Monday, May 30, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking the Thief by Mary Lancaster

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

Book Five in Mary Lancaster’s Pleasure Garden Series is now available: Unmasking the Thief. I’ve enjoyed this series all along and recommend starting with Book One: Unmasking the Hero.

The current hero is Francisco de Salgado y Goya de Valdecara, otherwise known as Mr. Francis. He’s a world-weary Spaniard who considers England his adopted country. For this country he has been a spy and other unsavory things. However, he is honorable at heart and so is tired of the man he has become. He wants to retire, but England needs him to do just one more thing.

The heroine is Mathilda (Matty) Mather, a country gentlewoman turned governess to the Dove family. (We’ve met the Doves in previous books.) Matty loves her work and adores her charges, even if they do get into scrapes. Her main problem is that her sister has inherited a fortune and is now being courted by Sir Anthony Thorne, a rising political star, an obvious fortune hunter, and Matty’s one-time fiancé. She can see through him, but unfortunately, her sister cannot.

Francis and Matty meet, both incognito, at the Maida Pleasure Garden. Francis was there to intercept a message about an intended violent political uprising. But he made a rare mistake, stealing not the ring that was supposed to contain the hidden message, but a ring belonging to one of Matty’s charges. Matty is there to retrieve the ring. Sparks fly.

The ton is a rather small world and their paths keep crossing. Suspicious of one another at first, they quickly dispense with that and join forces, falling in love along the way.

The characters are admirable. The relationship is credible. The plotting is fast paced. It’s nice to see so many of the characters from the previous books returning. This series is highly recommended.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Desperately Seeking a Duchess by Christi Caldwell

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

I’m continuing with historical romance. I just finished Christi Caldwell’s Desperately Seeking a Duchess, book two in the series All the Duke’s Sins. (The first book, Along Came a Lady, was a lot of fun. You should read it first, but don’t have to.)

This novel continues to follow the fortunes of the Duke of Bentley’s illegitimate children, raised in a mining town by his mistress. He was unaware of them until very recently and is now trying to make amends.

For Cailin Audley, the youngest child and only daughter, this means a chance to experience London, the museums and bookshops in particular. Or so she thinks. Instead, it is an endless series of lessons on how to behave in Polite Society. She is miserable all the time, except for her encounters with Courtland Balfour, the seventh Duke of St. James.

Courtland is a reforming/reformed rake, who has inherited not only the title from his father but a ruinous mountain of debt and the care of three younger sisters. He also is responsible for his twin brother, Lord Keir, who is on the autism spectrum. Keir is employed by Bentley as a man of business, and it is that employment that is barely keeping the family afloat.

Cailin and Courtland have met once before, very briefly, when Courtland posed as his brother, sent by Bentley, to convince the family to come to London. That encounter went poorly or wonderfully, depending on the perspective.

At any rate, when the two meet again, they put that behind them and begin again. Courtland admires and understands Cailin, but he hides from her his family’s devastated fortunes. Cailin finds him charming and yet down-to-earth, unlike much of what she is seeing of Society. When she goes to his house, unchaperoned, to give him some news, her reputation is nearly ruined. Her family whisks her away to a country home for a house party, still bent on finding her a husband. She is even more miserable. Until she sees that Courtland and his siblings were also invited. There, they have more opportunity to grow their friendship and to recognize that they have fallen in love.

The characters are lovely people. Cailin is refreshingly anti-polite society. Courtland is an honorable man, devoted to his siblings, despite his reputation. Although I found the chemistry between them a bit unconvincing at first, they grow into a couple to root for.

There are siblings aplenty in Cailin’s family and in Courtland’s, so I eagerly await the next book in the series!

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Runaway Duchess by Joanna Lowell

I was long overdue for another historical romance. Fortunately, I picked up The Runaway Duchess by Joanna Lowell. What a delightful romp! Set in 1883, rather than the Regency Period, there are elements of a slightly more modern society, but women, on the whole, remain hemmed in by convention.

Lavinia Yardley is the unwilling duchess. After having been ruined by the love of her life, she tries to salvage what she can by marrying the Duke of Cranbrook, a textbook disgusting old villain. Before the marriage is consummated, she seizes a chance to run off, at a train station, with a man who mistakes her for someone else.

The man is Neal Traymayne, a botanist, an intrepid collector and categorizer of exotic and local plant-life, and the head of Varnham Nurseries (a very successful commercial endeavor.) Neal has come to the station looking for Mrs. Muriel Pendrake, a fellow botanist with whom he has been corresponding. She’s a widow, and he hopes they will hit it off in person as much as they have in writing. Because he is looking for a wife.

They do hit it off. Or rather, Neal and Lavinia-as-stand-in-for-Muriel hit it off, even though she is not at all what he was expecting and he is not the type of man she ever thought she would look at twice. Unfortunately, Lavinia has to keep pretending to be Muriel Pendrake.

The novel is chockful of clever humor. Some of it goes along with the mistaken-identity situation, but most is the result of witty banter and sly observation of human foibles. The book is steamy, more so than my usual preference, but the emotional relationship is well on its way before they start acting on their mutual desires, so the sex scenes don’t read as gratuitous.

There is really only one way for the HEA to be obtained, so there are no surprises. But it’s such a fun read, with unique plotting along the way, that it’s highly recommended!

Thursday, April 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: End of the World House by Adrienne Celt

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

End of the World House by Adrienne Celt is a quirky novel set in the near future, partly in Paris and partly on the U.S. West Coast. It is billed as reminiscent of Groundhog Day, using the structure of repeating or reliving a day with slight variations. Presumably, the character would eventually get something right that had been wrong in their life, and thus break from the loop. But it’s not clear that happens here.

Bertie is the protagonist. A late twenties or early thirties woman, her career as a graphic novelist has stalled. She works for a large tech firm as a sort of graphic designer. She doesn’t know what the company actually does, but she is very well paid and her job comes with perks (free food, after-work cocktail parties, health insurance). In the current economy, she is very fortunate and recognizes it, even if she feels her actual job is meaningless.

Bertie’s best friend is Kate. They’ve been friends since high school and have a complicated past. They bonded during the recent crazy years (representing the end of the world as they knew it.) However, Bertie is more attached to Kate than Kate is to Bertie. Rather obsessively so. Kate has decided to move to L.A. for a new job, and Bertie is both furious and devastated.

As a way to salve the pain, Kate agrees to a Paris vacation with Bertie.

The novel opens with the two on their way to the Louvre on a day that it is closed. They had met a man in a bar the previous night who, after flirting with Kate, promised to sneak them into the museum for a private experience. Here things go haywire. 

The museum is odd. They wander aimlessly through it. They are separated. Bertie panics. Then she wakes up in the hotel room with Kate and they start the day all over, with similar results.

The two are separated again. But instead of finding Kate, Bertie finds her old boyfriend. He is a stalker it seems, but he understands what’s going on and she doesn’t, so she falls in with him. They end up back in the U.S., living a semi-idyllic life as boyfriend and girlfriend. She has odd compulsions about an old friend she never sees anymore (Kate), and eventually pulls the boyfriend back to Paris.

The novel moves along pretty well. The plotting is clunky, but that is how it’s structured. The characters live superficial lives and are not, in themselves, very interesting or likeable. Even the friendship between Bertie and Kate doesn’t ring true, since they spend their short times together getting on one another’s nerves and apologizing passive-aggressively.

