Sunday, December 31, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Gwen and Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

Gwen and Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher is a delightful YA pseudo-Arthurian romp set in Camelot generations after King Arthur’s defeat. 

Gwen is the daughter of the struggling King of England. She has been betrothed to the irritating Arthur, son of a troublesome lord, since they were both infants. Now that she is eighteen, and there is rising discontent in the kingdom, it is time for her to marry (and appease Arthur’s father.) So Arthur arrives in Camelot for the summer tournament season and immediately begins plaguing her. He doesn’t want this match any more than she does.

It’s a particularly bad time for Gwen to be forced into marriage. She has a developed a massive crush on a young knight, the only female knight in the land, Bridget Leclair, who is also in town for the tournament.

Gwen’s only ally is her brother, Gabriel, although she hasn’t dared confess her crush to him when she doesn’t quite understand it herself. Besides, Gabriel has enough troubles of his own. Quiet and bookish, he doesn’t want to be the heir to the kingdom, but knows it is not something he can get out of. So he spends all his time studying how to be a perfect king. This includes studying a good deal of Arthuriana, which gives him some understanding of and sympathy for the “cultists,” those English who believe Arthur will one day return. And who, meanwhile, have a pagan-ish style of worship of Morgana and a belief in wizardry. (As opposed to the prevailing Catholics.)

Arthur despises his father. He finds Gwen overbearing. He drinks far too much and has essentially given himself over to hedonistic pursuits. But he’s also nursing a broken heart over a fair-haired young lord who rejected him. 

Things heat up when Gwen spies Arthur kissing a boy and Arthur discovers Gwen’s crush on Bridget. Mutual threats turn into an agreement to cooperate. And Gabriel is inserted into the mix when he and Arthur grow attracted to one another.

The action is quick-paced. The interactions are amusing and often times touching. The young folks take charge as the fate of the kingdom falls into their hands. A very entertaining read!

Friday, December 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Send it by Semaphore: The Old Telegraphs During the Wars with France by Howard Mallinson

Send it by Semaphore: The Old Telegraphs During the Wars with France by Howard Mallinson is a gem of a monograph placing emerging communications technology at the center of the Napoleonic Wars. Who knew?

Before Morse code and the electric telegraph (but not all that long before), the importance of swift communication to aid in warfare was recognized. Various methods were attempted, all requiring transmission of signals along lines of sight. Flags, bars, and balls in differing combinations were either used to convey a limited number of set messages or represent a distinct, useful, but far from comprehensive vocabulary, or to mimic the alphabet and spell out precise messages. France had the more advanced system, which was critical for the micro-manager Napoleon to be able to administer his empire while fighting on multiple fronts. England began with ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore signaling, before recognizing the value of sending information across land at a speed faster than that of a horse. However, all the sight-based systems were highly dependent on weather, daylight, high ground, and sufficient support from the occupants of that high ground. (Guerrillas, particularly in Spain, often destroyed towers.)

The prose in this book is sometimes convoluted, but it is chockful of detail about the groundwork necessary for success, the creators of the various techniques, the difficulties encountered, the successes and failures. The book builds a very convincing argument for the importance of fast communication and the significance of this precursor stage.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Red Clay, Running Waters by Leslie K. Simmons

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

New Release! Red Clay, Running Waters by Leslie K. Simmons is a biographical novel of John Ridge, a Cherokee leader in the years running up to the Trail of Tears.

John Ridge is a fascinating, complicated character. The son of a wealthy, respected Cherokee man, John was sent to a missionary school in New England for an education. His brilliance was readily evident, as was his pride in his heritage and reluctance to completely embrace Christianity if it meant giving up his own religion. While at school, he fell in love with Sarah Northrop, the daughter of the school’s steward. Despite the public outcry, they were married and returned to the Cherokee nation in Georgia, where John took up his life’s work, defending the rights of his people.

This is a heartbreaking story. The deck was stacked against him from the beginning. Readers know how the story will end for the Cherokee of the time. But this meticulously researched novel takes the reader deep into the process, bringing home the cruelty of the Georgia government and the hypocrisy and indifference of the national government. (Not to mention the nastiness and duplicity of Andrew Jackson.)

