Saturday, December 31, 2022

Netgalley and Edelweiss Challenge 2022- Wrap Up

I exceeded my challenge, reviewing 38 books. Still, my Netgalley queue is as long as ever! I'll have to sign up for next years challenge as well.

A link to the books I read and the reviews is here.

Thank you to Socrates' Book Reviews for hosting!


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden is the story of Dorothy Woodruff (the author’s grandmother) and her close friend Rosamond Underwood. These were two Smith College educated women who ventured out West to the rural Colorado mountains to teach the children of homesteaders. Their adventure took place in the school year of 1916-17.

Brought up in Auburn, New York, they were well-to-do lifelong friends, who were not ready to settle down and marry according to family and societal expectations. So they answered an advertisement to become schoolteachers.

This is also the story of Ferry Carpenter, a wealthy Colorado lawyer and rancher, who was something of a local booster for his area. It was his idea to build the school and import young lady teachers. This was partly because the children needed schooling, but it was also a plan to bring eligible women to a place where they were scarce. Photographs were required for application and the applicants were judged more on looks than on credentials.

Finally, it is the story of Bob Perry, the son of a mine owner who had been brought up to take over the business. At a critical point in the year, he is kidnaped by disgruntled miners and undertakes a valiant escape.

The author gives short biographies of each of the main characters including the years running up to the women’s teaching experience and a summary of what happened to them afterward, but the bulk of the story takes place in that 1916-1917 time frame. It is packed with details about how life was lived. Smaller scale historical events are given more emphasis than larger ones, based on the focus of the women in their letters home. For example, there is comment on the re-election of President Wilson and of the build-up to WWI, but it’s just a passing mention. The women go to visit one of the Perry coal mines and the author mentions that there are ongoing labor issues, but this is pretty much seen from the perspective of Bob Perry so the problems of the miners are glossed over.

The women had been courted by men back home, especially Rosamond, who was an acknowledged beauty, but this was nothing compared to the stir they caused in Elkhead. Dorothy had already met her future husband and become engaged just before going to Colorado. Bob Perry and Ferry Carpenter both fell for Rosamond and became rivals for her affection.

The book is an interesting look at this time period and the hardscrabble lives of Colorado homesteaders through the lens of two plucky Eastern women.

Monday, December 26, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Quicksand by Steve Toltz

I enjoyed Steve Toltz’s Here Goes Nothing and decided to read one of his earlier novels. I chose Quicksand. It was interesting enough to finish (with a short bit of skimming), but overall it was disappointing.

The story is told by two longtime friends, Aldo and Liam. Aldo is a walking disaster. His goal in life is to get rich quick but his entrepreneurial adventures are all failures. Liam is a failed novelist who makes his living as a half-hearted cop. The two also fail at their marriages. Liam regretfully lets go of his wife but has a daughter who makes cameo appearances. Aldo is never able to get over his wife, Stella, an unsuccessful musician, although for a time he is also in love with Mimi, a mediocre photographer.  

Liam has run out of potential topics for his writing but hits on the idea of using Aldo as his muse. Aldo’s life is such a bizarre string of unusual circumstances that it surely should make a good story. To some extent it does. The story is clever and, at times, the human tragedy is so over-the-top that it is painfully humorous. The problem is that there is actually very little coherent plot so most of the book is filler. Liam tells part of it and Aldo tells part of it. Their voices both strain for the utmost quirkiness and become indistinguishable. The wives’ and girlfriend’s voices also rely on the same forced quirkiness. The author indulges in long dialogues and monologues that devolve into lists. Some of them are a little funny. Some are quite funny. But when just piled on top of one another, they become tedious. (It’s as though the author’s strategy is to throw a large number of potential jokes out there and hope some of them stick.) The premise was a good one, but it just went on for too long. Overall, I’m glad I read Here Goes Nothing first, because I don’t think I would have read it if Quicksand had been my first Toltz book. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022- Wrap-Up

 I'm wrapping up my 2022 historical fiction challenge. The challenge was hosted by The Intrepid Reader and Baker. (Wrap ups here.)

