Thursday, June 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibín became one of my favorite writers after I read The Magician, and I loved The Master as well. I came across Nora Webster in a used bookstore and bought it quite a while ago, but just now got around to reading it. It’s going to be our next book group book.

Set in Ireland in the late sixties, Nora Webster follows the life of a woman who has just lost her husband, Maurice, far too young. (They are in their late 40s.) She has two grown daughters and two younger sons (a teenager and an elementary-school aged boy.) The girls have moved out. The boys are at home.

Nora is a very private and prickly woman. She is distant from her extended family, even her children, and feels closest to her brother-in-law and his wife. She lives in a small, close-knit community where her husband, a school teacher, had been well-loved. Nora wants mostly to be left alone. Very gradually, she emerges from the cocoon of her grief and starts to make a new life for herself.

It’s a quiet book, but compelling because Tóibín climbs inside Nora’s head and makes us feel her deep, unexpressed emotion. At times, the reader may cringe at her inability to connect with people, but then it seems she has been connecting with them, in her own way, all along. The prose is straightforward, evoking the somewhat tunneled, nothing-extraneous life that Nora has lived.

Ireland, at the time, is involved in great political upheavals. These are acknowledged as events on T.V., or protests that one of the daughters is involved with, or the unionization of the business where Nora works. But these events only touch Nora peripherally. Or, she is interested in them only as they touch her world specifically. But it provides a larger context for the reader.

Tóibín’s writing is so wonderful that he can give us a story about an unknown Irish widow and make her life every bit as compelling as those of Thomas Mann and Henry James.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Homestead by Melinda Moustakis

I grew up on The Little House books and then read them again with my daughter. So now, even knowing that the history of the pioneers is a lot more complex than is portrayed from the white settler viewpoint, and that the rugged individualist mythos has morphed into something both dangerous and pathetic in the modern era – nevertheless, there is still something compelling about a well-told, human-against-nature narrative. A pioneer story.

But now throw into the mix a man with a whole lot of emotional baggage. And make the setting 1950s Alaska instead of the mid-1800s, and you have Homestead by Melinda Moustakis. This literary historical novel is superb.

Lawrence is a 27-year-old Korean War veteran with survivor’s guilt. Also, he was raised in crushing poverty, so that left scars. Farming is what he knows. So after he returned home from the war, he set out for Alaska Territory to lay claim to 150 acres. He has to build a cabin and grow 20 acres of a crop to earn his deed to the land. He wants a wife and a whole brood of children. He wants something to call his.

Marie is a young Texan with a flighty mother, an embittered grandmother, no father, and an older sister, Sheila, who practically raised her. When Sheila moves to Anchorage with her husband, Marie follows her, determined not to be trapped into a Texas marriage to suit her grandmother. Marie wants a place to belong.

They meet one night in a bar, exchanging very few words. They have one date the following day. And then, they are married. Now, they have to discover who they have married and if it was a mistake.

It is a hard life. Isolated. Cold. Poor. Dangerous. But the hardest part is building a relationship when there is very little communication and very little reason to trust.

The prose is lush when describing the landscape. It is spare when portraying emotions – yet the emotions are deeply felt. While the plot is fairly simple and the pace leisurely, the story is utterly gripping.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Fatal Illusion by Anna Lee Huber

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

The latest installment in Anna Lee Huber’s regency mystery series, A Lady Darby Mystery, has just been released. A Fatal Illusion combines carefully crafted mystery with multilayered family drama, all in a well-researched historical setting. This is the eleventh novel (with an additional novella in the middle of the series) and these books continue to satisfy.

Kiera (Darby) Gage and husband Sebastian have solved many mysteries in the past. He is a government inquiry agent (like his father, Lord Gage) and she is a very intuitive woman with a knowledge of anatomy and medicine gained from her first husband, a surgeon. That knowledge was acquired against her will. (Start with book one, The Anatomist’s Wife, for the full backstory.)

