Sunday, May 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: about grace by Anthony Doerr

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

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

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

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mysterious Lover by Mary Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Book of Love by Erin Satie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Reluctant Bride by Natalie Kleinman

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

The Reluctant Bride by Natalie Kleinman is a pleasant, old-fashioned, squeaky-clean Regency Romance. 

Charlotte (now Lady Cranleigh) is a young widow. She’d been forced by her nearly impoverished father to marry an older man to rescue the family fortune. The man, the Earl of Cranleigh, was kind enough that she couldn’t hate him, just the circumstance. A few weeks into the marriage, the earl conveniently fell off his horse and broke his neck. Charlotte had to spend the next year in mourning although she wasn’t grieving. She weathers that and emerges ready to face the world, now essentially emancipated from her controlling father. She is also able to support her younger sister and the cousin who raised them after her mother’s death. So, life is good and she has no real desire to change things.

Charlotte enjoys her return to society and finds herself (and her sister and cousin) attracting the interest of beaus. One of these, Lord Roxburgh, is a stereotypical villain, who pursues her for her fortune and is willing to use foul means and fouler to obtain her. The other is her late-husband’s cousin, the duke of Gresham. He attends to her first out of duty (having inherited the late earl’s property and title) and then out of affection. 

The courtship progresses slowly. Charlotte is the last person to see Gresham’s interest and to recognize her own. The hero and heroine are kind, proper people. Gresham is a bit too perfect to make for an interesting character, and Charlotte, too, is fairly bland. The conflict is subdued, largely external, caused by Lord Roxburgh. Gresham has money to burn and is able to make the conflicts disappear with a degree of tact that eliminates any disagreeableness. The climax of the story introduces the real hiccough. I was a bit disappointed that it was an over-used plot element in the Regency Romance genre. Many of the plot elements in the book are familiar ones. And that’s OK since there are only so many available plots in the genre, so mixing and matching is typical. But there wasn’t enough originality in this story overall to bring it alive. The conversations were gently prim and muted, without witty banter. The few arguments seemed contrived and were quickly forgotten.

For those new to Regency Romance, the story is sweet and the protagonists entirely unobjectionable. The book is a fine addition to the genre. For those who read a lot of Romance and are looking for something cleaner and quieter, this succeeds. But if you read a lot of Romance and like variety, you may find this one treads too much familiar territory to stand out.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman

 It felt like time to read a charming contemporary novel, so I chose Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman.

Kate Parker is a going-on-forty single woman who has finally found the man she wants to spend her life with. Her boyfriend Nick is a handsome, good-natured man who shares her love of food and cooking, her sense of humor, and her enjoyment of lazing about. He works in IT and is a stereotypical computer geek, but she convinces herself that his emotional stuntedness is a result of absent parents. She can see how self-centered he is, but she loves him. And she really doesn’t want to hit that fortieth birthday alone. 

Kate’s life revolves around food. She loves to cook and to eat. Her job, at a grocery store, is to write the bits of copy on the signs to sell food items. She hates the job, but has been at it for 20 years and is afraid to quit.

Several months prior to the big birthday, Nick suggests that they move in together. Kate is thrilled. The next week, they depart on a long-planned vacation to France. There, he drops a bomb. He wants to step back. He is definitely NOT ready to commit.

Devastated and furious, she refuses to just go back to how things were. They have to take a break from each other until he figures out what he wants.

To fill time and feel useful, she starts to volunteer at a retirement home. There she meets Cecily Finn. This feisty but painfully lonely woman is ninety-seven years old and has no patience for the other elderly women in the home. At first, she has no patience for Kate, either. Kate has come armed with cooking demonstrations and Cecily heckles her. Kate has enough to deal with without a nasty old woman being mean to her, but Kate is so innately kind, and so in need of a project, that she takes on the task of visiting Cecily to draw her out.

