Friday, June 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Coldwater Confession by James A. Ross

Coldwater Confession by James A. Ross is the second book in the Coldwater Mystery series. It is as entertaining as book one, Coldwater Revenge. This novel can stand alone, but to get the most out of the family drama, reading book one first is recommended.

Set in Coldwater, a small lakeside town in upstate New York, Coldwater Confession is an intense psychological thriller focusing on the fraught relationship between two close but very different brothers. Joe Morgan is the local sheriff, a job inherited from their father, “Mad Dog Morgan.” (Mad Dog was murdered years ago. The murder remains unsolved.)  Tom Morgan is a lawyer and financial whiz, who returned to Coldwater (in book one) for a variety of reasons and stayed on to try to get his head straight after a traumatic reintegration into the town. (He helped his brother with some intense law enforcement and was nearly killed.)

Tom is now living on Pocket Island, trying to renovate an old Frank Lloyd Wright house and help start a school for wayward boys. However, none of this is making much progress and he’s beginning to second guess the feasibility of the projects. More pressing, and probably equally futile, is Tom’s attempt to smooth the path towards reconciliation – or at least pragmatic communication – between Joe and his estranged wife. The family dynamics are complicated. Not only is brother Joe a womanizer who probably deserves to lose his wife, but there is also a lifelong rivalry between the two brothers, and their widowed mother, who drinks heavily, unhelpfully takes sides. Mrs. Morgan likes to keep secrets and refuses to talk about her tempestuous relationship with her dead husband or the warped upbringing of her sons.

Things heat up when a stunning young woman arrives in Coldwater. Maggie grew up in the town but moved away as soon as she could. Now she has returned to take a job as an elementary school teacher. Both brothers are physically attracted to her. She is not averse to flirtation and maybe something more (even though she is in her mid-to-late twenties and they are pushing forty.) But she’s dealing with too much else to pursue or be pursued. Her relationship with her father is frayed and that with her stepmother is toxic. Moreover, her mother, who is mentally ill and deep in denial, keeps stirring the pot. And it’s possible the mother’s mental illness is now manifesting in the daughter.

The psychodynamics are compelling enough in this page-turner, but there is more. Someone is creeping around on Pocket Island looking for something. Arsonists set fire to Tom’s house. And the local low-level criminals that Joe treats as nuisances have gotten themselves mixed up with a truly dangerous character or characters – and Joe is nearly ambushed as his father had been.

The author neatly weaves together the threads (including the murder of their father) for another action-packed thriller that will leave readers eager for the third installment. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

I love old books. For one thing, if they have to be retrieved from the remote shelving of the local library and the pages are yellowed, you know they were not created by AI. The old-fashioned writing style can be both challenging and charming. In the case of The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, when the author is determined to make a point or elaborate on a theme, he goes off on verbose tangents. But there are gems hidden in the prose, sometimes insightful and sometimes clever and amusing, that make all the verbosity worthwhile. The many references that I don’t get make me all the more pleased when I do recognize something historical or obscure. And the stories draw me in by virtue of their strangeness.

The Green Hat was a popular novel back in 1924. I had never heard of it or of the author until I saw it referenced in The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale. Intrigued, I wanted to read it.

The novel starts slow, primarily because of those verbose tangents. The author is making a point about England – the old aristocratic England that was fading away post WWI. It’s a novel ostensibly about a woman, an idealized woman, but actually the focus is more on the men in her sphere. Her name is Iris Storm, maiden name March. The old aristocrats care about her. They adored her as a child. But they are ashamed of the woman she has become. (She sleeps around.) She has been twice widowed. Her first husband, a favored, honorable young man of their circle, committed suicide on their wedding night. Her fault, she admits.

The narrator is another aristocratic young man, a friend of Gerald March, Iris’ alcoholic twin brother. He first meets Iris when she comes to visit her brother after an absence of ten years. The narrator is smitten with her, but in a detached sort of way. He is almost accidentally present at key points in her tale, but remains on the fringes of her drama. From this vantage point, he tells her story as it was revealed to him in little bits over the next couple of years.

The reader is sucked in as the narrator reveals what he learns, little by little. Always, the reader is aware there is more going on than meets the eye. The men are supercilious and a bit ridiculous as they adhere to their old beliefs and ideas of correct conduct. Iris stands outside of their rules. She goes her own way. And that means they have to shun her, even as they keep tabs on her. But she is as trapped by her own moral code as they are by theirs. And I get the sense that this is all an elaborate metaphor for post-war England.

The big reveal at the end is a nice twist, although it’s hardly the moral shocker to twenty-first century readers that it might have been at the time. If you can find a copy of this novel, give it a try. It’s quite fascinating.

Monday, May 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman

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

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies
is the newest release by Alison Goodman. The title may put you in mind of a warm/fuzzy mystery/romance with the cover illustration indicating the Regency Era. All of this is correct, but insufficient to describe this page-turner of an adventure story. It’s lengthy, but a quick read. It’s a book one, so not all loose ends are tied up, but it ends on a relatively satisfying note.

Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister Julia are the ladies in question, though Julia is usually very well mannered. It’s not quite a society yet, but they are aided, at times by Charlotte, Lady Davenport, and there is room for more help in the future.

Augusta (Gus) and Julia are twins (not identical), unmarried, and 42 years old. So in the eyes of the ton, they are inconsequential and, to some extent, invisible. They have an inheritance and so a degree of independence. Julia was almost married two years earlier but her fiancé died in an accident. Gus is a more determined spinster, but she refuses to consider herself old and useless. The fact that their younger brother, who is now an earl, has always resented Gus and is now cruelly pleased to be head of the family and able to treat her with disdain is not making her life easier. And worst of all, Julia has recently been diagnosed with a canker of the breast, a disease that has taken other female relatives, including their mother.

However, Gus is indomitable. Owing Lady Charlotte a favor, she (and Julia) undertake to retrieve some incriminating letters Charlotte had written to a scoundrel of a lover who is now blackmailing her. The mission turns dangerous but succeeds. Gus is thrilled. And hooked on adventure. The fact that middle-aged, unattached ladies are underestimated gives them an edge. When the chance arises to undertake a rescue mission of a lady being imprisoned in the country by her evil husband, Gus is thrilled. She is even more thrilled when she thwarts a highwayman along the way and discovers he is actually a gentlemen who can be trusted – even if he is a convicted criminal. 

A relationship blossoms between Gus and this highwayman, Lord Evan, despite Julia’s insistence (and Lord Evan’s) that any further contact is too dangerous. However, Gus is unable to refuse to help others in need and she is not above enlisting Lord Evan’s help. She is also determined to prove that he is not guilty of the crime he was convicted of. 

The adventures continue. The danger mounts. And Gus and Lord Evan cannot stay apart. 

