Tuesday, February 28, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Woman with the Cure by Lynn Cullen

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

Women’s fiction fans are likely familiar with Lynn Cullen’s work. (See my previous reviews of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End.) Her latest release is the compelling novel of the race to create a vaccine for polio, The Woman with the Cure

Polio is now all but eradicated (thanks to vaccines) so it is difficult, in the 21st century, to wrap our minds around what a devastating disease it was. With today’s improved therapies, we no longer think of the horror of the “iron lung.” The recent race for a Covid vaccine and the debates about Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson call to mind the competition between Salk and Sabin. But my knowledge of polio and its vaccine was of a telescoped history. I thought of it as a couple of years of closed pools and movie theaters sometime in the 1950s – and then the miraculous vaccine. This couldn’t be more wrong.

The Woman with the Cure begins in 1940, and polio is already a scourge bringing seasonal epidemics of paralysis and death, primarily to children. Dorothy Horstmann is a young resident physician at Vanderbilt, who only got the position by applying as D.M. Horstmann to disguise her sex. Despite rampant sexism, she succeeds in immersing herself in work in the polio ward and also gets involved in research. Early in her career, she has a chance meeting with Dr. Albert Sabin which sets her on her life’s course: determining how patients are infected, how the infection travels to the nervous system, and, if the disease cannot be cured, determining how to prevent it.

The novel is told with a chronological series of incidents that demonstrate the slow progress of medical research, the intense competition between the various laboratories (especially between Sabin and Salk), the egotism of the men (which got in the way of the exchange of information and often prevented progress), and the horrible discrimination, both overt and insidious, that Dorothy contended with every day of her life

Although Dorothy is the protagonist, the novel is peopled by all the great (American) names in polio research. The majority of the researchers are men, and they suck up all the oxygen in the room. Most of the chapters are Dorothy’s, but other women (nurses, secretaries, laboratory technicians, wives, and mothers) are also presented in small slices of life. In contrast to the men, who care about finding a vaccine so that they can be the ones celebrated in the press, the ones to secure funding, the ones winning the Nobel Prizes, the women want a vaccine to save lives. The men compete; the (few) women collaborate. While the novel may overstate this case, it does present a convincing picture of male egos run amok.

It was not until 1960 that a safe, effective polio vaccine was made widely available. The race was a slow one. The novel puts into perspective the rather miraculous state of vaccine research and development today.

Cullen does a superb job (again) of bringing the varied characters in her story into focus. Dorothy Horstmann is a real historical figure whose research was fundamental in understanding polio and critical to the development of the vaccine. She deserves to be rediscovered in Cullen’s story.

Monday, February 27, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Marquess and the Runaway Lady by Samantha Hastings

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

The Marquess and the Runaway Lady
by Samantha Hastings is a new Regency Romance. It features an orphaned heiress, Lady Louisa, who is being treated by her aunt and uncle as a penniless servant (a Cinderella story). Louisa is essentially being held prisoner until her cousin Barnabas, an awful creature who is deeply in debt from gambling, deigns to marry her and take over her fortune. On her twenty-first birthday, believing herself of age and free of her guardians, Louisa runs away.

She is rescued on the road by the Marquess of Cheswick (Wick.)

Wick is the oldest son of a duke. The duke and duchess have gone off to Africa for a while and have left him in charge of his incorrigible younger sisters. The last time they did this, when Wick was only 16, a scarlet fever epidemic swept through his family and claimed the lives of two of his siblings. He has never forgiven himself.

Louisa and Wick are instantly attracted to one another (lots of mutual ogling but no acting upon the attraction other than some kissing.) Wick brings her to London (along with the sisters) to be chaperoned by his one married sister. This sister helps to “bring Louisa out” for a London season. 

In order to claim her inheritance, Louisa must be twenty-five (four more years) or marry. Everyone can see that she and Wick are perfect for one another. And they are mutually smitten. However, Wick does not want to marry. He fears taking responsibility for another person since he was unable to save his siblings.