The novel is long, and although steadily paced, it isn’t a quick read or an easy one. The issue of injustice against the Native Americans is intertwined with that of slavery. There is not only oppression of the Cherokee by Whites, but also internecine disputes among the Cherokee. The love between John and Sarah gives them both strength to deal with tribulation and disappointment, but also serves as another struggle for John as he fears he has not given Sarah the comfortable life he’d wanted to provide.

Fans of historical fiction, biographical fiction, and Native American fiction should enjoy this impressive debut. 

Monday, December 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The War Ends at Four by Rosanna Staffa

The War Ends at Four by Rosanna Staffa is an exquisite novel of loss, love, family ties, and the elusive concept of home.

Renata is an Italian expat living in Minneapolis, working as an acupuncturist. She is married to an American actor, a man who is gone more often than he is at home, pursuing his career and other women. One day, Renata receives an urgent phone call from her younger brother: their father is dying. After seven years away, she is finally going home.

Renata says her last goodbyes to her father and then remains in Milan to attend to post-mortem necessities. Mourning and memories flood her. She grieves again for the mother she lost at an early age. She struggles to reconnect with the brother who she loves but who has grown up since she last saw him. He’s dealing with his own issues and she is no longer the big sister who can fight his battles for him. She bumps into old friends, including an old potential love interest who never worked out and who never could work out. She experiences the thrill of a new flirtation. She moves about Milan letting memories and melancholy wash over her. And she listens to the echo of her father’s voice, telling her to move onward.

The language is beautiful and the emotion deeply felt. Renata will pull you into her world. (And make you yearn to experience Milan for yourself.) Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Horrible Peace: British Veterans and the End of the Napoleonic Wars by Evan Wilson

The Horrible Peace: British Veterans and the End of the Napoleonic Wars by Evan Wilson is a fascinating, meticulously researched exploration of the lives of British sailors and soldiers (officers and rank-and-file) after Waterloo. (It begins in the waning years of the wars for context.) It covers both the politics and economic circumstances in Britain that led to the drastic demobilization and resulted from it. It also looks at the social history of these sailors and soldiers – what happened to them in the following years. Wilson includes both statistics and individual accounts. I don’t think there were any surprises. Life is always difficult, in one way or another, for veterans. There was a pension system of sorts in Britain, but it was wholly inadequate. And wealthy or well-connected veterans landed in much better positions than did the poor. But the granular analysis of this demobilization makes for very interesting reading. The book is recommended for those who want to know more about the Napoleonic War period, since the historical significance of these wars did not end with Waterloo.

Friday, December 15, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Investigating the Duke by Alexa Aston

Investigating the Duke by Alexa Aston is the 8th book in the Suddenly a Duke Series, in which lords who had not anticipated inheriting the role suddenly find themselves dukes.

Shelby Slade is a scrappy young woman who learned young how to fend for herself in London’s mean streets. Fortunately for her, she was taken in by the head of the Bow Street Runners and raised as a daughter. Now, she is the only female runner, and she is very good at what she does. 

Jasper Lincoln, the third son of the newly-deceased Duke of Edgehaven, had been happily settled as a clergyman until his whole world fell apart. His father, who had been healthy until about 6 months prior, succumbed to a very rapidly progressive disease. Possibly a tumor. He died shortly after receiving word that his second son, a soldier, had been killed in battle. And before the Duke’s body was cold, Jasper learns that his eldest brother fell down the stairs and broke his neck. Jasper is now a duke.

The timing of his father’s and eldest brother’s deaths seems a bit too coincidental for Jasper. Uneasy, though feeling he’s probably overreacting, he heads to the Bow Street Runners to hire an investigator. He meets Shelby outside and is instantly smitten. He asks that she be assigned to the case. Shelby, who is likewise attracted to Jasper, is thrilled to receive the assignment. She will pretend to be Jasper’s new secretary while she looks into the deaths.