The true star in this novel, the thing that kept me reading, was the setting. The disturbing atmosphere captured the disconnected weirdness of a slow crawl to the end times. People know the world is falling apart yet strain for some semblance of normalcy. Looking at it from the outside is horrifying. Particularly because it is holding a mirror up to our current day.

Rather than a pandemic, there was a worldwide series of unexplained bombings. People hunkered down. They chose buddies for sheltering in place (like Covid pods.) Political upheavals, border closings, supply chain issues, gas rationing, the rich getting richer while the poor get left behind, living lives through social media, and the omnipresent evidence of climate change is all here. And people’s response (or lack of response) to it all is realistically, depressingly, portrayed.

Human interaction becomes very superficial. Best friends can be discarded, or maybe they were never all that close. It was easy for Bertie to become fragmented, for her reality to dissolve, because there was so little real there to begin with. The ending is not hopeful. Nor is it satisfyingly sad. It’s just unsettling.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Archangel by Andrea Barrett

Historical fiction and short stories don’t generally go together in my mind. When I think of historical fiction, I think of detailed world-building, big-event settings, and large casts of characters. However, Andrea Barrett’s Archangel surprised me. In her collection of interconnected short stories set in the early 1900s, Barrett is able to create intense, poignant vignettes featuring several characters whose lives are caught up with the new discoveries being made in science and natural history. They deal with difficult life situations while grappling with new understandings that displace the comfort of the familiar. Scientific theories permeate their lives and they draw connections between scientific endeavors (engineering, astronomy, biology, genetics, and medicine) and their own life experiences.

The reader is firmly drawn into the time and place of each short story. The details bring the world to life. The writing is beautiful. And the characters are sympathetic and realistic.

I loved the book and will have to look for more of Barrett’s work.

Friday, April 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a gripping, important book, but brutally difficult to read.

Civil Townsend narrates the tale in two timelines. In 2016, she is a middle-aged Black OB-GYN, looking back and trying to make sense of her life. In 1973, she is a newly-graduated nurse, determined to help people. Her first job, at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, initially seemed perfect. Knowing firsthand the importance of reproductive health, of reproductive choice, she believes in the mission: giving Black women living in poverty some control over their bodies and their futures.

Unfortunately, the clinic was not what it seemed. Early on, Civil was assigned to give birth control shots to two sisters – hormone treatments that had not been FDA-approved. Worse, the sisters were 11 and 13 years old and were not sexually active. The opinion of the head of the clinic, a white woman who saw herself as a do-gooder, was that if they weren’t yet, they soon would be, based on their race.

Civil is appalled by their living conditions. She inserts herself into their lives, finds them government housing, supplements their food stamps, buys them clothes, even teaches their father to read. Her intentions are good. But...

The sisters are essentially abducted from their home by the clinic supervisor and sterilized without informed consent. 

When Civil finds out, she seeks justice for the girls. With the help of a family friend, the other clinic nurses, and an idealistic young white lawyer, a lawsuit is filed against the clinic. However, as they uncover information about the scope of the government’s forced sterilization project, the lawyer takes on the Federal government instead. Tens of thousands of women of color were forcibly sterilized.

The novel dramatizes these events in a horrifying fashion. Yet there is nuance to the story. Civil, too, realizes that she steps across boundaries she shouldn’t in her eagerness to help.

There is a lot to absorb in this novel. It’s based on true historical events. Because the history is so recent, it’s raw and difficult to take in. Difficult too are comparisons with ongoing efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive health and to deny women bodily autonomy.

In some ways, the book reminds me of The Illness Lesson, another novel where young women were exploited and used as guinea pigs. So much trauma.

Even though it’s difficult to read, Take My Hand is not to be missed.

Monday, April 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Perilous Perspective by Anna Lee Huber

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

The tenth book in Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby mystery series, A Perilous Perspective, is newly released. 

Kiera (Lady Darby, Mrs. Gage) is at the country home of her great uncle for a wedding party. Kiera is eager to finally see her uncle’s painting collection, which is supposed to be superb. (She is a well-known portraitist. Earlier books explain how her talent dragged her into her first husband’s illicit cadaver dissection business. He was psychologically and physically abusive. After his death, Kiera had to deal with the fallout with the help of now-husband Sebastian Gage, a government investigator. They have solved many murders together. That’s a quick recap.)

Kiera is enjoying the visit and the time with her three-month-old baby girl. Unfortunately, things fall apart when she explores the painting gallery and discovers that a prized Titian is a forgery. This leads to the spilling of old family secrets, painful ones, which would be difficult enough to deal with. Then, one of the maids is discovered murdered in the gallery beneath the forged painting.

Once again, Kiera and Sebastian are called upon to solve the murder (murders), while dealing with complex family situations.

This remains a well-plotted mystery series with engaging protagonists. A secondary relationship between Kiera’s lady’s maid and Sebastian’s valet keeps things interesting on the romance side now that the love story between Kiera and Sebastian is so well settled.

Fans of this series will be thrilled with this new addition. For those who have not yet met Kiera and Sebastian, start with book 1!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

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

I loved Natalie Haynes’ novel of the women (and goddesses) of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships. So when I saw she’d written a nonfiction exploration of a similar topic, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, I wanted to read it as well.

Haynes is an authority on Greek myths, particularly the women in the tales. This new work looks at Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope and how they have been viewed through the ages. The earliest appearances of these women (whether human, goddess, monster, or some combination) are often quite different from the versions we have come to know through later--even modern--representations. I was a bit surprised to learn that the early Greek renderings were often less misogynistic than more recent versions. The variations in the stories are fascinating and the reasoning behind the changes are complex. Haynes traces the evolution of the various tales and offers insight into how we’ve come to settle on particular versions, as well as why the stories are destined to continually change.

Haynes has a great deal of empathy for the characters. She writes clearly, with great understanding and with wit. I have always enjoyed retellings of the old myths and I equally enjoyed this analysis. 

I recommend reading Pandora’s Jar and A Thousand Ships in tandem.

Monday, April 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

I have no idea when I first heard a reference to Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It seems I’ve always been aware of its existence, embedded in the culture, probably from the movie title. Yet I never actually saw the movie or read the book. What is it about? A teacher of some sort? So when I heard it referenced recently, out of the blue, I decided it was time to read the book. To my pleasant surprise, Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a novella that I could read in a sitting.

First published in 1933, the novel peeks in at the elderly Mr. Chipping, known to everyone as Mr. Chips, a retired school teached/headmaster, who devoted his life to a private boys’ school called Brookfield. This is described as no Harrow, but still one of the top second-tier schools in England. Mr. Chips is quite elderly as the book opens. He looks back at his life over the course of a few short chapters.

Mr. Chips’ career spans a busy time in the history of Britain and in the world. He started teaching at Brookfield in 1870 and continued on through the turn of the century, retired just before WWI and came back to help out “for the duration.”

Allusions to the war are made throughout, mainly as poignant mentions of alumni who were lost. One chapter shows Mr. Chips keeping his classroom together and teaching throughout a bombing, courageously helping the boys through the terrifying event. The war is central to the novel, as it was to the man’s life; and yet, the focus is so squarely set on Chips’ involvement with the school that the war is kind of hazily distant, a memory.The novel is mainly about this good man, his love for the school–which to him embodies the ideals of the Englishman, and his love for his country. He is helping to bring up the next generations of Englishmen. Times change, but he remains the same, mostly. Longevity helps him become an institution at the school and he takes pride and comfort in that.

