Friday, December 31, 2021

THE TBR 22 IN '22 CHALLENGE

 Just in under the wire -- my 100th post of the year!!!


I'm signing up for a challenge to read 22 books off my TBR pile over the next year. The challenge is hosted by Rose City Reader and the sign-up page can be found here


Hopefully this will help me put a dent in my pile. Thank you to Rose City Reader for hosting!

Links to reviews will be posted below.

1. The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Thursday, December 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington. The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes

I am squeezing in one more book review before the end of the year. One of my Christmas presents this year was the biography, Wellington: The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes. I wanted to balance the biography of Napoleon with one of Wellington. 


This book is only about 300 pages, as opposed to Napoleon: A Life, which was nearly 1000. So it is nowhere near as comprehensive, but as a trade-off is a much quicker read. Despite its brevity, it presented a detailed, balanced discussion of Wellington’s life with a concentration on the military history. It whet my appetite to learn more about the man, but not right away.

If you’re interested in a very good overview, one that gives a good sense of the man and his accomplishments (though less of a sense of the times), this biography is just right.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2022 NETGALLEY AND EDELWEISS READING CHALLENGE

 For 2022, the second reading challenge I'm signing up for is the Netgalley and Edelweiss challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews. See the sign-up link here

I'm going for the Silver level- 25 books, with the hopes of getting through my Netgalley queue.



 Thank you to Socrates Book Reviews for hosting.

My links will be listed below.

1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

2. Violeta by Isabel Allende

HISTORICAL FICTION READING CHALLENGE 2022

 It's that time again! Signing up for reading challenges. 

I'm starting with The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Intrepid Reader. The sign-up link with rules is here



Last year I went for the "Ancient History" level, 25 books, and blew right past it. I squeaked past the next level, "Prehistoric"- 50 books. So this year, I'm going out on a limb and setting 50 as my challenge. 

To wrap-up last year, a link to my 2021 challenge with links to all review is here.

I'll tally my 2022 books with links to reviews below.

Thank you to The Intrepid Reader for Hosting again!


1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

2. Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

3. The Master by Colm Toibin

4. Violeta by Isabel Allende

5. The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Monday, December 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: All the Living by C. E. Morgan

All the Living by C. E. Morgan is a short gritty contemporary novel set on a hardscrabble Kentucky tobacco farm.

Aloma, a naive young woman, orphaned at a young age and brought up in a settlement school, has dreams of escaping her life of poverty and deprivation through music. She’s a gifted pianist, though perhaps not gifted enough. She’ll never know unless she can move on. With no resources to strike out on her own, she settles for teaching music at the school. Until she begins seeing a young farmer, Orren. Their dating consists of going for drives and having sex in his truck.

But Orren’s life is upended when his mother and older brother are killed in a car accident and he inherits the farm. He has to take on a huge responsibility at a young age. He asks Aloma to come with him and she says yes, without hesitation. But almost immediately, she begins having regrets.

Orren is swamped by work and by grief. Aloma is overwhelmed by loneliness and dissatisfaction. Worst of all, they are unable to effectively communicate. 

Aloma finds solace at a local church where she is given a job playing piano for the services. Eventually, she is permitted to use the instrument for practice during the week. She spends more and more time there, away from the farm, both because of the piano and because of the preacher. Because Aloma and Orren are not married, she didn’t mention him at first. And then she doesn’t mention him because of a growing attraction between herself and the preacher.

The novel evokes the dirty, backbreaking labor of the farm, the monotony of the days, the loneliness, the fear of failure, and the difficulties of a struggling relationship when neither partner knows the right way to express their feelings. It’s a poignant, beautifully written story. I found myself wishing I could revisit the protagonists in a few years to see how they make out.

Friday, December 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

After reading Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, I discovered I’d missed reading Anything is Possible, a collection of short stories in the same vein as Olive Kitteridge, but in the same “universe” as My Name is Lucy Barton and Oh William!. So I added it to my TBR pile and finally sat down to read it.

I don’t know why I always read things that are painful right around the holidays, but this book is this year’s emotionally draining work of fiction.