Over time, they achieve a sort of truce. Cecily lends Kate a book from her overstuffed shelves, called Thought for Food. It’s a cookbook full of menus planned around themes, such as “Tea for a Crotchety Aunt” or “Dinner with the Man You Hope to Marry.” The book cheers Kate and, inspired by the themes, Kate begins to re-evaluate her life, her job, her friendships, and Nick. She grows close to Cecily and comes to value her friendship and advice. In turn, she eases Cecily’s loneliness and gives her a sense of purpose once more.

This is a quick, sweet story. The menus are cute and it’s engrossing to read about Kate’s cooking efforts. There are no actual recipes, which is just as well, because the cooking sounds too exhausting to attempt. Kate is a kind, sympathetic character, an easy-to-cheer-for protagonist. This was just the read I was looking for.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow

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

An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow is a fine new work of historical biographical fiction. I love stories about artists, particularly writers, and their significant others, so I was eager to read this even though I’ve never read Turgenev’s work.

The novel sensitively portrays a love triangle in a way that is poignant without seeming tragic.

Pauline Viardot is a famous nineteenth century European opera star. She marries young, to Louis Viardot, who collects art, translates literature, and hunts obsessively. He’s old enough to be her father. They were introduced by George Sand, who is pleased that Pauline will have a spouse who will support and protect her. Louis acts as Pauline’s agent, shepherding her career. Pauline is fond of him but not in love with him, while he loves her with all his heart.

Her operatic touring brings her to St. Petersburg, where she is an enormous success. Ivan Turgenev attends one of her performances and is smitten. A handsome, young Russian aristocrat, Ivan lives the idle useless life he despises. At first, I found him a bit annoying—complaining that his mother is not quick enough with his allowance while criticizing her for living off the serfs they own. (Eventually though, he will become an advocate for serfs and free his own.)  He hangs around Pauline, inserting himself into her circle, fawning. She tries to treat him as merely a friend. However, before long, she can’t do without his devoted presence.

Ivan’s passion for Pauline is all-consuming. Yet he understands that she’s married and pursues her with an almost chivalric idealized love. He’s such a pleasant fellow, and so caring a friend to Pauline, that her husband realizes the best way to defuse the situation is to befriend him as well. 

The platonic phase of their relationship can only last so long. Eventually, Pauline and Ivan give into their desire for one another.

For the rest of their lives, the Viardots and Ivan form an odd threesome. They are inseparable in spirit, but not in fact. Pauline goes off alone at times for her career. And Ivan returns to Russia to claim his inheritance when his mother dies. There, he’s arrested for his radical positions. He’s placed under house arrest, unable to leave Russia. He and Pauline (and, at times, Louis) write to one another, though their letters are constrained by the knowledge that censors are reading them.

The politics, epidemics, and upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century influence the progress of their lives, but don’t change the way they feel. Eventually, the three are reunited. Louis, for the most part, swallows his jealousy and possessiveness to smooth the way for Pauline. In turn, Ivan never presses his luck by trying to separate husband and wife. The author manages to make all the characters sympathetic. The triangle succeeds because they all carefully play their roles.

Pauline is the artistic star of the novel. Ivan’s writing career is alluded to but is not central. By the end of his life, he is successful and acclaimed, but we never see him suffering for his art the way Pauline is shown suffering for hers. 

The writing is beautiful and I learned a good deal about the life and times of Pauline Viardot. Now I have to read Fathers and Sons.

Friday, April 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: How to Train Your Earl by Amelia Grey

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

How to Train Your Earl by Amelia Grey is the third book in her First Comes Love series. I enjoyed book one, The Earl Next Door, so I was happy to dive back into this world.

Brina Feld is a young widow. She lost her husband of three months when the ship he’d been sailing on went down. His heroism (he died saving a multitude of others) inspires her to devote her own life to service. Together with two friends, heroines in the other novels, she has founded a school for the sisters and daughters of sailors lost in the same shipwreck. She has spent five decorous years honoring her husband’s memory. She’s content and fulfilled, or so she tells herself and others.

Zane Browning, Earl of Blacknight, is a very reluctant earl. Until recently very far down in the line of succession, Zane had no qualms about devoting his life to gambling and womanizing. The accidental death of the previous earl and the next couple of young men who should have succeeded to the title, has left him loaded down with responsibilities he does not want, the chief of which is to marry and produce an heir.