He is an old-school gentleman and the later generations peg him as an old bachelor. However, embedded within the novella is a poignant love story. In middle life, he met, fell in love with, and married a younger woman whose more modern ideas challenged him and whose charm softened him. She died tragically. And he forged on.

The novella packs a lot into its few pages. The storytelling is simple and is mainly presented as narrative with a few short scenes. The secondary characters are sketched in. Even his wife is only fleetingly presented. And yet, there is emotional depth to the story because Mr. Chips is so fully fleshed out.

This is a charming story. And now I’ve finally read it!

Friday, April 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington and the Vitoria Campaign. 1813: Never a Finer Army by Carole Divall

Continuing with my new obsession with the actual history of the Regency Period, I read Wellington and the Vitoria Campaign. 1813: Never a Finer Army by Carole Divall. This is very much a military history, focused on the troop movements, the immediate set-up to the battle, the stages of the fight, and the decisive victory of the British and their allies over King Joseph of Spain (Napoleon’s brother) and the French General Jourdan. It incorporates excerpts from letters, memoirs, and dispatches of the participants. And it includes appendices detailing troop numbers. While rather dry to read, the book is a comprehensive account that succeeds at its task. If you’re interested in episodes in the Napoleonic Wars besides Waterloo, this is a good book to study.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Ireland by Frank Delaney

Frank Delaney was an Irish writer and broadcaster who died in 2017. A friend recently recommended a podcast where Delaney walks the listener paragraph by paragraph through James Joyce’s Ulysses. My husband and I started listening to it before discovering that Delaney died before completing the task. We’ll continue on and see how far we get. The same friend also recommended Delaney’s novel Ireland.

Ireland is a storyteller’s history of the country. The framework is clever, using two storytellers, an old man and a young one. They first meet when the younger is a nine-year-old boy.

In the early twentieth century, traveling storytellers still existed in Ireland. They were oral historians who wandered the country, taking shelter where they could, hoping to spend a few nights at a time with anyone who would take them in and feed them in exchange for stories. 

The older man is known only as The Storyteller. He appears one night at the home of Ronan O’Mara, the nine-year-old, who is enthralled by the stories. Ronan’s mother, a cold and embittered woman, is not, and The Storyteller is rather unceremoniously booted from the house after a couple of days. Ronan essentially spends the rest of his life (at least the life covered by the novel) searching for the man.

The novel alternates between scenes from Ronan’s formative years and the stories he manages to collect from The Storyteller (who leaves him letters, or shows up on radio broadcasts, or leaves the memories of his stories with others who pass them on to Ronan.) In addition to the mystery of the identity of The Storyteller, and the fear that the old man will die before Ronan catches up with him, there is also a good deal of mystery involving Ronan’s own family. While poignant and, in the end, believable when all the pieces come together, what I didn’t quite believe was that pretty much everyone in Ireland except Ronan knew his family secrets. Even I guessed them early on. It is believable that Ronan could be kept in the dark. People can be blind to things close to them. What I had trouble with was how widely known his family secrets were. 

Aside from that, the story was lovely. The Storyteller did have a knack for telling a tale. The novel presented a “greatest hits” of Irish history in a historical fiction-like way. It is, however, a long book, and the last 100 to 150 pages started to drag. Ronan’s wandering search for the wandering storyteller lost momentum. The tension — would he find the man on time and why was The Storyteller so purposefully elusive? — stretched thin until I lost interest in the resolution. And some of the later stories/missives from The Storyteller were too self-indulgent. I understand that he loved every rock and flower in his country (as, obviously, does Delaney), but I ended up skimming those bits in the last part of the book as they got repetitive. This is also a man’s book about men. There are women in the stories, but they are bit players and the tone of the novel came across as patronizing, which was a little too quaint. Even so, it’s a novel I’m glad I read.

My friend listened to this as an audiobook read by Mr. Delaney himself. If you enjoy audiobooks, I think that would be a better format. Hearing The Storyteller rather than reading him might be the right way to experience the tale.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Passion by James Runcie

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

The Great Passion by James Runcie is a newly released historical novel that swept me away.

Sometimes a  superb book opens slowly. I have to give it several pages, a chapter, two chapters, before I am caught up. Others have a voice that captures me from the opening words. The Great Passion was one of the latter. The novel drew me in immediately, even though its voice was that of an eighteenth-century man about to indulge in memories of his pre-adolescent self.

The majority of the book is told from the viewpoint of young Stefan Silbermann, a boy whose voice has not yet changed, who sings a beautiful soprano. He is the son of an organ maker from a long line of prestigious organ makers. His mother recently died and his father decides to send him to a music school for boys that is attached to a church, St. Thomas in Leipzig, to further his musical education. This is in preparation for the day when he will take over the family business. Also, sending him away is supposed to help him put aside his grief for his mother.

Stefan spends one year at the school, but experiences so much growth over that year that it seems a small lifetime. The Cantor at the school is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach is not named in the novel. He’s referred to as the Cantor. It’s a superb way of placing us back in time to before he was BACH. Not that his talent was not recognized, but his name did not yet have centuries of weight behind it. Keeping him semi-anonymous puts us on a more contemporary footing.

The year of this novel (1727?) is the year that Bach was composing The St. Matthew Passion. And while the storyline culminates in the performance of the Passion, and while the adult Stefan recognizes that this was a pivotal moment in his life and in the history of music, the book is not simply the story of Bach struggling with the composition and ultimately triumphing. The young Stefan experiences the creation of this masterpiece in the context of his own difficult transition from child toward adult. The Passion is both central and peripheral.

With its exquisite prose, the novel is a meditation on death, life, music, religion, and everything in between. Runcie writes with such confidence in his material that there are no false notes. I could hear the language of these deeply religious eighteenth century men and women and feel that I was there, not looking back at them from the distance through a novel. I am non-musical and deeply ignorant about the mechanics of music, and yet I never stumbled over the passages where music was woven into the story. Seamlessly. Detailed without being cumbersome.

There is bullying and kindness, violence and gentleness. Bach is both a temperamental, hard taskmaster and a generous mentor and loving family man. Stefan is a boy on the cusp of manhood and a middle-aged man looking back on a defining year of his life.

This book was not a “page-turner,” but it was hard to put down. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: How to Be a Wallflower by Eloisa James

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

Bestselling Historical Romance novelist Eloisa James has a new novel coming out this month: How to Be a Wallflower.

The heroine is Cleo Lewis. Cleo is an extremely beautiful, hard-nosed businesswoman. Her father (a blacksmith’s son) invented valves for commodes and built a water-closet empire, which Cleo inherited. Her mother was a free spirit – a lady who ran off and eloped, and then never met an actor she didn’t sleep with. Cleo is also the granddaughter of a viscount. Now that her parents are both dead, Cleo wants to have more of a relationship with her grandfather. Naturally, he wants her to marry a worthy gentleman. But she has no interest in marriage at all. First, her husband would automatically gain control of her company and her fortune. And second, after seeing the way her mother constantly hurt men, including her father, Cleo wants no part of love or sex.

The hero is Jake Astor Addison. Jake is very large (all Regency Romance male protagonists are behemoths) and very American. He’s a businessman as well. He’s come abroad to buy things and invest. Eventually, he plans to return to the U.S. and marry the sweet, dull, cow-obsessed woman his mother has picked out for him. Then he meets Cleo.