I read 53 historical novels. (Listed here with links to reviews.)

I've tried to pick my favorite(s), but I am terrible at that. My favorites fluctuate from day to day. I can say that the book that stood out for me, the one that I find myself thinking about more than the others, was Friends in Funchal by K.G. Fleury, a quiet but very moving book.

I'm looking forward to next year's challenge.

Happy Holidays!! 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

I’d never read anything by Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, but she is apparently one of the best British/Irish writers of the twentieth century. I can’t remember where I heard this, or how I heard of her, but something prompted me to take A Fairly Honourable Defeat out of the library. It’s an extraordinary book.

The novel presents a family group that is locked in a tense dynamic, about to be disrupted.

At the center is the happily married couple in middle-life, Rupert and Hilda. They are well-to-do and very pleased with themselves. Rupert considers himself an intellectual, a philosopher. Hilda is a kind woman who doesn’t think of herself as very clever, but she is good to everyone. They have a college-age son, Peter, who has dropped out of Cambridge and is a mess. Peter has been taken in by Hilda’s brother-in-law and old family friend, Tallis. Tallis teaches part-time, hasn’t much money, lives in a filthy run-down apartment, and takes care of his extremely grouchy elderly father. Tallis is also currently estranged from his wife, Hilda’s younger sister Morgan. Morgan is supposed to be the clever sister. At least, she is university educated and taught linguistics for a while. But Morgan escaped from her marriage, running to the U.S. to seek more from life. She had an affair while in the U.S. with another old friend of Rupert’s named Julius King. Finally, Rupert also has a younger brother, Simon, who is gay and living with a significantly older man, Axel, who is yet another old friend of Rupert and of Julius. The only two who don’t know each other are Tallis and Julius – but they will meet soon enough.

Part One of the book introduces the reader to all of the players. They are all a bundle of insecurities with various strengths and talents, but none are particularly likeable. Morgan has returned from the U.S. after having ended the affair, but she doesn’t want to go back to her husband. She comes to her sister looking for support. Unfortunately, Julius returns to England at just the same time. He wants nothing further to do with Morgan, but she doesn’t believe this. She is still infatuated with him.

The whole lot of them are living rather exaggeratedly normal lives, hiding little secrets from one another, feeling self-satisfied on some levels and anxious on others. The plot takes off in Part Two, when Julius decides to perform an experiment on them, ostensibly to prove to Morgan that all human relationships are superficial and temporary. He says he can break up Simon and Axel within three weeks. He sets out to do this, while at the same time tearing apart Rupert and Hilda’s marriage by instigating and orchestrating an affair between Rupert and Morgan. 

The book is billed as a dark comedy of errors. It is that. But it’s also the kind of book that makes me almost ill with tension as I read. Julius is an awful man, but the other characters (with the possible exception of Simon and Hilda) are nearly as awful. In an upside-down way, the character everyone considers to be the weakest (poor cuckolded Tallis) is the most clear-sighted and strongest, although his life is a mess. If only these people would speak the truth to one another, everything could be cleared up quickly but, of course, they are all afraid to be honest. Or else they think they can fix the mix-ups by somehow working around the lies.

Murdock constructs the dark farce brilliantly and brings it to a logical if painful conclusion. It is an extraordinary look into human foibles and failures. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to construct conversations that could extend for pages, often without indicating the speaker and sometimes including multiple voices, that were nevertheless clear. The character’s voices were that distinct. It was like being present at their party and eavesdropping on different conversations at the same time.

It’s a smart book, a disturbing one, a draining one, and in the end, a satisfying one. I’ll have to read more by this author. But not right away.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Traces: A Novel by Patricia L. Hudson

Traces: A Novel by Patricia L. Hudson is a new historical novel that tells the story of the early settling of frontier Kentucky through the eyes of Rebecca Boone (wife of Daniel) and their two eldest daughters, Suzannah and Jemima. 