Anything is Possible
is set primarily in and around the small town where Lucy Barton grew up in extreme poverty and utter dysfunction. Her sister and brother are still there, getting by but damaged. The short stories all circle out from Lucy—friends, cousins, acquaintances, and people who connected with people who connected with Lucy. They are all damaged in one way or another. They all have small, private triumphs and deep, deep scars.

There is a beauty in the stories, as in all Strout’s work. Most of the characters are resilient and have the capacity to be kind. But there is just so much sadness in their lives. So much cruelty. It seems to some degree to be exaggerated, because everyone has so much pain to overcome, but then I think that the realism of that is what makes her books so poignant.

I’ve heard that reading fiction is important for the development of empathy. For me, that’s what Strout’s books are all about. No one does empathy quite as well as she does.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman is a reexamination of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic tale Rebecca. Although I loved Rebecca when I read it several years ago, it’s a book that leaves the reader with a lot of questions. Who was she really and how did she die? The narrator of the novel is the second wife, Rebecca’s replacement, so her interpretation is bound to be biased.

Sally Beauman comes at the story obliquely, using three new narrators and a fourth, Rebecca herself.


On the twentieth anniversary of Rebecca’s death, the now elderly ex-magistrate of the town, who had been a friend to both Maxim de Winters (the jealous husband) and Rebecca, is suffering nightmares and heart troubles. He has long felt guilty over the way Rebecca’s death was handled and the role he had in the inquisition. He was a bit in love with her too (everyone was)but he allowed the case to be closed without looking too carefully at the poor-quality evidence. He wants to go back and reevaluate, to uncover the truth, but still protect the privacy of those involved. The reader follows along with his muddled inquiries and memories, leaving the question still very much unresolved. But the character of the magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is wonderfully drawn. A cranky, stuffy, elderly man who is desperately clinging to his dignity while being cared for by his sole remaining child, his daughter Ellie. 

The second protagonist is Terrence Gray, a young historian who has come to town to work part-time at the local archives, cataloguing the de Winters’ papers. He is very interested in the mysterious Rebecca and has befriended Julyan and Ellie in order to learn what the Colonel knows. The Colonel is slow to trust him. Ellie falls for him. But the reader soon learns that Gray himself has a mysterious connection to Rebecca. At least, he thinks he does – but doesn’t know what it is. He’s as intriguing and multi-layered a character as Rebecca. 

The third viewpoint we see is Rebecca’s own, through the device of her diaries showing up after all these years. Someone is mailing the diaries and other personal effects once belonging to Rebecca to her few surviving friends/relatives. Eventually, Julyan, Gray, and Ellie read these diaries. Each has a different reaction to them. Even in her diaries, Rebecca is an unreliable narrator. 

Finally, the fourth narrator is Ellie. She has grown up knowing and not knowing the story of Rebecca, only ever approaching her through the stories she’s heard. She’s curious about her but also frustrated with the hold the woman still has over her father and now, over Terrence Gray. But with the arrival of the diaries, she feels she finally understands the woman. Rebecca’s influence changes the course of Ellie’s life too. 

This book does a beautiful job of echoing the gothic, mysterious air of the original, while expanding beyond the claustrophobic atmosphere of Manderley (the de Winters’ estate) to include other characters and other locales. Rebecca is given a backstory.

As the four narrators piece together Rebecca’s life and events leading to her death, the murky picture presented in the original becomes a little clearer. But only a little. In the end, Rebecca remains a mystery. As she should.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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


Small Things Like These
by Claire Keegan is a novella based on the Magdalen laundries run by the Catholic Church in Ireland until 1996. These laundries, overseen by nuns, used the forced labor of unmarried pregnant women who had been cast off. It was essentially slave labor. Thousands of babies (perhaps tens of thousands as the records have been destroyed or disappeared) died while under the care of the nuns. So these were Church-sponsored “baby farms” where a blind eye was turned to infanticide.

Nevertheless, Keegan has written a loving and lovely book. It focuses on one man, who was born out- of-wedlock himself, but who was raised in a safe, caring environment due to the kindness and compassion of one person. 

