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.)