Tuesday, August 31, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

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

Why do I keep reading heart-breaking retellings of the Fall of Troy? Do I imagine the ending will change?

The latest edition to the genre is Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, a sequel to her earlier work, The Silence of the Girls. I haven’t read book one, but the overall story is familiar enough that book two can stand alone. The Women of Troy picks up the saga in the immediate aftermath of Troy’s fall, telling the story primarily from Briseis’ viewpoint. (I was a bit disconcerted that the novel starts off from the viewpoint of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and several chapters unfold in his perspective. This helps the story along, but it was not ‘the women’s story’ the way A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes was.)

After the episode with the Trojan Horse and the destruction of Troy, the Greeks are eager to sail for home with their loot, which includes the newly enslaved female population of Troy. Briseis, who had been Achilles’ war prize, and who is carrying his child, is now married to Lord Alcimus, so her status has risen to that of a wife. It’s not much of a promotion, but at least she is allowed to roam about at will, unlike the other women who are captives.

The Greeks are also, to some extent, captive. Having offended the gods in myriad ways during the orgy of destruction during the capture of Troy, they are now confined to the beach by ceaseless strong winds that prevent them from sailing away. Without a Trojan enemy to fight, old factions and quarrels are renewed. 

One of the worst of the Greeks is Pyrrhus. He is accorded some respect as Achilles’ son and as one of the heroes of the sack of Troy, having killed old King Priam. None of his fellows is aware of the cowardly way he botched the killing, since he boasts of having done it heroically. Pyrrhus is bitter, indecisive, and insecure, aware that he can’t match his godlike father. He makes up for it by lying, drinking excessively, and bullying those around him.

Briseis, in contrast, is kind, generous, and self-confident, using her position to help the other women where she can. Briseis is a survivor, who makes the best of whatever position she finds herself in. 

It’s a fine re-telling. Briseis is a good choice for a new narrator of the timeless story.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

 It’s one thing to read the thick tomes of Victorian and Edwardian history for the political, socioeconomic, and artistic history of the times, but another thing altogether to get the nitty-gritty history of nineteenth-century daily life, particularly the lives of women. What did they wear for underclothes? How did they clean themselves? What about…excretory functions? What about sex?

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners
by Therese Oneill tackles these fascinating but often difficult to tease out questions, taking the answers mainly from contemporary “self-help” books for women, largely written by men. (And men pretending, for the purpose of authorship, to be women.) Mansplaining has been around forever! Misguided and condescending as these pseudo-medical tidbits can be, Oneill’s snarky presentation manages to make it funny rather than infuriating.

The book is informative, but in a big-picture, getting-the sense-of-things manner, rather than providing the more granular analysis (I hate that expression, but it’s currently in vogue) of historical data that novelists might want for historical accuracy. And readers of historical romance might end up with a jaundiced view of the next novel they pick up—things weren’t that rosy! But this is all good stuff to know, and this book is every bit as entertaining as a novel.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

BLOG TOUR BOOK REVIEW: Along Came a Lady by Christi Caldwell

Welcome to my blog tour book review! Thank you to Netgalley for this e-galley.

Billed as a reverse My Fair Lady, Along Came a Lady by Christi Caldwell is a lovely just-released Regency Romance, the first in a new series. I haven’t read this author before, but I’ll definitely be following this series.

Rafe Audley is the illegitimate son of the Duke of Bentley. Since age thirteen, he has been raising his siblings alone, with no help from the man who sired him. Growing up in a coal-mining town, he went early into the mines and has risen to the respected position of foreman. Despite the dangers to himself and his younger brother, and despite the lack of opportunity for his sister, Rafe is proud of his accomplishments and has no wish to ever meet the father he despises.

Edwina Dalyrmple is the illegitimate daughter of an earl who acknowledged her once upon a time, but then cut her off in deference to his wife. Alone in the world, unable to take a place in “Polite Society,” Edwina embarks on a career as a governess-of-sorts to young women who have the opportunity to rise socially but need polish. If anything, Edwina knows the rules. She would give anything to regain her place in her father’s heart, but, in the meantime, she has to guard her reputation carefully and stay out of his sphere.

When the Duke of Bentley decides he wants to acknowledge Rafe’s existence, he hires Edwina to teach the coal miner how to behave properly, then bring him to London. Rafe, infuriated, is dead-set against it. However, Edwina will not take no for an answer. She’ll give him those lessons whether he wants them or not.

