Thursday, October 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Woodcock by Richard Smyth

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

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, richly detailed (detailed about things I’m not overly interested in–tide pool biology, cricket...yet strangely compelling nonetheless) historical novel that will gently tug at your heartstrings, The Woodcock by Richard Smyth is a must read. 


The pace is gentle and it took awhile to immerse myself in the slow rhythm of the story, but the tension built continuously and I had a hard time putting the book down. It can be funny at times, yet has a menace to it like a horror story. I knew it would end badly, but I didn’t know how it would end, and I needed to know.

The story is told in the first person by two of the main characters, alternating POVs. The first is Jon Lowell, a naturalist who makes his living writing articles for journals (and one book!) about the creatures inhabiting the seashore, the tide pools, of the tiny north England village Gravely. He’s a handsome young man, in his early twenties, though he seems older at first. He lives quietly. He wants to live quietly, absorbed in his odd work, work that is engrossing to him but bizarre or amusing to the other residents of the town.

The second narrator is Harriet Lowell, Jon’s wife. She’s introduced to us that way, as if her role in life is simply that. She’s a native of Gravely, a small town girl. She is surprisingly, and very noticeably, beautiful. (Jon takes some pride in that.) She does love her husband. But she also has a rich inner life that Jon knows nothing about. He’s never bothered to ask. She spends a lot of time with the town preacher, Reverend Aldridge, which annoys Jon only because he doesn’t like the man and is not, himself, religious. Mostly, he doesn’t care what she does with her time so long as she doesn’t inflict the preacher on him. Whether Jon’s absent-ness bothers Harriet or serves her purpose isn’t made clear. Harriet is an insular character, reflective, intelligent, and wounded.

The book opens with outsiders coming to town.

One is Jon’s longtime friend, David McAllister, a successful novelist, lady’s man, handsome, beefy, and brave. Although polar opposites, the two are best friends, soul mates. They make each other laugh. (Their banter is hilarious.) But David is also an alcoholic and a bit of a lost cause.

More momentous is the arrival of the Americans, Maurice Shakes and his two beautiful daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor. Shakes is a man with a dream: he wants to build a tourist attraction to outdo Coney Island, a large pier and amusement park with all the amenities early twentieth century technology can provide, on the shore of backwater Gravely. A beguiling salesman, he cons the people of the town into accepting his vision, all except Reverend Aldridge, who sees it as evil, Harriet, who sees it as dangerous, and Jon, who isn’t against the idea so much as he is mistrustful of change. It seems unlikely the tourist attraction would be good for the local wildlife.

Shakes is a whirlwind and development moves quickly. But more disruptive for our protagonists are the two daughters. Cordelia ensnares David–or maybe doesn’t. And Jon finds himself drawn to Eleanor. It’s painful to read Jon’s self-absorbed pursuit of a woman he barely knows while he justifies his neglect of his wife.

Although the plot is fairly straightforward, there are many swirling undercurrents. They offer a variety of possibilities for resolution – none of them good – so that the story is satisfyingly complex. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Deception by Mary Lancaster

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

The second book in Pleasure Garden, Mary Lancaster’s new Regency Romance series, is Unmasking Deception, to be released this month. The book stands alone, but the first book, Unmasking the Hero, is a delight, so you may want to read that one first.


The current book is an entertaining romp. The hero, Lord Dominic Gorse, the youngest son of a marquess, is a ne’er-do-well going to ruin ever since his father refused to buy him a commission. He drinks, gambles, fools around, and hangs out with other low characters. Until one of his gambling companions is murdered after one of their drinking/card playing evenings, and half the man’s money and one of his expensive cuff buttons is found at Dominic’s door. He is arrested and, after a slapdash trial, sentenced to deportation. Fortunately for him, he manages to escape from Newgate prison.

Viola Dove is a clever, pretty, adventuresome, but poor young gentlewoman. The fate of her family is in her hands. She must marry for money. However, on a night out with friends (at the Pleasure Garden), she runs into a stranger, Dominic Gorse, who is fleeing from Bow Street Runners. She trusts him instinctively and helps him escape.

The two work together to hide him from the law while they solve the mystery of who actually killed Dominic’s gambling acquaintance. 

The hero and heroine are fine characters and the romance between them develops in a believable fashion. The adventure is lively and the side characters entertain. The villain is truly villainous.

Unfortunately, the villain resorts to kidnaping Viola. (This isn’t really a spoiler because the reader can see it coming from a mile away.) While I recognize that Regency Romances recycle plots and recombine elements into new stories all the time, the kidnaping-the-heroine thing is painfully overdone. Or maybe I somehow stumble on a disproportionate number of romances using that device to move the plot along. I managed to plod on past it because the rest of the novel was sweet and fun enough. However, I swear the next time a heroine is kidnaped by a villainous pseudo-suitor, I’m dropping the book at once, not even bothering to see if she requires rescuing by the hero or manages to escape on her own. Both have been done to death. 

Aside from that disappointment, I’ll continue to follow the series. Surely there won’t be another kidnaping in the Pleasure Garden series.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician by Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibin’s new novel, The Magician, a fictional biography of Thomas Mann, is superb. Using beautifully precise language, in a tone echoing the quintessentially German twentieth century writer, Tóibin takes us inside Mann’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be.