They are vying for the shop of a theater costumer. It isn’t much of a contest. Jake never met the proprietress and just assumed she and all her staff would move to America for the money he was offering. The woman doesn’t want to move. Cleo offers more money and a chance to stay in London. 

Jake doesn’t like to lose, so he starts making plans to ruin the woman’s business so that she will be grateful for his rescue. Cleo heads him off there as well. They enter into a wager, involving commissioning clothes from the costumer. But before the wager gets far off the ground, Jake falls hard for Cleo and changes his plans. Completely. He doesn’t want the business. He doesn’t want to return to America. He no longer wants to marry the girl at home. He wants Cleo.

Fortunately, Cleo wants him as well. She just needs to be wooed, reassured that he won’t take control of her fortune and her business, and reassured that her need for Jake is nothing like her mother’s need for any man on a stage.

This is an entertaining, fairly quick read. The conflicts are muted. The development of the romance relies very heavily on sexual attraction and much of the plot revolves around their mutual seduction. (The business wager that was set up comes to nothing.) But the characters have interesting internal conflicts. Cleo is clear-sighted and kind. Jake grows from bullying and unlikeable into a devoted, giving man. Fans of Eloisa James will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews is a refreshingly original historical romance set in Victorian England. 

The heroine, Evelyn Maltravers, is an orphaned country girl brought up (along with her many sisters) by a sympathetic aunt. She is minor gentry, good birth but no title. Her beautiful older sister was supposed to be the family’s salvation, but she ran off with the man she loved, souring the prospects of her sisters. Evelyn is now tasked with going to London for a Season (at age twenty-three) where her disinterested uncle will, with the aid of a dowager friend, help her to launch. Evelyn has been taught to play to her strengths. Considering herself to be plain and tending towards the bluestocking, she knows her strength is her horsemanship. She decides to take the ton by storm by showing off her skill on Rotten Row. To do this, she’ll need to attract attention to herself. She’ll need the services of an up-and-coming dressmaker known for the riding habits he has designed. This habit maker is Ahmad Malik.

The son of a British soldier and an Indian woman, Ahmad has never fit in anywhere. Trained as a tailor of menswear, he is an inspired dressmaker. He hopes to earn enough to open his own shop. For this, he needs the custom of ladies of the ton. He needs someone well-placed to advertise his wares. When Evelyn comes to commission a habit from him, he sees the possibilities. She’s beautiful. And his dresses will make her more so.

They fall in love, of course. But the obstacles facing them are huge. Money is high on the list. Neither is wealthy. Both have family members depending on them for support. Both have nemeses, people who, for various reasons, wish them ill. However, the foremost problem is Ahmad’s parentage. He’s used to being shunned by English and Indian alike. He knows that society will not accept their marriage and he can’t stand the thought of Evelyn being cast out of her world.

While retaining the structure and happily-ever-after ending of historical romance, this novel has a depth and thoughtfulness that is more reflective than usual. The protagonists are strong, progressive, independent thinkers. There are also interesting secondary characters who will likely star in future books in the series. I can’t wait to see their stories. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Paying Guest by George Gissing

After stumbling across references to George Gissing, a masterful late nineteenth century novelist, and then reading the superb book New Grub Street, I was intrigued to find one of his novellas, The Paying Guest, in our library’s online catalogue. It was initially published in 1895. My library’s copy is a reprint from 1968.

The book can be read in one sitting. It’s written in that wonderful, straightforward nineteenth century style. The principal characters are the Mumfords and Miss Louise Derrick.

The Mumfords are a respectable middle-class London couple who have taken a house in the suburbs for the health of Mrs. Mumford and their two-year-old son. They have a quiet, affectionate marriage. They are not financially constrained, but Mr. Mumford isn’t making much extra. So when he notices an ad in his newspaper, a young woman looking to take a room outside of London, he points it out to his wife. They have plenty of space, and a little extra money would be nice. So they reply to the ad.

After some awkwardness, the paying guest settles in. She is Louise Derrick, a working-class girl with ambition to raise herself but little formal education, a too-forward interest in men, a quick temper, and a wealthy stepfather who is so desperate to get her out of the house that he’s willing to pay anything to lodge her elsewhere. (It seems a Mr. Bowling, who was courting Louise’s stepsister, has shifted his attention to Louise.) There is a vulgarness about the situation and Louise’s family that puts the Mumfords off, but they don’t find Louise so bad. And they do want the money.

Well, Louise is that bad. She can behave well for a few days at a stretch, but she’s restless, untruthful, attention-seeking, and manipulative. She is being courted not just by her stepsister’s ex-fiancé, but also by a rough working class man with a temper to match her own. She doesn’t think he is quite good enough for her. She (and her mother) both hope the Mumfords will introduce her to better.

The classes clash. Louise is the nightmare guest who refuses to leave. The Mumfords, trapped by their own politeness and disgust for “scenes,” are unable to throw her out, even after her stepfather cuts off payment for her lodging.

Anxiety levels are high all around. Mrs. Mumford even begins to question her husband’s interactions with Louise. Her suspicion appalls them both.

It takes a cataclysmic event (which, when the dust settles, wasn’t really that cataclysmic) to dislodge the girl from their lives.

It isn’t a deep book. And there are plenty of contemporary examples of this type of plot that are likely more amusing and more hair-raising. Yet the social class difference gives this novel some poignancy and punch. And it’s fascinating to see that the trope of the obnoxious, disruptive guest who just won’t go was as disturbing and darkly comic in the nineteenth century as it is today.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking the Duke by Mary Lancaster

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

Unmasking the Duke by Mary Lancaster (Book Four in the Pleasure Garden series) is another delightful, temporary escape from the real world.

Kitty Renwick is the adopted niece of Bill Renwick, one-time criminal ringleader now on his way to building a legitimate commercial enterprise, having begun with the creation of The Maida Gardens. (This is a pleasure park for rich and poor, titled and common, with family-oriented entertainments during the day and masked balls at night, where anonymity allows indiscretion.) Kitty has been raised as a part of Renwick’s family, and believes she is his blood relation, but in truth, no one knows who her real parents were. 

Johnny Winters, the duke of Dearham, is a reforming rake. After the death of his father, Johnny has tried to behave more respectably, even taking upon himself the task of tracking down the daughter of a long-lost cousin who was disowned for marrying against his great-grandmother’s wishes. (She was the duchess at the time and has long since died.) He has enlisted the help of Ludovic Dunne, his solicitor who is also a respected sleuth. It appears that Kitty may be the missing girl.

The mystery unfolds amidst dangerous plots against Bill Renwick, Kitty, and a sideplot involving a mysterious princess/spy, who had once been Johnny’s lover. 

Kitty and Johnny fall for one another, but the deck is obviously stacked heavily against them. Thankfully, since this is Romance, obstacles are there to be overcome.

This is an enjoyable series, light on steam and heavier on character development. The plot is improbable but who cares? There is at least one more book in the series, and I’m looking forward to it!

Monday, March 7, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams is a complicated book, difficult to read and difficult to review. It is certainly beautifully written and psychologically complex. The plot begins slow; it is thought-provoking and melancholy. Symbolic bird imagery lends a touch of magical realism that eases the reader into the unexplainable events that begin to occur, events that suddenly catapult the plot down horrifying, stomach-turning lines that will make you want to rage, or weep, or both. And yet.

