Tuesday, January 31, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby is a lovely quiet novel imagining the life of Jane Austen’s friend, Anne Sharp.


Anne is a well-educated young woman who finds herself in desperate straits after the death of her mother. Her father immediately disappears, leaving her a measly 35 pounds a year to live on. Now, her only option is to become a governess.

She is hired by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Austen. Edward is Jane Austen’s brother. He had been adopted by a wealthy childless couple, so he inherited Godmersham Park, a gorgeous country estate. These Austens now have a large brood of children and need a governess for their eldest daughter Fanny.

The novel shows the tenuous position of a governess in such a household. She is a servant and so should have no real expectations of friendship from family members. However, she is also above the other servants in status, so can expect no camaraderie there. Anne makes the best of this lonely life, but the poignancy is not lost on the reader.

Edward was not the eldest Austen brother. That is Henry. Henry is in a strange marriage with an older woman who keeps her distance from the family. Henry visits often and his visits are the highpoint of everyone’s life. He’s handsome, charming, and fun. He even flirts with Anne. Annoyed by him at first, Anne eventually succumbs. (Only as far as enjoying his company and being jealous when she sees him flirting with others. The flirtation is chaste.)

Another highpoint of Anne’s life is reading the letters written to Fanny by her Aunt Jane. When Jane (and sister Cassandra) finally come to Godmersham Park, Anne discovers a kindred spirit. Jane also lives on the edge of poverty. She is unmarried. Her father has died. The difference is Jane has a large family and brothers who have some obligation to support her. But Jane and Cassandra (and their mother) can never stay anywhere too long. (Jane is a writer, of course, but she has yet to earn anything from the endeavor.)

This friendship is a strong support for both women. Anne is temporarily in a good place. But a governess’ life is not a secure one. Anne suffers from cluster headaches which she can no longer hide from Mrs. Austen. And worse, the admiration that Henry feels for her is growing apparent.

Governesses are supposed to be invisible. Not complicated.

Godmersham Park is an interesting view of the Regency period and Jane Austen’s life looking through the window of her family.

Monday, January 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Perfect Engagement by Karla Kratovil

A Perfect Engagement by Karla Kratovil is a delightful Regency Romance, the first book in the Maidens of Marbury series.


Charlotte Grisham is a beautiful, tall, buxom young woman, the daughter of a baron, who has spent her whole life trying to please her unpleaseable mother and indifferent father. When she receives a marriage proposal from Miles Weston, Lord Hawksridge, she should finally be able to relax. She has succeeded. Except her mother will not let up. Lady Grisham has planned a house party in the country to announce the engagement and lord it over everyone – her daughter has snared a marquess.

Daniel Weston is Miles’ twin brother. He missed becoming marquess by a few minutes and is grateful for that. He sees what the responsibility has done to his brother. It shocks him that Miles found time to court a wife. Until Miles asks a favor. He’s supposed to go to this engagement house party but he has important business that can’t wait. Will Daniel, his identical twin, go to the party in his place and pose as him for a few days until he can arrive? Daniel thinks it’s a terrible idea, but he does it for his brother.

Charlotte figures out at once that Daniel is not Miles, but no one else does. Humiliated that her intended cannot find a few days to come to their engagement party, she agrees to continue the farce to save face. And soon learns that Daniel is everything Miles is not: charming, attentive, warm. The two fall hard for one another.

The protagonists are good people who belong together. The plot follows their unintentional courtship through the brambles until they are able to sort things out for their HEA. An engaging start to what looks like a wonderful series.

Monday, January 16, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Ten years ago, I read a review of Nicola Griffith’s Hild and immediately bought the book. Unfortunately, it has been sitting on my shelf, unread, ever since. (I should have taken it out of the library so I’d have a deadline!) 

Instead of reading Hild, I dove into Nicola Griffith’s new book, Spear. This is a superb literary queer re-imagining of the Arthurian Perceval legend.


