Sunday, May 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Ridgeline by Michael Punke

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

The problem with books about the American West and wars between the Native Americans and U.S. Army is that no matter how beautifully written, they are melancholy; and no matter how exciting, you know how the story will ultimately end.

is a new release by the Western Historical novelist Michael Punke. It is a meticulously detailed (if fictionalized) account of the 1866 battle between the soldiers at the newly constructed Fort Phil Kearny in current-day Wyoming and the combined forces of the Lakota and their allies. Red Cloud was the primary leader, but in this novel, the focus is on the visionary young Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse and his people watch with horror and anger as white soldiers move into the Powder River Valley, a sacred hunting ground, and begin cutting down trees to build a fort.

The army is led by Colonel Henry Harrington, who is more engineer than soldier. His top commanders are a mixed bunch of infantry, artillery, and cavalry men. There are also civilians in the group, including women and children (meaning that this group of white soldiers is here to stay). There is also Jim Bridger, a well-known scout, who is beginning to question his role. 

For the most part, the Lakota are intelligent, brave, and thoughtful. They are brutal only when necessary. Crazy Horse is a brilliant strategist, but is also humble enough to listen to the wisdom of others and to accept responsibility without demanding praise or credit. The white soldiers, on the other hand, with few exceptions, are argumentative, vainglorious, and largely incompetent. They drink too much. They are undisciplined and ill-trained. The villain of the novel, Lieutenant Grummond, is the worst of the worst, even mistreating his pregnant wife.

Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, the author sets the stage for an epic battle. Some chapters are less gripping than others, occasionally slowing the pace in the first part of the book. But overall, the multifaceted stage setting works, bringing the reader deeply into the time and place. The tension is there from the beginning, building slowly, until the action explodes in the final chapters.

This is a wonderfully written Western that is an old-fashioned historical adventure but with more modern sensibility. It’s not a feel-good story, but it is a satisfying read.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The first of Emma Donoghue’s books that I read was Slammerkin, many years ago. Although un-put-downable, I didn’t like it: it was too brutal, the protagonist too awful. I didn’t return to the author until Room, which everyone insisted was a must-read. And it was. Donoghue is an extraordinary writer. I read her most recent historical, The Pull of the Stars, and decided I really need to work through her backlist. So, I just finished The Wonder.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, it is after the famine years of failed potato harvests, but the land is still drenched with poverty and is just staving off hunger. People need to eat to live, a tragic fact when there isn’t enough food. But what if they didn’t?

So when one little girl stops eating on her eleventh birthday, and goes without food for four months yet remains healthy and happy, the small community celebrates the miracle. The girl’s elderly doctor sends a off a report, convinced that he is involved in a great medical discovery. The child’s parents and priest are convinced they are nurturing a future saint. All that is needed is proof. A committee of townsmen sends for two nurses to watch over the child, Anna, for two weeks, to confirm that she is eating nothing. One nurse is a Catholic nun. The other, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, is an Englishwoman, a nurse trained in the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale.

Lib arrives in the Irish backwater with her mind closed, her decision made. She isn’t there to confirm the miracle, but to expose the fraud. She’s appalled by the weather, the food, the accommodations, and the fanatical superstitious religiousness of the local people. She mistrusts them all, wondering how many are in on the fraud and how many are simply gullible. She’s unimpressed, too, by the Catholic nun who is more concerned with obeying orders than with the child.

Over the first few days, Lib concentrates on discovering how food is being surreptitiously delivered. When she can find no evidence of this, she starts focusing on Anna. Why won’t the girl eat? And as it becomes clear that Anna is starving to death, Lib’s main concern becomes saving the child’s life.

Donoghue immerses the reader in the world of the protagonist, whose own murky backstory is only slowly revealed to the reader as the puzzle of Anna also starts to become clear. The novel’s momentum builds as Lib and the reader come to appreciate the strength of all the forces combined against the child, including the child’s own will.

The Wonder is beautifully written, horrifying, sad, and ultimately hopeful. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Coldwater Revenge by James A. Ross

I don’t generally read contemporary thrillers, but having enjoyed the historical thriller, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt by James A. Ross, I decided to try Book 1 of his A Coldwater Mystery series: Coldwater Revenge.

Tom Morgan, a high-powered corporate lawyer arrives in his old hometown of Coldwater (just south of the Canadian border) for a short family visit. He calls it a vacation, but he’s come home because his mother broke her leg and his younger brother’s family could use a bit of help caring for her. His brother, Joe, is a busy man. Joe is the local sheriff, who inherited the position, with all it entails, from their father.

The two brothers are both hard-driven, grasping, intelligent men, but there the similarities end. Tom fled the small-town life, leaving behind a failed romance and the disillusionment of discovering his father was not the hero he’d thought him to be. Joe embraced it all.

No sooner does Tom return home when a local ne’er-do-well, Billy Pearce, is discovered drowned in the lake, clearly murdered.

The murder interests Tom because that failed romance from his past was with Susan Pearce, Billy’s sister. Susan is back in town as well, working for a pharmaceutical research company, a start-up with very shady business practices. Tom may not have Joe’s skills at criminal detective work, but he knows a good deal about shady business practices. Joe enlists Tom’s help, partly because he can use it and partly to keep him from zipping back to New York to deal with an urgent corporate legal mess. Tom stays, partly to help but partly because of Susan.

The investigation branches out to include local small-time drug dealers, big-time pseudo-researchers, a jaded priest who might be a pedophile, and potential terrorists. As Tom casts his net wider, he finds he can’t even exclude Susan from suspicion, or even Joe.

