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.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Portrait by Iain Pears

The Portrait by Iain Pears is a voice-driven, slow-build thriller. Or horror story. It reminded me of something Edgar Allan Poe might write.

In the early 1900s, William Nasmyth, a critic who rules the London art world, invites himself to visit an old friend, Scottish artist Henry Morris MacAlpine, to have his portrait painted. MacAlpine is living in self-imposed exile on a tiny, remote island off the coast of northern France.

The story is told by the artist as a monologue spoken to the critic. MacAlpine likes to talk while he paints but prefers his subjects remain still. The history of their friendship unfolds, exposing the true natures of both critic and artist. While at first confiding and slightly jocular, the digs MacAlpine makes grow increasingly pointed. And disturbing. At the same time, the weather slowly turns violent so that, at least for the time being, the critic is trapped on the island.

The truth of the situation dawns on reader and Nasmyth alike, bringing the book to a chilling, satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

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

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano is a lovely, angsty contemporary novel of love and family. 

The Padavano family consists of four daughters (Julia, Sylvie, and the twins Cecelia and Emeline). Their father, Charlie, is a dreaming sort of man who is kindness incarnate, but who never manages to make enough money to get ahead and relies on his wife, Rose, for all practical matters. Rose is determined that her daughters will be college-educated, self-reliant, and well-married. (The best laid plans...)

William Waters was a wounded child who grows up to be a depressed young man. A talented (but not talented enough) basketball player, he plays for his college team until sidelined by injuries. Also in college, he meets Julia, falls in love, and is absorbed into the family.

The Padavano daughters are all very different, but live interconnected lives. Julia has her whole life planned out and it will be one of financial success, one where she can continue to structure her sisters’ lives for success as well. She chooses William to be her husband and tries to mold him into the shape of the husband she wants. When he realizes he cannot be enough for her, or for their infant daughter, the depression he has barely kept at bay all his life consumes him, shattering the Padavano women in the process.

This is a tear-jerker of a novel about a family torn apart and put back together again. It is a quiet, beautiful book.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard

In time for Women’s History Month, I just read the newly released A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard.

The novel opens in 1986 after the death (murder) of history professor Johnny Wharton, chairman of the department at a low-tier Texas university. His murderer has not been caught.

Four women, each with a different relationship to Johnny, tell their life stories. The book deals with various aspects of women in academia in the 1970s through ‘80s. The feminist movement, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, and inter-generational trauma are all touched upon.

Maddie is also a history professor in the department. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Maddie is somewhat appalled to find herself in a Texas backwater at a university with no prestige. She moved south to be with her lover, Roz, an academic in another department, who is from Texas and needed to return to care for her aging mother. This was a university where they could both hope to have tenured positions; however, they would have to keep secret their same-sex, mixed-race relationship. The trade-off was worth it for Maddie until she finds herself dumped by Roz and re-evaluating her life.

Liz is Johnny Wharton’s wife. Born and raised in the South, she was brought up to be the quintessential southern lady. She defers in all things to her husband. She asks no questions. She and Johnny had one daughter from whom she is now estranged, though she cannot fathom what went wrong. Liz works part-time as an accountant and volunteers at an animal shelter, but she is pretty much sleepwalking through life, mourning the lost relationship with her daughter.

Jenny is the daughter. She is filled with rage at both her parents and determined to cut them out of her life. She is now in school in Madison and is starting, against her will, to make friends and care about others. But at the same time, she is self-destructive and full of self-loathing.

And there is Jane, a smart but timid graduate student who is scooped up by Johnny as a research assistant. He quickly seduces her, reducing her, as she is well aware, to a stereotype. Yet she hopes, for a while, that his interest will help her to grow beyond her own mousey self-image and allow her to face the abuses in her past.

The trauma each of these women experience is related with sensitivity as horror piles upon horror. Each person in the novel will, at one point or another, express a wish to kill Johnny or at least, that he will be killed. By the book’s end, the reader is glad that someone killed the man. 

This is a gripping novel with sympathetic female protagonists, each with her own strengths and her own blind spots. The reader is taken on a painful but ultimately satisfying journey.