Louisa is well-received by the ton and, given her beauty and wealth, does not lack for suitors. Aware of Wick’s determination not to wed, she resigns herself to a loveless marriage in order to truly escape the clutches of her aunt and uncle. But her conniving cousin is unwilling to let that inheritance slip through his fingers. He is determined to compromise her and gain her for himself.

The novel combines a few romance tropes into a sweet storyline. The protagonists are gentle. Wick’s self-chastisement goes on a bit too long, but he makes up for it with his devotion to his siblings. The novel is recommended for fans of Regency Romance that is sweet rather than steamy.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Connected Women by Kate Hodges

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

Connected Women
by Kate Hodges is a clever illustrated collection of mini-biographies of ~ 85 inspiring women from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries. Each biography is a page long with a colorful illustration.

The women succeed in many different ways, from aviation to politics to all forms of the arts. Each woman is connected to the one presented before her and after her, either through friendship, inspiration, or some sort of support. For some, the connections are obvious. Others are more subtle. But the book does a good job of showing the network that connects the women.

Although brief and therefore skimming the surfaces of the lives of these extraordinary women, the capsule summaries nevertheless provide enough detail to stimulate interest in finding out more. 

The book is probably best read a little at a time, rather than all at once, so that the names and biographies don’t blur into one another. This would make a lovely gift book for a graduate.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell, the author of Hamnet, has a new book out. The Marriage Portrait is another gorgeous, lushly written historical novel.

Lucrezia is the fifteen-year-old third daughter (a middle child) of the grand-duke of Florence. She has always been headstrong and a little difficult, so she is not a favored child. She finds solace (and fascination) in art and is able to lose herself in painting.

Unfortunately for Lucrezia, the main value of female children is their potential for marriage alliances. Lucrezia is wed to Alfonso, the duke of Ferrara. While Lucrezia is beautiful (her crowning glory is her ankle-length hair), intelligent, and talented, she is valued only as a breeder. It is an open secret that Alphonso has never fathered any illegitimate children. Yet if she does not provide him with an heir, the blame for the failure will fall upon her.

The story bounces back and forth between Lucrezia’s “current” conflict with her husband in a hideaway fortress and their courtship (bleak) and early marriage (bleaker). During this time, he commissions a marriage portrait of her that is to portray her regally in a gown of his own design. Alphonso is an interesting, frightening man, capable of charm and gentleness but also of secrecy and immense cruelty. Lucrezia is never sure which side of the man she will see. The atmosphere is gothic and claustrophobic. The ending is well foreshadowed; still it is creepy and thrilling to follow Lucrezia through to the end.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Bookworm by Robin Yeatman

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

Bookworm by Robin Yeatman is a new noir comedy about a drastic marital mismatch and more. It could be seen as a cautionary tale about why readers should not marry T.V. watchers. Or why a sociopath should not marry a control freak. 

Victoria is the bookworm. She is a massage therapist married to a high-powered lawyer who is struggling to make partner (Eric). As far as everyone else is concerned, her parents, his parents, Eric himself, even Victoria’s best friend, she is extremely lucky to have him. He’s rich and handsome. What more could she want?

Apparently, she wants the cute guy (Luke) she saw in her favorite coffee shop who was reading the same book that she was.

Victoria has a very active fantasy life, fed by the books she reads non-stop. She makes up very detailed lives for the strangers she sees during the day. She fantasizes about flying to Luke’s house in the middle of the night for illicit rendezvous. The details she invents make these things seem quasi-real. She also fantasizes about ways her husband will die. Accidents or murders made to look like accidents.