This novel blends historical fact into the unlikely but thoroughly enjoyable storyline. Each of the adventures is based on ways that women and girls were abused and held powerless by the laws of the times. Readers will be aghast and indignant and root all the more for the success of the sisters and their accomplices. And this reader will eagerly anticipate the next installment.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin

In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin is a newly released work of medical historical fiction. Set in 1900, in Baltimore and New York, it follows the story of Hannah Isaacson, a young Jewish female physician. During her training, watching the poor obstetrical care provided by male physicians and appalled by the dangerous abortions being performed by midwives (who were being driven out of business by the rising interest in hospital-based deliveries and who needed new sources of income), Hannah makes it her mission to provide better care for pregnant women.

During her time at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, she not only learns medicine but also how to work around male egos in order to accomplish her goals. (She has to let them take the credit for her ideas and work.) Painfully, she also discovers that too many men are not to be trusted.

Nevertheless, she lands her dream job, an obstetrics residency at Mount Sinai in New York. But her troubles are only beginning. 

This novel delves into the historical problems of placing care of women’s health exclusively in male hands. It demonstrates how broader socioeconomic problems affect health care, particularly for women. And it calls out the dangers of limited access to contraception, especially for the poor. While we may be tempted to be thankful for the progress of the last 100 years, such gratitude may be premature. For anyone paying attention, it looks an awful lot like we are heading backwards rather than forwards. This novel deftly illustrates all that is at risk.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux is a French writer who draws on her own experiences in her work, and who won the Nobel Prize in 2022. Her work is readily available in translation, so I dipped my toe in with her memoir-like narrative about her father, A Man’s Place. A short book, it explores her working class father’s efforts to move up in the world and the dignity of his life as it was lived. As his daughter, Annie had more access to education and economic advantage, which took her well into the middle class that her parents aspired to. As the gulf between them widened, and her father aged and then sickened, Annie looked back to reevaluate what he had gone through to create a memoir full of empathy and admiration.

The prose is spare but lovely. 

The style and subject reminded me a little of The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken, although I found Ernaux’s father to be more stoically heroic.

Monday, May 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean

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

Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean is a fun Regency Romance with a moderate steam level.

Lady Lavinia Wynnburn is a middle child and has always felt overlooked. For this reason, she is uncomfortable in social situations and would rather be tucked away in the corner, reading a book.

Alexander Reddington, Duke of Beaubrooke, has a reputation for being a recluse, due to his obsessive interest in botany and the development of new varieties of plants. Currently, he is competing against his old childhood friend and rival, Nigel, for a large grant from the Royal Academy to develop a particular new medicinal plant. The fact that he is now the duke and must marry is a distracting nuisance. At least he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time looking. His father made arrangements long ago with Lord Wynnburn. The heir to the duchy would wed one of the Wynnburn daughters. It is expected that he will choose the imperious eldest, Harriet, or the vivacious youngest, Kitty. But after catching Lavinia reading a novel at a wedding and hiding behind a plant at a ball, he knows that she is the woman for him.

The two are well-suited. (Even if Lavinia’s closest friend is Alex’s nemesis, Nigel.) Unfortunately, they misunderstand their expectations of one another. Lavinia believes Alex needs someone to serve as a social secretary. Dukes, after all, have obligations to society. And now that she is a duchess, and people are taking notice of her, she finds she doesn’t mind society as much as she thought. Alex thought that Lavinia truly did prefer spending time alone, quietly, and would be no bother as he struggled with his experiments. Despite a strong physical attraction, they have trouble connecting.

Things come to a head when Alex fails to attend his own birthday party, leaving Lavinia, once again, looking pitiful in the eyes of the ton. It takes some meddling on Nigel’s part and on that of Lavinia’s sisters to force them to talk things out and find common ground.

Although I was not particularly caught up in any chemistry between them, this is a quick read and a sweet addition to the Regency Romance genre. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer

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

The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer is a heartwarming new release, a contemporary novel about navigating death and grief, and about living life to the fullest.

Clover is a death doula.

This is a relatively new profession/concept for the twenty-first century U.S.A., which tends to treat discussions of mortality as a taboo. Death doulas are trained to bypass the taboos to help shepherd the dying through the process.

Clover is particularly well suited to the task. Her own parents died in an accident when she was just six. However, Clover’s relationship with them was not close. In fact, they died when they were out of the country on one of their many jaunts taken without her. She was brought up by her grandfather, who became her best friend. In fact, aside from an elderly neighbor, he was her only friend. He died thirteen years prior to the period covered in the story – and she was not at his side when he passed, a source of unending guilt.

A combination of extreme introversion and an off-putting profession has left Clover always feeling like an outsider. At 36 years old, the closest contact she has with other humans is with her dying clients.

Clover has a lot of emotional baggage. And yet, her empathy for the dying is extraordinary. If you’ve ever wondered what to say to someone at the end of their life, or to their grieving loved ones, this novel serves almost as a guidebook. It isn’t that she always says the right thing, but that she has vowed never to look away from someone’s pain. She is there for them. She doesn’t want anyone to have to die alone.

And maybe not go through life alone either.

This summary makes this book sound depressing. But it absolutely is not. It’s quite beautiful and life affirming. Recommended!

Friday, May 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

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

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is a historical novel that imagines the life of the subject of Thomas Gainsborough’s 1768 painting, The Portrait of Ignatius Sancho. The first Black man to vote in a British general election (in 1774), Sancho’s history is pieced together by the author based on Sancho’s own letters and writings and on contemporary accounts. There are great gaps in the historical record, but the author fills them in with rich, imaginative, and credible details.

Born on a slave ship and brought to England as a toddler, Sancho is reared in slavery (until the age of ~20) by three unmarried sisters who treat him as a pet rather than a person. Finding a path to education in secret with the influential Duke of Montagu, who is sympathetic to the antislavery cause, Sancho becomes a learned man as well as an excellent musician and composer. He eventually escapes the sisters (who he refers to as ‘the coven’) and, with difficulty, scrapes together a living. But he must always keep one eye out for his nemesis, a brutal slave catcher. It’s a lonely existence. He is seen as an oddity by the White community and cannot find a place for himself within the free Black community in London. 

After the death of Montagu, Sancho’s position becomes more precarious, and for a short time, his situation is desperate enough that he is ready to end his own life. Fortunately, he reconnects with the duke’s widow, who gives him a small pension and, in due course, a job.

Sancho’s life changes focus when he meets a Black footman, John Osborne, who introduces him to his daughter Anne. 

A large part of the middle of the novel consists of correspondence between Sancho, in London, and Anne, who has gone to the West Indies to nurse a sick aunt, who is a slave there. She remains in the West Indies for years, writing home of the horrors of the plantations. Eventually, she returns home where she and Sancho are reunited and marry. Anne is clever and kind, and supports Sancho unconditionally.