This is a fun story with surprising depth. While Rafe can be very rude and bullying, he also has a heart and turns contrite before losing the reader’s sympathy or Edwina’s. Edwina is an intelligent, feisty heroine whose reliance on perfect manners and sometimes forced good humor make her more than a match for Rafe’s scowling sulks. The sex scenes are steamy, which could seem a bit hypocritical given the protagonists’ judgey-ness of their respective parents’ extramarital indiscretions, but they recognize this. It leads to better understanding and self-awareness. These two belong together. They earn their HEA.

From the publisher:

Christi Caldwell is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sinful Brides Series and the Heart of a Duke Series. She blames novelist Judith McNaught for luring her into the world of historical romance. She enjoys torturing her couples before they earn their well-deserved happily ever after. Originally from Southern Connecticut, Christi now resides in North Carolina, where she spends her time writing and being a mommy to an energetic little boy and mischievous twin girls who offer an endless source of story ideas. Learn more at christicaldwell.com.

Friday, August 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley

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

After my recent spate of serious reading, I needed something light. I picked a Regency Romance from my Netgalley queue: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley.

The Honorable Frederick Eversley is a twenty-six-year-old confirmed bachelor and man-about-town. Good-hearted and certainly no rake, he simply enjoys his life as it is, being wealthy and unencumbered. When his mother asks him to accompany her to his cousins’ house in the country, he acquiesces, but reluctantly. His cousin Thomas is a twenty-three-year-old Mama’s boy. His cousin Phoebe is a lovely young girl who lacks any spirit. Fortunately, the trip is only to last a few days. His mother is going primarily to fetch Phoebe to London for a Season.

Frederick would be even more reluctant if he were aware that his aunt’s purpose in sending her daughter to London was not only to catch her a husband, but specifically to catch him.

Miss Eleanor Denham, Phoebe’s dearest friend and neighbor, is being pursued by Thomas, the Mama’s boy. She considers him a friend but no more. Devoted to Phoebe, she’s sympathetic when she learns Phoebe has no interest in going to London and no interest in Frederick Eversley. Phoebe has formed an attachment to another neighbor, whose title is insufficient in her mother’s eyes.

So, on the basis of a slight acquaintance, Eleanor schemes to make Frederick appear to be a trifler with young lady’s affections, to throw Phoebe’s mother off. The scheme fails, only serving to make Eleanor look bad and to put a wedge between her and Frederick when they might otherwise have been friends.

Off the young folks go to London for a social whirl. Thomas must learn to be more self-sufficient. Phoebe must avoid the attentions of any number of men attracted to her beauty. And (and here is the Romance) Frederick and Eleanor must clear up their misunderstandings and find their way to each other.

Interestingly, as I began the book, I found it to have a noticeably old-fashioned tone. It followed the Regency Romance conventions, but the conversations seemed stilted, the conflict was minimal, and there were no sparks. Reading more about the book, I learned it was a re-release of a novel by a writer popular in the 1960s and 70s.

I’m partial to clean rather than excessively steamy Romance, so I enjoy older Romances (like those of Georgette Heyer.) But here, I found the love story so subdued as to be a bit dull. It was interesting, though, to consider how Regency Romance has changed over the years–and also how it remains the same.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: In All Good Faith by Liza Nash Taylor

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

In All Good Faith by Liza Nash Taylor is an uplifting historical novel set in the eastern U.S. in the era of the Great Depression. It follows the intertwining fortunes of two strong women, May Marshall Craig and Dorrit Sykes.

May was the heroine of a previous novel, Etiquette for Runaways, and this continues her saga. Married now to the man she has always loved, Byrd Craig, she continues to work at her family’s small-town market, a store that is slowly failing, while her husband struggles to support the family on a lawyer’s salary when no one has money to pay him. He has to take a job in Washington D.C., doing important work, but work that allows him only the weekends to spend at home. His reaction to life’s setbacks is to double down on his determination to be the provider. Whenever May broaches the topic of an entrepreneurial idea of her own, he shuts her down. With faith in her own business sense and the strength of her product, she forges ahead secretly.

Dorrit is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a WWI veteran, fallen on hard times. Her mother died in childbirth and her older brother ran off to join the merchant marines. Her father is a skilled mechanic, who pins his hopes on inventing a better mousetrap. Dorrit takes in sewing, entertains herself with Nancy Drew mysteries, and agonizes over questions of faith. (Her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, would likely have survived had she not refused medical intervention until it was too late.)

The novel takes the reader along on the winding paths of these two characters. At first, the misery index is fairly high. I was engaged with Dorrit’s story from the first, but took a little longer to click with May. Once their paths intersected, things began to look up for both, and I settled in to the read with more hopefulness. I enjoyed seeing how they coped with adversity. The story carried me along to its satisfying conclusion.

