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.