They are now new parents. Kiera hopes that their daughter will help to smooth over the fractious relationship between her husband and his father, a relationship that is even more strained now that Sebastian has discovered the existence of a half-brother, Henry, that his father kept secret. Henry and Sebastian had intended to meet up with Lord Gage but they received word that he had been attacked by highwaymen and seriously injured while en route. They make a detour to Yorkshire, where Lord Gage is now recuperating in a surgeon’s home in Yorkshire.

It soon becomes apparent that this was no ordinary robbery. Someone targeted Lord Gage. Someone who wished him dead. Kiera and Sebastian have to figure out who, and why – with very little help from Lord Gage, who has reasons for wanting to keep the attackers’ motives secret.

The novel is set in 1832 and utilizes the political events of the times to create a believable, intriguing plot. The well-developed supporting cast helps carry the storyline. This series continues to be one of my favorites. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: If a Poem Could Live and Breathe by Mary Calvi

If a Poem Could Live and Breathe by Mary Calvi is a historical romance based on the love story of Teddy Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. It incorporates actual love letters discovered in a cache of Alice’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

They met when Alice was a seventeen-year-old about-to-be debutante in Cambridge. She was a member of an old Boston family and her mother, the villain of the piece, had strict ideas of what women must do. Essentially, behave politely and marry well. Alice, who was of a more intellectual bent, was desperate to go to the new women’s college affiliated with Harvard.

At this time, Theodore Roosevelt was a Harvard student. Although he was a bit of an outsider, being from New York, his athleticism, brains, and good humor made him a favorite among his classmates and won him Alice’s heart.

The two suffered from chronic health problems. Roosevelt had terrible asthma as a child, which he had largely, but not completely, outgrown. Alice had a more mysterious recurring illness that was diagnosed as a nervous condition related to her overburdening her brain with too many thoughts of education. Alice suffered under her mother’s tyranny, and part of her attraction to Roosevelt was his more progressive view of women’s rights. He would have been happy to have her obtain an education, although it is unclear how that could have worked out. Their marriage, unfortunately, was tragically short.

I was very interested in their story and eager to see the love letters. These were mainly sent after their engagement and marriage, while Theodore was traveling and campaigning for political office. However, the book did not grip me as I thought it would. The courtship was a bit cloying and, for me, not very interesting. They spent a lot of time coming up with nicknames for one another. The letters essentially said I love you so much over and over again. The book does give convincing period details: what they wore, what they ate, and what games they played. But for me, there wasn’t enough depth to the account to make a truly satisfying story. Still, my opinion is in the minority. Most reviewers are giving this novel 4 or 5 stars, so give it a try.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Remember Me by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh has a new Regency Romance, Remember Me, book two in the series A Ravenswood Novel. (Book one was Remember Love.)

Lady Philippa Ware, sister of the Earl of Stratton, is finally ready, at age twenty-two, to make her London debut. Mourning her father’s death kept her from having a Season earlier, but more than that, it was a crisis of confidence. At age fifteen, she had learned of her father’s philandering, breaking her heart. The entire family was immersed in scandal. Just as she was beginning to venture out again in public, she overheard a handsome stranger, the Marquess of Roath, who was visiting her town, refer to her as “soiled goods.” For years, she believed this was how society viewed her. Although she now feels ready to tackle Society, she also still has some of that fear.

Lucas Arden is heir to the Duke of Wilby, his grandfather. Lucas was orphaned at fifteen and has spent the last nine or ten years learning the duties that will fall to him. Now, as his elderly grandfather has been diagnosed with a heart condition, Lucas must undertake his most critical duty: marrying and siring an heir to continue the line. He dreads the process of courting because he knows his grandparents will insist upon choosing the appropriate candidate for him, allowing him minimal choice in the matter. And he knows he will follow his grandfather’s dictates even if his heart rebels against them.