And yet there was something unsatisfying in the way it played into stereotypes while calling them out. The bird imagery took off but landed flat. (Fans of magical realism may disagree.) The clearest truth to emerge was the utter lack of accountability of evil-doers. The protagonist saved the innocent…maybe. Or maybe it was too little too late. She saved herself by skirting the issue and removing herself from the situation, which was, admittedly, the only thing she could do. I can’t blame her for her lack of courage. She didn’t really have a workable option; at least she did what she did, and maybe that was the point.

The Illness Lesson, despite being fictional and containing a dose of magic, highlights a very real, oppressive abuse that not only took place in the past, but goes on in the present day, in guises that are only minimally different. The novel illustrates a lesson that hasn’t been learned.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino is a tremendous, seductive novel about reading. Originally published in 1979, it nevertheless feels fresh (reference to a payphone notwithstanding.) 

I love books about books, writers, and reading, and can often relate to insightful bits in these types of works. But passages in Calvino’s book hit so close to home that I laughed out loud or got tears in my eyes. He not only understands compulsive readers but has the talent to put that compulsion into words.

In this novel, a narrator addresses a Reader as “You.” But this unnamed Reader is a character. Who is about to start reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Chapters addressing the Reader alternate with chapters of fictional novels. (Yes, all novels are fiction. But these novels don’t exist. They are literally fictional.)

We begin. We, like the Reader, get sucked into chapter one. And then, the read is interrupted. There has been a printer error. The Reader embarks upon an odyssey to find the rest of the book. Along the way, he meets another Reader, also searching for the rest of the book, with whom he would very much like to connect. As the search progresses, he continuously thinks or hopes he has found what he seeks, but it’s always an opening chapter to a different book.

Each step of the way, he is drawn into the next book and wants to continue that one as much as or instead of the first. Amazingly, I was right there with him. Even when a new chapter began, and I knew that it would not be a continuation of the previous novel, and that this one, too, would drop off just when I was hooked, I had to read on! It was frustrating without being infuriating. Each new first chapter was unique and beautifully written. The plot involving the Reader and the woman he pursued was absurd; yet his emotional connection to the reading process and her philosophy of reading kept me as interested in their story as I was in all the stories that I knew would never be finished–yet still had to start.

This novel is thrilling.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Tempts an Heir by Harper St. George

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

Harper St. George’s latest historical romance is The Lady Tempts an Heir. Set in the Gilded Age, this series of novels deal with the new money Americans coming to England to buy titles for themselves (and their social climbing families.) I thoroughly enjoyed the first novel in the series, The Heiress Gets a Duke. I missed the second book but will have to come back to it. In those novels, the exceedingly wealthy Crenshaw sisters are married off to aristocrats after difficult courtships, finding love despite the initially mercenary arrangements.

This third book is interesting because it is the wealthy American son who is being coerced into marriage by his parents, particularly by his tyrannical tycoon father. Maxwell Crenshaw is also a fiercely ambitious businessman, poised to eventually take over the family business. However, he has a heart, and has already come to London twice to support his sisters when they are being forced to marry against their wills. Now he has returned because his father has had a heart attack. By the time he arrives, the father is recovering. But the father is more determined than ever to get Maxwell wed and breeding to ensure the continuation of the family line – to secure the Crenshaw Ironworks legacy. Maxwell would rather take his time and marry for love.

Lady Helena March is a young widow who has thrown herself into charitable works, most notably a home (with daycare) for unwed mothers and their children. She is a good friend of the Crenshaw sisters and had previously met Maxwell and been attracted to him. But now her father is pressuring her to wed again, to find a man to lend her some respectability, especially if she’s going to insist on associating with such undesirable elements. He is not above throwing his influence around to thwart her charity, sure that he is protecting her by doing so.

The older generation of men in these novels is really despicable. But the younger men are more forward thinking and make admirable heroes.

In order to get around the manipulations of both the fathers, Maxwell and Helena embark upon a pretend engagement, planning to cry off once their individual projects have enough momentum that the fathers can’t stop them. Of course, romance readers know how these “pretend engagement” scenarios work out. 

There is a lot of steam between Maxwell and Helena, but a lot of mutual support and admiration as well. This is a fun romance series that’s just a bit outside of the usual Regency Romance setting. This novel can stand alone. And the series can be read out of order, because that’s what I’m going to have to do!

Friday, February 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Earl on the Run by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford writes such sweet Regency Romances. Earl on the Run is book 2 in The Duke’s Estates series. My favorite part of book one, The Duke Who Loved Me, was the quartet of young debutantes who kept a humorous running commentary on the state of the ton and the progress of that heroine’s courtship. Now it’s the turn of one of those debutantes, Harriet Finch, to find her true love.

Harriet is an heiress, suddenly. The grandfather who threw her mother out and harried her father into ruin decided to leave his money to her, provided she serve as his pawn, his entree into society. Grandfather Finch made his money in trade and is desperate to connect himself to the aristocracy. Harriet has no desire to marry for a title. However, her father is dead. And her destitute mother wants a “better” life for her daughter.

Jack Merrill’s story is similar. His father (heir to an earldom) fell in love with a commoner and was banished to America where he entered trade. Jack was perfectly content but was summoned back to England when he inherited his grandfather’s estates. He has no desire to be insulted by the titled, especially not by his haughty, cruel grandmother. So he takes off. Disappears. However, he is curious about the country estate he inherited, so he sneaks off to see it before deciding what to do next.

His country home borders that of the estate bought by Grandfather Finch.

Jack and Harriet meet wandering about the grounds. Neither knows anything about the other, so they are free to invent their personae, which really means they are free to be themselves. Before long, they have fallen in love.

This should be an easy one. The match is something everyone around them wants. They want it themselves. But they haven’t been honest with one another. And they don’t want to marry to please other people. To some extent, their obstacles are invented and could be solved by a good long chat. But they are interrupted at inopportune times. And they don’t entirely trust their own feelings.

The two are kind-hearted and loving. Their goals align. The happily-ever-after is assured once they decide to be honest with one another. They are helped along by none other than James and Cecelia from The Duke Who Loved Me (and it was fun seeing their return.) 

I’m eager to see who the next heroine in the series will be!

Monday, February 21, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson

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

Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies
by Laura Thompson is a newly-released book that, just as the title tells us, looks at the lives of heiresses. The women are either British or Americans who, for the most part, married into the English aristocracy. The book starts in the late 1600's with Mary Davies and goes through modern times, with Patty Hearst. The theme is that untold wealth is almost guaranteed to make a woman miserable (although rare heiresses are able to escape the burden of wealth, mainly through philanthropy.) It seems the misery stems from two main problems. First, when being defined by wealth, it is impossible for the women to ever feel loved for themselves. And second, boredom. What is there to do besides spend mindlessly when you have more money than you know what to do with?

They marry tragically, over and over again. They have affairs. They drink and take drugs. If they become mothers, they are terrible ones. 

A surprising number of them are kidnaped and forced into marriages. (I thought this was just an overused trope of Regency Romances. I had no idea it was so common!)

The book looks into the societal, legal, and political disadvantages that these women faced, particularly in earlier centuries. Once married, women had no legal identity. Their money was turned over to their husbands. Their children belonged to the husband. Even their own bodies belonged to their husbands. It’s horrifying. But even in the modern era, there are double standards and issues of consent that make it difficult for women born to gobs and gobs of money. (Also, nobody actually feels sorry for them!)

Heiresses is well written and well researched. The individual stories are interesting. But on the whole, the book didn’t engage me as much as I expected. The litany of miserable heiresses became draining and their stories started to run together, and then I felt guilty for starting to see them all generically. It did demonstrate that a good deal of progress has been made for women, but not yet enough.