The novel works very well as a standalone, though I do wonder if my initial detachment from May was a result of not having read the first novel. While this one does provide May’s backstory, I might have benefitted from the unfolding of her history in book one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: New Grub Street by George Gissing

Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming walking into a bookstore to browse or wandering the library when I pop in to pick up a book. There is SO MUCH to read. So when I happen upon a reference to a great writer from long ago whose works have dropped off the radar, I have mixed emotions. Can I really squeeze in a book published in 1891 by a writer I’ve never heard of?

The answer, of course, is yes!

George Gissing was a prolific English novelist of the late nineteenth century, who was mentioned a few times in The Age of Decadence. One of his best works is thought to be New Grub Street, which follows the lives of several literary men and women of modest to moderate talent and scant means trying to make their names in the 1880s. 

It’s not a pretty tale. The men with the most talent (Edwin Reardon and possibly Harold Biffen) are destroyed by poverty, as is an intelligent but horribly selfish literary critic, Alfred Yule. The most successful of the bunch is a hack writer, Jasper Milvain, a shallow fellow who pursues money at all cost, seeking the ultimate jackpot of a wealthy wife. The women (Amy Yule Reardon, Marian Yule, and Maud and Dora Milvain) are mainly downtrodden creatures whose happiness and well-being are dependent on whether or not they have men who can provide for them or inheritances that can be used to secure husbands. The theme appears to be that contentment is not possible without money. Although it’s a crass view of the world, the point is well demonstrated. As the novel drew to a close, I kept waiting for a reversal that would be somehow redemptive. Instead, it became apparent that the good people would be crushed and the not-very-good people would succeed by becoming truly awful people. It was agonizingly realistic. The lack of a pat, emotionally satisfying ending is what made the book so powerful.

Despite being written over a hundred years ago, the novel resonates with today’s issues around what constitutes “good” vs. popular literature, the reliability of journalism, and the dumbing-down effect of “mass media.” The explorations of the psyches of the main characters are fascinating. The story pulls the reader in slowly, but the plot builds and interweaves until it is hard to put down. There are startling flashes of wit and numerous clever passages that I wanted to read out loud to whoever was nearby (no doubt annoying my family.) 

I love books about writers. This one reminded me of Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, though that was based in France in the early nineteenth century. They are both superb classics.

The novel is still in print in various “classics editions” and I was able to get an ebook copy from my library. If this is your sort of thing, it isn’t hard to find!

Monday, August 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Age of Decadence. A History of Britain: 1880-1914 by Simon Heffer

 After reading Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine, I decided to continue the march through the history of the United Kingdom with The Age of Decadence. A History of Britain: 1880-1914 by Simon Heffer. 

At 897 pages, including notes and index, this was a time-consuming read, but the time passed quickly. The political history is seamlessly interspersed with social history, and it provided a wonderfully detailed big-picture analysis of how society progressed (women’s rights, labor movements, Home Rule for Ireland, increased literacy, and the emergence of a financially strong middle class) as Britain began to lose its grasp on its empire. Although generally thought of as a time when England was on top of the world, its wealthy people living decadent, carefree lives, it was actually a time of marked, sometimes violent, political upheaval and severe economic disparity. 

Heffer’s style is engaging, carrying me through this tome in a way that never made reading it feel like a chore. My only complaint is that it left me with too many topics and historical figures I want to explore further.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi

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

What a delightful history book! Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi is a short and sweet monograph that delivers exactly what the title promises. It makes no attempt to be a comprehensive history of the time, but rather provides a tantalizing taste of the roaring twenties, with chapters covering topics such as bootlegging, slang, the “new woman,” cars, aviation, crime, movies, literature, and more. Each short chapter is followed by themed cocktail recipes. While I suspect I will try one of these recipes before getting around to the vegan recipes from Eat Plants Feel Whole, I haven’t made one of the cocktails yet. (They are heavily oriented toward gin and rum, not favorites of mine, and I haven’t any of the other ingredients at hand.)  More likely, I’ll pick one and see if a local bartender will mix it up for me. But whether or not I indulge in the cocktail, I enjoyed the peek at the Jazz Age. I understand there is a companion volume of Gilded Age cocktails. I’ll have to read that one too.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our book group’s next book is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel about the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s. It is a devastating book.

The stage is set with the introduction of the main characters, who live in Southern Nigeria in the early 1960s. There is political unrest and discontent. There is vast socio-economic disparity. But there is peace.

