Thursday, July 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

I’ve seen Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 classic The Price of Salt recommended a bunch of times as an example of early lesbian literature in the U.S. and one of the first with an ending that doesn’t leave at least one of the women dead or gone back to a man. Does this mean a HEA?

Not exactly.

The protagonist is Therese Belivet, a twenty-one-year-old woman just beginning in her career as a stage designer. She’s dating Richard, a wannabe painter, and she’s working part-time, through Christmas, at a department store in N.Y.C.. For backstory, she grew up in an orphanage after her father’s death and mother’s abandonment. So she has some baggage. However, her inability to love Richard and her distaste for sex with him is not the result of childhood trauma.

One day, a woman comes into the store looking for a doll for her daughter and Therese’s heart stops. It’s love at first sight. The woman, Carol Aird, leaves her address to have the doll shipped, and Therese boldly sends her a Christmas card. Carol responds with a lunch invitation.

Therese soon learns that Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband. The husband is trying to wrangle additional custody of their daughter, Rindy. This all makes Carol a bit moody and sometimes mean. In a way, Carol is trying to protect Therese. She knows better the consequences of two women falling in love.

Therese is too smitten to be put off by Carol’s shifting moods and they begin spending more time together. This culminates in a cross-country road trip. While on the road, their relationship develops further, both emotionally and sexually. So far so good.

However, they learn that Carol’s husband is having them followed by a detective, who now has evidence of their love affair. Seeing as this is the 1940s or 50s, running off with another woman is far more detrimental to Carol’s reputation than running off with a man. Her husband threatens to use the information to gain total custody of Rindy. And unless Carol gives up Therese altogether, he will not allow her to see her child again.

The novel has a very brooding atmosphere despite moments of joy. Conversations are often stilted. Interactions with other characters are often referred to after the fact, which keeps the focus on the pair but also adds to a sense of claustrophobia.

It’s easy to see why this novel is a classic. Still, I found the happy ending rather sad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined Freedom of the Press by Stephen Bates

An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined Freedom of the Press by Stephen Bates — THIS BOOK IS NOT DULL!!!!

I know that’s hard to believe, given the title. It’s not a book I ever would have picked up to read if not for a recent flicker of curiosity about Robert M. and Maude Hutchins. I thought I’d only read the relevant chapters, but I got sucked in.

Way back in the early 1940s, the owner of Time (the extremely successful publishing company), Henry Luce, and the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins (oddly enough, something of a celebrity in those days), decided to form a commission, funded by Luce and chaired by Hutchins, that would explore the issue of freedom of the press. Interesting?

The background (civil unrest, partisanship, consolidation of media firms with loss of smaller newspapers and increasing news monopolies, distrust of media, distrust of government, world-wide rise of fascism) were all on the rise and the media seemed to be doing more harm than good. An informed electorate was (and is) necessary for a functioning democracy, but…FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS!  What is the responsibility of the press and how can a responsible press be ensured without infringing on its freedom?

The parallels between the 1940s and today are striking, and things are much worse today. So what does the book suggest? What did the Commission on the Freedom of the Press suggest in their final report, published in 1947: A Free and Responsible Press? Not much. Niebuhr’s conclusion that the problems are insoluble seems spot on. Nevertheless, the committee’s study is fascinating, if not for its conclusions, then for its attempts at solutions.. This is a rare instance of it being delightful to see the sausage being made.

There were twelve committee members (all elite white male intellectuals, most of them professors with no journalists included) and a few researchers/administrative helpers, including a single female researcher. This sounds appalling, and is appalling, but it was the 1940s. Funded by a grant from Luce, these men would meet a few times a year (over 2 ½ years) in New York or Chicago, in expensive hotels, eating elaborate meals, and discussing First Amendment issues without a clear roadmap of what their goals were. One can well imagine these were men enamored of their own opinions who loved to hear themselves talk. Little wonder they got so little done. That was pretty much the contemporary conclusion. However, the report underwent a revival and is now taught in journalism schools and referred to when First Amendment issues arise. It was and is an important study.

But that’s not why this book is so entertaining. The committeemen, for all their faults, were smart, smart men. The arguments and their musings, are interesting. And several of them were bitingly funny and sarcastic. Their commentary on the proceedings and their sly insults had me snickering out loud. I read the book from cover to cover. 

It’s an odd recommendation coming from me given my usual interests, but I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, July 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally

I think I must be the only one in my demographic who has not seen Schindler’s List and I feel kind of guilty about that. The author, Thomas Keneally, has a new book, The Dickens Boy, so with an odd sort of logic, I added that to my TBR list instead.