Zane has crossed Brina’s path once before, under circumstances Brina would like to forget. When he sees her again, he makes up his mind at once. It is Brina or no one. However, while she certainly finds him attractive, in a way she never expected to be attracted again, she has no interest in changing her lifestyle.

Zane’s plot to change her mind, placing a bet that she will agree to be his wife by the end of the London Season, has the whole of the ton agog. Bets are placed for and against. Infuriated and embarrassed, Brina counters with a bet of her own. She will not marry him. Rather he will apologize to her before the world. In this somewhat ill-conceived way, he convinces her that he is in desperate need of reformation and needs her help. She agrees to help him learn the correct way an earl should behave.

Fans of historical romance can see how this will play out. Happily, it plays out in a lovely, fun-to-read fashion. This is a delightful series. Having missed book two, I’ll have to go back and see how the second heroine fared.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England by Michelle Higgs

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

Having read A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England by Sue Wilkes, I was anxious to follow up with A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England by Michelle Higgs. This uses the same construction of a guidebook of sorts to England for travelers (time travelers?) curious about daily life during a specific period in the past.

Higgs does not focus as much on the upper crust, but rather on the middle and underclasses. It also is a little less London focused. Otherwise, it similarly relates the typical foods, clothing, modes of travel, types of entertainment, and courting customs of the English. It doesn’t get into politics or economics. And it quotes from primary sources to support its observations.

Although it’s fairly dry reading, it contains a wealth of information—difficult-to-find information such as how much things cost and how long travel takes from one place to another. It’s a wonderful resource for basic information about life in Victorian times.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley

 I chose Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley for my next European Reading Challenge book because of its setting in France. I could have used Band of Sisters, also set in France, but I didn’t think of it because the protagonists were so American. Besides, I wanted to read another book by Jane Smiley.

Many, many years ago, I read A Thousand Acres, a very deserving Pulitzer Prize winner. Then I read The Greenlanders, which I loved even more. But I didn’t find Private Life all that memorable and I didn’t like Moo at all, so I haven’t sought out her other books. But Perestroika in Paris sounded like something very different and I was curious.

Perestroika (called Paras) is a young racehorse, a jumper, from just outside Paris. One day, her groom inadvertently left the door to her stall open and Paras wandered out, just for a look around, and she kept looking until she ended up in Paris.

A thoroughbred alone in the big city should not have gone undetected, especially with the owners searching for her frantically, but Paras has a bit of luck. She is discovered by a stray dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, who has been on her own since her owner disappeared (died). Frida leads Paras to a park where they can both hide away from people who might curb their freedom. A raven (Raoul) swoops down to offer advice. And they meet a duck couple, who also befriend them.

The novel describes the day-to-day life of these animals, mostly how they find food, but also their inner thoughts and vague yearnings. They do make contact with a few humans, shopkeepers who help them out, the caretaker of the park, but mostly they keep their distance. The humans are interesting but decidedly secondary in importance.

At the same time, there is an 8-year-old boy named Etienne who lives in an old mansion with his great grandmother. She is in her late 90's and is blind and deaf. Etienne is her only remaining family. She took care of him at first; now he takes care of her. They make occasional outings to the store, but are otherwise secluded in the house, hiding from do-gooders who would likely separate them.

In the winter, when the cold and lack of forage are beginning to be a problem for Paras, she meets Etienne. He invites her into the house, and a new phase in all their lives begins. 

The story is written in a fable-like manner. Very simply. Very quietly. Conflict is muted. The main looming problem is that Etienne’s great grandmother is coming to the end of her life, and no one knows what will happen next.

It is a sweet, soothing story, pleasantly written, but, unfortunately, a bit dull. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

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

I love biographical fiction. It was a gateway for me into my favorite genre: historical fiction. So Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan was right up my alley.

The protagonist, Katherine Faulkner Swift, is an extraordinarily talented, classically trained pianist, who lives for her music. She does not come from wealth, but she moves in wealthy circles, primarily as a performer, providing background music for social events. It is at one such event that she meets James Warburg. The twenty-year-old son of a fabulously wealthy banker, “Jimmy” is a sensitive-seeming, handsome, ambitious charmer. Before long, they are an item. Despite his family’s objections, they marry.

