Wednesday, November 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

A Matter of Class is vintage Mary Balogh. I needed something short and sweet.

Lady Annabelle Ashton is the daughter of the very high-in-the-instep Earl of Havercroft. The earl finds himself in a financial bind, so he works hard to affiance his daughter to a wealthy peer who is significantly older and horribly unattractive. The earl assumes Annabelle will sacrifice her life to bail him out. She’s his daughter after all. That’s what daughters are for. Annabelle has other plans. She runs off with a handsome coachman. Although she does it so indiscreetly that they are caught before reaching Gretna Green and before anything happens, she is ruined. Spurned by the ton, she is unmarriageable now. Her father is furious and determined to punish her.

Reginald Mason is the handsome son of a coal magnate. Although Reginald has been raised as a gentleman, technically he is not one. Nevertheless, in the last few months he has adopted the gambling, foppishness, and lazy demeanor of aristocrats, piling up debts until his father can take no more. He insists Reginald must settle down and marry. Reginald’s father has always wanted to break into the upper echelons of society but has always been shunned. He has especially been shunned by his neighbor, the Earl of Havercroft. Now Mr. Mason has a plan: marrying Reginald to Annabelle. The earl needs money. Annabelle needs a husband. If Reginald steps up, the Mason family will finally have the connections Mr. Mason has always wanted. If Reginald refuses, Mr. Mason will cut him off without a penny.

Given little choice, Reginald proposes and Lady Annabelle accepts. 

The storyline shows their bristly courtship, but also traces a few episodes in their pasts when their paths have crossed. As the story unfolds, the reader will likely figure out the twist before it’s revealed, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the story. This is a delightful read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Our book group’s next pick is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. I’m glad I read it after the election rather than before, though it’s a depressing book no matter when/how you look at it.

Applebaum gives a definition of authoritarianism and describes its rise in the twenty-first century. She starts with the rise of fascistic authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, moves through the Brexitism of England, and ends with Trumpism in the U.S.  The root causes are many, but the politics of resentment and the ease of spreading disinformation thanks to the internet and social media are major factors. People who look to authoritarianism are those who are uncomfortable with complexity and want a leader who can pare away the noise associated with diversity of opinion. It’s easier to sit in a bubble or echo chamber and listen only to the voice telling you what you want to hear. Both sides are guilty of this.

It’s difficult to end such a book on an optimistic note. The best she can do is to point out that, historically, factions are the norm and unity is never more than an elusive ideal. I suppose if we sit back with a detached view and watch history unfold, realizing that civilizations go through endless cycles, we don’t need to be overly concerned. Faith in democratic ideals may be on the wane, war may break out, authoritarian regimes may take hold and stamp out democracy for now, but in another few centuries, some brave idealists will once again have a go at it.

Or maybe our children and grandchildren will do a better job of defending it than we have.

It’ll be an interesting book group.

Monday, November 7, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Long Campaign: A Biography of Anne Martin by Anne Bail Howard

With election day just around the corner, I read The Long Campaign: A Biography of Anne Martin by Anne Bail Howard. Anne Martin was a suffragist from Nevada who campaigned tirelessly in the sparsely populated state for women’s right to vote in the early 1900's. At the time, this was a state-by-state issue and Western states were more receptive to women voting than Eastern states. The campaign succeeded, largely due to her efforts.

However, her next endeavor, running for state Senator, was pretty well doomed from the start. Aside from the fact that she was female, and there had never been a female U.S. senator, Martin had made enemies (or at least, detractors) because of some of her earlier work (more militant suffragist work in England and a couple of arrests for protesting) as well as her pacifist stance in the lead-up to WWI. She had hoped the newly enfranchised women of Nevada would recognize the significance of electing a female senator and vote as a bloc, but they did not.

Frustrated by this and by the lack of progress of the national movement for women’s suffrage, Martin turned her attention to writing and her political efforts toward the peace movement.

The biography focuses on her early life and influences, her political awakening, and her activism. It discusses her various connections and friendships, those that were long-lasting and those where she and the friends eventually fell out, usually over politics. Martin could be charming and inspiring, but she was also a hard taskmaster and bull-headed in her opinions.

The book is an interesting look at a woman who was a pivotal figure in her time, but who is largely forgotten in ours. Currently, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that women were excluded from the democratic process when it is so self-evident that women are every bit as deserving of the vote as men. The hard work and sacrifices of the women (and men) who fought so hard for equality a century ago should not be forgotten. And the right to vote should not be taken for granted.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath

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

Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath is the second book in The Merriwell Sisters series. I haven’t read book one, but this novel stands well on its own. It’s set in 1826, so just after the Regency period, but it reads the same as a Regency Romance.

Miss Diana Merriwell is a commoner who works incognito as a gossip columnist and investigative reporter. She’s the middle daughter (of three) of a criminal, and her difficult upbringing has made her strong and independent. Her older sister recently married an earl, thrusting Diana into a new social circle. She adapts to it easily and is pleased that it affords her ready access to the subjects of her gossip column.

One of these subjects is Giles Sinclair, son of a duke. Giles has a very big problem. Four years earlier, he learned from the dying duchess that he is actually illegitimate. So he is not heir to the dukedom. This is terrible, because Giles has always wanted to eventually right the wrongs of his father. The current duke is a penny-pinching, cruel man who neglects his estates and tenants. Giles and his father have never gotten along because Giles is good to the core, even if he pretends to be a reprobate to irritate the duke.

Giles intends to one day set things to right in the dukedom, but knows that if his father’s secret comes out, the actual heir, his uncle, will inherit. And this man is even more morally bankrupt than Giles’ father. 

At the novel’s opening. Giles learns that something or someone is threatening to reveal the duke’s secret. Then, abruptly, Giles’ father dies and Giles inherits. He’s in a quandary. He’s a little afraid he’ll go to jail for impersonating a duke, but he’s mostly afraid of his uncle inheriting and causing more harm to innocents.

The only one he trusts to go to for help is Diana. The two have known each other for a while and they enjoy verbally sparring. They pretend to dislike each other, but deep down what they feel is attraction. However, Diana refuses to entertain the notion that she cares for Giles because her life lessons have taught her that men are not to be trusted. Giles recognizes that he’s attracted to Diana, but he refuses to woo and marry anyone since he knows he’s not the peer of the realm he must pretend to be.

The two embark on a quest to discover the truth and maybe break the law to continue hiding it, all for the greater good. On the way, they fall ever more deeply in love.

This is a quick, entertaining romance in the enemies-to-lovers trope, or maybe frenemies-to-lovers is a better description. The dialogue contains some jarring modernisms, and Diana’s journalistic fact-finding adventures are glaringly lacking in credibility, but it remains a fun love story with two likeable protagonists.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is an engrossing historical novel that explores, from multiple angles, Rembrandt’s first major masterpiece, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Set in Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century, the story is told from multiple viewpoints. Dr. Tulp is the ambitious surgeon who hopes the lecture he will give while dissecting a corpse at the annual guild meeting will catapult him to high political office. René Descartes, the French philosopher/mathematician, is attending the public dissection hoping it will help him in his search for the seat of the soul. Jan Fetchet is a merchant trading in curios – and in human corpses. Rembrandt is, of course, the young painter, who has been commissioned to paint the members of the surgeon’s guild. He will decide to incorporate the corpse into his painting. And then, there is Aris the Kid, a young thief sentenced to be hanged, who claims to welcome death because his life has been one long misery. The only bright spot in his life is Flora, a friend from youth who briefly became his lover. She is carrying his child and comes to Amsterdam to try to save him. But she is always one step too late. Aris’ corpse will be the dissection specimen.