The Perceval character, here called Peretur, is a girl who was raised by her mother in a cave in the wilderness. She grows up swift and strong and attuned to the natural world to a magical extent. But as comfortable as she is in her wilderness home, she finds herself more and more pulled to the world beyond the isolating limits of what her mother allows. When she overhears strangers talking of King Artos and the city of Caer Leon, her longing to make her way there, to discover herself, is too strong to deny. She cuts her hair and dons a knight’s armor and sets out.

In true Arthurian epic fashion, Peretur goes questing to earn the right to join King Artos’ fellowship. Her gender is something of a non-issue. She excels at knightly deeds as a matter of course and she is attracted only to women so there is no male love interest to get in her way.

Peretur wants to fight alongside Artos’ knights, but she has a more important destiny. Talk of a Holy Grail has erupted at Artos’ court. Many knights want to undertake the quest, but Peretur alone know where to find the magical vessel — and how dangerous it will be once found.

This novel is beautifully written and artfully constructed. Now, I really have to read Hild.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

THE TBR 23 IN '23 CHALLENGE

 I'm signing up again for the TBR challenge hosted by Rose City Reader. (Sign up here.) I tried to tackle my TBR pile last year with the help of this challenge and failed miserably. But I refuse to be daunted.



I'll post links to reviews below.

Thank you to Rose City Reader for hosting!

Friday, January 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

Who remembers the movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman? It floated back into my head the other day and I decided to read the original book by Ernest J. Gaines.

The book is written as though it were an autobiography told to the “editor,” but it is actually a novel — a novel that rang so true many thought it was nonfiction.


Jane Pittman is a Black woman born into slavery. She experiences the end of the Civil War and the trials and triumphs of newfound freedom. Her pluck, determination, and innate goodness help her to create a life in Reconstruction-era Louisiana. She sees firsthand the destructive power of racism throughout her long life. Although she doesn’t know exactly how old she is, she figures she is about 110 during the Civil Rights movement. It’s been a longtime coming, and she is ready to take a stand.

This is a fascinating book. Although the ending of the novel does not have the cinematic triumph that I recall (even now) from the movie, the sense of the power of the movement shines through. Published in 1971, its message is as important today as it was 50 years ago.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

NETGALLEY AND EDELWEISS READING CHALLENGE 2023

 I'm signing up again for the Netgalley and Edelweiss Reading Challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews. Sign up link is here. I met last year's challenge, but somehow my TBR queue is longer than ever. I'm going for the silver level again: 25 books. That should at least put a dent in my pile.

Thank you to Socrates' Book Reviews for hosting!



Links to reviews will be posted below.

1. After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz


Wednesday, January 11, 2023

HISTORICAL FICTION READING CHALLENGE 2023

 I'm signing up for my favorite reading challenge again, The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Adventures of An Intrepid Reader. See rules and sign up here.





Since historical fiction is my favorite genre, I'm signing up for the "prehistoric level": 50+ books.

Thank you again to Intrepid Reader for hosting!


Links to 2023 historical fiction reviews:


1. After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

2. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

3. Spear by Nicola Griffith

4. A Perfect Engagement by Karla Kratovil

5. Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

Monday, January 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

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

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz is a new literary novel that presents to the reader intertwining fragments of the lives of numerous queer feminists from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The lives are centered in Europe (although a few noted American expats are included.) They are writers, painters, singers, dances, actresses – in short they are artists and intellectuals united by a desire to follow the footsteps of the ancient Greek poet, Sappho.


The prose is lush and the women fascinating. The story is presented in a vaguely chronological fashion, but world events are shown only in how they impact the lives of women – the collective lives of women. It’s a brutal look at how women have been treated over the ages and how they have striven to rise above their circumstances and the rules imposed upon them by men. Individual men are essentially excised from this story, demonstrating how superfluous they were. It is a celebration of women.

It is not an easy book to read. The various women swim in and out of the narrative, presented by a “we” narrator who is as nebulous as the individual women. There is no cohesive plot. Nevertheless, the beauty of the story is seen when these fragments are taken as a whole.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s novels are always brimful of insights into human nature. I’ve enjoyed some more than others, but I’ve never disliked one of her books. I’m glad she has a large backlist so that I can return to her writing again and again.