The novel beautifully combines the excitement of usual pioneer adventure narratives with a more psychologically complex story incorporating the trauma of long separations, hardscrabble living, nearly constant fear, and the physical exhaustion of childbearing and child-rearing under conditions that are impossible for modern-day readers to fathom. In Jemima’s case, it also includes the terrifying experience of being kidnapped by a small band of Cherokee and Shawnee scouts.

Daniel Boone has been immortalized as a trailblazer, early settler, and Indian-fighter in the way that “heroic men” tales have always been told. I learned about him as a legend, someone who didn’t quite seem real. His wife and children, if mentioned at all, were afterthoughts, just along for the ride. In this novel, Hudson places these women, particularly Rebecca, at the center of the narrative, which makes for a much more interesting story with greater emotional depth. Rebecca did not choose her husband’s lifestyle; she was not stricken with his wanderlust; and yet, she had to endure the same dangers. In addition, she had to bear being the subject of malicious gossip when accused of having an affair with her brother-in-law during one of Daniel’s lengthy absences.

It’s impossible to truly know what went on in the minds and hearts of these women, but Hudson does a wonderful job of creating believable characters that elicit our admiration and sympathy.

This is truly a fine book. Still, it’s difficult to read a somewhat old-fashioned tale of “settlers vs. Indians” without being aware that the settlers were stealing land that wasn’t theirs and massacring the native population. Hudson offers a nuanced view of the native people and tries to put some of that nuanced viewpoint into the heads of the characters. Nevertheless, as a reader, I’m left with an admiration for the resilience and courage of the pioneers, but an uncomfortable ambivalence about their accomplishments.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer by Nancy C. Unger

Sometimes when I want to learn about a particular historical era, I look for a biography of someone representative of the time. So I just finished the book, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer by Nancy C. Unger. The book is over 20 years old and I’m sure there have been more recent books and previous books on the man, but this one happened to be in my local library, so I started here.

Robert La Follette was a politician from Wisconsin who, along with Teddy Roosevelt, epitomizes the Progressive Reform movement in the early twentieth century. He and Roosevelt fought for many of the same things, but both had huge egos and clashed more than they cooperated.

This biography is a balanced portrait of a man with important, big ideas, but who was, at times, his own worst enemy. He was convinced of his own righteousness and blind to his own flaws. He was prone to exaggeration and refused to compromise. He comes across as truly wanting to do the right thing for “the people,” but not a man I would personally like.

The book does do a good job of explaining many of the issues of the day. It’s disturbing how many of these same issues keep cropping up and never seem to be solved.

While biographies of politicians are definitely not my usual reading choice, this was worth the read.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz

I’ve been suffering from a bad reading slump. I was stuck in a historical novel that I really should have liked, but it just seemed to drag on forever. I was reading a couple of pages every few days and struggling. I finally gave up. To get out of my slump I needed something entirely different.

I chose Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz. It couldn’t be more different from my usual fare.

The narrator is Angus Mooney, a petty criminal, who happens to be dead. He had a terrible childhood – abandoned by his parents at age three, then in and out of foster care. He ended up making ends meet through property crime, drug dealing, mugging, and possibly accidental murder. He drifts without purpose through life until he meets Gracie, an ebullient, sarcastic wedding officiant. He falls in love.

Unfortunately, Owen, a man dying of an incurable brain disease, also falls in love with her. He murders Angus when Gracie is a few months pregnant with Angus’ child. Owen has already moved into their house, and now he makes his move on Gracie.

Sounds horrible, right?

Angus is in the otherworld. He’s mortified to learn that there even is an otherworld because he has never believed in anything. And now he has to navigate a new existence, which is regrettably similar to his old one. It’s hard for him to get his bearings.

Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, a new epidemic is quickly exterminating the human population of earth. Gracie is dealing with the end of the world, pregnancy, widowhood, and the slow death of the man who has invaded her home, and to some extent, her heart.

It should be a morbid horror story. It is, and yet it is also very funny. The ironic voices of Angus and Gracie, as well as their strangely awful yet compelling personalities, make this a fun read from start to finish. Even if ironic, dark, apocalyptic literature is not your favorite thing, this is well worth the read.