Ugwu is a thirteen-year-old boy from the villages who comes to the university city to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor with high-minded, revolutionary ideals, but who lives a wealthy “ivory tower” existence amongst fellow intellectuals. His lover, Olanna, is the good-hearted, extraordinarily beautiful daughter of a local, corrupt chief–though “chief” isn’t the correct word in that culture. Olanna has a twin sister, Kainene, who is not at all beautiful, but who is a smart, strong businesswoman who knows how to work the corrupt system. Finally, there is Richard, a British journalist/writer who comes to Nigeria for its ancient art, falls in love with Kainene, and stays throughout the war. These characters are realistic, normal people living fairly unremarkable lives.

The novel starts slowly. It has a very character-driven narrative that serves to orient readers in time and place and to make them care about the people. The characters possess various strengths and weaknesses that make them more or less likeable. The relationships shape the drama. All the while, the political tension bubbles under the surface. The people of Biafra, the Igbo, don’t want to be a part of Nigeria (a largely Hausa-Fulani population). They try to secede. When war breaks out, relative privilege shelters the main characters from the worst privations for a while. But the war is inexorable. Eventually, the true horrors of violent killings, air raids, corruption, mistrust, cruelty, and above all, famine and starvation, reach throughout Biafra and are illustrated there on the pages. 

War stories are always depressing. Yet because this one was so recent, it seemed somehow more horrific. So much preventable suffering was largely ignored by the Western world. This is compounded by the knowledge that even though the war ended, the conflict is still ongoing.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson. I. Vows by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Nobel-prize winning Sigrid Undset is best known for her three-volume novel of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, published in 1920-1922. Less well known is her four-volume epic, The Master of Hestviken, otherwise known as Olav Audunsson. It’s also set in medieval Norway, but in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a generation before Kristin Lavransdatter.

Tiina Nunnally has undertaken a new translation of the masterwork. The first volume, Vows, was published last year.

In this superb historical novel, we meet Olav Audunsson as a boy on the verge of manhood, living with his foster family, a family headed by Steinfinn Toresson. He’s treated with a benign neglect alongside the children of the family. Steinfinn and his wife have other problems and don’t pay much attention to what the children are getting up to.

What makes Olav unique is his bond with the eldest daughter, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. When they were children, the two fathers betrothed them in a silly ceremony while drunk. There has been a general acceptance of the betrothal ever since, though no one takes it very seriously except the children themselves. They grow from playmates to best friends. Neither ever questions the belief that they will spend the rest of their lives together.

Olav reaches adolescence. He’s only a year older than Ingunn, but his hormones kick into gear. She adores him, trusts him completely, and is frighteningly innocent. After a critical battle in the adult world, one in which Olav takes part, there is much celebratory drinking and carousing, and Olav and Ingunn slip away and consummate their betrothal. Not a good idea.

Olav is years away from his majority. Ingunn is only about 15. Had the foster parents lived, the marriage might have been rushed ahead, validating the union. But Steinfinn dies of his battle wounds and his wife precedes him, dying rather mysteriously. Ingunn is now a ward of her uncles, who see her as too valuable to give to Olav who, though he may have property to inherit, has no important political connections. Thinking to improve his chances of gaining the bride he thinks of as rightfully his, Olav confesses to the local bishop that he and Ingunn have already slept together. Things go from bad to worse.

The two are parted for years while Olav tries to earn enough clout to claim Ingunn. The unfortunate Ingunn is shelved in a remote estate with an elderly aunt and even more elderly grandmother. It’s a frustrating existence for Olav and a stultifying one for poor Ingunn. 

The novel delves deep into the customs and beliefs of the times. It immerses the reader in the rhythms of their daily lives and the passing of years. It shows how lives are altered by unwise choices and how one mistake compounds another. And yet, through it all, there is a beauty in the love of this pair for one another. It is, according to the author, “the simple story of a man and the people who intervene in his life.” It is that, though Olav was much more active in shaping his own life than Ingunn was allowed to be. Her passivity is painful to a modern reader, but faithful to the historical reality, which makes the novel all that more compelling.

This is gorgeous, epic, old-fashioned historical fiction, in a beautifully fluid translation. I’m looking forward to continuing the saga in book 2.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

 Reviews that I’ve seen of Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng keep coming back to the word beautiful. 

Beginning in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's, the novel follows one particular family—Momo, Cassia, and their daughter Junie—and a talented musician, Dawn, whose life skirts the edges of theirs. The plot is fairly simple: circumstances bring the couple together, accumulated traumas pull them apart, and life draws them back together in unexpected ways. I don’t want to give anything away since the emotional punch of the book is in the unfolding of the relationships. The prose is spare and moving. The characters are subtly depicted but fully realized. 

I have to agree: this is a beautiful book.