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-fiancĂ©, 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.