The story is imaginative and yet feels wholly credible as the author dives into the stories of each of these people and weaves them into a history of the painting. This novel should appeal to art lovers and historical fiction fans.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson III: Crossroads by Sigrid Undset

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

I’ve been following the story of Olav Audunsson (also known as The Master of Hestviken) in the new translation of Sigrid Unset’s masterpiece set in 13th-14th century Norway. (The translator is Tiina Nunnally.) The story is told in four volumes. I’ve read Book I: Vows and Book II: Providence, and reviewed them previously. The current book, Book III, is called Crossroads. I highly recommend reading them in order or the power of the story will be lost.

Book III continues seamlessly from where Book II ends. Olav is master of the profitable estate called Hestviken. He’s still young (late thirties), handsome, and healthy. However, he grieves the loss of his wife, Ingunn, who was the love of his life, despite their terrible experiences apart and together. Olav has resolved never to remarry or take a mistress because he still feels bound to her.

He has an heir, Eirik, who he has claimed as his own, although the child was fathered by a man who raped Ingunn. Eirik is growing to manhood. Although the reader can have flashes of sympathy for him, he’s not a likable boy. He’s given to whining, boasting, and lying. However, he senses that his father doesn’t like him – which is true – and that makes his desperate personality more understandable. Olav has never let on to anyone that Eirik is not his biological child. Even to himself, he accepts Eirik as his son. But there is also the question of his natural son, Bjorn, born to Torhilde, the woman who was once the housekeeper of the estate. Bjorn is a beautiful boy and Olav wishes he could have more to do with him than he does. 

Basically, Olav is a hot mess. He’s always been a deeply religious man, but he’s oppressed by the weight of his sins and wallows in conflicted feelings of unworthiness. He is deeply connected to his estate, but is bored by it. He mourns Ingunn, but still feels attracted to Torhilde. He leaves Hestviken for a short commercial voyage to London, during which he nearly sleeps with a very young married woman who reminds him of Ingunn. He has a religious experience and seriously considers becoming a monk. Yet throughout, he is incapable of making a significant change in his life and continues muddling along.

Eventually, war comes to his corner of the world and he sets off to take part. This reminds him of his soldiering days in his youth. He exhilarates in battle. He’s severely wounded. Good men are lost, but he survives and returns home. One expects that the clarity he felt in battle will not remain in peacetime, and he will return to his indecisiveness and wallowing.

It’s difficult to explain why this book is so compelling. Olav is not a particularly admirable character. In many ways, he’s rather weak. Still, the author gives such a convincing portrait of a medieval Norwegian “everyman” that I’m hooked. There is one more part to this quartet. I’m anxious to see how Olav’s story ends.

Friday, October 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

Quite some time ago, a friend of mine lent me A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. This past weekend I finally grabbed it from my toppling-over TBR pile to read on a long plane ride to a wedding. It was the perfect “travel” book. It’s also based on real-life Belle Époque characters so it fits into the historical fiction genre.

April Vogt, an auction house’s continental furniture expert, is in an unsettled marriage. Her husband, a Wall Street financier, recently admitted to a one-night stand with a coworker. She needs some time to herself to decide her next steps. Fortunately, she is summoned to Paris to sort and appraise the contents of an apartment that has been sealed for seventy years, an apartment chock-full of antique treasures, including a previously unknown portrait by Italian Belle Époque painter Giovanni Boldini. The subject of the painting was the French courtesan Marthe de Florian. Marthe was the one-time inhabitant of the apartment and all the treasures inside belonged to her – gifts from her lovers.

April is overwhelmed by it all, especially by a cache of journals kept by Marthe. Using the excuse that the journals will establish provenance for the articles in the house and thus raise their value, she dives into the life of the courtesan.

In the meantime, she begins to fall for the attractive French lawyer representing the estate, Luc Thébault. Luc is tricky to work with because he puts his client, one of Marthe’s descendants, first, but gradually the two become collaborators in the effort to uncover Marthe’s history. Also, Luc flirts with her and makes sure she doesn’t work too hard. He convinces her to enjoy more of Paris than just the dusty apartment. His attention gives her renewed faith in herself.

The book works in two timelines. The first follows April’s attempts to do the best job possible for her auction house, to learn as much as she can about Marthe, and to decide whether to dump her husband or work on the marriage. The second is told in Marthe’s voice through her journals. Marthe, one of the most sought-after courtesans of the age, is obsessed with the granddaughter of Victor Hugo and is in love with the painter Boldini. She’s a fascinating character.

One of the best things about the book is its Parisian setting. April adores Paris and shares the scenery, the wine, and the food with the reader so that you’ll end up wishing you were in Paris too. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen's England by Rory Muir

Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England by Rory Muir is a fascinating look at the problem of employment for “gentlemen,” a rather loosely defined term, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in England. Because the bulk of any inheritance would go to the first son and because some provision needed to be made for any daughters, the younger sons were most often left to find a way to support themselves. If they wished to marry, and could not find one of those elusive heiresses of Regency Romance fame, they needed a profession that would earn them adequate income to support a family. Unfortunately, professions were not easy to come by, not if the young man wanted to hang on to any claim to being a “gentleman.”

This monograph explores the options: the Church, Medicine, the Law, Banking and Commerce, Civil Office, the Navy, the Army, and India. The pros and cons of each, as well as examples of young men in each of the professions, are well-described. There is a wealth of detail, including average salaries and expenses. It’s well-researched with notes and a bibliography to explore. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to all those younger brothers, this book goes a long way to explaining their plight.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

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

Could there have been a real-life Hester Prynne?

In her new novel, Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese re-imagines The Scarlet Letter from the point of view of a fictional woman, Isobel Gamble. Isobel is a young Scottish immigrant to Salem in 1800. She has come to American with her much older husband, Edward, an apothecary addicted to opium. Almost immediately after their arrival, he abandons her to take a job as a ship’s doctor, dreaming of the riches he will find on the journey. 

Isobel is a talented seamstress/embroideress. She is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with synesthesia, seeing colors in association with letters and speech. Synesthesia is poorly understood even today. Back then, it was seen as a form of madness. Or witchcraft. Having had relatives persecuted for witchcraft (and madness) back in Scotland, Isobel has been warned to keep her “colors” a secret. Nevertheless, they burst forth in the things she creates with her needle.

Isobel is a survivor. Despite being new to the city, alone, without means of support, and belonging to the unwelcome underclass of red-headed, thick-brogued foreigners, she finds work as a seamstress and makes a few friends. One of these friends is a handsome, bookish young man, Nathaniel Hathorne.