Monday, March 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

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

I’ve been reading some more short story collections lately. How did I not know Margaret Atwood was a short story writer? Her latest collection is Old Babes in the Wood.

This is a moving collection of short stories focused primarily on themes of aging, memory, and loss. Whether you find the protagonists insightful, a little crotchety, or a bit of both will depend upon your perspective, but the truths that emerge in the course of the tales will make you stop and think.

The stories are varied, but Atwood returns to a focus on Nell and Tig, an older couple, happily married for many years who have had good, full lives by most standards, and are now faced with the inevitable. It’s heart-wrenching without being melodramatic.

This is a beautiful collection – as would be expected from this author.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Have you ever wanted to go back to college and take a literature class? Maybe one on short stories? How about one on classic Russian short stories, for example, works by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol? If so, I highly recommend George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. (Subtitled In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.)

Based on a class that Saunders (the author of Lincoln in the Bardo) teaches at Syracuse University, the book presents a series of classic short stories and then demonstrates how they can be read critically to extract more meaning. Saunders discusses how short stories are constructed and why the writer may have made the decisions he did. It’s a fascinating way to look inside a literature course as well as to read and appreciate some great classic short fiction.

Saunders writes engagingly and encouragingly, making these Russian masters more approachable. A highly recommended reading experience.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Entangled by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster is one of my go-to authors for reliably entertaining, fast-paced Regency Romance. Her newest series, The Duel, begins with Entangled.

Major Giles Butler is an honorable commander in the King’s army. So when he overhears a slander against his superior officer, who was recently killed in battle, he takes offense. Boldly. Unfortunately, the slanderer is an arrogant duke who doubles down on his insults to save face. Insults are exchanged. A challenge is made. The next morning, the duke is dead. Knowing better than to kill a peer in a duel, Giles had aimed wide but still hit the man.

Giles intends to submit to his punishment, but not until Bonaparte is defeated. So he must hurry back to his ship and return to the fray before he is apprehended by the law. But first, he feels duty-bound to make his apologies to the widow. He changes his mind, though, when he reaches the duke’s estate and realizes that his presence would likely just cause her more pain. Then, hovering at the outskirts, he sees a young woman sneaking about who seems determined to make a getaway from the estate.

Rosamund, the Duchess of Cuttyngham, has no idea that she is now a widow. But she does know that she is miserable, having been neglected and controlled for years. There is no love lost between her and her husband and she doubts he’ll bother to come looking for her. She has purchased a small cottage in a distant county where she intends to live quietly and work as an herbalist.

The two meet. Giles offers to escort her to the nearest town. They maintain anonymity for a while, but before long their innate honesty leads them to confess to one another. That and the fact that the duke’s death becomes news and Rosamund realizes she has to return home for the funeral.

In the meantime, the two have fallen for each other. The rest is a race to outrun the law as well as a couple of villains who have it out for Rosamund. (One is a stalker and one is a cousin of the deceased who is hellbent on becoming the next duke.)

The villains are stock characters, as are Tom and Izzy, two very young gentlefolk who are impetuously eloping and need guidance that Rosamund is quick to provide. The side characters are necessary to the plot but are lackluster.

The chemistry between the hero and heroine is believable and readers will want them to find a way to be together, despite the fact that one murdered the spouse of the other. The HEA ending is a bit too pat, but loose ends are tied up adequately. Although this is not my favorite of Lancaster’s novels, it does provide an interesting entree into a new Romance series.

Monday, March 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Mystery of Mysteries. The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak

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

A Mystery of Mysteries. The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe
by Mark Dawidziak is a new biography of the brilliant Edgar Allan Poe. Best remembered for his beautifully creepy poems and short horror stories, he was also a humorist, a detective story innovator, and a literary critic. 

Rather than starting as biographies typically do, with the subject’s early life, this book begins with the questions surrounding the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death. Each chapter is introduced with more details about Poe’s last months (creeping up to his last weeks to his last days), then the bulk of each chapter walks the reader through Poe’s life chronologically. 

