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.