Friday, February 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Odelia's Secret by Jane Steen

 I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review.

It has been a long wait since book 1 in the The Scott-de-Quincy Mysteries, Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen. In that book, readers are introduced to the heroine, Lady Helena, a young widow with a complicated, sprawling family. She believes her husband died in an accident, but it isn’t that clear-cut. An attractive, kind physician, Fortier, helps her to solve the mystery. In the process, she uncovers things about her family that she would have preferred not to know and a romance begins to bud.

In book 2, Lady Odelia’s Secret, it is now one year later, and Lady Helena is about to emerge from deep mourning. She has not seen Fortier in all that time. (He had to return to France to deal with some complicated, confidential family matters of his own.) She has spent the time quietly in the country home she inherited from her husband, adjusting to life as a wealthy widow. And then she is visited by her older sister Odelia.

Odelia is an artist and a free spirit. Helena has always adored and admired her, but never really known her. There is an eleven- or twelve-year age difference and Odelia spends nearly all her time in London at the family’s town home. (Their father was an earl. Their brother, Michael, prefers to live in the country with his wife and family, so the London home has pretty much been turned over to Odelia.) Odelia runs a rather lax household. She keeps her distance from her family for reasons that are about to become all too clear to Helena.

Odelia runs in bohemian artistic circles in London. She has an idea for a project for Helena, a chance to become a patron of the arts by commissioning a large work from one of the greatest painters of the day, Sir Geraint (a courtesy title.) A charismatic man of undeniable talent, he has an idea for a major piece that would fit perfectly in Helena’s home, improving her rather rundown drawing room. Intrigued by the idea and impressed with the man’s work, Helena decides to pursue the commission. Traveling to London with Odelia, Helena meets Geraint’s wife and adult children. Against her inclination, she becomes privy to their family woes, personal and financial. And she becomes embroiled in the scandal her sister has taken pains to conceal.

In London, Helena also finds Fortier once more. He has newly returned from France to care for his father, who is slowly dying of cancer. The attraction and admiration between the two grows even stronger. However, the time is still not right to pursue anything more than friendship. Fortier still has secrets of his own that he is only slowly revealing. The two are perfectly matched, both understanding the pressure of familial loyalty.

That theme of loyalty runs strong through both books. The books are mysteries. Crimes need to be solved. But the murder mystery unfolds slowly and is secondary to the true conflicts in Helena’s life. She was the baby of her large family and was always kept in the dark. She’s not a child any longer. She has a keen intelligence and a remarkable gift of compassion. It seems her family will have to come to rely more and more upon her as their secrets slowly come out. 

This book is wonderful. The author confidently immerses the reader in the setting. She doesn’t rush the story, but lets it unfold. The characters are not all likeable. In fact, this reader became exasperated with some of them. And that made Helena shine all the more. She empathizes even when she does not approve.

I think this book could stand alone. It’s been long enough since I read book 1 that the details are murky and weren’t needed to understand this story. However, I think to fully appreciate the family dynamics and to watch Helena’s personal growth, starting with book 1 is the best way to go.

And I will impatiently await book three.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Meddler by Kate Archer

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

Kate Archer has a new Regency Romance series: A Series of Worthy Young Ladies. I just finished book 1, The Meddler.

Six matrons of the ton bond over the shared disappointment of having no daughters. They have sons, but it’s not the same. They will never know the thrill of launching a daughter into society. So they come up with a plan to form The Society of Sponsoring Ladies. Each season, they will pick one worthy (meaning wellborn) girl whose family is unable to bring her out. A matron will sponsor the girl, provide her the clothes, the introductions, the chaperonage, and a suitable dowry, and the other ladies will support the effort. 

Lady Mendleton chooses the first girl–Georgina Wilcox, a very distant cousin who is the daughter of a baron. Unfortunately for Georgina, her father married a woman whose father was in trade. The mother is impossibly coarse, but the girl is said to be delightful. So the experiment proceeds.

Georgiana is a lovely heroine. She’s clever and beautiful. Unfortunately, she was raised in the country with very lax supervision and has none of the usual female accomplishments. Yet she adapts quickly to the requirements of the ton and is able to work around her supposed deficiencies. Mostly, she’s intelligent enough and grateful enough to her patron to know that Lady Mendleton’s son, Jasper Stapleton–Viscount Langley--is off limits. His sights are set much higher. But he’s so handsome, polite, kind, and has such an air of quiet competence about him, that naturally Georgiana falls for him.

Jasper has all those great Regency hero traits at the start. Also, he is a busy man. He works for Queen Charlotte as a spy of sorts. King George is incapacitated by madness. The Regent is despised. And the Queen is trying to hold the country together. This requires hiding the extent of the King’s madness. Jasper’s job is to keep the rumors tamped down. When gossipy reports appear in the newspapers, he must track down who is spreading them. And even more importantly, why.

A new rumor appears just after Georgiana is brought to London. The rumor is traced to the Mendleton household. Jasper decides Georgiana is a spy/troublemaker. But he likes her so much, he wants to prove that she isn’t. 

Georgiana shines. She remains clever and considerate throughout. Despite having fallen in love with Jasper, she tries to manage her expectations. She’s honest enough with herself to know that if her feelings are reciprocated, she won’t be strong enough to turn him down. (For marriage, not dalliance. This is clean romance.)

Jasper does not shine so much. Once he has fed himself the false narrative that she is a spy, although he doesn’t want to believe it, he misreads every clue and his confirmation bias kicks in. The real spy is clear as day pretty much from the beginning and Jasper starts to appear dense as he overlooks the obvious. Granted, the reader has the whole story and Jasper does not. But his position as the Queen’s confidante in this matter is hard to justify while watching his imagination run wild. He creates an elaborate fairy tale in order to implicate and then excuse Georgiana, in order that he might rescue her. (In Jasper’s favor, he has a biting sense of humor, though it mainly comes out when he’s disparaging the girl his mother wants him to court.)

The HEA ending is achieved, thanks to Georgiana’s bravery and loyalty. I expected her to be more affronted that Jasper had so little faith in her. He didn’t think she was a traitor intentionally, only a pawn. But Georgiana wastes no time being miffed. 

If all the “Worthy Young Ladies” are as delightful as Georgiana, this new series is certainly one to follow. But I do hope their heroes are cleverer than Jasper turned out to be.

Friday, February 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

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

I saw the blurb for Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor and couldn’t resist – a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the women’s perspective. The original story is familiar to me both from the book and the movies. It’s a beautiful classic, of course, but it’s also vaguely unsatisfying, possibly because all the characters are so dissatisfied. 

Beautiful Little Fools
does away with Nick Carraway’s narration, turning him into a very peripheral character. Instead, we get a deep dive into the hearts of the female protagonists, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. A third woman, Catherine McCoy, a minor character in the original, is now also a main character — a third woman’s voice. Catherine is the sister of Myrtle (the woman who is tragically killed in The Great Gatsby.) The novel alternates among the three points of view to show what truly led up to the events of Gatsby, and (equally riveting) what happened after. 

A fourth viewpoint character, Detective Frank Charles, is the one decent man in the whole book. He’s attempting to solve the mystery of who really killed Jay Gatsby, even though the police have closed the case as a murder-suicide. His digging for truth is the impetus for the story.