The plotting is taut; the characters are intriguing, and the setting is vividly described. Even though contemporary thrillers are not my usual fare, I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why She Wrote by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman and Kaley Bales

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

Why She Wrote: A Graphic History of the Lives, Inspiration, and Influence Behind the Pens of Classic Women Writers
by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman, and Kaley Bales is an interesting book highlighting female authors presented in an original way. 

Eighteen authors are showcased including well-known figures like the Brontes, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Louisa May Alcott, as well as more obscure writers like Elizabeth Gaskell, Frances E.W. Harper, Edith Maude Eaton, and others.

Grouped into sets of three, the text explores six themes that loosely tie each of the three together. Short biographies are provided, followed by a few pages of a graphic novelization of an event or turning point in the author’s life.

While the biographies are necessarily short and cursory, they are a fine jumping off point for those interested in these writers and an encouragement to seek out more. The graphic history portions provide vignettes that help to fix the information in the reader’s mind and individualize the women.

Bibliographies are given for each author and there is also a list of resources for further reading.

Friday, May 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Undercover Duke by Sabrina Jeffries

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

I enjoyed book three in the Duke Dynasty series by Sabrina Jeffries, Who Wants to Marry a Duke, despite not having read the first two books. The series includes a murder mystery (at least three murders) that remained unsolved, but hinted at, at the end of book three. It left me intrigued enough to want to learn whodunnit.

Book Four, Undercover Duke, solves the mystery satisfactorily, but the romance fell flat.

The basis for the series is that Lydia Fletcher married three dukes in succession, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Her sons, by different fathers, have teamed up to solve the case. Previous novels have matched up two of the sons with feisty brides. The remaining son, Sheridan Wolfe, Duke of Armitage, has no wish to marry. When he was young, he had fallen in love with a woman who died of consumption before they could wed. He never wants to feel that pain again.

However, he is drawn to Vanessa Pryde, a distant cousin, who he first met about a year and a half earlier. She has an awful mother who is trying to marry her off. But Vanessa has carried a torch for Sheridan ever since they first met and is uninterested in anyone her mother pushes at her.

The hero and heroine refuse to admit that they are interested in one another. Vanessa pretends to be chasing after a playwright (who happens to be a close friend of her cousin, one of Sheridan’s step-brothers.) She is hoping to make Sheridan see that she is no longer a child and to make him jealous.

For his part, Sheridan is jealous. But he gets assigned the task of investigating Vanessa’s awful mother, who is one of the suspects in the murder investigation. So he pretends to court Vanessa to get close to her mother, while pretending to Vanessa that he is helping her make the playwright jealous. (This is NOT the most convoluted part of the plot; that would be the relationships between the brothers. I hadn’t found it hard to follow book three without having read the others, but this one suffers from the lack of detailed backstory. It would probably be best to read the whole series in order.)

Vanessa is a pleasant, intelligent heroine, who is far too forgiving of Sheridan’s lies and far too guilty about her own rather minor deception. Much of the book is overwrought worrying that could be readily dispelled by a simple conversation. Instead, she tries to win him over with sex.

Sheridan refuses to fall in love, but has no qualms about lusting after Vanessa. The novel relies too much on sex to drive the relationship and fill pages. His primary emotions seem to be jealousy and uncontrollable desire. He just isn’t likeable as a protagonist.

There is some entertaining banter, but also some clunky conversation. And the dialogues during sex were awkwardly corny/strained.

Overall, I think this book would have been more enjoyable had I been more invested in the series. I shouldn’t have started mid-series.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Wicked Conceit by Anna Lee Huber

I have yet to be disappointed by one of Anna Lee Huber’s A Lady Darby Mystery novels, set in Scotland and London in the 1830s. The latest release is A Wicked Conceit.

The detective couple Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, Sebastian Gage, are about to become parents. Having just returned from solving their last crime (in A Stroke of Malice), they had decided to take a break from investigative work until after the birth of their baby. No such luck.

An anonymously authored book has just been published based on the life of a leading figure of the underworld, Bonnie Brock Kincaid. This criminal villain has crossed paths with Kiera and Gage several times before. Although ruthless, he has a soft spot for Kiera, especially since she helped him find his younger sister, Maggie, the only person he truly cares about. Gage can’t stand him and doesn’t trust him.

The anonymous book throws an unwelcome spotlight on Kincaid, endangering his enterprises and emboldening his rivals. The book is a mixture of truth and falsehood. Unfortunately, one of the falsehoods is that Lady “Dalby” and the criminal had an affair and that the baby she now carries is not her husband’s. All of society knows that Lady Dalby is a thinly veiled reference to Lady Darby.

If the book weren’t bad enough, theaters throughout Edinburgh adapt the story into wildly successful plays. Once again, Kiera is the subject of malicious gossip.

As a sidenote, the plays make Kincaid out to be a swashbuckling hero, and a rash of petty crimes imitating his partly fictional exploits has broken out. The police are furious, Kincaid is furious, and Gage and Kiera are furious. All parties are desperate to discover the author, especially when rumors of a sequel start circulating.

Kiera and Gage begin investigating authorship, but when the publisher is murdered, they find themselves seeking the killer. The tension is heightened by Kiera’s imminent due date. AND, for added conflict, Kiera has not yet told Gage a family secret she learned in the previous book. She fears that when he finds out, he’ll be devastated. And angry at her for not telling him sooner.

A Wicked Conceit is fast-paced and well-plotted. The relationship between Kiera and her husband is strong, but still has a few kinks to be worked out, which keeps the romance angle fresh. The series continues to impress! 

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.