The novel is constructed as an autobiography written by the elderly and ill Sancho for his son, Billy. Sancho utilizes his old diaries to help reconstruct the tale. It is a fascinating look at the hidden lives of Black men and women in eighteenth century London, although Sancho is considerably more fortunate than most.

The audiobook is narrated by the author, who smoothly navigates the transitions in time and the various speech patterns of the characters, telling a compelling story that rings true as being told in Sancho’s own words.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale

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

Nancy Hale was a best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s whose work is enjoying a recent revival. A book of short-stories, Where the Light Falls, was released in 2019, edited by Lauren Groff. And now, her most celebrated novel, The Prodigal Women, has been re-released by The Library of America. The book’s introduction, written by Kate Bolick, was recently featured as an essay in the New York Times.

The Prodigal Women is a tremendous novel. Set aside time to read it, as the print length is ~875 pages. The time will be well spent.

The book immerses the reader in the lives of three women, all growing from girlhood to womanhood in stuffy Boston during the Jazz Age. It is a time when social mores are changing and opportunities are opening up for young women. We may picture flappers and suffragists and good times for all (until the Crash), but this deeply psychological novel shows just how simplistic that image is. These women are unmoored.

Leda March is a poor cousin in an old-money, established Boston family. A childhood of insecurity and unpopularity leaves her with a need for social power, for respectability. She tries to sacrifice an unsuitable love for the stability of marriage with her staid older cousin, but she is stifled by boredom when she is with him.

Betsy Jekyll is the second daughter in a social-climbing Virginia family who transplant themselves to Boston. Full of light and joy as a child, Betsy latches onto Leda, who is equally pleased to finally have a friend. Betsy’s chaotic, fun-filled family seems a refuge to Leda. But the two grow apart as they reach “debutante” age. After a failed love affair, Betsy escapes Boston’s strictures by moving to New York where she works for a fashion magazine, then turns to modeling, and then to essentially living off men – with all that implies.

Maize is Betsy’s older sister. A southerner at heart, Maize never quite recovers from the family move to Boston. She is a renowned beauty and accomplished flirt, but the only Boston man who interests her is a self-centered artist, who marries her under duress. Maize’s love is a desperate, all-consuming one. Her eventual descent into mental illness was precipitated by this obsession, but it is just as likely that the mental illness was behind her obsession.

The lives of these women are fascinating. But their misery is palpable. Is this frantic unhappiness a product of the times? The novel is set in the 1920 and 30s. Hale, who wrote this as a contemporary novel and not a historical one, fills the pages with realistic depictions of life in that era. Although many of the conversations seem stilted to a modern reader, they serve to remove the reader from today and place her squarely in that century-ago age.

This hardly seems a feminist novel, but it is a reminder to us of how much we owe to those women who challenged tradition and pushed for the progress that we now can enjoy without the psychological toll – for the most part. This book can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those who would shove women back into Victorian roles. The men are all miserable too.

Monday, May 15, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Captured by Mary Lancaster

Captured by Mary Lancaster is the second book in the series, The Duel. The timeline overlaps with book one, Entangled.

The duel that is at the center of the series took place just prior to the opening of both books. The participants were the honorable Major Butler, an officer in Wellington’s army, and the miserable old Duke of Cuttyngham. The duke died, but it is unclear whether Butler actually killed him or if he had something lethally wrong with him before the duel.

Lady Hera Severne is the daughter of the deceased duke. She doesn’t regret her father’s death. He was a cold, selfish man. Now that she is freed from his control, she is eager to learn what she can make of herself. She takes a job in a distant town (the village of St. Bride) as a companion to Lady Astley (local gentry) and the Astleys’ ward. It turns out the ward is a thirty-ish man named George, who is neurodivergent. The more Hera learns about the situation, the more appalled she becomes. The Astleys keep George locked in the attic or in the garden, and they are determined to keep his existence secret.

Dr. Justin Rivers is an army surgeon and a good friend of Major Butler. He is trying to clear Butler’s name because he’s certain it was not Butler’s bullet that killed the Duke. He meets Hera, fleetingly, when he goes to the home of the Cuttynghams to question the surviving (adult) children about their father’s underlying health. While there, he and Hera share a light flirtation.

Coincidentally, the village of St. Bride is Justin’s family home. When he goes home for a brief visit, he and Hera meet again.

Justin is duty-bound to return to the battlefield. Nevertheless, during his leave, he spends time with Hera. Their attraction grows. At the same time, they become concerned about George. Who is he? And why do the Astleys keep him hidden away and locked up?

There is a touch of the gothic in this Regency Romance. The mystery is easy to solve, but the complications draw the reader in. Lancaster’s emotionally rich, light-on-steam style makes for an enjoyable read, as always.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a lovely but painful-to-read “book club favorite” that we are reading for our next book group meeting.

Set in the early 1800s on a Virginia tobacco plantation, the story is told by two women whose lives intertwine there. Lavinia comes to the plantation as an orphaned six-year-old after her parents, Irish immigrants who were to be indentured servants, died on the ocean crossing. The master of the house sends her to be looked after by the slaves in the kitchen house. There, she is lovingly raised. She comes to see the enslaved family as her own. One of the members of her new family is Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the master. While her identity is not a secret to the slaves, the master’s wife, Miss Martha, misunderstands the affection he shows her. Miss Martha believes he has taken Belle as a mistress. Their son, Marshall, also comes to believe this and conceives an impassioned hatred for her.

No story immersed in a setting of slavery in the antebellum south can be anything but painful, and this is one I had to keep putting down to gather strength to continue. The evil of slavery is pervasive. The Black characters have love-filled lives and their own strength and dignity, but nevertheless, their tension is palpable. Their fates lie in the hands of lesser men, most immediately those of Marshall and the overseer, Rankin. Rankin is a stock character, a twisted and unredeemable sadist and rapist. Marshall is given a backstory, one of abuse and neglect, but this does not excuse the man he becomes.

The novel follows the lives of Lavinia and Belle. As they tell their stories, they also tell the stories of life on the plantation and what happens to the slaves focused on the kitchen house. (The field slaves, who live under far worse conditions, are shown only tangentially.) It’s a powerful book.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Guest by Emma Cline

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

The Guest by Emma Cline is a stark, sad novel about a young (early twenties) woman who belongs nowhere and hustles her way through life. Alex is a modern-day Holly Golightly but darker and with drugs.

Alex has run from a toxic relationship with a dangerous man named Dom, who is now stalking her. She escaped the city (an unnamed city) with a fifty-ish man named Simon, who took her along to his beach house for the summer. Simon is a shallow, wealthy man, divorced, fitness-obsessed, who gravitates to trophy girlfriends. He buys her things. She skims from his supply of painkillers. She spends her days lounging on the beach and trying to be agreeable. She wants this safe place to last. 