Nat is from old, established Salem society. Although his family is downwardly mobile, he’s still well-enough set up in life to spend his days struggling to become a writer. He is also struggling under the weight of his family history. His ancestor (also Nathaniel Hathorne) was one of the most persistent and unrepentant judges in the Salem witch trials. In this close-knit community, descendants of both accusers and accused continue to live side-by-side. Nat carries a lot of guilt. To some extent, he believes in the words thrown at his great-great-grandfather from the gallows: “A curse on you and your children and your children’s children – you’ll all die with blood in your throats.” He wants to put all that guilt, the darkness, into his writing.

Nat is a charmer, and Isobel needs some charm in her life. She feels a kinship with the other artist. He both praises her work and unthinkingly belittles it. He’s apologetic when Isobel calls him out on his condescension, but there is always something a little hollow in his words. Isobel recognizes his self-absorption, but excuses it. And when it seems as though her husband will not be returning from sea, a secret she keeps to herself, she and Nat begin an affair. Who seduces whom? Neither. It is clearly something they both want. But they are looking for two different things. Isobel wants a partner. Nat wants a muse.

The novel is lushly written. Tales of persecuted witches and condemning clergymen/judges are interspersed throughout, fleshing out the inter-generational trauma that shapes both Isobel and Nathaniel. (For me, these were the weakest parts, simply because I felt like I’ve heard these same stories too often.) There is also a concurrent story of the horrors of the slave trade. There is a free Black population in Salem, but freedom is tenuous and only recently “granted.” Bounty hunters roam the streets looking for escaped slaves. Prejudice, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and greed are the norm rather than the exception.

And yet, Isobel’s indomitable spirit succeeds in making this a hopeful, triumphant story.

Did Nathaniel Hawthorne take inspiration from a  “Hester” of his own? This novel will leave you believing that he did. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee Gets Cold
by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is a short, sweet novel told in four interconnected stories. Each is set in a small, timeless, basement café in Tokyo. Inside that café, there is a particular chair, guarded by a ghost in the guise of a book-reading woman. The chair has a special magic. When seated in it, you have the opportunity to travel back to the past, but only for the length of time it takes for your cup of coffee to cool. If you don’t drink the entire cup before it cools, you’ll be stuck, just as the ghost is stuck.

There are other rules as well. You cannot leave the chair while you’re in the past. And you can only meet people who have also been to the café. You also have to go with the full knowledge that nothing you do or say when you return to the past will change the present. Given the difficulty of complying with the rules and the seeming futility of it all, very few customers give it a try. What would be the point? But this is a novel of four people who do.

The people in the novel are lovely, dealing with real-life woes. The language is beautiful despite a little stiltedness. (I read it in English translation from the Japanese.)

The question posed by the book: What would you change if you could travel back in time? —knowing that it’s impossible to change the present—is answered by the end. It seems revisiting the past does have a point.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

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

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews is the second book in the charming Belles of London series. The first was The Siren of Sussex. I’ve been eagerly awaiting book two.

In this recently-released Victorian Romance, we meet Julia Wychwood, a shy heiress who prefers hiding away to read novels over making the rounds of London social events to display herself to potential suitors. She has made a few close female friends, but they are all away from London for four days, leaving her on her own with no one to run interference for her at parties. This exposes her to the attentions of the dreaded Captain Blunt, a hero of the Crimean War with a brutal reputation. Gossips report he is hiding a brood of illegitimate children at his haunted country estate. He is absolutely the wrong man for her. But he is in need of funds – in need of an heiress.

Captain Blunt is not the cruel monster the ton makes him out to be. He is the strong, silent type – silent because he has secrets he needs to keep. He pursues Julia very politely and backs away when she indicates that he should. However, he can’t keep his thoughts from returning to her. None of the other heiresses appeal to him the way she does. And so he finds himself stepping forward to shield her from unpleasantness at various social events rather than moving on to woo someone else.

The two bond over…novels. Julia finds it hard to believe, but Captain Blunt is as big a fan as she is. They even share favorites.

Julia is an only child and her parents are awful. (Practically caricatures of awfulness.) Both believe themselves to be invalids. They are selfish to the extreme. They treat Julia terribly. And they want to condemn her to a life of servitude, caring for them in their old age, catering to their presumed illnesses. If Julia marries against her father’s wishes, he will cut off her inheritance. The suitor he has in mind for Julia is a lecherous old man who killed his first wife with his repeated failed attempts to get an heir, but who has promised to keep Julia imprisoned in London so she can continue to serve her parents’ wishes.


Julia yearns for a romantic hero to come to her rescue. Captain Blunt just might be that man.

The novel plays with a lot of Romance tropes and with gothic novel situations, homage rather than satire. The start is a little slow, but the tension builds. The attraction between the two is believable. Julia’s mix of romanticism and level-headedness is what makes the novel truly shine. This is a not-to-miss series!

Friday, October 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Prize for the Fire by Rilla Askew

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

Prize for the Fire by Rilla Askew is a beautifully written historical novel set in mid-sixteenth century England during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII.

What drives a person to religious fanaticism? To martyrdom? There are extremes of religious posturing that a person may undertake in pursuit of personal gain or glory – but what about those with strongly held beliefs that they will not deny, or even pretend to deny, in the face of torture and even death? It’s hard to believe, in this cynical age, that someone would endure being broken on the rack and then immolation rather than simply mouth the few words that the persecutor wants to hear. Especially when those words are on fine doctrinal points that we now put in the same category as ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Or in Anne Askew’s case: during Communion, is the bread actually transformed into the body of Christ or is it symbolic?

Anne Askew was the daughter of an English gentleman, a wealthy landowner, who was married at fifteen against her will to Thomas Kyme, another landowner, who was also wealthy but beneath the Askews in station. Kyme had been betrothed to Anne’s older sister, but when the sister died of a fever before the wedding could take place, Anne was given in her stead.

It was a disastrous marriage. Kyme could not understand Anne and, as lord and master of the home, saw no reason to try. Anne was headstrong and disobedient. She was also sunken in grief over her sister. So Kyme viciously abused her. By the laws of the time, this was perfectly allowed (even encouraged) so long as he stopped short of killing her.

The novel does a superb job of showing Anne’s miserable situation. At the same time, it also shows her stubbornness and self-centeredness. She’s quite young at the start of the novel, but it’s hard to say whether she is incapable of grasping the complexity of the political situation and the danger she puts her family in, or if she more willfully disregards everything but her own needs. The reader can sympathize with her and be frustrated by her at the same time. 

Anne finds solace in an English translation of the Bible found among her sister’s belongings. As her life situation grows worse, she immerses herself more and more in the study of her Bible. Anne is undeniably brilliant. (She can read Latin and translate on the fly, as well as stymieing the priests and inquisitors who later try to trip her up.) In time, she finds like-minded Dissenters and, for a short while, she is happy in their company – having escaped from her husband’s clutches but at the expense of leaving her children behind. She sues for divorce, which is unheard of, and lives apart from him. To do this, she is heavily reliant on her brother and kinsmen. She’s also very reliant on her maidservant (who seems to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, because Anne does not treat her well at all.) However, as her adherence to her faith brings disaster to herself and her loved ones, they fall away and she relies solely on the word of God.

These are terrible times. Religious dissent, war, plague, and political instability have the whole country on edge. We think of the plight of Henry VIII’s poor wives, but in truth, it was not just his wives who suffered. There were wholesale political executions and religious persecutions throughout his reign. Today’s favorites were tomorrow’s martyrs.