This is a gem of a historical novel. 

Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (called Plorn) is the youngest (10th) child of Charles and Catherine

Dickens. He is, or believes himself to be, rather a disappointment to the great man. Not only did he do poorly at school, but also – and this is worse – he has never read any of his father’s books. He knows his father is practically worshiped the world over. He’s used to it. Yet it bewilders him all the same.

At sixteen, he finds himself shipped off to Australia. His older brother Alfred, who also failed to live up to expectations, preceded him there a few years earlier. Plorn is desperate to show his father that he is good for something, that he can apply himself.

Australia is a huge place. And so, while he does cross paths with Alfred, Plorn is not settled in the same region. Rather, he’s sent out to Momba to work for sheep farmers (massively large scale sheep farmers), the Bonney brothers. There, Plorn not only applies himself but thrives.

The Dickens Boy is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1860s Australian Outback. It showcases the hard, isolated lives of the men who settle there, the offenses of British colonialism, and the workings on the psyche of being the son of a man universally revered. Even in the Outback, Plorn cannot escape his father’s shadow. While the Dickens name brings perks, it also causes Plorn a great deal of anxiety. He has none of his father’s talent. Yet he is about to discover he has talents of his own.

As part of the growing up process, Plorn begins his own tentative exploration of male-female relations. He does this largely through reading and imagination since there are very few “acceptable” women in the Outback. But the process allows him to question his father’s abandonment of his mother and relationship with a young Irish actress. The great man was, perhaps, not so great after all.

The novel is superbly crafted. Details of daily life are riveting. The characters are fully realized. Plorn’s growth from a naive, insecure youth to a competent young man of increasing confidence is poignant and insightful. The novel is also shot through with clever humor. 

The book not only tells the story of this fascinating young man in a complex setting, but also provides insights into the life of Charles Dickens. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

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

A new Lindsey Davis Flavia Albia mystery is being released this week, Desperate Undertaking. This is book ten in the series and continues the streak of consistently fast-paced entertaining historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome.

Albia is an informer/detective, the adopted daughter of Falco, an informer who starred in the author’s previous series. Although married to an aedile/magistrate, Tiberius, who helped with her earlier investigations, Albia prefers to work solo. Rather than a consistent partner, in each of the books she is helped or hindered by whichever of the fairly low-level Roman officials is tasked with dealing with crime in the various locales of Rome.

This novel focuses on Roman theater and acting troupes. A troupe in town to perform for a festival finds itself bereft of its two leaders/directors when they are gruesomely murdered. One victim, the wife, dies in front of Albia, naming “the undertaker” as her murderer.

While Albia investigates, she learns that this particular acting troupe was close to her adoptive parents way back when; in fact, they were friends and Falco even adapted plays for them. Other friends of friends make cameo appearances in the novel. (Falco, although not present, gets more page time than in previous books. There is also a hint that he still works part-time as an informer, rather than being fully retired.)  This adds a nice thread of continuity to the two series.

As typical in the genre, more murders pile up as Albia races to discover the culprit. There is also danger to herself, since whoever the murderer is, he seems to have a vendetta against the whole troupe of performers and may consider her a stand-in for her absent father.

Albia’s cynical smart-alecky voice carries the story along. The detail-rich descriptions of Rome and Roman customs bring the ancient world to life. Book ten does not disappoint!

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

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

The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson is the sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The new novel can stand alone, but is likely better understood if you read the first novel. Moreover, I recommend reading the first novel because it’s better.

The Book Woman’s Daughter
continues the story of the packhorse librarians in the Kentucky hills into a new generation. It is now the early 1950s. The protagonist is Honey Lovett, the adopted daughter of Cussy Lovett, who was the book woman in book one. Honey is now sixteen years old, still living in Kentucky but miles away from Troublesome Creek. Her biologic mother was a “Blue,” having inherited a genetic mutation that gives her skin a blue color. Honey also has the mutation, but it is weakly expressed. Only her hands give her away in times of stress.

Cussy Lovett (Honey’s adoptive mother) is a “Blue.” Her adoptive father is not. And so, the couple has fallen afoul of the state’s miscegenation laws. At the novel’s opening, the sheriff has come to arrest Honey’s parents. A social worker has come for Honey, to put her away in a children’s prison, doing hard labor, until she turns 21. Fortunately, the family prepared for this, and Honey is able to escape.

She returns to Troublesome Creek to live with an old family friend. Along the way, she makes a new friend, Pearl, who is about to become the first female fire-tower watcher in Kentucky. The reader is also introduced to Cussy’s old friends (another librarian, a moonshiner, and some of the old library patrons.)