She isn’t the first of his young lovers. And he is not the first man she has sold herself to. But she is having trouble finding new “clients.” It takes more and more effort. She’s burned too many bridges. Simon is a lifeline and the security he represents takes on a mythic quality as Alex drifts farther and farther from any solid footing in life.

Floating around amidst Simon’s friends, ungodly wealthy summer people, Alex is aware of the falseness of their lives and recognizes that she doesn’t belong. Still, she wants to keep this relationship going. But she missteps. Simon throws her out. This is a pattern. Alex cannot stop self-sabotaging.

The remainder of the story is an odyssey of sorts. Alex does not return to the city. Instead, she attempts only to survive the next few days. Simon is throwing a Labor Day party and she believes, or tells herself that she believes, that she needs only to show up at the party and he’ll be so glad to see her that he’ll take her back. So she wanders, grifting, using people, detaching herself from reality, and breaking things and people along the way. Readers will weep for her, but not much, since she is hardly actually there.

Monday, May 8, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman

The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman is a touching coming-of-age story set in 1941 in small-town North Carolina. The heroine, Mattie Watson, is fifteen years old and lives in farm country with her down-to-earth, generous parents, her ambitious, clever but naive older brother Daniel, and her earnest younger brother Joey. She has a best friend, Lynnette, whose family is about as dysfunctional as can be, with an abusive alcoholic father and sickly mother. Lynette essentially takes over the care of her two young sisters. Mattie treats the whole situation with compassion, discretion, and increasing maturity.

Mattie wants more from life but isn’t sure what that “more” is. Until James T. Cullowee rides into town preaching the many advantages of a new crop called kudzu.

If you’ve ever driven through the countryside of the American Southeast, you’ve seen kudzu. It’s an invasive plant that grows quickly and covers everything. It’s very difficult to eradicate and chokes the native flora as it takes over. But in the early 1940s, it was seen as a wonder plant, useful for everything from fodder to medicine to food to a substitute for tobacco. In fact, the Civilian Conservation Corps was paying farmers to cultivate it. 

Mr. Cullowee, the self-proclaimed Kudzu King, is traveling about North Carolina encouraging the locals to turn their acres over to kudzu. He claims this is his mission – that he is doing this from the goodness of his heart because he believes in the benefits of this new cash crop. He’s handsome, charming, and slick. Mattie is smitten.

As part of his scheme, he proposes a Kudzu Festival with the crowning of a Kudzu Queen. The whole town is caught up in the excitement. He holds camps to teach the older boys how to plant the weed and he enlists the mayor’s wife to teach a group of high school girls beauty pageant comportment. Mattie is determined to win the crown and Cullowee’s approval. But as she learns more about his methods and the kind of man he is, she plots to expose him.

Mattie’s innocence, intelligence, and honesty give this novel its heart. Readers will cheer her on. 

Saturday, May 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Like the Appearance of Horses by Andrew Krivak

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

Like the Appearance of Horses
by Andrew Krivak is a complex but tightly focused multi-generational saga of war. As the third book in the Dardan Trilogy, it continues the narrative of the family of Jozef Vinich, an American-born transplant to Austria-Hungary who becomes a sharpshooter in WWI before eventually finding his way back to the U.S. to build a home in Dardan, Pennsylvania. The backstory is trickled into the current story, so that Like the Appearance of Horses works very well as a standalone novel. While jumping back and forth in time, this novel primarily focuses on the next two generations of men (in the Vinich family) going off to war – first WWII and then Vietnam. 

Jozef, now a patriarch, has a daughter, Hannah. She marries Becks (Bexhet), the boy who, as an infant during the war, was saved by Jozef, a story told in the previous book.

Becks goes off to war in turn. When he is separated from his company during the Battle of the Ardennes, he is rescued by Roma – his people – and guided back to where he hopes to find his grandfather. The journey is an epic in itself. And what comes of it is tragic.

Becks and Hannah have two sons. The eldest stays at home on the family farm while the younger, Sam, is forced to enlist in the army after an arrest. He is very good at soldiering, but that doesn’t prevent his capture, imprisonment, and torture. While he is MIA, his fiancee and brother back home fall in love and become engaged. When Sam finally returns home, addicted to heroin, he must make an epic journey of his own.

The saga wraps up in the next generation, when Sam’s son has gone off to war, not to return.

The writing is lush and dense. It is a moving story of how war damages not only the men who fight it, but all those who live within war-torn landscapes and all those left at home.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

BOOK REVIEWS: Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment by Marie Cher and Jean Paul Marat. Tribune of the French Revolution by Clifford D. Conner

In an ongoing, random, and probably futile attempt to fill gaps in my knowledge of history, I read two biographies of historical figures of the French Revolution. 

The first is Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment by Marie Cher. Published in 1929, this is a fascinating book both because of the subject matter and because of the flowery writing style which is rather historical in itself. Charlotte Corday is known to history as the Girondin sympathizer who murdered the revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat by stabbing him in his bath. (It’s not as racy as it sounds.) If you have only a muddy knowledge of eighteenth century French history, seeing some of the events of the Revolution from the perspective of how they shaped this…fanatic…martyr…madwoman…murderess?…is a great way to get a handle on the more than two sides of the issue. It is full of little novelistic details that make Corday visible and real to the reader. Corday is not portrayed as a heroine, but she’s not condemned either. 

The second biography is Jean Paul Marat. Tribune of the French Revolution by Clifford D. Conner. This is a biography of Charlotte Corday’s victim. It also gives a concise analysis of events of the day. The major players and their relationships with Marat are explained. Corday is given a surprisingly small role. Robespierre is mentioned a little, but without insight into his character or explanation of his centrality. Mostly, the book provides a great outline of Marat’s life. However, it is a very biased presentation. The author often presents absence of evidence as evidence when lionizing Marat, and the reasoning may leave you shaking your head. Nevertheless, whether you perceive Marat to be a principled if violent activist, a political terrorist, or something in between, you’ll probably agree Charlotte Corday shouldn’t have assassinated him.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

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

Lately I’ve been reading some good books, some great books, and some mediocre books. And now, I’ve just finished reading The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, which is in a category all by itself. This novel is monumental. I think I loved it even more than I loved Verghese’s earlier Cutting for Stone.

Some novels draw you in slowly. Others capture you from the very first words. The Covenant of Water is one of the latter. It is a long book, over 700 pages, but it reads quickly because it is impossible to put down.

This sprawling multi-generational saga follows, in particular, the life story of Ammachi (Big Ammachi) of Parambil in South India. In 1900, at the age of 12, she marries a widower with a young child and she grows to become the matriarch of the family and a pillar of the community. Her husband’s family has a long history of a strange “condition,” a familial inheritance of a tendency to die by drowning. The future victim can be identified by their avoidance of water and varying degrees of deafness. This fascinating medical oddity is tracked through the generations, influencing the course of their lives. 