The man, Furlong, grew up and overcame the stigma of illegitimacy. He worked his way up in a coal yard that he now runs. He married and had four daughters. He loves his family and works hard to provide for them. Times are hard in his town. A lot of people are suffering, but he and his family are getting by better than most. He’s grateful for that and is generous to those who are worse off. But he nevertheless feels oppressed by something. It might be the lingering feeling of inadequacy from not knowing who his father was. It could be a bit of survivor’s guilt, since he is more financially secure than many of his customers and neighbors. It could be the annoying sense that his wife is so intent on meeting their family’s needs that she is a little resentful of his charitable inclinations.

Just before Christmas, Furlong delivers coal to the convent up on the hill and is confronted by the truth of the rumors about the place. He sees girls are being mistreated. He learns that babies are also being neglected. He knows he’s supposed to keep silent about it. In fact, he’s warned that he should keep silent about it or risk the Church’s displeasure, which would have consequences for his own family. Furlong has to decide what, if anything, he is willing to do.

It’s a beautifully written story that manages to be both chilling and uplifting. Highly recommended!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson II: Providence by Sigrid Undset

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


I just finished reading Olav Audunsson Book II: Providence by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally. What an extraordinary achievement this work is. When I was approved for this book, I also bought Book 1: Vows because I knew I should read it first. I’m glad I did. I don’t think this volume, as wonderful as it is, would stand on its own. To fully appreciate what these characters are going through, the backstory is needed. And the story is very well worth reading as a whole.

Providence picks up where Vows left off. The ill-fated young lovers, Olav and Ingunn, have finally been reunited after years and years of separation, guilt, and despair. They suffered extreme hardship due in large part due to cruelties of their families and society, but also due to their own small errors which were compounded by even greater sins. One thing kept leading to another in that book and they really did seem cursed by Fate. But they are now in a position to find that love will conquer all.

It does not.

Providence is a powerful and devastating book. Set in medieval Norway, the landscape is frozen and harsh. Men are dragged off to war by their kings for conflicts in which they have little stake. And God is ever present in their lives as a force that is more oppressive than hopeful. Reaching out for His grace has far-reaching consequences. Neighbors are far less forgiving than God.

Olav Audunsson is now master of a wealthy estate. He brings his wife Ingunn home. He fully intends to put the past behind them and forgive her completely. (She had a child during their years of separation, a son, born after an adulterous encounter that was less her fault than she believes it to be.) She’s unable to forgive herself. When she miscarries again and again, she comes to believe that it’s God’s punishment for her adultery and, more particularly, for abandoning her son. Olav is unable to bear her misery, so he goes and retrieves the boy from the foster parents, claiming him as his own.

This means the familial inheritance will go to an illegitimate heir who is not really Olav’s offspring. If Olav’s relatives ever found out, he’d be in big trouble for allowing the estate to pass outside the family line. It also means if Olav and Ingunn ever do have a son, he’ll take second place to the older boy. For all Olav insists it doesn’t matter to him, it does. He treats the boy as decently as he can, but he just doesn’t like him. And this drives even more of a wedge between him and his wife.

Ingunn is not the only one sunk in despair over a guilty conscience. There is also the matter of Olav’s crime. He murdered the man who seduced Ingunn and hid the evidence. All to protect her honor, of course. He grows increasingly desperate to make his peace with God but if he confesses, he’ll have to do penance, the truth will come out, and everything gained by the original secrecy will be lost. Ingunn and the boy will be harmed. Ingunn insists he can’t do that to her. So he continues to live with the unconfessed sin, growing more and more taciturn and withdrawn.

Ingunn is not a healthy woman to begin with and multiple miscarriages strip her of any strength she might have had. She’s also a terrible housekeeper/female head of an estate. The only time she shows any gumption is in defense of her son. She’s a shadow of her former self. She loses all her beauty. She’s a millstone around Olav’s neck. And yet, they still love each other with the fiercely strong remnants of their original love.

Things go from terrible to unbearable as Olav and Ingunn struggle with their despair. Every once in a while, Olav is overcome by religious conviction, but it’s leached away by Ingunn’s dependency and the knowledge that her ruined life is his fault.

This book is incredibly bleak, as this pared down plot summary shows. And yet it’s beautiful in its harsh way. The characters are so realistic, so human, that it’s impossible not to empathize with their pain.

I don’t know when Book 3 will be released but I’ll certainly read it, hoping things might turn around for Olav, but expecting they won’t.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser

Every once in a while I like to read a book about reading books. This time, I chose Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser. Her credentials for this sort of work are outstanding. She’s a professional reviewer, the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, and has authored several (mostly nonfiction) books.