Honey has a lot to overcome. There remains a good deal of prejudice about “Blues” but for Honey persecution over her skin color is less of a problem than being a young female on her own.

The novel focuses primarily on the rampant sexism in 1950s Kentucky. In addition to Pearl, who is being targeted by men who want her job, there is Bonnie, a coal miner’s widow who has to enter the mines to support herself and her child. Bonnie is constantly sexually harassed by the men. And there is Guyla Gillis, the wife of Perry Gillis, a wife-beating coal miner who also threatens Bonnie, Pearl, and Honey.

Fortunately for Honey, she’s given the job of packhorse librarian and takes up her mother’s old route. Having a source of income and a job she loves helps her to become more independent. 

The plot of the novel focuses on Honey’s growing independence. All the while, she’s also trying to find out what happened to her parents. She has a very kind, devoted lawyer. And she has the support of a local doctor who steps in when Honey discovers her mother is being mistreated in prison. (She was forcibly sterilized, for one.)

Unfortunately, Honey must also contend with Gillis, who is evil through and through, as well as with the social worker and the lawyer for the state, who are nasty bigots who go to great lengths to try to drag Honey back into the system, seemingly out of a hatred for Blues and an irrational fear of and hatred for books.

The novel is interesting and Honey is a sympathetic character. However, the newness of the packhorse librarian story and the fascinating look at the Kentucky “Blues” that made The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek such a wonderful read have lost their freshness. And while Honey is a well-rounded, well-portrayed protagonist, the supporting cast falls flat. The evil people in the novel are one-dimensional. The good people are fairly bland. Moreover, the final courtroom scene feels too preachy or speechy. So while I did enjoy this novel, it was somewhat disappointing after the original.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

 I love Julian Barnes’ writing. I’m trying to work my way through his backlist and just finished Arthur & George. In his usual beautiful style, Barnes gives us dual biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji.

Doyle is, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was also wrote historical fiction, science fiction, plays, poetry – you name it. The novel starts with Doyle’s earliest memory and takes us through his difficult youth, early career in medicine, marriage to his first wife, and his meteoric rise to fame with his Sherlock Holmes stories. It continues through his disenchantment with Sherlock and his falling in love with a young woman with whom he carries on a platonic romance until the death of his wife from consumption many years later. And then he meets George.

In alternating chapters, we meet Edalji, whose story is also told from childhood through adulthood. The son of an Englishwoman and a vicar who converted to Christianity but who was originally a Parsi from Bombay, Edalji was a studious child who grew up to be a modestly successful solicitor. But his background is strange. As a child, he was involved as his family was persecuted with anonymous, often threatening letters, which brought in the local police, who suspected him as the culprit. The letters stopped abruptly, but started up again at the same time as a series of animal mutilations in his locale. Again, police were involved and they looked for reasons to blame him. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to seven years hard labor.

Doyle and Edalji meet after Edalji is released (after three years) but not pardoned. Doyle takes up his case as a gross miscarriage of justice.

The novel is based on true events. It’s a provoking tale and racial prejudice is almost certainly to blame for the Edalji’s persecution, though George doesn’t think this is the case.

Barnes does a superb job of presenting the complexities and the ambiguities of the story. The evidence against Edalji is all circumstantial, but at times it does seem compelling. As does the case Doyle tries to build against a different suspect. It’s George, not Arthur, who wants to give the other suspect the benefit of the doubt, and this makes the reader see, too, how easy it is to be misled.

The biographies continue on to Doyle’s death (after his second marriage and his evangelizing for spiritualism) and Edalji’s dealing with the aftermath of notoriety followed by relative obscurity. 

Barnes climbs inside the heads of these two very different men so convincingly that, despite some areas of slow pacing, I could not put the book down.

For fans of literary biographical fiction, this book is highly recommended.

Monday, July 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: How to Steal a Scoundrel’s Heart by Vivienne Lorret

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

I broke my rule and read book 4 in a Regency Romance series before reading books 1-3. The series is called The Mating Habits of Scoundrels. The new novel is How to Steal a Scoundrel’s Heart by Vivienne Lorret. The novel works well as a standalone. There are cameo appearances by characters who were likely the protagonists of the first three books, but it isn’t necessary to know their backstories in detail to understand their roles here.

Prudence Thorogood is a disgraced debutante. Motherless, with an evil stepmother and an uncaring father, Prue is strong but naive. She fell prey to a marquess who pretended to court her then sexually assaulted her. She was then abandoned by her family, who shunted her off to the country to be a servant to pennypinching aunts. However, she has a plan. Her mother left an inheritance in her will: a cottage and about a dozen small objects of value, both monetary and sentimental. Although her stepmother stole it all, Prue is determined to steal everything back. Then she will go live the rest of her life alone but content in the cottage.