Her husband is no prize. Fitness obsessed, he constantly makes snide comments to her about what she eats or how much she works out. He expects her to keep the apartment immaculate. He buys her an e-reader to get rid of the clutter of books and is disgusted by library books because other people have touched them. He works late. They have nothing in common. He is closer to her parents than she is and complains about her to them. Worst of all, he tries to gaslight her, telling her that reading too much can cause depression. He forces her to spend a week watching movies with him and forbidding her to read. It has the creepy feel of nineteenth-century controlling husbands who commited their wives to asylums for reading novels.

So, yes, she needs out of this marriage, even if it does mean giving up her lavish lifestyle. 

But, yuck, she is an awful person. In fact, there is not a single decent human being in the entire novel. I was drawn in by the twisty plot, but was glad to be finished with the book. 

Monday, February 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: William Wilberforce: A Biography by Stephen Tomkins

Switching gears, I read William Wilberforce: A Biography by Stephen Tomkins. This is an older biography (from 2007, which isn’t really that old) and is relatively short. It gives a good overview of the man and his times, though given the length, it was relatively superficial.

Each chapter opens with an excerpt from a slave narrative or a snippet of a song from the times that illustrates the horrors of slavery and the slave trade.

The book then takes us through Wilberforce’s life. Born in 1759, Wilberforce lived through tumultuous times. Britain’s colonialism was at its height, but the edges of its empire were fraying. One of the sources of its wealth (although the economics of it were hotly debated) was the slave trade. Men and women were purchased in Africa, transported under horrifically inhumane conditions to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and sold to the planters. There, they were treated as beasts of burden. The life expectancy was less than seven years. 

Wilberforce was exposed to evangelical Christianity early in life. (At the time, this meant Methodism.) However, in his young adult life, his mother did her best to eradicate that influence and have him adopt the more lukewarm religion of his peers. He did, for a while. Then he entered politics. He inherited money. He involved himself in charitable endeavors. And then, he discovered the abolitionist cause. He returned to Methodism (hesitantly and secretly at first, before throwing himself into it wholeheartedly.) Then he made it his life’s work to abolish slavery. The first step was to stop the slave trade.

I had always believed that England had a more enlightened view of enslavement than did the U.S., but this is not at all true. Wilberforce (and others) tried for many years to get an Act through Parliament to prohibit slave trading. The biography recounts the bitter struggle, the ongoing political wrangling, and the heartbreaking defeats. The most difficult part of the book is reading the justifications of the practice offered up by Englishmen with commercial interests in the trade. (These echo or foreshadow the arguments of Southern plantation owners in the U.S.) Truly appalling inhumanity. 

It took until 1807 before the Act of Parliament banning the slave trade was finally passed. Even then, it did not banish slavery in the colonies. And other, smaller scale operations by other countries continued for years. But the first necessary step was doggedly pursued by William Wilberforce. 

For those interested in the life and times of this extraordinary man, this biography is a good place to start.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke I Came For by Abigail Bridges

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

A little Valentine's Day romance...

The Duke I Came For by Abigail Bridges is the fourth book in The Ashton Park series. I haven’t yet read the first three books, but this one stands well alone.

Lady Elizabeth Ashton (Beth), daughter of a duke, has fled London due to family scandals which led to her being dumped by the man she had agreed to marry. Her refuge is Timmons Manor in far-off Yorkshire, the home of her sister-in-law’s Aunt Sophia. When she arrives, she finds a house full of young women. They all seem to be taking refuge there and Beth has to learn why.

Kit Caudale, Duke of Kirkstone, arrives at the house one day later after four months of fruitless sarching for his missing sister. His last lead has brought him to Timmons Manor. However, Sophia denies knowing the girl. Kit has fallen ill with pneumonia after exposure to the elements during his lengthy search. As soon as he hears his sister is not there, he collapses.

Beth and Kit were previously acquainted. He had courted her during her Season and was one of her top choices. Now, she regrets choosing the weak man she did. But would Kit have been the better choice?

Beth nurses Kit back to health and acts as a go-between for him and his sister (who is hiding out at Timmons Manor.) There is enough scandal here to bring down the houses of both dukes, unless Beth can convince Kit of a plan to salvage them all.