The novel deftly shows the insecurity of the times. It succeeds in taking us inside the head of a religious fanatic, making her credible, sympathetic, and, in a way, inspiring. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Deception by Kim Taylor Blakemore

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

October is the perfect month to read the new novel by Kim Taylor Blakemore, The Deception. Set in 1877, in New Hampshire, the novel introduces the reader to the world of the spiritualists, men and women who (ostensibly) tried to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, and the many grieving people who believed in them or wanted to.

It could be lucrative for men and women to lecture on spiritualist topics as well as serving as mediums, staging seances with differing gimmicks to draw people in. Generally, these spiritualists are seen as fraudsters. However, they were quite popular at the time.

In The Deception, one such medium, Maud Price, a one-time child prodigy, is now grown up and has lost the aid of her spirit guide. As a result, she’s no longer convincing and is losing customers to flashier performers of the arts. In desperation, she confides her woes to a fellow spiritualist, who suggests she contact Clementine Watkins for a consultation.

Clementine is a tricky character. Criminal through and through, she and her partner, a failed actor named Russell Sprague, have developed a sideline, staging seances for mediums. They provide the special effects. In particular, Russell does voices and noises while Clementine excels at ferreting out details about (and often small possessions of) the recently departed.

Maud is appalled. She’s not a fraud. She honestly does speak with the dead. Only without her spirit guide, her contact with the other world is unpredictable. She’s just about destitute. She’s desperate. Clementine preys upon the weak. Before long, she takes over Maud’s house and her business. It’s a short step to blackmail and coercion.

Handsome, too-charming Russell plays good cop to Clementine’s bad cop. But he’s no more trustworthy than she is. Or is he? Maud can’t tell. What she can tell is that there are malevolent spirits about Clementine. Clementine has terrible secrets in her past.

The novel has a wonderful premise. In this business based on deceiving the grieving, how believable is someone who really can communicate with ghosts? Especially once she starts employing a few tricks of the trade? How can she regain her self-respect? And how can she get away from a master manipulator like Clementine?

Clementine is a superbly drawn villain. She’s evil personified, but with enough of a backstory to allow a glimmer of sympathy for her to creep in. The author has a gift for these characterizations, these eerie, dangerous, mentally disturbed women. Her novels are great!

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Jilter by Kate Archer

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

Kate Archer writes sweet Regency Romance. Her current novels (A series of Worthy Young Ladies) features six Society matrons who have no daughters to bring out and marry off. They feel the lack sorely, so they have formed “The Society of Sponsoring Ladies.” Each of the matrons is tasked with identifying a worthy young girl who needs launching, and who cannot, for a variety of reasons, depend upon a mother of her own. (See my review of Book 1 - The Meddler.) 

Book 5 - The Jilter is being released today! 

In this novel, the matron is Lady Featherstone, a Viscountess, who is known among her friends for her devotion to solving mysteries – all in good fun. She adores the monthly gatherings at her friend Lord Ryland’s home, where a mix of people gather to hear details of often gory crimes, then put their heads together to try to solve them. Once a year, Lord Ryland holds a mystery ball with a similar theme, but the mystery is a constructed one, or at least one where the answer is already known to Lord Ryland. The person who solves the mystery during the ball wins a prize. Lady Featherstone has won it two years running. Now, she turns her attention, slightly, from solving mysteries to match-making.

The young lady is Prudence Copeland, daughter of the Earl of Copeland, a distant cousin of Lady Featherstone. He is a widower. Prudence is a retiring sort of girl, content to stay in the country and care for her father, who is not particularly well. But now there is a crisis. A stranger has come to their village, a Lord Luckstone. Ever since his arrival, he has claimed to be betrothed to Prudence with her father’s blessing. A complete falsehood. But the man tries every day to gain entrance to the house and has spread his false claim all through their town. The earl wants his daughter removed to the safety of London, and asks Lady Featherstone for help, on the basis of their slight acquaintance.

Lady Featherstone hastens to fetch the girl.

When Lord Ryland hears of this, fearing something dangerous is afoot, he chases after her and offers assistance. Upon meeting Prudence, he’s quickly smitten.

Lord Ryland is an imposing, powerful man. His odd hobby is actually a vocation. When he was just a boy, his father was murdered by highwaymen. Ryland has devoted his life to bringing the murderers to justice. While searching for them, he has helped solve or prevent many other crimes.

Prudence arrives in London and acquires suitors quickly, Lord Ryland chief among them. Unfortunately, Prudence is now gun-shy because of Luckstone’s overbearing manner. She wants a mild-mannered man. And Lord Ryland frightens her as much as he attracts her. There is another who seems to her more suitable, a Mr. Clamarin, who is in Lord Ryland’s circle and who has insinuated himself into Ryland’s crime-solving activities. He’s very gentle and kindly. But, she discovers, he is also cowardly and lacking in societal niceties. 

What neither Ryland nor Prudence knows is that Clamarin and Luckstone are in cahoots. And it isn’t Prudence they are pursuing but a piece of jewelry they suspect is in her possession. But they have to steal the jewel quickly because it appears Ryland is closing in, and preventing one crime might solve the mystery of another.

Ryland’s pursuit of Prudence is very sweet (a little patronizing, but sweet.) Prudence grows from a timid and traumatized debutante to a more confident and strong young woman, surer of what she wants.

This is a pleasant, quick Romance with likeable protagonists, stumbling villains, and a kind supporting cast. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Knowing my strong preference for historical fiction, my brother-in-law recently recommended a book to me: Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz. What a powerful book!

This is a Vietnam War novel, though largely set in the anxiety ridden homefront. It’s told from varying viewpoints, but mostly focused on the Espejo family, Mexican-Americans living in El Paso in 1967. The children (18-year-old twins Gustavo and Xochil and 13-year-old Charlie) are the focus, but their parents, Octavio and Lourdes, are also explored in depth. There are also chapters in the point of view of other boys, Gustavo’s peers, who have enlisted and gone off to war.

There is a lot of family dysfunction, largely due to the inability of the father to show any emotion other than disapproval. He particularly disapproves of his eldest son. It’s a painful dynamic, but not so awful that the book is ruined by cruelty. Thankfully, Lourdes is loving enough for two parents and the three children love each other deeply and aren’t afraid to show it.

The plot hinges on the fact that it is 1967, Gustavo is 18, and he’s waiting to hear from the draft board. He is vehemently anti-war, as is his sister (vocally), and his mother (silently). His father is firmly pro-war. He is the kind of father who berates his son because he has long hair and tells him that war will make him a man. It seems Octavio cannot wait for that draft notice to come. His own exuberant patriotism stems from a very early memory of his family fleeing Mexico in order to escape the violence of the Revolution. In gratitude for the life he has been able to make in America, he’s eager to sacrifice the son he doesn’t care much for.

There are times when Octavio recognizes his own cold-heartedness, maybe even with a twinge of regret, but there is never a point where he tries to change.

If there is a main protagonist, it is Gustavo. Gustavo wants to belong, but he doesn’t know where. He can’t believe in the war. He feels no particular allegiance to the U.S.. He isn’t a pacifist, per se, but he has no desire to kill other men, mainly because he fears what it will do to him. It isn’t only death that he fears, but also, even more, that he will turn into someone capable of killing. And yet, once that draft notice comes, his options are all bad. No matter what he does, it will mean separation from his loved ones and loss of what little innocence he has left.