I just finished An Amateur Marriage. Told in scenes, widely spaced throughout the years from WWII to the 1990s, it’s the story of a marriage of two people who were just wrong for one another. How do these marriages start? How do they manage to keep going year after year? 


Michael and Pauline Anton meet during an impromptu street parade through Michael’s Polish neighborhood in Baltimore. (It is just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the city has erupted with patriotic fervor. All the boys are enlisting.) Michael is a lower middle-class shopkeeper’s son and Pauline is from a Protestant neighborhood across town. They are very young. It’s an exciting time. And they quickly fall in love.

Being wartime, they have a rather rushed courtship and marriage. Three children follow. The household is one of constant clashing. The husband and wife bring out the worst in each other. Michael is an introverted and somewhat stodgy man. Pauline is extroverted to the extreme, impulsive, and self-absorbed. The constant fighting is very damaging to the children, particularly to the eldest, Lindy. 

The reader peeks in on the family as they all grow up and watches them start falling apart. Lindy runs off and disappears, leaving a gaping hole in the already fractured family. Michael and Pauline age. Friends and family die. And then, on their 30th wedding anniversary, during yet another fight, whatever tenuous bond that held them together snaps.

The story continues, showing us how they cope (or don’t) and move on (or don’t). The story is sad, but it’s a muted kind of sad. It isn’t tragic or grand. It’s just a realistic portrayal of unhappy lives.

Monday, January 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

 A Gentleman in Moscow is one of my favorite books, so I had to read Amor Towles’ The Lincoln


Highway
. The premise is that Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old Nebraska farmer’s boy, has just been released from a work farm where he had been imprisoned for 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. He is essentially orphaned since his father has just died and his mother ran off when he was about ten. He isn’t alone though. He has an eight-year-old brother, Billy--a very serious eight-year-old who sees everything in terms of heroic quests--who is now Emmett’s responsibility. Because their father’s farm has been foreclosed and because Emmett can’t stay in the town where friends and relatives of the man he killed still live, Emmett is ready for a new start. He has a car and three thousand dollars that his father hid for him. He has a plan: he’s a skilled carpenter and is going to flip houses. All good so far.

Unfortunately, two friends from the work farm have escaped by hiding in the trunk of the warden’s car. (The warden drove Emmett home.) Now, Emmett is roped into taking the other two, Duchess and Woolly, along for the ride – a ride that has been hijacked by Duchess.

Duchess is a slick-talking boy full of schemes who wants retribution for the ills done to him and to repay debts that he owes, according to an accounting scheme of his own. Duchess is due a little sympathy. His father was a mountebank who continually betrayed his own son in order to see to himself first. However, Duchess has inherited his father’s sociopathic personality. He can be kind as long as it serves his purpose, but the minute things don’t go his way, he’s ready to steal, cheat, or kill and rationalize it afterward. 

Woolly is an old-money, trust-fund boy who gets into one scrape after another because he can’t think things through to see consequences. He seems to be neurodivergent, but in a way that is difficult to characterize. He’s also addicted to his medicine, which must be some kind of opiate, but it’s never explained what it is or why he was given it in the first place. Woolly has been left $150,000 in cash by his grandfather, held in a safe in the old family vacation home in the Adirondacks. He’s willing to split it with Duchess if Duchess can get him there. And Duchess is willing to split it three ways if Emmett helps them out. But because Emmett has plans of his own and no interest in detouring to the Adirondacks, Duchess manipulates him by stealing his car.

There are other important characters: Billy, the younger brother; Sally, the daughter of a neighboring farmer who has spent her life taking care of others and now wants out; and Ulysses, a wandering war veteran trying to atone for having left behind his wife and son. There are also various family members, strangers, and old acquaintances.

The story is an epic adventure. A journey. A quest. The characters are all well-drawn individuals but are also somewhat archetypal. The writing is beautiful and simple.

Nevertheless, the book didn’t meet my high expectations. The characters were too “mythic” and never really elicited an emotional response from me – except for Duchess who elicited annoyance. The book ended with too many loose ends. That avoided any endings that were too pat, but also made for an unsatisfying conclusion. Still, I’ll be reading whatever Amor Towles writes next.