The second major protagonist is Digby, a surgeon from Glasgow who enters the Indian Medical Service because, as a Catholic, he is denied further training in the British system. Digby is a kind, lonely man and an excellent surgeon. However, a scuffle with his chief and a disastrous love affair force his exile from Madras and he must make a new life for himself.

There are too many characters to mention and too many twists and turns of the plot to summarize more. And yet, Verghese manages to keep the interest level high with his beautiful prose and his well-developed characters. Their lives all connect like the system of rivers and canals on which they live. The story manages to be completely realistic even as a tiny bit of magical realism is injected. I was particularly fascinated by the medical aspects of the storyline, but there is something in here for everyone.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, May 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway

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

Big Two-Hearted River is a novella by Ernest Hemingway, being re-released in an illustrated Centennial Edition. This is one of the Nick Adams stories and it has the typical Heminway-esque voice and style.

Nick arrives by train to the burned-out town of Seney, a place near the Big Two-Hearted River where he has fly-fished before and intends to fish again. He is alone. The destroyed town is deserted. Nick strikes out on foot for the river. When he finds a good spot, he sets up camp. In the morning, he rises early and goes fishing. The End.

The setting is given in minute, attentive, loving detail. The particulars of the camp are meticulous. And the descriptions of fishing are so step-by-step that they could be a how-to manual. Throughout, the reader can feel Nick’s quiet satisfaction in an activity done well. 

If you’re a fan of Hemingway, this classic short work will be deeply satisfying. If you’ve never read his work and are curious about it, this is a fine introduction. One of the best things about this particular edition is the insightful foreword by John N. Maclean, who gives a strong, straightforward analysis of what Hemingway likely intended the story to illustrate, which gives the novella added punch.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Georgiana by Maude Hutchins

Having enjoyed Victorine by Maude Hutchins, I found her first novel, Georgiana, in the library. This one was a bit trickier.

Georgiana reads as if it was a novelized effort to showcase the theories of Freud. Georgiana is an orphaned girl living with her nearly invisible but sweet grandmother and her overbearing, dictatorial grandfather (referred to always in the French, Grandpère.) There are other aunts and many cousins in the household, but, oddly, no uncles. The grandfather is a New England gentleman. Georgiana’s dead father, who she knows only by a single photograph and by her grandfather’s disapproval of him, was a Virginian. The whole family is blue-eyed, except for Georgiana and her father, who are brown-eyed.

The story is related by a third-person male narrator who plays no role in the story. He goes to great effort, in very lush prose, to show the near-incestuous relationships and sexual hangups of the enclave of cousins. Georgiana is an outsider, though her blond-haired blue-eyed older sister is not. The narrator explains Georgiana’s pubertal angst.

The story then shifts for part 2, in which we are given excerpts from Georgiana’s diary while she is away at boarding school. This is in Georgiana’s voice – an oddly detached voice. She observes the little games the other girls play. She delights in mischief-making. She is very bright and very pretty. But she does not shed her innocence, managing always to see the actions of the others without understanding the sexual undercurrents.

In the final section, the third-person narrator returns. He explains that Georgiana, in her adult life, moves from one affair to another. He describes two of these relationships as examples, showing how she self-sabotages. And he explains how she is always seeking her father. Or, actually, her grandfather. 

The writing is lovely, but it is a labored effort. Georgiana comes to life, somewhat, in the mid-section. This is actually the part I found most interesting for its insight into life at a girls’ boarding school. The other sections fail to make Georgiana seem like a real person. It seems rather like an academic exercise, trying to use fiction to illustrate Freud. In this way, the effort is dated.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Match Made in London by Michelle Willingham

A Match Made in London by Michelle Willingham is the first book in a new Regency Romance series, The School for Spinsters.

Mrs. Harding, a one-time abused wife but now determined widow, runs a school for ladies who fear they will never win husbands. They come to her wanting to know how to be beautiful and popular, but she teaches them self-reliance and self-confidence. At the same time, her good friend Mr. Gregor, who moves about easily in society while hiding his true self (he is gay), scopes out potential prospects for the young ladies.

Violet Edwards is desperately in need of the school. She has little dowry, an evil mother who insults her constantly, and, worst of all, a stutter. She has always wanted a husband but now she needs one. Her mother is sending her off to the country to live with and care for her grandmother, a nasty woman who once threatened to beat the stutter out of her. So Violet sneaks off to see Mrs. Harding.

Damian Everett, the Earl of Scarsdale, is in a bind. His father, the marquess, has gambled and drank away the family fortune. If Damian doesn’t wed an heiress (the narcissistic Lady Penelope), there will be no money to bring out his sisters. He despises Penelope, but he loves his sisters and sees no other way out.

Mrs. Harding and Mr.Gregor concoct a plan to stiffen Violet’s spine. Aside from singing lessons (to help with the stutter), dancing lessons, and new clothes, they hire Damian to provoke her. The hundred pounds he is offered won’t solve anything, but it will help keep some of the noisier creditors temporarily at bay. He reluctantly accepts.

What follows is a “My Fair Lady”- type transformation as Violet climbs out of her shell and learns to fight back. Damian, too, learns to take control of his own Fate. 

This is an entertaining start to this new moderately steamy series. The protagonists are delightful. Mrs. Harding and Mr. Gregor are intriguing. The villains are one-dimensional but serve the purpose, and at least one of them shows possibility for redemption – maybe in book two?

Monday, April 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood

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

The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood is a lush re-imagining of the Greek myth of Perseus and the slaying of Medusa. The story is centered on Perseus but comes at the story from the perspective of the three women who shaped him: his mother, Danae; his wife, Andromeda; and his victim, Medusa.

Danae is a princess of Argos. When her father hears a prophecy declaring that Danae’s son will be the death of him, he locks her away to keep her from ever marrying. Mythology would have it that Zeus impregnated her. But in this novel it was a local young man who found a way to sneak into her prison. Furious and terrified when he learns she is pregnant, Danae’s father attempts to have her killed by putting her in a small boat and setting it adrift. Danae is rescued – and Perseus is born.

Medusa is a member of a small tribe of women, the Gorgons, who have been abused by men and sought refuge away from the world that leaves women powerless. They are self-sufficient and content. Snakes are their guardians. Medusa is not a monster. She is simply one of the most highly regarded among the women. But one day, the 18-year-old Perseus, desperate to prove himself a man, comes across the women.

Andromeda is the youngest daughter of a wealthy nomad. Just before she is to be wed to a kind local man, a sandstorm blows up. The priest says the gods are angry. To appease the god, Andromeda offers herself. She is to be lashed to the rocks on the seaside for a night and a day. The winds are already slowing when Perseus spots her from the ship he is on. He “rescues” her against her will.

