Saturday, January 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, the Russian threat is real.

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

Friday, January 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to the Rectory by Catherine Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Confessions of a Curious Bookseller by Elizabeth Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Children of the Valley by Castle Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Old Number Five by Castle Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 4, 2021

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

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

This book is long. 

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

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