There is a lot of emphasis on manhood. On toxic masculinity. And it’s sad but revealing how these very young men buy into the myths. We do see the horrors of the war through the eyes of the two boy-men who go off to Vietnam. As readers, we wait for the inevitable.

As a historical novel, the book pulls the reader into the time and place, as well as into the heads of these very conflicted characters. It shows the anxiety of the times. It’s a compelling read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London by Hannah Greig

The historical romance that I read most recently was set in the Georgian period rather than the Regency. The differences seem subtle, but are they?

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London
by Hannah Greig is a fascinating study of high society in the eighteenth century. She defines the “beau monde,” situating its members within the historical context, and makes a case for its political importance.

There was a good deal of gadding about. However, the whirlwind socializing performed a political purpose, as did the display of expensive clothing and jewelry. The exclusivity of the beau monde was paramount and titles were necessary but not sufficient for gaining access.

This book is clearly written, well-researched, and of a manageable length. It’s a great resource for those interested in the elite of eighteenth-century London.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh

Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh is a re-release of one of her earlier Georgian Romances. It has the usual deep dive into emotional angst for the heroine and hero and also has a number of steamy sex scenes.

At twenty-one, the orphaned Cassandra Havelock reaches her majority and inherits the unentailed family estate and the title of Countess, unusual as that is for a woman. She now has an independent fortune and no need or desire to marry. Or so she thinks. Her well-meaning but incredibly patronizing family are certain she needs a husband to take care of her and the property. Her step-cousin offers himself, not out of greed, but because he cares about her and thinks it’s the best decision. The family agrees. Cassandra does not. She insists she intends to run the estate herself.

However, a stranger, Nigel Wetherby, Viscount Wroxley, appears at her birthday party uninvited. No one has any idea who he is, but he introduces himself as a friend of Cassandra’s father, and that’s enough for her. She asserts her newfound authority and insists he not only stay for the party but stay in her home and visit a while. Nigel is handsome and excessively charming, but also brooding – although only the reader sees him brood. He has a secret. He is the true owner of the estate, not Cassandra. But because he doesn’t want to hurt her, he has decided to woo and marry her rather than cast her out. He’s thrilled to find she is beautiful, because it will make marrying her more pleasant, and thrilled that she’s so innocent and trusting because he knows that winning her will be easy. He regrets that she will eventually be hurt, but since it’s unavoidable, he presses on.

She falls for him, according to his plan. He falls for her, too, which is not part of his plan. And then, his secret comes out. Cassandra’s heart and her trust are broken. Now they are locked in an unhappy marriage.

They have to find their way back to one another.

As the novel starts, Cassandra’s gullibility and childlike wonder are rather too treacly. She insists she doesn’t want to wed, but falls for the first handsome man to cross her path, trusting him completely for no reason whatsoever. Nigel is also a bit unlikable, since he is clearly nursing a grudge against Cassandra’s father and lying to everyone about his intentions. 

So, it’s a heavy lift to get past the initial dislike/distrust of the protagonists. But then, once they are both hooked, and the secret comes out, and they have to work through the consequences, they become much more sympathetic. Cassandra grows up quickly and Nigel has to let the wall he built around himself crumble.

As always, Mary Balogh’s characters will find a way to pull at your heartstrings and make you root for their HEA.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

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

I love Elizabeth’s Strout’s writing. She brings her characters so fully to life. I’ve been following the story of this protagonist, Lucy Barton, through a few novels and I was thrilled to receive the latest book, Lucy by the Sea, for review.

Picking up where Oh, William! leaves off, Lucy is mourning the recent death of her adored husband while settling into a comfortable friendship with the ex-husband, William, who broke her heart so many years before. William is dealing with a lot of baggage of his own, mostly stemming from the many “endings” associated with aging and regrets for actions in his past, but he’s also experiencing the excitement of a new beginning – discovering he has a half-sister he never knew.

And then the pandemic hits.

This is largely a pandemic novel, but it incorporates Lucy and her family, characters that I have grown to know and love and be frustrated with. As the novel opens, it’s March 2020 and things are just beginning to get weird. Lucy lives in New York, as does William. William is a scientist so he understands things are going to get bad long before Lucy has any inkling. He tells his two adult children to get out of New York City and then he tells Lucy to pack a bag – he’s taking her to Maine. 

Lucy isn’t given a whole lot of choice in the matter. She’s bewildered. But he’s so insistent that she reluctantly goes, assuming it will only be for a week or two. Of course, the pandemic goes from bad to worse.

It’s traumatizing and surreal to read this and remember, and to some extent relive, those early days of Covid. Lucy and William are locked down in a strange place, away from loved ones. People they know get sick. Some die. They make new, socially distanced friends, but everything is strange and a little unreal. At the same time, they continue to deal with family turmoil. And, sweetly and poignantly, they reconnect with one another.

These relationships are not perfect. The family dysfunction is intergenerational and the scars run deep. But there is also a great deal of love between the characters and true kindness. A lot of understanding comes with age.

I don’t read much contemporary/relationship types of novels. But I will read everything Elizabeth Strout writes.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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

Taylor Jenkins Reid writes compelling novels. Her new book, Carrie Soto is Back, is a fast-paced sports comeback novel that I found absorbing, even though sports comeback stories are not really my thing.

The heroine, Carrie Soto, was introduced to us in Malibu Rising as the tennis star who was involved with Nina Riva’s husband. Now we see Carrie’s side. 

Tennis is Carrie Soto’s entire life. From an early age, Carrie was coached by her father to be the very best. And she was, setting the record for the most lifetime Grand Slam singles titles before injury forced her into retirement. Now, at the age of 37, after 5 years of retirement, Carrie is watching her record fall to tennis’ latest sensation, Nicki Chan. To defend her claim, Carrie comes out of retirement.

The novel traces Carrie’s rise and fall on the tennis circuit. It shows her rather one-dimensional childhood and her obsessive lifestyle. Carrie was always a focused competitor whose take-no-prisoners playing style and blunt response to reporters gained her the unflattering sobriquet of the Battle-Axe, or worse. She had a series of short affairs with male tennis players that ended as quickly as they began. She feels she has to get back into the game because she has nothing else. But given her reputation, it’s unclear tennis wants her back.

Her comeback year is a struggle, but it’s also full of life lessons. She asks her father to be her coach once again. And when none of the highly ranked women will practice with her, she reunites with a male tennis star, once promising but now also a near has-been, with whom she had a one-night stand many years earlier. The development of their relationship is funny and sweet.

It’s impossible not to see echoes of Serena Williams in this novel, just as it was impossible not to think of Fleetwood Mac while reading Daisy Jones and the Six

Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, you’ll find yourself rooting for Carrie, not necessarily to defend her title, but to find herself. There are no real surprises, but this is a fully satisfying book.

Friday, September 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Proposition by Madeleine Roux

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

The Proposition by Madeleine Roux is a new Regency Romance with a revenge trope, strong protagonists, and intriguing chemistry.