The novel shows Perseus in a very different light than the old myths. Far from heroic, he is an insecure, boastful coward who constructs his own untrue story after demonizing Medusa and forcing his will upon women whose own wishes he ignores. Heywood does a wonderful job of showing Perseus’ own trauma, so that he is not a one-dimensional villain. Nevertheless, it is the women who are heroic in this tale.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Victorine by Maude Hutchins

Maude Hutchins (Maude Phelps McVeigh Hutchins) was an early-mid twentieth century artist turned writer who is, or was at the time, better known for being the neurotic wife of Robert Maynard Hutchins. This man was famous for being the young and formidable president of the University of Chicago.

Maude is associated with the “nouveau roman” movement and her novels and short stories were seen as scandalous. One of the best of these is Victorine.

is an odd but lovely short book that is essentially a story of a girl coming of age, or awakening to her sexual but still innocent self. She is thirteen. All her senses are alive and buzzing, but confusedly. She has a sixteen-year-old brother and their infatuation with one another (which terrifies them both) runs as an undercurrent throughout. Her father is aloof to the point of being an automaton. Everyone but Victorine’s mother, Allison, understands that he is a serial adulterer. Allison is oblivious. The children are left with no moral guidance except the vague mores of their social class and the mystical, not quite applicable, dictates of the church.

The story takes us through the next couple years, essentially through Victorine’s puberty. She has an active imagination with experiences that veer into magical realism. She fantasizes about sex while trying to block it from her mind and dabbles in innocent experimentation. The novel brushes up against enough taboos to make it uncomfortable. Yet the lyrical writing layers on reassurances that no boundaries are crossed. 

By the novel’s end, the reader feels she understands these strange characters, and they come to seem more real than bizarre. I’m curious enough about this writer to read more of her work if I can chase it down.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley

 Jane Smiley’s most recent novel is A Dangerous Business

The backstory: Eliza was given to Peter Cargill, a man twice her age, by parents concerned she was interested in a young Irish Catholic. Peter packed her up, took her away from her home in Kalamazoo, and moved to Monterey. This was in the mid 1850s and he thought he would make his fortune in California. He was cruel and violent, used her as a servant, and, fortunately for Eliza, was soon killed in a bar fight.

The story: Relieved to be free of him, the still very young Eliza is approached by Mrs. Parks, one of the local brothel owners. Curious and in need of funds, Eliza takes up a career as a prostitute. She finds the job suits her well. The madam is kind, fair, and does all she can to keep the women safe. The men, for the most part, are no trouble. Certainly better than Peter was.

Mrs. Parks discourages friendships between her employees to ward off gossiping. But one day, Eliza meets a prostitute from a different establishment, one that caters to women. Jean impresses Eliza with her independence. Jean changes identities easily, from female to male, young to old. For the first time in her life, Eliza has a friend. 

The two start spending time together and discover a mutual enjoyment of the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When two other local prostitutes disappear and no one seems to care, Eliza and Jean investigate on their own.

Eliza had been a fairly uncomplicated, trusting person. Now she begins to suspect everyone. She evaluates her customers in a different light. It’s fascinating watching her growth as she struggles between her natural instincts of kindness and trust and her newly burgeoning caution and suspicion. But as she opens her eyes, she also opens her heart. The reader is carried along as Eliza and Jean set a trap to catch the murderer, whoever it may be.

For all this, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace. The narrative voice kept me at a distance. I was interested in the whodunnit, but not wholly drawn in to the story.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Knows Best by Susanna Craig

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

The Lady Knows Best by Susanna Craig is a new release that is the start of a new Regency Romance series: Goode’s Guide to Misconduct.

Daphne Burke is a sensible young woman who suffers a bit from middle child syndrome. Her large family is peopled by originals and she is left feeling ordinary. But she gets her chance to shine, albeit anonymously, when she stumbles upon a meeting of the staff of a new sensational publication, Mrs. Goode’s Magazine for Misses. Its intended purpose is to inspire women to think for themselves and be more independent. Daphne is all for that. And when she is invited to write an advice column, she dives right in. The first letter she answers is from a young lady who must marry a rake but doesn’t want to. She’s certain he is unfaithful and knows the only reason he proposed is to win a bet. Daphne’s advice is simple. Don’t marry him.

It turns out the rake is Miles, Viscount Deveraux. He did make an impetuous bet that he would be married by the end of the month. Knowing his reputation, his friends all bet against him. Now he’s even more determined to marry. Miles’ reasons are deeper than he lets on; it’s not just pride and/or money spurring his drive to win the bet. Still, he is guilty of pretty much everything that is said about him in London.

Miles discovers that it was Daphne who wrote the advice column that will lose him the bet. Since she is desperate to keep her identity a secret, and he is desperate to win that bet, he extracts from her an agreement to marry. But she wants him to woo her to make it convincing.

So, the fake courtship. Except that Miles doesn’t realize it’s fake. He feels guilty for blackmailing her, but thinks he can win her over. She, on the other hand, is using the opportunity to study the behavior of a “rake” in order to write an essay for the magazine to warn other young women what to guard against.

It’s no surprise that over the course of the wooing, they fall in love. They come to appreciate one another’s strengths and understand one another’s weaknesses. They also discover an intense physical attraction that they indulge. Fans of moderately steamy romance will find all the usual elements of slow-build seduction. But there is more to the development of the relationship than sex.

There remains the essay for Daphne to complete. And the bet to be won. And this conflict keeps the story interesting until its happily ever after.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: How Not to Marry a Duke by Tina Gabrielle

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

This entertaining (I read it in a single day) new Regency Romance, How Not to Marry a Duke by Tina Gabrielle, utilizes the fake courtship trope.

Daniel Millstone, the Duke of Warwick, has retreated to one of his properties, a small country manor, to get some work done. It’s the height of the Season and he really should be doing his ducal duty by finding a wife and siring an heir. But his interest lies elsewhere – with his inventions and tinkering with the inventions of others. 

Lady Adeline Cameron is his new neighbor. The half-sister of the Earl of Foster, an old nemesis of Warwick’s, Adeline has moved into a cottage deeded to her by her father. The cottage is in need of repair, but Adeline is determined to make the best of it. She is a skilled healer and wants to devote her talents to helping the villagers. She also wants to escape from Foster’s machinations. He is in debt to a moneylender who will forgive the debt in exchange for her hand in marriage.

Warwick and Adeline meet when he comes to complain about her noisy dogs. The mutual physical attraction is instantaneous, but between Warwick’s complaints and Adeline’s defensiveness, they find one another annoying. Nevertheless, when Warwick sees Adeline being threatened by Foster, he announces that she will not marry the moneylender because he is courting her.

Later, the two cook up a plan to pretend to be courting until the end of the Season. The moneylender will give up and marry another girl. And Warwick will have a reprieve allowing him to work and avoid marrying for another year. However, they have to convince the ton, particularly Adeline’s stepbrother and Warwick’s godmother, that the courtship is real.