This is an enjoyable Romance with likable characters. The steam is saved until near the end. I’ll have to explore the rest of the Ashton Park series to get the full story on this family!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer

After my last few intense reads, I wanted to read something light and fluffy, so I went to my go-to: Georgette Heyer.

Sprig Muslin is everything you expect from a Regency Romance by Heyer. An utter delight.

Sir Gareth Ludlow is a 35-year-old widower who is ready to marry again after mourning for seven years. His first wife was beautiful and vivacious, the life of every party. No other woman could possibly measure up. But that isn’t what Gareth (now much more mature) is looking for. He has his sights set on Lady Hester Theale, a shy, retiring, 29-year-old spinster who is rather ill-used by her family. Gareth has always admired her kindness and sensibleness. He’s fond of her. And given his own good looks, wealth, and high-standing in the ton, he expects she’ll say yes. So he sets off for the Theales’ country home to propose.

Along the way, in an inn, he bumps into Amanda, a strikingly pretty 15-year-old runaway. The girl makes up a ridiculous story (based on the old Romance Pamela) that Gareth sees through easily. He can tell the girl is highborn and cannot be allowed to roam wild, but she refuses to tell him who she is or who her people are. He has no choice but to offer her a ride–not to where she wants to go, which would result in her utter ruin, but, rather, to the Theales’ with him. So, he becomes her abductor.

To arrive at the home of the woman you wish to propose to with a pretty young thing on your arm is absurd. Everyone believes Amanda is his mistress, though no one can quite believe it because she’s so young they wouldn’t have thought it of him. And to bring his mistress to a proposal makes no sense whatsoever, but the men there wink at each other and the women fume. Gareth explains the situation to Hester, who understands immediately and tries to help deal with Amanda, befriending the girl, so that isn’t a problem. Nevertheless, when Gareth proposes to her, Hester turns him down. The problem (that she doesn’t explain but that is clear to the reader) is not that she doesn’t love him, but that she does. And she believes he is still in love with his dead wife.

So they are at a bit of an impasse. And then, Amanda escapes. Gareth has to set out after her.

The novel has a slow-ish start. Heyer has to set all the pieces up on the board. And, after Gareth leaves the Theales’, Hester disappears from the story for quite a long while, which is odd for the genre. But the story picks up speed when the chase after Amanda gets going. She is flighty but determined. Her goal is to be allowed to marry Neil, a soldier in the Horse Guards, and follow the drum. (Neil is a very upstanding young man, who refused to go against her grandfather’s wishes and wants to wait to marry her until she is older. So, Amanda hopes to force the issue.) Along the way, Amanda continues to tell stories that are more and more outlandish as she takes refuge in odd places, enlists unlikely helpers, and tries to outrun her abductor. But Gareth is equally inventive and much cleverer. The way the lies turn around on themselves had me laughing out loud.

Georgette Heyer does have some stock characters: the flighty ingenue; the patient, clever aristocrat who is always in control until he is not; the sensible but still fun no-longer-a-debutante lady. And the HEA ending is a given. Yet Heyer always finds a way to make the situations fresh and funny. Be a bit patient with the start of this one and you’ll be rewarded!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Hero of This Book: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken

The Hero of This Book: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken is a fictional memoir. Or, it is a memoir hidden in a novel. The narrator is a writer, which further blurs the line between fact and fiction. Is the distinction important for enjoying this book? Not at all.

In the story, the narrator, a middle-aged woman who has recently lost her mother, returns to London to contemplate her mother’s life and her own bereavement. She spends her time in galleries, a cafe, and a theater. All things she used to do with her mother. Her mother, the hero of the story, had cerebral palsy but refused to let her limitations define her. More defining, as least in how it influences the narrator, was the fact that both her parents were hoarders.

