Saturday, July 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam

I’m generally curious to see lists of “Best Books” of various types, wondering how many (if any) of them I’ve read. But I am particularly fascinated by the idea of the “Great Books” courses that were taught in the early part of the mid-twentieth century. One of these, possibly the best known, was a series of books published by the Encyclopedia Britannica under the auspices of the University of Chicago – the project spearheaded by university president Robert Hutchins and his henchman, philosopher Mortimer Adler. They chose books not necessarily for their literary merit, but for the ideas they contained. Naturally the entire project was controversial – who gets to decide what books are great and what makes them so -- but it had a surprising impact.

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam is a somewhat humorous look at the project, beginning with its precursors and following through to its imitators. It is particularly enjoyable for its peek into the personalities of the generators of the book series, the educators turned hucksters. The books themselves get very little attention, but that really isn’t the point. The idea is the point. If you’re interested in the Great Books fad, this is a wonderful place to start.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Fatal Legacy by Lindsey Davis

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

The ancient Roman private investigator Flavia Albia is back in the eleventh novel in this mystery series by Lindsey Davis. The latest novel is Fatal Legacy. Although the story can stand alone, the relationships will make the most sense if you start from book one.

This book opens simply enough with a small debt collection. Two customers (seemingly an adulterous couple) leave the bar/eatery owned by Albia’s aunt without paying their bill. The aunt is furious and sends Albia out to identify them and collect – not a difficult task for the investigator. However, when Albia locates the family involved, she is asked by the matriarch to search for something else, proof that her younger brother is not a slave. They are a family of freedmen businesspeople. The matriarch’s niece wants to marry a handsome young citizen. The young man’s family, aware of their background, wants to be absolutely sure there is no lingering taint of slavery attached to the potential bride’s father. Unfortunately, the freeing of the slaves took place over forty years ago, the will is missing, and witnesses are gone, presumed dead.

As Albia searches for documents that may not exist, she becomes entangled in a knot of family feuds, lawsuits, and lies. She enlists the help of her own extended adoptive family and a host of acquaintances as she sorts out the mess. This case does not involve the same level of danger as her usual pursuits, but rather lays out a head-spinning multi-generational family brawl.

Albia uses her trademark irony and good sense to ferret out the truth. Her own clever husband is increasingly sidelined in the series now that they are happily married and he has retired from public life. In this novel, he is essentially a nonentity. While Albia insists that they are both committed to the marriage, it wouldn’t surprise this reader if he is eventually phased out. While his involvement is missed, Albia is competent enough to carry on alone.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Not that Duke by Eloisa James

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

Not that Duke by Eloisa James is the third novel in the series, The Would-Be Wallflowers. It is a Regency Romance that works well as a standalone.

Lady Stella Corsham is not a typical heroine. She is short, stout, freckled, bespectacled, and worst of all, intelligent. Orphaned when young, she has been raised by her aunt and uncle, who despair of marrying her off. She has breeding and a good dowry, and a good number of suitors, but they are fortune hunters and third sons and Stella is not interested. She fantasizes about the Duke of Huntington, Sylvester, a man she considers something of a friend. But he is the most eligible bachelor in the ton and he is very obviously besotted with the beautiful, delicate, and somewhat scandalous Yasmin Regnier. 

Sylvester is not the only man chasing after Yasmin. And Sylvester is very competitive. He does not like to lose. He’s fond enough of Stella. He knows his mother would prefer Stella for a daughter-in-law. But he is determined to court (and win) Yasmin. His problem is that Yasmin seems to prefer another man, one of Sylvester’s best friends. This man is stodgy and intellectual. A much better match for Stella. Or so everyone assumes.

But as the Season progresses, and Sylvester and Stella spend more time together, he starts to appreciate her lusty charms. A lot. He just needs to convince her that it is more than lust that he feels for her. For that, first he has to convince himself.

This is a fun frolic of a Regency Romance with a high steam level. Fans of Eloisa James will not be disappointed. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Maid by Nita Prose

I’ve been reading mysteries lately. One that has been on my list for a while is The Maid by Nita Prose.

Molly Gray is a young maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. She loves her job because it plays to her strengths, a passion for order and cleanliness and a minimum of interaction with people. Molly has difficulty interpreting social cues. Since the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her, Molly has had no meaningful interaction with anyone at all.

Still, she takes comfort in her routines at the hotel. Until she enters the room of a Mr. Black (a very unsavory character) and finds him dead in his bed.

Molly’s penchant for saying the wrong things and her desperate desire for friendship and perhaps even love lead her to unwise decisions. She ends up framed for the murder. She’ll need the help of true friends to unravel the mystery and save her from prison. 