Warwick and Adeline are not old-style typical hero and heroine. Warwick’s scientific endeavors and Adeline’s medical skills and non-aristocratic parentage (her father was an earl but her mother was the daughter of an Arabic rug merchant) make them unusual in the eyes of society.

Of course, during the course of the pretend courtship, they will fall in love. The course that this romance takes and the chemistry between them makes this story work. The requisite sex scenes, typical heat-level for the genre, are held until the later parts of the book.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Good Town by Mary Louise Wells

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

Good Town by Mary Louise Wells is a beautiful and important WWII novel. There are no spies or resistance fighters or code breakers. This is a novel about the regular people – the people too many of us would have been. When faced with a slow creeping danger, self-preservation and protection of our loved ones is naturally a first concern. Looking the other way is a slippery slope. But as the old saying goes: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This novel shows evil triumphing and how safety under those conditions is only an illusion.

Josef Haupt is a good man. He is a wealthy, successful farmer in Guttstadt, East Prussia. A devoted, God-fearing Catholic. Father of eight. Respected by his neighbors and the people in town. But when the Nazis begin to infiltrate Guttstadt, Josef goes along to get along. He makes the mistake of speaking to an old Jewish friend in a very public way and is hauled off by the Gestapo where he is threatened with imprisonment if he does not get on board with the Nazi agenda. First, he has to become an agricultural overseer for the region. Eventually, he is coerced into joining the party. Little by little, although he never agrees with what is going on, he finds himself coopted by the party machinery. It is the only way to keep his family “safe.” All four of his sons end up fighting for Hitler.

Margarete is Josef’s eldest daughter. She is nine years old at the time the book begins but close to twenty by its end. She is witness to and victim of all the horrors of the war and its aftermath. Strong, intelligent, and resilient, Margarete doesn’t understand much of what is happening at first, but slowly becomes aware of what the Nazi regime and the war mean for her family, friends, and Germany.

The book is based on the author’s own family lore. She brings the characters fully to life with sensitivity and honesty. It is well-researched, realistic, and emotionally gripping. This novel is highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Hold Fast by J.H. Gelerntner

Hold Fast by J.H. Gelerntner is a Regency Era (Napoleonic Wars) spy adventure novel. It’s also book one in the Thomas Grey series, so there is more adventure to come.

Thomas Grey is an agent in the king’s Secret Service. Or, he was. He has just resigned, after the shipboard death of his beloved wife, Paulette. They were returning from his posting in Malta when their ship was attacked by the French and she was killed by cannon shot. Unable to continue his work, Grey has decided to move to Boston and work for a lumber firm.

However, as he sets out, war with France resumes. After a short skirmish at sea, the ship Grey is on must put into Portugal. There, he is mistaken for a disaffected British navy man. Seeing his chance to exact revenge upon the French for killing his wife, specifically upon the captain of the French ship that fired the cannon shot, Grey takes it upon himself to work as a double-agent.

The novel is chock-full of action-adventure. Grey is a master of pretty much everything and invincible to boot. Nevertheless, suspend disbelief as when watching a James Bond movie and this book will thrill.

Monday, April 10, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Natural History by Andrea Barrett

A year ago, I read Andrea Barrett’s wonderful collection of interwoven short stories, Archangel. Her new collection, Natural History, is similar in style and content, combining rich character development with an eye for the beauty of the natural world. There are six stories. In one way or another, each incorporates Henrietta Atkins, an early twentieth century naturalist who taught school in a small town in northern New York state.

Henrietta leads a quiet life, but her influence nevertheless extends beyond the schoolroom into the lives of the inhabitants of her town and beyond. She chooses to remain single, but family is very important to her and she devotes much of her time to helping raise (and shape) her nieces. To some degree, this prevents her from making a name for herself in the larger world the way that her science-minded friend Daphne does. But Henrietta does not seem discontented with her choices. Her life is well-lived. People remember her. And women in succeeding generations echo her.

Woven into these short stories are explorations of science and technology, revealing the astounding changes that took place over this relatively short period of a few generations.

The characters are remarkably complex. The stories raise questions about their interactions and motivations. Some of these are answered but others are left for the reader to ponder.

Barrett is able to blend her fictional characters into real places and allows them to mingle with real historical figures. You’ll find yourself carried back to a time where the world was at the cusp of something new. A timeless heroine like Henrietta Atkins forms a bridge between old ideas and new ones. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Emilienne by Pamela Binnings Ewen

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

Set in Paris during the Belle Epoque, Emilienne by Pamela Binnings Ewen is the story of one of the great courtesans of the age, Emilienne d’Alençon.

It is a rags-to-riches story. Emilienne was born to a prostitute in Montmartre, but escapes by running away from her abusive mother to make a life for herself as a dancer with the top Parisian shows. One of the most beautiful women in Paris and an accomplished flirt, she loves to dance and thrives on the attention. Before long, she is maintaining her lifestyle by entertaining wealthy gentlemen.

Throughout most of the book, things come very easily to Emilienne. There is little apparent struggle and almost no conflict. The men are generous. The women are friendly and cooperate rather than compete. Emilienne rides high. She does experience a personal tragedy when a nobleman she is involved with is torn away by his controlling mother. But while she regrets this loss all her life, she moves on and rebuilds her career with no real difficulty.

It’s only in the later years, when her beauty is fading and she is no longer sought out by the dance halls, that her life begins to lose its luster. She needs to find a new way to live. Or at least a new man to love.

The setting is an interesting one. Emilienne is a real historical person and her life intersected with other high-flying Parisians of the times. However, the novel dances only lightly over Emilienne’s rise to fame and gives the impression that there was no hardship involved, except for some rare brief hunger pains. There is none of the expected grit. The story has a fairytale quality that made me wish for more depth.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

I recently read a biography of William Wilberforce by Stephen Tomkins. Wilberforce is the revered nineteenth-century British MP who worked hard to end the slave trade. But I wanted to know more about the anti-slavery movement in England and more about the others involved.

Bury the Chains
by Adam Hochschild is a comprehensive study of the subject. It begins in 1787 with a group of twelve men meeting in a London printing shop and continues through the total abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in the summer of 1833. And then it goes on through the death of Thomas Clarkson, the last of the original twelve.

The book highlights the efforts of the enslaved as well, with chapters on the revolts in the French and British West Indies. It includes the attempts at settling freed slaves in a colony in Sierra Leone – right next to a slave-trading hub. 

Although Wilberforce is given his due, this book makes clear that he was only one of many. And, in fact, although his dedication to ending the slave trade never wavered, he was a proponent of very cautious, gradual change, believing in the supremacy of white aristocrats like himself. He was happy to give charity, but shuddered at the thought of equality.

The importance of women’s groups is also stressed, especially in progressing from ending the slave trade to abolishing slavery altogether.

It is a difficult book to read, both because of the large amount of information conveyed and because it so clearly demonstrates the cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy of those in charge. But it is well worth the effort.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Good Time Girls by K.T. Blakemore

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

The Good Time Girls by K.T. Blakemore is the first book in her new Wild-Willed Women of the West series.