Miss Clemency Fry has been biased against marriage since age 11, when she found a copy of a treatise against it moldering in the woodshed, a treaty that pointed out all the disadvantages of marriage for women. However, she was wooed and won by Lord Turner Boyle. They’re now engaged but she’s having second thoughts because, once she accepted his proposal, he grew cold and cruel. She wants out.

Mr. Audric Ferrand is a new arrival to Clemency’s town. He is on a secret mission to hunt down and destroy Turner Boyle, who is not who he claims to be. Boyle may be a charmer but he’s also a scoundrel who ruins women for fun and profit. Audric’s main task in life has been punishing such scoundrels. He’s been on Boyle’s trail for a while and has a personal vendetta against the man.

Audric makes Clemency a proposition. They’ll ruin Boyle together. 

It takes a while for Clemency to trust Audric and to believe the wild accusations he throws at Boyle. But once she does, she’s completely on board.

The plot focuses on their schemes as well as the developing romance between the two. While some elements are rather farfetched and the ending comes about almost in spite of them instead of because of them, I was drawn into both the revenge plot and the romance. It’s fine entertainment for “revenge story” fans. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Louisville Saturday by Margaret Long

It’s hard to gin up much enthusiasm for another WWII novel, but this one is different. Published in 1950, Louisville Saturday by Margaret Long was written as a contemporary novel, not a historical. It has an immediacy and a truth to it that makes it stand out. The prose and dialogue feel old-fashioned but I love older books so it was easy enough to ease into it. There is, unfortunately, horrific racism and anti-Semitism throughout – true to the times but nevertheless awful to read. And, although my library copy was a hardcover with a nondescript red with black dot design, the original cover (the one I’m displaying) would make it an embarrassing book for me to read in public.

Nevertheless! It’s a compelling read. The novel focuses on the women at home in 1942 on a single Saturday in a single city. It begins with a military parade demonstrating the new mechanized strength of the U.S.A. armed forces courtesy of the soldiers of Fort Knox. Eleven women are introduced to the reader by their reactions to the parade – all a variation on unease. Then each of the women is explored further in this two part novel, with each women getting a chapter in each of the two parts.

The character sketches are in-depth and emotionally riveting. They display a cross-section of Louisville society, from old to very young, rich to poor, stay-at-home moms to factory workers to volunteers. It’s an earthy book. The women are sexual creatures whether single, faithful wives, or adulterers. It’s an extraordinary look at women of the times. 

And then, in the background, there is the war. Some have lost loved ones. Some are struggling with the absence of men at the front. Some are dreading the impending departure of their men. And some are dealing with the consequences of being with men who are not joining the fight for one reason or another. The war is an oppressive presence in all of their lives.

It’s well worth reading for the contemporary insights, unpalatable though many of them are.

Monday, September 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW : Friends in Funchal by K.G. Fleury

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

Friends in Funchal by K.G. Fleury is an oddly beautiful book, set in Funchal on the island of Madeira in 1812. 

Robert Willan is a middle-aged British physician (dermatologist) and a Quaker. He’s in failing health due to tuberculosis. He comes to Funchal for the balmy weather of the mountains and is cared for in a hostel of some sort called Quinta do Til. He is at first the only patient there, but when he learns of a young man staying nearby who is also afflicted with TB and who would also benefit from the care at Quinta do Til, he agrees to share the manor house with him. (It’s unclear how he found this hostel and who is paying for it all.) The young man is named Bennett, and he is accompanied by a healthy brother, Ashby, who looks after him.

The manor is run by two men, Jorge and Duarte, and one woman, the cook/housekeeper who rules the roost, Dona Esmerelda. There is also a neighbor, Senhor Pompion, who befriends Willan.

The novel is based on true historical figures and the depth of the descriptions makes it all feel very real.

So, here’s the thing. It’s very slow. And the prose, particularly the dialogues, is somewhat stilted. The novel walks us through the minutiae of Willan’s days. Because of his illness, he isn’t able to do much. He obsesses over his health, of course. And being a physician, he keeps very careful track of each change. Because one of the most severe manifestations of his particular TB course is diarrhea, the reader is treated to his daily analysis of the quality and quantity of his bowel movements, which takes some getting used to. The highlight of his days is mealtimes, particularly the varied soups prepared by Dona Esmerelda – so, not much action in the plot.

Willan is somewhat obsessive-compulsive. In addition to his health records, he tracks daily weather conditions. He enjoys looking down at the harbor through a telescope and tries counting the boats. He’s very particular about the arrangement of his room and his papers. (He’s compiling his research on dermatological diseases.) 

Madeira is a foreign country to him. He doesn’t know the language and is unfamiliar with its fruits, vegetables, and vegetation. He slowly learns, and finds learning new things delightful. He also makes time to check in daily with God.

Mostly though, he makes friends with the kind and generous people in his small sphere, and this is the true progression of the plot – the interactions of Willan with the men around him. He slowly develops a sense of humor, something he has always lacked, partly fearing that God disapproves of levity.

This is all very sweet, but it’s one of the “quietest” books I’ve ever read.

All along, Willan looks forward to regaining his health. (As does poor young Bennett.) They are both attended to by a local doctor who specializes in the treatment of tuberculosis. Early on, the doctor prescribes laudanum to Willan and his increasing dependence on the drug seemed, for a while, to be worrisome. Some days Willan feels he’s getting better. Other days, it’s clear his disease is progressing. The doctor adds other early-nineteenth-century drugs to Willan’s regimen. I found myself growing more and more engrossed in the state of Willan’s health.

And then, we come to the last 10-20% of the book and I find I can’t put it down. Is Willan going to make it?

It’s then that I realize I’m reading a book about a man slowly, slowly dying of tuberculosis. And all the minutiae of his days, his appreciation of newfound friendships, his hyperfocus on the little things: the taste of food, birdsong, lizards on trees, the scent of banana trees – it all takes on a brittle, beautiful poignancy.

It’s hard to recommend this book because, although fairly short, it requires a good deal of patience. And yet, I do recommend it because the ending is exquisite. 

Thursday, September 8, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford

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

Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has a new book out: The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. The novel combines historical/contemporary/futuristic fiction and magical realism in a multi-generational exploration of inherited trauma/epigenetics.

Although there are several women portrayed in the novel, two are the bookends to the storyline. The first is Afong Moy (based on a true historical figure.) She is the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. – against her will. She was treated as a type of circus freak, with audiences particularly agog because of her tiny bound feet. She was essentially enslaved and forced to perform. Her story ends in tragedy. Her memories become embedded in the psyches of her descendants.

Each of these descendants has an interesting story of her own. Each lives their own particular tragedy. The stories are beautiful and a bit painful to read.

The traumatic memories are not only inherited but are cumulative. By the time we reach Dorothy Moy’s story, it is the year 2045. Dorothy lives in Seattle, a city rattled by climate change. She is a renowned poet, or was, until she was forced to resign because of her dissociative disorder. She’s in a bad relationship, unemployed, and, worst of all, she fears her five-year-old daughter is sliding down the same path. She’s ready for something drastic. Her therapist recommends an experimental treatment, a genetic therapy that will help her ferret out the inherited memories embedded in her brain. (There is actually scientific research being done in this area.)

Dorothy has to get worse before she gets better. She experiences things that are shown happening in the lives of her ancestors in other chapters. The intertwining of the stories is deftly done.