This is a murder mystery embedded in multiple love stories. Are the characters still dissatisfied? Yes. A happily-ever-after ending would not have been true to the original. But the loves in this book — the loves of the women — are far deeper and truer than those in Gatsby, which dealt more with obsession and male-female power dynamics than love.

I tried to imagine if this book could stand alone for those who haven’t read or seen the original, but it’s impossible for me to come to this book “naive.” I expect it will still be absorbing for those who don’t know the Gatsby story. It would certainly make me want to read the original. It might be fun for someone unaware of the plot of The Great Gatsby to read this first and then compare. Either way, this book is not to be missed.

Monday, February 7, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant

The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant is our book group’s next pick. It isn’t my usual type of read. It’s a journalistic travelogue, sort of a memoir of a place rather than a person. Grant has a talent for choosing absorbing anecdotes and reporting bits of dialogue that are wryly amusing, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Grant stumbled upon the Mississippi river town after meeting the Natchez native, cookbook author, and restauranteur Regina Charboneau at a book festival. She invited him to come visit. He did, and became fascinated by what he found. In Natchez, they kick the “Southern eccentricity” up a notch.

The town’s main industry is tourism. Once one of the wealthiest places in the South, the town is riddled with old Greek revival mansions/plantations. Upkeep on the buildings is expensive. So years ago, around the time of the publication of Gone With the Wind, the matriarchs of the town got the idea that they could charge tourists for an old South experience. The women dressed up in hoopskirts, served food and plenty of alcohol, and “received” outsiders into their homes. They called it the “Pilgrimage” and capped it with a bizarre theatrical production. At the end of the run, they would have a big party and present a “king and queen,” kids in their late teens or early twenties. The event took on a ridiculously outsized importance in the social and economic life of the town. 

Naturally, the fact that all the original wealth was based on slave labor was never mentioned by the participants. The people had “servants.” And all the usual rationalizations were trotted out.

Alongside the saga of the Pilgrimage and the two warring Garden Clubs that sponsor the event, Grant tells the story of one of the enslaved men, a man called Prince. He had been an African prince and war-leader until his army was defeated and the survivors were sold to slave traders. He worked on a Natchez plantation most of his life, until a weird coincidence brought him into contact with a white man who had known him in his previous life. That man started the ball rolling to get Prince freed and allow him to return to Africa.

The book is interesting and well-written. To fully appreciate the bizarreness of some of the anecdotes, you have to read the book. It presents many of the issues of overt and structural racism in a small town microcosm. It shows the small rays of progress. But also highlights how intractable the problems are.

Friday, February 4, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart

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

The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart is exquisite. The details of daily life for these Depression Era, hard-working, down-on-their-luck Southerners makes this novel come alive. It isn’t necessarily a life I wanted to immerse myself in. The cruelty, racism, and sexual exploitation that these itinerant farm workers and turpentine extractors had to endure made for unpleasant reading to say the least. But the writing was beautiful. The descriptions were so realistic I thought the author must have experienced some of the work, not only researched it.

Delwood Reese is a good-looking young man who was raised farming and working trees for turpentine. Now he’s on his own, getting work where he can. But he has the bad habit of sleeping with other men’s wives. When his boss catches him at it, he puts him into the grain bin to “walk down the corn” – pretty much an execution – that almost succeeds. Del takes off and ends up at the Swallow Hill Turpentine camp.

Rae Lynn Cobb is a beautiful young woman, raised in an orphanage, who married an older man with a small-scale turpentine operation. They love each other in a way, but he’s stubborn about things, tight with money, and clumsy/accident prone. That last flaw causes Rae Lynn a few injuries as well. Tragedy strikes when a poor decision leads to his drawn-out, painful death. Rae Lynn gets chased off the place by a predatory male. And she ends up at Swallow Hill too.

Things go from bleak to bleaker. The work is back-breaking. Workers are paid in worthless scrip and have to buy necessities at the company store, so the longer they work, the more in debt they are. The men in the largely Black workforce are treated worse than animals. The boss is a homicidal sadist.

Thankfully, there are little bits of sunshine. Del’s near-death experience has changed him. He’s a better man and he looks out for others. Including Rae Lynn.

Ultimately, this is a hopeful book. A great read for when you’re looking for some hopefulness.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

 Anne Tyler’s books are always fun. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road takes us along for the ride as Micah Mortimer, a 40-something self-employed IT guy (Tech Hermit) sorts out his life. He likes his life fairly rigidly controlled, blaming a chaotic upbringing for his neat-freakishness and adherence to schedules. His customers love him and he likes his job as long as he can be his own boss. He is also the manager/super of his apartment building in exchange for free rent. He has a girlfriend, a 30-something fourth-grade teacher. Things are stable.

Until his girlfriend calls and tells him she’s going to be evicted from her apartment. He handles that news all wrong. And then a college kid shows up at his house, claiming to be his son. His mother was Micah’s college sweetheart, his first true love. But there is no way this boy is his son.

Micah trods along, trying to do the right thing, coming close but often just missing the mark. He has to reevaluate his own life, and his own shortcomings, to find out what it is he truly values and truly needs.

As always, Tyler’s characters are quirky but relatable. Her storytelling is wonderful. It’s a quick read and hard to put down.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Argo by Mark Knowles

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

I’ve read quite a few retellings of myths and legends over the years, and I’ve heard of Jason and the Argonauts and knew bits of the story. But I’ve never read a novel focused on Jason, so I was interested in this retelling, Argo by Mark Knowles. Knowles is a Cambridge classicist, who clearly knows the story well.

Unfortunately, this was rather a slog to get through. It’s a very detailed narration of the adventures of the Argonauts on their way to Colchis to steal the Golden Fleece. Despite the dangers and numerous battles, and despite the fact that many of the individual scenes are interesting, on the whole, the book dragged.

In a nutshell, Jason was challenged (by his uncle, who had usurped Jason’s father’s throne) to go steal the fleece in order to win his parents’ freedom. The challenge is meant to be a fool’s errand that will rid the usurper of the upstart challenger. Jason gathers together a motley crew of quarrelsome misfits, who somehow are able to defeat various armies along the way. The Argonauts band together, more or less, when they have to fight, but never form a cohesive unit. Rather than reading as a focused journey, with a cumulative rise in tension, the adventures seem rather aimless random bumps in the road as they wander their way to Colchis.

Jason is a weak leader, though he is a strong fighter. Aside from Jason’s self-doubts, there isn’t much depth to the characters. When Jason finally meets Medea, she morphs too quickly from a witch-like goddess worshiper who despises men and terrifies the suitors her father pushes at her into a sexy young girl who melts for Jason. 

Although tempted numerous times to give up on the read, I nevertheless pushed through to the end. I was curious to learn about Jason’s saga as a whole. So it was especially frustrating to read 566 pages and reach the point where Jason finally steals the Golden Fleece, only to have the book end with “to be continued.” They haven’t even completed an escape from Colchis. Although I admire the scholarship behind the effort, it didn’t engage me as a novel.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Time to read something frivolous and light-hearted, so I picked a Georgette Heyer Romance that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while: The Nonesuch.

“Nonesuch” is one of those weird Regency epithets. It apparently refers to a gentleman without equal, particularly in the athletic or sporting realm, which in those days encompassed riding horses, skillful driving of carriages, and boxing. (Feel free to correct me or add to this understanding.) 