As soon as Lucas arrives in London, he finds his aunt is throwing a tea party and he meets a very lovely young woman, the sister of an earl, who would be a perfect candidate if she were not the daughter of Caleb Ware, the late Earl of Stratton. Lucas has his own secret reason for hating the dead earl. He wants nothing to do with the family. The young woman is Philippa. And she wants nothing to do with Lucas. He is (courtesy title) the Marquess of Roath.

Despite this rocky start, the two are thrown together often during the Season. Philippa becomes a great favorite of the Duke of Wilby, who is determined that she will be his grandson’s bride. And while Philippa and Lucas fight against this, it’s clear that they are actually perfect for one another.

Remember Me is another lovely romance by Balogh that dives deep into the hearts of the hero and heroine, surrounding them with a supportive, entertaining cast of family and friends, and pulling at the heartstrings of the reader. I recommend reading book one first, but this one can stand alone.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

 I just finished West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge, a truly heart-warming historical novel.

Using a framing structure, the book begins when a VA employee is assigned to sort out the effects of a newly-deceased 105-year-old WWII veteran, to return them, if possible, to remaining family. The veteran possessed only a single footlocker. When the employee opens it, she finds a toy giraffe and a stack of hand-written notebooks.

The novel then opens into chapters that alternate between the last days of the veteran, who is suffering from dementia but has vivid memories of his eighteen-year-old self. Despite the efforts of the nursing home staff, he spends his last days writing a letter to a mysterious woman that is a memoir of sorts. This memoir/letter is what the VA employee finds in the notebooks.

The letters recount the 1938 cross-country trip of the young man, Woody (Woodrow Wilson Nickel), as the driver helping to transport a pair of giraffes from New York to the San Diego Zoo. The giraffes are miraculous survivors of a hurricane that hit during their Atlantic crossing. Woody is a bedraggled survivor himself, having been orphaned in the dust bowl of the Texas panhandle. Woody carries a load of guilt – both from the trauma of circumstances surrounding his parents’ deaths and from the fact that he has become a petty thief in order to survive. 

Riley Jones (a.k.a. the Old Man), the man hired to transport the giraffes has a way with animals, but he can’t drive because of a shriveled hand. When the original driver proves incompetent, Woody manages to take his place, on a temporary basis. It is as difficult as one might imagine to drive two giraffes coast-to-coast with a 1938 truck and 1938 roads. Not to mention the danger of theft or illness of the giraffes, or of Woody’s past misdeeds coming back to haunt him.

There is also a young woman, Augusta, or, as Woody calls her, Red. An intrepid photographer with a passel of secrets, Red wants so badly to be a photojournalist for Life Magazine that she pretends to be one. Red follows their truck in a conspicuous green Packard that she has “borrowed.” Woody is smitten. 

This is a beautifully written story of a life-changing journey – with giraffes. It is based on a true story of hurricane-surviving giraffes that were carted across the country in a modified truck. Newspapers followed the progress and along the way, people turned out to see the exotic animals, a must-needed distraction during the Depression and pre-WWII tensions. The historicity of the novel is enhanced by snippets of news articles, telegrams and a sample “hobo card.” Although I’m not sure if these are real excerpts or fictionalized ones, they ring true. This is a great book for book clubs.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: One More Seat at the Round Table by Susan Dormady Eisenberg

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

One More Seat at the Round Table by Susan Dormady Eisenberg is a real treat for theater lovers and will especially resonate with fans of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot. This novel takes the reader backstage through the whole pre-production process and continues through the eventual triumph in New York.

The main protagonist is a stage-struck young woman, Jane Conroy, who pulls some friend-of-the-family strings to get a job as a gal-Friday, working for Alan Lerner’s production assistant. Her love interest is Bryce Christmas, a young actor with a voice made for Broadway. He is hired to play Sir Lionel, one of the supporting cast and understudy to Lancelot. Jane and Bryce navigate the dual challenges of a budding love affair and being a part of the launching of a new Broadway show.