There is also a man, the soul-mate of Afong Moy, who weaves in and out of all the women’s lives, trying to reconnect, but always just missing. 

There is a lot going on in the novel and it would probably bear reading twice to fully appreciate all the nuance. But even if you can’t read it twice, it’s well worth reading once!

Monday, September 5, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen is a quirky literary historical novel loosely based on a real-life witch hunt in Wurttemberg, Germany, in the early 1600s. 

I saw this novel while browsing in a bookstore on a recent vacation but didn’t buy it because I had too much to lug around. The urge to read it stuck with me though, and I was pleased to discover it in my local library.

The story is told by two people, Katharina Kepler, the accused witch, and her neighbor, Simon, who supports her defense, though rather reluctantly.

Katharina is an elderly woman, independent and crotchety, who has obtained some small standing in her little town. She owns a little property and a cow. Her husband ran off long ago, as did her youngest son, but she still has a son and daughter nearby who have done well. Also, her eldest son, Johannes, has done exceptionally well as a mathematician/astrologer/astronomer and was once the Imperial Mathematician. (This is the true-to-life part. The son is Johannes Kepler – known for his laws of planetary motion. And his mother really was imprisoned for witchcraft.)

So, people in town may be jealous of her. Or maybe they find her irritating–which she is. She tends to stick her nose in other people’s business. She gets along with some of her fellow townspeople but not with most. She has some odd ideas, but they probably are not all that odd for the time. (The author does a superb job dropping the reader into the early seventeenth century.) Whatever the case, after Katharina has a falling out with Ursala, her one-time friend, Ursala accuses Katharina of witchcraft. Then other villagers start recalling interactions with Katharina that were followed by misfortune, so they pile on with more accusations. The “evidence” is absurd. At first, Katharina tries to ignore it. But she is a querulous woman and her reactions compound the problem.

Her children (all grown) stand by her, but they, too, are exasperated by her at times.

Because she’s a woman, she needs a guardian if she’s questioned by authorities, so she ropes her neighbor Simon into helping her. Simon is a good man, a widower with a daughter. He likes to keep to himself. However, Katharina helped him out once and he feels he owes her. Plus, he believes she’s innocent. Plus, he knows what it’s like to feel falsely accused of something. So he stands by her but tries to do it quietly.

The case drags on for years. Katharina copes in a variety of different ways, some counterproductive. All the while, the town goes crazier, Katharina’s standing sinks lower, her possessions are leached away, and even her friends start backing away. The novel becomes more and more gripping as the noose tightens around her neck.

The novel is darkly comic. The voice pulls the reader in. The writing is wonderful. With this glimpse of a witch hunt of the past, we can see echoes in modern-day pettiness, stone-throwing, greed, and corruption as well as compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. (Plague and warfare play a role too, but a surprisingly minor one.)

Sunday, August 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: How to Woo a Wallflower by Virginia Heath

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

How to Woo a Wallflower by Virginia Heath is a sweet, lightly steamy, new Regency Romance. 

Lady Harriet Fitzroy, a duke’s daughter, expects to sit through the London Season as a wallflower and she’s dreading it. Two years earlier, she suffered a terrible riding accident that almost took her life. She recovered, but was left with a deformed leg and a limp. This markedly reduces her value on the marriage mart. Avoiding the usual ton activities, Harriet spends much of her time volunteering at the children’s infirmary where her own life was saved.

Jasper, the Earl of Beaufort, is a friend of Freddie Fitzroy, Harriet’s brother. (Harriet had a crush on him when she was younger.) He’s also the owner of the scandalous gambling hell, The Reprobates’ Club. He started the club after his nearly bankrupt father disowned him, and he’s now a successful businessman. It’s not socially acceptable for a lord to work; moreover, Jasper is a known rake. He’s definitely not the kind of man Freddie wants anywhere near his sister.

Because Harriet has spent two years in recovery, she hasn’t seen Jasper in quite a while. Their paths cross when she is on her way to the infirmary and he’s on his way to his club. Jasper is aware of her accident and is prepared for her to be sensitive about her limp. But he’s not prepared for her sense of humor, her resilience, and her determined self-sufficiency. Not to mention her beauty. He’s smitten. And her old feelings for him return with a vengeance.

To complicate matters, just as they are reacquainting themselves, Jasper receives word that an old friend has died, leaving him charge of her four-year-old daughter. The “old friend” was a courtesan, known to be an old mistress of his, so everyone will naturally draw the conclusion that the child is his daughter. If Jasper was too scandalous for a decent young lady to associate with before, he is definitely out-of-bounds now.

However, Harriet is even more impressed with Jasper after seeing his concern for the child and the readiness he displays to claim her as his own. And Jasper is more impressed with Harriet the more he watches her persevere despite her physical limitations. Their determination to help one another weather the London Season – where Harriet must endure the humiliation of being an object of pity and scorn and Jasper awaits the breaking of the worst scandal of his life -- turns into a passionate, but secret, courtship.

The protagonists are wonderfully drawn, sympathetic characters. The chemistry between them is believable. They face their obstacles bravely and are honest with one another (even if their secret romance requires a good deal of lying to everyone else.)

Now I’ll have to see what happens with Harriet’s twin sister!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

 I received this audiobook from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

This is my first audiobook.

I thought audiobooks were not right for me, because I was sure my mind would wander if I was not moving my eyes down the page. I enjoy reading. However, I have a knitting project I want to complete and I can’t read and knit. I saw Julian Barnes’ new novel offered on Netgalley as an audiobook, so I decided to try listening and knitting.

I love Julian Barnes’ work and this book, Elizabeth Finch, is no exception. The narrator was easy to listen to and his British accent fit well with the content.

The narrator of the novel, Neil, is a twice-divorced ex-actor who names himself the King of Unfinished Projects. After the failure of his first marriage, he takes an adult education class taught by Elizabeth Finch and she becomes his lifelong obsession.

She teaches history/culture/philosophy and believes in discussion rather than lecturing. She wants to teach students how to think. Neil is hooked, partly by the classroom discussions but more by the woman herself. She is so unlike anyone he has ever known that he can’t stop trying to define her.

The first part of the novel focuses on Elizabeth herself, the class, the discussions, the friendships that developed during the term (and inevitably faded) and the narrator’s impressions of the course content. It’s interesting in the way that all Barnes’ work is interesting. In this novel, not much happens, but a lot is analyzed and the style is beautiful.

When the class ends, Neil tentatively invites Elizabeth Finch to lunch. She accepts. And for many years, the relationship continues as a monthly series of lunches where Ms. Finch continues to act as a mentor to the narrator. He enjoys their conversations but is always frustrated by the wall of complete privacy she has erected. Who is she? Has she ever loved? Does she have family? Etc. He wants to know!

Then, she dies. The narrator discovers she has left him her books and papers. He digs into them hoping for clarity. But instead of learning about Elizabeth Finch, he learns about her obsession: Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Weird? Or ingenious?

The next part of the book is essentially a biography of Julian, an interpretation of his life and the impact it had upon world history. Neil’s thoughts on the matter are shaped by Elizabeth Finch’s teachings though he extends her research and broadens his thoughts beyond what he learned from her.