The chapters are broken down into 1. Character and Plot; 2. The Space Between; 3. Novelty; 4. Authority; 5. Grandeur and Intimacy; 6. Elsewhere; and 7. Inconclusions. She discusses some of her favorite authors and favorite works and how they fit under each of these interwoven categories. It’s primarily a literary critic chatting about how she approaches reading. My favorite part was actually the Prologue, titled “Why I Read.” The crux of her answer was that she reads for pleasure. Considering that reading is her job, it’s wonderful that she still finds it a pleasure!

She writes the book as a conversation, inviting the reader to silently engage with her. To some extent, that engagement came about naturally as I either fervently agreed with her or thought: I’m not sure I agree, or I don’t quite understand. But some chapters were more engaging than others. 

The book ends with a list of 100 books to read for pleasure, some of which were discussed in the text and others which were not. This is both a great jumping off point for more reading and a bit of a burden for someone whose TBR pile is already heaped up and tottering over.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but I didn’t feel it lived up to the promise of the prologue.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Matrix by Lauren Groff

I saw matrix by Lauren Groff was getting a lot of buzz in the historical fiction world. Then I read it was set in an abbey in medieval England, in the twelfth century. The protagonist, Marie, is an illegitimate noblewoman. Her father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, establishing a connection of sorts to Eleanor of Aquitaine. My favorite family in my favorite historical time period—I had to read it.


Marie is excessively tall, ungainly, unattractive, illegitimate, and poor. So, she is considered unmarriageable and therefore useless. However, because she has connections (Empress Mathilda and Eleanor) she is sent, at the age of seventeen, to an abbey to take over as prioress. Marie has no religious calling and no desire for this position. Worse, when she arrives, she discovers it is small, impoverished, and in the midst of a plague. 

Marie is headstrong, passionate, intelligent, and fierce (much like Eleanor, who she loves and idolizes.) The arc of the novel is the process by which Marie comes to terms with the life she will have to live and then turns the abbey into a monument of female empowerment. Marie is able to turn the abbey not only into an enormously prosperous one, but also a haven for women where they can thrive according to their talents. Marie is an ambitious, prideful woman, but she is also generous and loving. Her theology is unorthodox, to say the least, but her devotion to her charges is complete.

This is a powerful literary work with luminous prose that pulled me into the twelfth century. Marie is a woman of her time and ahead of her time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking Sin by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster’s latest Regency Romance release is Book 3 in her Pleasure Garden series, Unmasking Sin.


This series is tied together by the somewhat scandalous attendance of the heroine of each novel at a masked evening of entertainment at the Maida Pleasure Gardens. It is a place for dancing and slightly risque fun for members of London Society, but it is also frequented by the lower classes and criminal elements and a good deal of drinking and carousing goes on. Each of the heroines has her own reasons for going there, which do not include finding a lover, but...

Lady Rebecca Cornish is this novel’s heroine. Although in her early twenties, she has already been widowed twice, earning her the title of Black Widow. Her reputation is further tarnished by accusations that she murdered her most recent husband (and probably first husband as well.) Rebecca is being besieged by her late husband’s uncles who are waging a campaign to see her prosecuted and to take away her son to be raised more respectably.

To that end, they have hired solicitor/investigator Ludovic Dunne to find proof that she killed their nephew. Dunne has a solid reputation for this kind of work and he trails Lady Cornish to the Pleasure Gardens, expecting to find she has slipped out for an assignation.

Instead, he finds a composed, extremely beautiful woman, whose vulnerability and fear he senses. He continues to investigate, but shortly realizes he is on the wrong side of this investigation. He works to uncover the truth, which he is certain will exonerate her, but in the process loses her trust.

The plot centers on finding out who is behind the rumors and what they stand to gain from them, rehabilitating Lady Cornish’s reputation, and, at the same time, unearthing the reason for Dunne’s crusading efforts against injustice of all kinds. Along the way, they fall in love.

This is a fast-paced adventure with strong male and female leads. The good guys are very good. The bad guys are nasty villains. It’s a fun Romance for whiling away a few hours.