Ruby Calhoun didn’t want to be an outlaw. She wanted to be Annie Oakley. But one bad marriage, two children left in the care of her sister, a stint as a performer (but not a prostitute) in a Wild West brothel /theater, and a failed stagecoach robbery have turned her into one. That and a troubled friendship with her partner, Pip Quinn. Pip likewise is haunted by a relationship with the wrong man. A very wrong man.

This rollicking novel told from Ruby’s viewpoint skips back and forth in time from current action, when Ruby and Pip are reunited, to four years earlier, when Ruby and Pip first meet. This format allows the story to unfold in a way that keeps the tension high in both timelines.

Ruby escaped an abusive marriage but ended up in a dead-end town where she managed to avoid prostitution by becoming a performer at the rinky-dink theater attached to the brothel. She attached herself to the star attraction, Pip. Unfortunately, Pip was in thrall to a gambler/charmer/abuser named Cullen Wilder. Not content with his power over Pip, he wanted control of the brothel as well. Leading to a disastrous turn of events.

Four years later, Ruby has paid her debt to society, but perhaps not her debt to Pip. Ruby owns a small cigar shop and hopes to lead a quiet, safe life. But that dream is laid to rest when Pip walks through the door. It seems Cullen has sent Pip his “calling card,” a death threat. Pip expects Ruby will also be getting a card. The two must join forces to find him, and kill him, before he finds them.

This is a voice-y, old-western adventure with plucky female protagonists — women driven to extremes by the limitations of their lives. 

Thursday, March 30, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor is a brilliant epistolary novella first published in 1938. Essentially contemporary with Hitler’s rise to power, the novel comprises the correspondence between two friends: Max, a gallery owner and art dealer in San Francisco, who is Jewish, and Martin, his one-time business partner, who has returned to Germany with his wife and children after a good deal of financial success as Max’s partner. 

After settling back into German life, Martin abandons his liberal ideas, joins the Nazi party, and hero-worships Hitler. He breaks off the now-inconvenient friendship with Max as all his latent anti-Semitism comes to the fore.

Things progress from there.

Although ~85 years old, this is nevertheless a timely look at how quickly fascism can infect the minds of those willing to scapegoat others to advance their own agendas. It is both a sad look at the past and a warning for the future.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Yours Truly, The Duke by Amelia Grey

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

I was ready for some pure escapism, so I chose the new Regency Romance by Amelia Grey, Yours Truly, The Duke. This is a marriage-of-convenience story and a quick, entertaining read.

Wyatt (the Duke of Wyatthaven) is a wealthy, handsome, powerful duke who carries some guilt from his past. When he was boy at Eton, with all the privileges of being a duke’s son, he did nothing to help his fellow students, some of whom were being physically abused by one of the teachers (who taught poetry.) He is only 28 and has no desire to settle down. However, his grandmother died a year earlier and left a codicil to her will that is to be read one year after her death. The codicil gives him one week to marry or a valuable property of hers will be left not to him but to a poetry society. (She loved poetry. This was not a punishment/cruelty to Wyatt.) Still, weird. Why the year wait before announcing this? Why the one week’s notice? At any rate, Wyatt sets to the task. His attorney knows just the woman, Miss Fredericka Hale.

Fredericka also needs to marry. She took in her young nephew and two nieces after the tragic death of her sister and brother-in-law a year earlier. She loves them and is determined to bring them up in a way that would make her sister proud. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of extra money and she doesn’t have a husband. This wasn’t a problem until her cousin Jane, married to a viscount and unable to have children of her own, decided she would claim Fredericka’s sisters’ kids. Now, Fredericka needs a husband desperately. (Only a husband would be able to lay claim to the children in court.) A duke would serve the purpose very well.

They are wed. The deal is, he gets his inheritance and he’ll make sure she keeps the children, but nothing else in their lives will change. Of course, everything changes.

The two have an intense chemistry. They bicker a lot and misunderstand each other almost intentionally. Nevertheless, they are plainspoken with one another and generally reasonable. The threat of losing the children is very real. Wyatt learns that just being a duke doesn’t mean everything will go his way. He has to put in effort. Fredericka learns she doesn’t have to be so uptight about the children’s upbringing. And they fall in love.

This is an interesting start to a new series. We meet Wyatt’s two closest friends (also dukes) who I expect will feature in the next books. This is a series to watch!

Saturday, March 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy in the Rain by Stephanie Cowell

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

Now available for pre-order!

The Boy in the Rain by Stephanie Cowell is a stunning, emotionally rich novel of illicit love in Edwardian England. It was hard to put this book down.

Robbie is a young, talented painter. Anton Harrington is a wealthy banker who is, at the core, a socialist reformer. They meet when Robbie, thrown out of the house by his uncle, comes to live in the vicarage in Nottinghamshire where the vicar is supposed to tutor him for the university. Anton owns a house in Nottinghamshire and is friends with the vicar.

The two men are swiftly smitten with each other. But love between men is forbidden. Illegal. Anton is older than Robbie, 29 to Robbie’s 19, and there are wounds in his past that complicate matters further. Robbie is an innocent in many ways, but more open and giving.

The novel follows the course of their relationship through its times of comfort and leisure as well as the more frequent times of strain. They pursue their own careers – Robbie becoming a celebrated London portraitist and Anton leaving banking to return to his political endeavors. Communication is sometimes fraught. They break up and reunite. But always, they are better, happier, together. The fact that the world does not permit them to love, and that there is danger in loving, gives this novel its conflict and its poignancy.

The writing is superb. The author climbs inside the hearts of the protagonists and the reader’s heart will break along with theirs. Highly recommended. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight from Paris by Jane Healey

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

Are you up for one more WWII novel? Goodnight from Paris by Jane Healey is a poignant new release for historical fiction fans. Based on real historical events, this novel highlights the experiences of American women who remained in France during the Nazi occupation.

Drue Leyton Tartière was an American movie star in the 1930s who moved to Paris to be with her French husband, Jacques. When the war broke out, Jacques went to work for the Allies as a translator. Drue stayed behind in Paris. Although she had opportunity to escape to the safety of the U.S. (and resume her acting career), she opted to stay in France in the hope of seeing her husband from time to time. She took a job with French radio, Paris Mondiale, broadcasting to the U.S. about the situation in Europe, taking an anti-Nazi stance that put her on their execution list. When the Germans invaded Paris, she fled to a small village nearby where she continued her Resistance work in conjunction with Jean Fraysse, the head of Paris Mondiale.

With cameo appearances by journalist Dorothy Thompson, entertainer Josephine Baker, and Parisian bookshop owner Sylvia Beach, the novel is a who’s who of important American women in France during the war. This is an inspirational story of freedom-fighting against terrifying odds.