Who knew that I needed to learn about Julian the Apostate! It was fascinating! I never would have sought out a biography on this guy, but what a bonus to find it inside the novel ostensibly about this mysterious (or at least very private) history professor.

Barnes weaves together his theories about history, biography, memory, and interpersonal relationships in this gentle, somewhat didactic novel. Because the structure rests on Neil telling the story, it flowed well as an audiobook. Would I find it dull to read? Hard to know. Maybe. At any rate, I highly recommend the listening version. (And I’m nearly finished with the sweater I’m knitting!)

Sunday, August 21, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Blame it on the Earl by Jane Ashford

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

Blame it on the Earl is the next book in Jane Ashford’s Regency Romance series, The Duke’s Estates. It reads well as a standalone. Nevertheless, as always, I recommend reading book one first (The Duke Who Loved Me.)

The Duke (who owns the estates) is the Duke of Tereford from book one. He and Cecelia, the duchess, make an important appearance in this book. In a way, I found the continued progress of their relationship more interesting than the romance highlighted in this book. As for the Earl of the book’s title, it seems it must be the protagonist’s father and I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to blame on him or why. It’s really just a catchy title with a peer in it.

The heroine is Sarah Moran, one of Cecelia’s four young friends. Sarah was not a success in her one London Season. She’s pretty but not beautiful. Her parents are comfortable, but she’s no heiress. And her personality is bookish, not sparkling. Sarah is an interesting, kind, and rather dreamy young woman, whose extensive reading has left her full of information that may seem random to others but is actually all part of a whole. She’s fascinated by the past and a constructed world filled with chivalry and a touch of magic. In her own way, she is charming. She lives near the ruins of Tintagel castle and spends free hours wandering among its cliffs.

It is there that she meets the hero, Kenver Pendrennon, heir to the earldom. He is also exploring the cliffs. There is a moment of inattention and they both topple over the edge to the sand below. The tide is coming in. Sarah saves both their lives. They are forced to spend the night sheltering in a cave. The following morning, they are found by Sarah’s worried parents and gossipy townspeople. Naturally, Sarah is ruined, even though “nothing happened.” Kenver, who has already grown fond of her and who is deeply honorable, proposes. Shortly, they are wed.

The two are well matched in interests and temperament. The problem is Kenver’s parents, both of them, but more particularly his mother. The earl and countess had higher hopes for Kenver, expecting him to wed a titled heiress. (No one in particular. Just someone better than Sarah, sometime in the distant future.) When Kenver moves his new bride into the family home, his parents are frankly insulting, bullying, and also set up obstacles to the consummation of the marriage in order to have it annulled.

The plot of the novel centers around Sarah and Kenver getting to know one another better and dealing with his parents. They are aided in the latter by the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Tereford.

The protagonists are sweet. Sarah is definitely the strong one in the relationship, though Kenver grows in strength in order to support his new wife. Sarah’s goodness wins out over her mother-in-law’s maliciousness. The happily-ever-after ending is a little too pat, with evilness just fizzling out. The countess’ malevolence, manipulativeness, and complete lack of affection for her husband or son seemed to indicate that she was truly mentally unbalanced. It seemed more intervention was needed than just standing up to the bully. However, the romance aspect of the story, the relationship between Sarah and Kenver, was rewarding.

Friday, August 19, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Our book group’s next pick is The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. It’s a multi-generational historical saga set in Vietnam from WWII thru the Vietnam war. The two protagonists are Huong and her grandmother, Tran Dieu Lan. During the course of the novel they live in and near Ha Noi, in North Vietnam. Huong is being cared for by her grandmother after her father went to war and then her mother went off to find her father. As Huong struggles with the horrors of living in a war zone and fearing for her family, her grandmother relates her own life story, which includes seeing her parents brutally murdered and her husband poisoned for his more liberal political beliefs. During the widespread “Land Reform,” her home is violently appropriated and she must flee with her five children and make a new start.

The novel is interesting in that it shows what life was like for the North Vietnamese: the violence, the famine, the political upheaval and displacement. Families were torn apart by war, poverty, and politics. As in all war stories, there are examples of kindness and extraordinary generosity interspersed with sadistic cruelty and greed. 

In one way, this book reminded me of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s. Both books use fiction to illustrate the nightmare of far-away wars that I didn’t (and still don’t) know enough about.

The book had a rather slow start, but became more interesting as I grew immersed in the grandmother’s story. It shows the enduring power of familial love, despite political dissent and warfare. I’m looking forward to our book group’s discussion.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander

I took French in school from 7th thru 12th grade, then majored in it in college, and then studied in France for a summer. Yet I never could actually speak the language. Still, it’s a dream of mine to learn it properly one day.

With this dream in mind, I was captivated (and disheartened) by William Alexander’s memoir of his experiences while trying to gain fluency in French over the course of a year -- Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart. (At the same time, he was battling atrial fibrillation, going through trials of medication, multiple cardioversions and multiple ablation procedures. For a while, he was convinced the arrhythmias were brought on by the stress of learning French.)

This short, quick-to-read book is clever and entertaining, with anecdotes about his various studying strategies interspersed with tidbits of French culture and with information about the science of learning languages. Most dismaying is how studies confirm the increasing difficulty of learning new languages as a person ages. (You’re much better off learning language as an infant.) While a basic competence is attainable in middle age (enough to navigate the necessities as a tourist), true fluency is extremely unlikely. Frankly, I’d be happy with basic competence and a visit to France.

The author does not become fluent, sad to say. However, he discovers many benefits to the attempt, some expected and some a pleasant surprise. So this lovely book inspired me to keep “learn French” on my to-do list. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Geekerella by Ashley Poston

After reading a couple of YA adventures, I decided to try a YA rom-com and picked Geekerella by Ashley Poston. This is a two-nerds-find-true-love story, a modern retelling of Cinderella, and it’s a lot of fun. 

Elle is the downtrodden stepdaughter of a nightmare of a stepmother, with two evil stepsisters (one worse than the other.) Stepmom is a wedding planner who spends a great deal of their limited family resources on her own image-making. Step-sisters are wannabe beauty influencers who treat Elle horribly. Elle does all the housework and also works full-time at a vegan foodtruck (painted like a large pumpkin!) Her mother died when she was four and her father a few years later. Her memories are full of the love they shared for a sci-fi TV series called Starfinder. Her father was the original organizer of Starfinder-con. Elle blogs about the series which still has a cult following. And now it’s being rebooted as a movie.

Darien is an 18-year-old soap opera star with a huge teen fan-girl base. He has been chosen as the new Commodore, the star of the reboot. He’s also a member of the original Starfinder cult following and possesses an extensive knowledge of Starfinder trivia. This is a dream role for him, but also a terrifying one. He’s worried he’ll screw up.

Both are lonely teens with trust issues and terrible parents. They “meet” via text when Darien is attempting to get out of his celebrity duties at the next convention and locates the number for the original organizer, Elle’s father – she still has his old phone. Completely anonymous to one another, they bond over Starfinder lore. Maybe, each thinks, they might meet at the convention. But would that be wonderful or ruin everything?

This humorous novel is full of nerdy pop-culture references. The characters are sweet and lovable. It’s fast-paced, silly (in a good way) in parts and poignant in others. A very enjoyable read.