Life as a society wife and mother is not satisfying for Katherine. She never wanted to be a mother. She misses performing. And worst of all, Jimmy is unfaithful. Repeatedly. He feeds her the tired excuse that it’s what men do, and none of the women mean anything to him. He even gives her permission to cheat, too.

Still, she isn’t looking to take a lover. Until she hears George Gershwin perform Rhapsody in Blue. She meets him. She falls hard. Her marriage (and children) become an encumbrance. If Jimmy has regrets, and it seems he does, too bad for him. She loves Gershwin with all her heart. 

The book traces the course of Katherine’s life and her trials as Warburg’s wife and Gershwin’s lover. More than just lovers, they work together. They help one another reach greater musical heights. They inspire one another. However, there is always the sense that Katherine is more invested in the relationship than Gershwin. He, too, is unfaithful. Repeatedly and publicly. He claims he can’t commit because she’s married, but it’s pretty clear he’s glad she’s married so he has an excuse.

Katherine wants to compose music, and with George’s encouragement and connections, her career takes off. Along the way, she discovers that her husband has a talent for writing lyrics. They begin a musical collaboration as well. Because it wouldn’t do for James Warburg the banker and financial whiz to be known as a pop-song writer, they go by the pseudonyms Paul James and Kay Swift. (It is as Kay Swift that she is mostly known today.)

The novel is steeped in the music. I found myself jumping to youtube to listen to songs that are mentioned along the way. It is also steeped in early twentieth-century entertainment culture. Famous names are sprinkled throughout, grounding the story in its larger-than-life setting. 

Despite the celebrity, the talent, the success, the extreme wealth, and the elaborate partying, the main characters, people who “have it all,” are fundamentally unhappy. The poignancy is that they recognize their selfishness but wallow in it rather than attempting to change. And, in the deft hand of this author, the novel succeeds because, despite their flaws, these are multi-dimensional, likeable characters. 

You don’t have to be knowledgeable about early twentieth-century music to enjoy this novel. I certainly am not. But I found I was familiar with more of the tunes than I expected and the little bursts of recognition enhanced the reading experience. 

If you enjoy Rhapsody, look for Kaplan’s previous novels, Into the Unbounded Night and By Fire, By Water.

Monday, March 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

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

Band of Sisters: A Novel
by Lauren Willig (subtitled The Women of Smith College Go to War) is a spellbinding World War I novel that focuses on the relief efforts of a small group of young women, graduates of Smith College, who travel to France to provide direct aid to villagers who have been devastated by the Germans. Women, children, and elderly men are living in cellars or bombed-out villages, trying to eke out an existence close to the front lines. Most have lost family members. Schools are gone. Livelihoods are gone. They are forgotten people in the midst of the ongoing fighting.

These women come in, set up schools, build simple houses, feed people, and provide them with the means to begin to rebuild their lives. They bring hope to the hopeless. There are a couple of doctors, an agriculturist, and a few teachers but, for the most part, they learn on the job what they need to know to get things done.

They settle in Grecourt, a bombed-out village in close proximity to the front. They live in constant low-level danger until the Germans overrun the lines and things become suddenly very dangerous. The women from Smith College then help to evacuate the villagers one step ahead of the advancing enemy.

Although the characters are fictional, they are inspired by real-life people and the episodes depicted have their basis in real historical events.

The beauty in this novel is how the women come together as a cohesive unit despite personality conflicts, differing backgrounds, and differing goals. It’s common in war stories to see men bonding under duress, but camaraderie like this among women is less often showcased. These women are hard-working, brave, and devoted to their cause, but also flawed, at times insecure, and very human. The novel passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Although a romance does develop, it doesn’t dominate the plot. 

Although fairly long at 524 pages, this is a quick-paced, engrossing read. Despite the horrors of war, which are not sugar-coated, it’s an uplifting tale.  Highly recommended. 

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.