The novel turns on the out-of-step-with-the-world, poignant voice of the well-intentioned Molly. Loose ends are tied up in a somewhat unconvincing way, but the novel is nevertheless an engrossing read.

Monday, July 17, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Deserted by Mary Lancaster

The third book in Mary Lancaster’s Regency Romance series, The Duel, is Deserted.

Deserted continues the story of the family (and acquaintances) of the late Duke of Cuttyngham, a nasty character who was killed in a duel. Or was he? Mystery swirls through the series, as it seems that the duke’s opponent’s bullet was not what killed him. The duke’s second, the Earl of Frostbrook, is one of the men looking into the case.

Frostbrook comes to Cuttyngham to speak with the new duke. While there, he comes across Miss Sophia Wallace, the duchess’ companion. They have met before, under circumstances that are no credit to either of them. But at second meeting, their interest in each other is rekindled in a way that holds more promise.

Sophia has had a hard life. After the death of her parents, she was taken in by a cousin whose family misused her, treating her worse than a servant. She escaped from them to join the newly widowed duchess. But when the duchess leaves for Brussels, Sophia finds herself prey, once again, to her cousin’s grasping plots.

Frostbrook has a plot too. Tired of his mother’s aggressive matchmaking, he wishes to attend her latest country house party with a pretend fiancee in tow. Because he and Sophia have a nascent friendship, (and, as a noted rake, he has no other lady friends) he convinces Sophia to play the part. 

As is typical in the fake-courtship trope, love blossoms between them. But they have only begun to face their hurdles. There is still the increasingly desperate cousin to thwart.

Sophia and Frostbrook are well-crafted protagonists, both resilient yet vulnerable. The love between them is convincing as is their slow-building passion. But what truly makes this a delightful read is the witty banter between them. I eagerly await the next book in the series and hope to learn what (and who) actually killed the duke.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

This backlist cozy mystery crossed my radar recently: A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. It had such positive reviews that I put it on my TBR list. It truly lived up to the buzz.

It doesn’t get any cozier. Charles Lennox is a Victorian gentleman of sufficient means, the brother of a baronet, of whom he is fond. He lives next door to Lady Jane, his best friend. They take tea together regularly, which is his greatest pleasure, excepting the occasional luxury of an afternoon nap. Creature comforts are key. For excitement, he plans trips to faraway locations, trips that he never manages to take.

But he has a decidedly uncozy hobby. He solves mysteries. He solves them more quickly and correctly than the dunces at Scotland Yard.

Lady Jane asks him to look into the death of a girl who used to be one of her maids. The girl left to join the household where her fiancé was a footman. Lennox cannot say no. Even though the death occurred in the home of a high ranking government official who calls in Scotland Yard and bars Lennox from poking his nose in.

Nevertheless, Lennox continues to work on the case. He can number the suspects on two hands, but cannot find motive or opportunity for any of them. Until another murder takes place in the same house.

Lennox is darling. And he is surrounded by a charming supporting cast of thoroughly British characters. This is the first book in a series, so I suppose I have a slew of new books to add to my TBR pile.

Monday, July 10, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore

Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties
by Lucy Moore gives an overview of the decade by looking at a few of the big events and big names: Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, the Teapot Dome scandal, Jazz, Dorothy Parker, the rise (again) of the Ku Klux Klan – and others. This is not an in-depth academic work. It’s a quick taste of what the twenties had to offer. But it does cover a lot of ground and gave me some perspective on the times. I’ve heard of all these things, but piecemeal. This book puts it into context. For anyone who wants a jumping off point for learning about the 1920s in the U.S., this is a good place to start.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages by Carmela Ciuraru

Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages by Carmela Ciuraru provides short biographies of five literary couples: 1. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall, 2. Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, 3. Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan, 4. Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, and 5. Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of most of these people – and, after this, I am not sure I want to read any of their stuff. 

In most of these marriages, both are writers, while in the last, Patricia Neal is an actress, a similarly consuming career. But in each case, it seems the husband’s career is helped by having a wife while the wife’s career is hampered by her husband’s demands. (The first couple are women in a lesbian relationship, but Radclyffe Hall, who went by “John,” took the role of domineering husband.)

These relationships are marred by infidelity, alcoholism, abuse, and misery. The writers are self-absorbed, egotistical, vain, and cruel – with backstories of unhappiness that didn’t excuse their awful behavior. The book’s message, for me, was: Don’t ever become involved with a writer. But since I imagine other occupations can be similarly all-encompassing, I came away feeling that a lot of people should never marry at all. And if they do, they certainly should not have children.

Still, this book is interesting for its peek into the lives of these large-than-life literary figures. Ciuraru presents the material with clarity and empathy. I learned quite a bit about people I was unfamiliar with – which makes this a winning book for me – even if I’m not inspired to go learn more about them. (They are just too awful.)