men, institutional libraries, subscription libraries, modern-day public libraries, pretty much every form of book collecting for personal use or for sharing. It covers the rise and fall of great libraries alongside the rise and fall of civilizations. It addresses the question of the future of the library. (Have faith! People have been predicting the end of “the book” for as long as there have been books. Libraries, too, will survive in one form or another.)

The Library is an impressive undertaking. It’s comprehensive (a bit lengthy) and detailed (so a bit dry), but my interest never flagged. The resiliency of the library as a concept and as a concrete public service is inspiring. Book lovers, readers and collectors, and all library nerds will find this an interesting and reassuring study of the topic. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Woodcock by Richard Smyth

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

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


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

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

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

The book opens with outsiders coming to town.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Deception by Mary Lancaster

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician by Colm Toibin

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 7, 2021

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 30, 2021

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


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

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

Sunday, September 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Lattimore's Letter by Suzanne Allain

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allain continues to charm with her clean Regency Romances. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Reckless Match by Kate Bateman

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking the Hero by Mary Lancaster

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 6, 2021

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


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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, September 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Social Graces by Renee Rosen

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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


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

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

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

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