The love story is sweet. There are bumps in the road but the conflict is pretty minimal because the two are so reasonable. This allows the reader to enjoy the romance while mainly concentrating on the play, because what really shines is the excitement of the theater experience. The novel is meticulously detailed, immersing the reader in the ride. The 1960 original was so fraught with troubles, from the scripting to initial off-Broadway poor reviews to illness of the writer and director, that the play might never even have made it to Broadway. The novel brings out the tension and doubts very well. At the same time, the camaraderie of the crew and their protectiveness of the play gave it a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

I was fortunate to see the 1980 Broadway revival of Camelot and it has remained one of my favorite musicals. As I read, I could hear the old show tunes in my head and it brought a smile to my face, remembering. But even if you’ve never seen Camelot, this book is well worth reading.

Monday, June 12, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Heiress Bride by Madeline Hunter

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

The Heiress Bride
is the third novel in the Regency Romance series, A Duke’s Heiress, by Madeline Hunter. In this series, the recently deceased Duke of Hollinburgh has left his fortune not to his family, but to three strangers. The strangers are all tradeswomen, commoners, and this leaves his money-hungry relatives confused and angry. The stories of two of the heiresses are told in the first two novels, but this novel stands alone well.

Nicholas Radnor is the new duke. He has inherited the title and some property, but not enough money to support the lifestyle or keep up the estates. He has to marry an heiress. It’s one of his many unwanted duties.

Another duty is to find the third woman named in the old duke’s will. (The old duke was his uncle.) So he is relieved but suspicious when she makes his job easier by showing up at his door.

Iris Barrington has no idea she is about to inherit a fortune. She came to see the duke on another matter entirely. She is a dealer in rare books, and she hopes to find a particularly valuable psalter in the duke’s possession. She has been searching for it for a long while. And her reason for looking is a secret she needs to keep from the duke.

Nicholas is impressed by her beauty, intelligence, and independence. He’s intrigued by her worldliness. (Iris is no blushing, virginal debutante.) Iris is attracted to Nicholas’ strength, handsomeness, and his willingness to help her. Things heat up quickly. But Nicholas doesn’t quite trust her. And Iris’ motivation for finding the book is not something he would condone if he knew of it. Plus, someone may have murdered the old duke and someone is trying to kill either Nicholas or Iris.

The stakes are high in this Romance infused with mystery. The protagonists are compelling. And the love story is strong. Romance fans should enjoy this series.

Monday, June 5, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Out Front the Following Sea by Leah Angstman

Out Front the Following Sea by Leah Angstman is a gritty, swashbuckling, page-turner of a historical novel.

Orphaned at sixteen, Ruth is branded as a witch when her parents die in a barn fire and she is deemed responsible. The townspeople drive her out, burning her home. Her only ally is a childhood friend, Owen Townsend. Owen is a sailor, first mate on his father’s ship, and Owen comes and goes at his father’s whim. It is Ruth’s good fortune that the ship is in the harbor when she needs to flee, so she stows away.

The friendship between the two has lately matured to love, and now, on the ship, veers into passion. 

Still, Owen must leave her at the next port. Father’s orders: he has no choice. This time, he tells her, he’ll be away at least a year. During his absence, Ruth is compelled to marry the cruel Captain Samuel Whitlock, one of the leading men of the town.

The novel is set in the New England colonies in the late 1600s, during King William’s war. The colonists in Ruth’s new town are staunch British loyalists. Owen’s loyalty lies with the French. When he comes to rescue her, all hell breaks loose.

Ruth is a strong woman with modern-day ideas and a take-no-nonsense attitude. She has no prejudices or superstitions, and befriends natives as well as Quakers, who are considered heretics. She’ll do whatever it takes to return to Owen. Owen is more pirate than simple sailor. Although a Frenchman, his allegiance is first and foremost to Ruth.

There are myriad twists and turns in the plot and the adventure will keep you on the edge of your seat. A few anachronisms and implausibilities were not enough to mar my enjoyment of this novel of undying love.

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.