The novel marches us through the events of Mann’s life while keeping the focus inward (as it seems Mann did.) Despite the turmoil in the world around him, Mann was deeply introspective rather than outwardly focused. The dissolution of the Mann family business, Mann’s love for (and frustration with) his family, his repressed desire for handsome young men, and his conflicted thoughts about his beloved Germany were all fodder for Mann’s writing. Mann lived through WWI then watched in disbelief as Hitler rose to power. He and his wife were forced to flee to Switzerland then to the U.S. during WWII. His initial moral cowardice, refusing to outright condemn the Nazis until it became safe to do so, is convincingly and somewhat sympathetically portrayed. When he finally did take a political stance, he threw himself into it, only to be disillusioned when accused of being a communist during the Cold War. (That’s a vast simplification. For the complexities, read the novel!)

The Magician chronicles Mann’s creative process by showing him gathering inspiration for and piecing together the themes of his masterpieces, but does this with a light hand. The reader is told that Mann retreated to his study every morning to write, but rather than a play-by-play of his daily writing struggles, we see how his creative self-absorption shaped his relationships. 

The book humanizes Mann, presenting him as an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who happens to also be a towering literary genius.

Unfortunately, my TBR pile has just grown substantially, as I not only have to read more of Mann but of Tóibin as well.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Night Came with Many Stars by Simon Van Booy

In the depths of the previous surge of the pandemic, when things were locked down, there were a lot of online events that I wanted to attend. I wish I had sampled more of them while the opportunity was there. One of the events I did “attend” was an author talk at my local independent bookstore. Simon Van Booy spoke about his new novel, Night Came with Many Stars. It’s a literary family saga set in Kentucky. It’s primarily a historical novel, although there are interwoven time frames, some of which are more contemporary. 


The novel begins in 1933 with Carol, an adolescent girl, around thirteen or so, who lives out in the woods with her abusive alcoholic father. He is rotten through and through. Carol hasn’t been to school or church since her mother died. She scrapes by on her wits. One night, her father loses big in a poker game. With nothing left to gamble, he bets his daughter and loses. The winner gets to keep her on weekends as a cook and housekeeper. The reader sees where this will lead, hopes to be wrong, but isn’t. Carol escapes eventually, helped out by a man who knows her father and despises what he has done, who takes her to two women who run a backwoods abortion home. There she finds a makeshift family and some marginal security, though she lives in dread of her father coming to claim her.

A parallel plot to Carol’s is set in 1986 and tells the story of Samuel, a kind-hearted boy, and his best friend, Eddy. Samuel has two parents and a developmentally delayed uncle, and the love and support in that family is palpable. They even have it in their hearts to be kind to Eddy, but the boy, raised by a single mother who is flighty and unreliable, cannot catch a break. He gets into trouble again and again. Samuel goes through a rough patch where he almost self-destructs due to a family curse of alcoholism, but gets back on track. (Weird scene here that was the only part of the story that didn’t ring true, IMO.)

There are other characters too, all interesting and all playing a role in the overall story. An omniscient narrator provides vignettes–slices of life-- until the lives of the characters intersect. The writing is beautiful and the storyline is ultimately redemptive. Over time, (it takes generations), the goodness in people overcomes the evil. Even though there are no magical cures for very real difficulties, there is hope.

Thank you to Carmichael’s Bookstore for introducing me to this author!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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

I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Happily, her newest book, Oh William!, is out this month. It continues Lucy Barton’s story, but the books stand alone. You don’t have to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to appreciate Oh William!, but that earlier novel is so lovely it’s well worth reading.


The novel is written in first person POV in a conversational tone. Lucy’s second husband has just died and she is grieving deeply, but that’s not what she wants to talk about. She wants to tell us what is happening with her first husband, William. He’s turning seventy and, despite good health and an ability to continue working as a professor, he’s starting to feel his age and is going through some difficulties.

First, he has begun waking at night with vague terrors, the most common of which is that his deceased mother has come to tell him something.

Second, his wife (his third) leaves him abruptly. He never saw it coming.

And third, while tracing his roots on a genealogy website, he discovers that he has a half-sister. His mother had a daughter before leaving her husband to marry William’s father. She abandoned both her husband and her daughter! William first denies the possibility of this. Then he agonizes over whether or not to try to contact the sister.

Lucy and her ex-husband have a complicated relationship. Despite the pain of their breakup–Lucy left him, in part, because of his rampant infidelity–they have remained close. They are both now also on good terms with their two daughters, though there were certainly rough times in the past. Lucy and William still rely upon one another for support from time to time. They’re older and wiser; however, their personalities have not fundamentally changed. They still know how to push one another’s buttons. And they do. Despite a successful career and a wonderful therapist, Lucy continues to carry the pain of a childhood damaged by poverty, isolation, and abuse. William is aware of her insecurities and is frustrated by them, yet will occasionally stoop to throwing them in her face. They can be wonderfully supportive of one another at some moments, and cruel to one another at others. It is a superbly realistic representation of how relationships can work.

The novel demonstrates the poignancy of aging, the complexities of familial ties, and the fact that no matter how well we know someone we can’t really know them completely. Lucy Barton’s voice draws you in. Elizabeth Strout’s books are highly recommended.