This is a quiet remembrance, a celebration of a life well lived, and also a rumination on the art of writing. Relatable insights pop up throughout. It reads as a sweet and sad story of loss, poignant but with flashes of humor. However, it’s not a book that moved me enough to stick with me.

Monday, February 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Trust by Hernan Diaz

I have been seeing Trust by Hernan Diaz everywhere, which always makes me skeptical. Can the novel live up to the hype? In this case, it definitely does.

The book has an interesting structure. Part One is a novel, Bonds (a fictional novel- meaning it exists only as part of this book), that tells the story of an early twentieth century power couple: an obscenely wealthy financier and his philanthropist wife. This novel is compelling in its own right (even if the only dialogue in the book is the word “I.”) 

Part Two is a fragmentary, unfinished autobiography of the financier upon which Bonds was based. While the basic outline of the two lives is the same, critical details are different. Well, historical fiction functions like this; yet it is fascinating to see how one tale was constructed from another.

Part Three is a memoir by a writer who once worked as a personal secretary to the financier. She has an entirely different view of the man and only the most obscure vision of the woman.

Part Four is part of a journal kept by the woman.

This is a gorgeous exploration of truth versus fiction with a narrators who are not entirely reliable, both intentionally and unintentionally. It also lays out the corrupting power of money and the manipulation of capital – how greed is justified.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers. But I count this one as a must-read.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is our book group’s next pick. A modern-day take on Dickens’ David Copperfield, Kingsolver’s book explores the complexities of poverty in Appalachia.

Demon (Damon) tells his own story in a way that is scathingly honest and engaging — he has a way with words that will make you laugh. Even so, it is a story that is painful to read. Demon was born to a teenage single mother who was in and out of rehab. For a short time, he has an abusive stepfather. Then he is shunted into the foster care system where he is neglected, exploited, and abused. The horror of his everyday life is shown with such detail that it forces awareness upon the reader. This is fiction but based on situations that are all too real.

Demon does make friends as he journeys to adulthood. Some of these are helpful to him but many are detrimental. Drug abuse is rampant and the complicity of pharmaceutical companies is realistically portrayed. Kingsolver delves into the intergenerational causes of rural poverty and does not shy away from exposing the harm inflicted by coal interests and by the stereotyping of  rural culture in the media. At the same time, she brings out the love of the land and the intertwining family and social supports of these communities, contrasting the richness of rural life with the more sterile cities.

The novel is multi-layered and should provide lots of room for discussion at our book group meeting. A long book, it is nevertheless a quick read. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 3, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Maureen by Rachel Joyce

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

Maureen by Rachel Joyce is the third book in the Harold Frye trilogy. I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye. It’s hard to believe I read it more than a decade ago. A lot has happened in ten years and Maureen takes this all into account, up to and including the pandemic.

Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage was a 500 mile walk to see a dying friend. The walk helped heal the heartbreak he felt after the death of his son, a tragedy that fractured his marriage. Maureen is Harold’s wife, the woman he found his way back to all those years ago. For a while, their marriage seemed repaired, but Maureen is still not over David’s death. How could she be? So now, it’s time for her to make a pilgrimage of her own.

Queenie (the dying friend of Harold from book 1) created a sculpture garden before she died. The garden consists of driftwood pieces and artifacts left by others as remembrances of lost loved ones. It was dedicated to David – Maureen and Harold’s son. Maureen has never seen the garden and, partly prompted by the cabin fever of the pandemic, she has become obsessed with it. At Harold’s prompting, she sets off (in her car, not on foot) to see it.

She has a good deal of trouble along the way. She does not find the journey uplifting. Unlike Harold, who thrived on his interactions with strangers who became friends, Maureen is cranky and does not deal well with people. But the garden does move her – to anger first, but finally to understanding and acceptance.

This is a lovely story about unbearable pain and the redemptive power of kindness and love. I didn’t read book two, Queenie’s story, and I don’t think you need to in order to enjoy this one, but I do think you need to read Harold’s story first to fully appreciate Maureen’s.