Leo Ramsgate, the Marquess of Savage, also has a horrible backstory. His mother abandoned him. His father was a cruel, violent narcissist who cycled through mistresses and fought duels. And Leo was once poisoned by someone he thought he could trust. Bitter, cynical, and unable to love, Leo is also extraordinarily handsome and wealthy beyond description. The one character trait he did adopt from his father was a taste for women. He has a strict 4-month limit for his mistresses (who vie openly to be chosen), enforced by contract. And one hard and fast rule: no infidelity during those four months.

They meet cute, then part ways. But when Prue finds it’s more difficult to steal back her inheritance than she imagined, she goes to him for help. He’s more than willing to help her, but only if she becomes his mistress for the required four months.

Prue is an innocent. Leo is not.

There is enough of a plot to hang the story on. They go to parties. They steal back a few things. They deal with the machinations of their enemies. And they fall in love. However, most of the story deals with the seduction and much of the word count is devoted to describing their sexual encounters.

For Regency Romance readers who prefer a high steam level, this novel (and likely this series) is recommended. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Remember Love by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh has a new Regency Romance series, Ravenswood! Book 1, Remember Love, will be released this month.

In this introductory novel, Balogh carefully establishes the perfect, almost fairy-tale quality of life for the aristocratic Ware family before turning the whole notion of perfection on its head. The patriarch, Caleb Ware, is the Earl of Stratton. He and his wife and their five children, along with his firstborn illegitimate son Ben, live in the lovely country home Ravenswood. The estate is thriving. The people under the earl’s care and governance are prosperous and happy. The children (ranging from 9-year-old Stephanie to the 22-year-old heir Devlin) are healthy, close-knit, and dutiful. Moreover, a wealthy neighboring family, Sir Ifor and Lady Rhys, have a beautiful daughter, Gwyneth, who has fallen in love with Devlin. And Devlin is in love with her! At the traditional summer festival held by the earl and planned and executed by the countess, Devlin and Gwyneth discover their mutual love and Devlin essentially proposes.

Things could not be anymore perfect than this. It’s all too easy, isn’t it?

Then things explode. Devlin has been suspicious for some time that his father is not the devoted, faithful husband he pretends to be. When he stumbles upon his father and his father’s mistress in a compromising position at the Ravenswood ball, he is outraged. His effort to support his mother and condemn his father’s actions backfire tremendously. It is Devlin who is ordered to leave the estate at once.

Devlin buys a commission and joins the fight against Napoleon. It is six years before he returns, two years after the death of his father. Duty drags him back, but he is an embittered, wounded man, who has survived by refusing to feel. However, awaiting him back at Ravenswood is the healing he needs. There he finds his family — the siblings and mother he still loves — and also Gwyneth. 

The novel is everything fans expect of Mary Balogh. The protagonists are strong. The obstacles are credible. The resolution is satisfying. I’m ready for book two!

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

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

Ready for another book about booksellers and writers? Natalie Jenner’s new historical novel, Bloomsbury Girls, is a delight.

Set in London in late 1949-early 1950, this post-war story follows the fates of three strong women as they cope with the world as it is and try to change it for the better. Vivien Lowry is a strikingly beautiful woman who lost her fiancĂ© to the war. A talented writer, she has taken a job in the fiction department of Bloomsbury books to pay the bills while she secretly pursues her art. Grace Perkins, an abused wife and mother of two young sons, finds temporary escape from an unbearable home life as a secretary to the manager of the store. Evie Stone (first introduced in Jenner’s previous charming novel, The Jane Austen Society) has come to the bookstore after graduating from Cambridge and finding that, despite her very evident talents, the world of academia favors mediocre men over brilliant women. She once again takes up cataloguing rare books, but has a secret, ambitious plan of her own.

The novel brings to life the post-war literary world and explores the limitations on women that are particularly galling after the crucial homefront roles they played during the war. It is the female friendships that drive the story, but each of the women has a love interest as well. The men in the story are not exactly secondary in importance, but their roles are to antagonize or to support the women.

It’s a quiet book, one that I picked up and put down many times before finishing. Nevertheless, it was not one I would have considered giving up on. I wanted to see how the three women would succeed and what that success would look like. 

The novel stands alone very well, but I recommend reading The Jane Austen Society first, both for some backstory and because that book is so wonderful it shouldn’t be missed.