This format keeps the tension high as theories about the cause of Poe’s death are presented. The difficulty is not that there are no possibilities but that there are too many. Some (like murder and rabies) are discarded, but most of the various illness theories remain in the running. Dawidziak has his favorite, explained in the last chapter, but admits that even this can never be proved.

Edgar Allan Poe did not only have a mysterious death. He also had a short, productive, difficult, and brilliant life. A good deal of mythology has sprung up around him. Dawidziak debunks many of the myths. (Such as he was a habitual drunkard, a laudanum addict, and as gloomy and morose as the characters in his horror stories.) But debunking the myths does not make the man any less fascinating. If you’re interested in a quick study of Poe, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles

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

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles is a page-turner of a Regency Romance adventure. 

Sir Gareth Inglis was abandoned by his father (a baronet) and raised by a begrudging, unscrupulous uncle. After his father’s death, Gareth inherits the title and a property in the marshes of Kent, along with a half-sister he didn’t know he had. He soon discovers the marshes are riddled with smugglers, and his part of the county is controlled by the smuggling family, the Doomsdays.

Joss (Josiah Doomsday) is the head man. Aside from coordinating the smuggling operation, he also has to rule his unruly family. Although he has always worked alongside his strong-willed mother, they are heading for a clash since she continues to throw her support behind her useless younger brother Elijah, who wants all the perks of being head man (mainly free alcohol) while doing none of the work. And now, there is a new baronet in town, one who disapproves of smuggling.

The difficulty is: Gareth and Joss have met before. At a tavern in London where men strive for anonymity and sneak off into private rooms. Their secret could spell ruin for them both. They come from two different worlds and have very different outlooks. But the attraction between them brings them back together. Together they must deal with a missing fortune and violent men who wrongly believe Gareth knows where it is and will do anything to wrench it from him.

This is a well-crafted, high-stakes adventure with sympathetic protagonists and believable villains. The love story is compelling and emotionally satisfying. The sex is graphic but not gratuitous. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Friday, March 3, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Voices in the Dead House by Norman Lock

Voices in the Dead House by Norman Lock is the ninth book in the author’s American Novel series. It presents multi-layered portraits of two literary giants, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott, by examining a few months of their lives where their experiences overlapped. Both went to Washington in 1862 to serve in hospitals for the wounded following the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Whitman is given the first and larger portion of the novel. Puffed up with self-importance after the publication of Leaves of Grass, his vanity is touchy, his thoughts self-absorbed, and yet, his compassion for the wounded soldiers is boundless. He volunteers in the hospitals and performs menial labor as well as purchasing small gifts for the men and spending time trying to comfort them. In between his shifts, he wanders about Washington, musing on all aspects of life, oftentimes in company with his lover, Peter Doyle, a horsecar conductor. 

Alcott’s voice is quite different. She has escaped the poverty and drudgery of her (despised) father’s home and immerses herself in the drudgery of the hospital. She is an efficient and caring nurse, but her mind wanders constantly to her past and to the men who populated it: Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. She has passing thoughts of marriage but immediately repudiates them. She is a staunch abolitionist, but is defensive about her need to proclaim it. She, too, wanders about Washington, thinking, while she is not at work.

Lock does a tremendous job crawling inside the heads of these masters and pulling us inside as well. There is little plot. The characters come to the city, they work, they ponder, they exchange ideas with other people, and they move on. But the riveting prose and the dreamlike interior monologues of the protagonists carry the reader along.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Archivists: Stories by Daphne Kalotay

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

Whenever I review short stories, I start off with the disclaimer that I don’t usually read short stories. But recently, I’ve been delving into more of them, so I was pleased to be able to review The Archivists: Stories by Daphne Kalotay.

This is a thoughtful collection of stories dealing with life-changing events and moments in largely realistic contemporary settings. (There is a hint of the magical or surreal in a few, but mostly, they are realistic.) The stories have varied settings and do not interlink, but deal with everything from reactions to the pandemic to a second date where one must eat egg in aspic.

The characters are deftly portrayed and I found myself emotionally invested in each of the stories despite the brevity. They are beautifully written, dealing primarily with complex relationships. They are moving rather than depressing. 

The book is recommended for short story fans and for those who dip into the literary form only occasionally.