In this case, the Nonesuch is Sir Waldo, a handsome, charming, unflappable thirty-five-year-old gentleman who does everything well. He has just inherited a ramshackle house out in the country, so he leaves London to check it out. Waldo is not only wealthy but also philanthropic, and thinks this house may suit as an orphanage to endow.

The arrival of such a paragon sets the town in a frenzy. All the young men want to mimic him. All the young girls hope he comes courting. One girl who anticipates she will be the natural winner of his attentions is the seventeen-year-old Tiffany Wield. She is a wealthy (orphaned) heiress and extremely beautiful. People have been telling her for years how beautiful she is, so she is spoiled, selfish, vain, and manipulative. It’s difficult to imagine a worse person. She’s currently living with an aunt, who continues to spoil her out of fear of her tantrums and a vague hope that the girl will marry her son (a cousin) and bring all that money into her side of the family. The son sees through Tiffany and has no interest, but he’s about the only young man in the town who is not bowled over by her. 

Tiffany would like to add Waldo to her list of admirers, but not to marry, since she expects to marry a peer. 

The woman who must try to reign in Tiffany’s bad behavior, and has some limited success in doing so, is her governess/companion, Ancilla Trent. Ancilla is wellborn but poor. She’s also twenty-eight, and therefore past the age of expecting romance.

Ancilla and Waldo are made for each other. They have hurdles to jump and some misunderstandings to get past, but they are both such sensible, good-humored characters that it isn’t hard for them to find their way to one another. The situations were not as ridiculously hilarious as in Sylvester, but their witty dialogues make their interactions funny and fun. The ending was a bit abrupt, but things had been resolved so it didn’t really need more winding up. If you’re in the mood for a quick, clean, amusing Regency Romance, The Nonesuch delivers.

Friday, January 21, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Violeta by Isabel Allende

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

Isabel Allende is one of those authors I keep meaning to read, but never seem to get around to. So I was very glad to be approved for her new novel, Violeta, from Netgalley. Now I was sure to read one of her books!

Set in South America (Chile?) Violeta is the story of Violeta del Valle as told by herself in a long letter to her beloved grandson. It’s a memoir of sorts, of a very full fictional life.

Violeta was born in 1920, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, to a wealthy, conservative, and very traditional South American family. They were not much affected by the pandemic because of her father’s wealth and influence. However, the next shattering event, the Great Depression, hit them hard. It seems her father was a crook and his wealth was largely an illusion. So Violeta spends her formative years in what her mother and aunts referred to as “exile,” out in the country, in poverty. But here, all the previously “sheltered” del Valle women have more independence and seem much more content.

The novel follows Violeta through her return to the city, her first marriage, her budding businesswoman career, her affair with a dynamic but evil and abusive man (another wealthy, powerful crook), her difficult relationships with her children by this man, and how she finally moves beyond this. She lives out the rest of her life in healthy relationships, finding causes she can believe in. During this time, democracy in her country fails and a right-wing military coup occurs. The country descends into a brutal, violent dictatorship. The people in her life are either complicit with the new regime or are protesting and fighting against it. (The right wing coup is sponsored by the U.S. because it’s the Cold War.) The novel draws to a close in 2020, when Violeta, at the age of one hundred, is dying during another pandemic (though she does not die of covid.)

There is A LOT happening in this book. Many fully-rounded peripheral characters populate Violeta’s life and seem so real that I was swept along in the story. That said, I wasn’t all that emotionally involved. Violeta’s life was interesting, she lived through fascinating times, but there was a disconnect. Maybe it was because her wealth and privilege isolated her (though not friends and family) from the worst of the violence. Or maybe it was the distance created by the format of looking back over a life and recounting it. It’s a compelling story, but I didn’t find it a particularly moving one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Master by Colm Tóibín

I am awed by Colm Tóibín. A short while ago, I read his biographical novel of Thomas Mann, The Magician, and was blown away by the writing. I immediately put one of his earlier works, The Master, a biographical novel of Henry James, on my TBR list. I just finished it.

I haven’t read much of James’s work, only The Turn of the Screw and The Bostonians. I think I read The Portrait of a Lady over thirty years ago but remember next to nothing about it. Now, of course, I’ll have to read it again and more of James.

The Master
drew me in slowly, but the more I read, the more engrossed I became. I fell completely into the world and into the head of a 50-something-year-old Henry James as he settles into sedate middle age in his off-the-beaten-track country home in Rye. He works. He muses. He spends time with old friends, rare new ones, and family members, but not too much time. Then he works and muses some more. He reminisces. Most of his memories are somber ones. Yet he seems more contemplative than sad. He recycles every experience, one way or another, into his writings. He observes life as much or more than he lives it. And I was fascinated to observe it alongside him.

The amazing part of Tóibín’s work is how deft he is at creating a convincing thought process for a turn of the twentieth century writer. He made Henry James seem so real, so immediate, that he (Tóibín) disappeared, just as he did when writing The Magician.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And I’m thrilled to know I’ve come late to Tóibín’s writing because there are more books out there waiting for me.

Friday, January 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

 My second read of the year is also superb!

Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan (author of The Baker’s Secret) is a WWII novel that I could not put down, even though I thought I was tired of WWII novels.

Set in Chicago and Los Alamos, this is a dual narrative of a young couple, Charlie Fish and Brenda Dubie, whose lives are upended by the war and then hijacked by the Manhattan Project.

Charlie is probably the nicest guy who ever lived. He’s an exceptionally smart mathematician, but more hands-on than theoretical, which makes him feel insecure when he compares himself to some of his peers. At eighteen years old, he’s prime soldier material. The one thing he dreads more than getting killed is having to kill, so he’s relieved when a relative pulls strings to keep him off the battlefield. He lands a job at the University of Chicago performing complex calculations but is given no hint as to their significance. Or maybe he doesn’t want to know.

It’s in Chicago that he meets Brenda, a sassy young woman working in her parents’ music shop. Brenda’s ultimate goal is to study to become a professional organist. But her father and older brother are both overseas helping with the war effort, so Brenda and her mother have to keep the home fires burning. For Brenda, that includes flirting with and dating young men, particularly soldiers on leave. 

They meet in the music store. Charlie is not Brenda’s type. At least, she doesn’t think so. But they spend time together and it soon becomes clear they’re meant for each other.

Unfortunately, Charlie is chosen to go to Los Alamos to work on a top-secret government project. It only slowly dawns on him what they are building. His job is to design and build the detonator. In many ways, it seems the success or failure of the project all hinges on him. 

Charlie either purposefully drags his feet or he is truly stumped by the enormity of his task. But when Brenda, who hasn’t a clue what’s really going on, tells him to “be a man” and do his part to end the war, he reapplies himself to the task.

Charlie is not the only one who struggles with the morality of what they are doing. There is a whole team of young, brilliant scientists collaborating on the bomb. Many of them are sickened by what they are unleashing on the world but the momentum behind the project is unstoppable, despite moral qualms, petitions, and the resignations of some of the top people on the project.

We know how this unfolds. 

This book is devastating. It begins slowly. Charlie is such a good guy. Brenda is funny and peppy. They are both painfully innocent. As the war chugs on and the death counts rise, they grow up all too quickly–Charlie in particular. You really wish they could be spared what is coming. The main question for Charlie and Brenda will be how to move forward while carrying their tremendous burdens of guilt.

The details of the Manhattan Project are gripping. (An author’s note clues us in to what parts are real and which are fictionalized.) The pace picks up as the war winds down and the Manhattan Project achieves its mission. The novel raises many largely unanswerable questions which makes it a great book club book.