Adding to the cast of characters are Jasper’s newly orphaned nieces and his awful mother. Disappointed in love when she was a debutante and forced to marry Edgehaven against her will, she has spent her life making a misery of the lives of everyone around her.

Although Jasper had never expected to be a duke, he adapts quickly to the role. He is authoritative, but also considerate. Moreover, he is a moral man who determines at once that since he loves Shelby, he must marry her. And although he understands that Shelby’s background would make her a very unusual duchess, he cares little about the fussy requirements of the ton. Shelby is more hesitant to become involved – runners do not become romantically involved with clients!

The love story proceeds quickly as the two are clearly meant for each other. Enough clues are dropped for readers to solve the mystery one step ahead of those investigating and the conclusion is satisfying. Dukes from the previous books in the series make cameo appearances. Although this is the 8th book in a series, it stands well alone.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is one of my favorite writers, so I am working through his backlist. Brooklyn, originally published in 2009, does not have the complexity of The Master or The Magician, but it is still captivating. 

Eilis Lacey is a young Irish woman who, although very intelligent, is unable to find work except as a part-time shop clerk in her small Irish town after World War II. Her brothers have gone off to England to find jobs. She and her older sister Rose live with their widowed mother, who has a small pension. Eilis hopes to follow in Rose’s footsteps to some degree. Rose has a job as a bookkeeper and Eilis is taking bookkeeping classes. But Rose is also beautiful, an avid golfer, and has friends in the area. Eilis is quieter, plainer, and does not have Rose’s self-confidence.

Nevertheless, an opportunity arises (thanks to Rose and a visiting priest from the U.S.) for Eilis to emigrate to Brooklyn. She will have a full-time job as a clerk in a department store and a room in a respectable boarding house, all thanks to Father Flood’s intervention. Eilis does not want to go. She’s comfortable in her small town despite its lack of opportunity. Nevertheless, understanding what Rose and their mother are sacrificing for her sake, she goes.

It takes time, but Eilis does settle into life in Brooklyn. She is hardworking, polite, and quiet, and people like that. She does what she’s told and doesn’t complain. She starts taking night classes and is challenged by bookkeeping/accounting classes. Here, in the U.S., there is a chance for her to move up. At the same time, she meets a kind, thoughtful young Italian man, Tony, who falls in love with her. Together, they begin plans for a future. 

Eilis is hesitant at first. She’s fairly passive and seems to make decisions by inertia rather than autonomous desires. And when she is called back to Ireland after a family tragedy, inertia takes hold of her once more.

Eilis is both a sympathetic character and a frustrating one. Readers will be pulled along by the beautiful writing and by sympathy for Eilis and Tony (and Eilis’ family, and her friends in Ireland and acquaintances in Brooklyn.) Leaving the life you know behind is difficult whether it is the old life or the new one, and sometimes it does seem easier just to stay put.

A sequel to this novel, titled Long Island, is due out in May, and I’m curious to see how Eilis’ life has turned out.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The General and Julia by Jon Clinch

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

Ulysses S. Grant is at the end of his life, dying of throat cancer. His last task on earth is to finish his memoirs in order that the proceeds will provide for his beloved wife as well as his children and grandchildren. Otherwise, the family will be left destitute–a situation he sees as largely his own fault. How did such a thing come to pass for the hero of the American Civil War and one-time president?

The General and Julia by Jon Clinch explores Grant’s life through his own memories as he writes his memoirs, sometimes with surprising clarity and ofttimes in a drug/pain/sleep-induced haze. It is a beautiful, contemplative novel that focuses on the man himself rather than his achievements. Given the circumstances in which he finds himself and his own…humility, Grant seems more consumed by regrets and guilt than by pride or self-satisfaction.

I knew next to nothing about Grant. I thought of him as a brutally efficient Civil War general who became an unmemorable president. Maybe some financial scandal attached? And weren’t there rumors he was an alcoholic?

This fictionalized version sweeps that image away, replacing it with one that is much more rounded. Grant was a devoted husband and father. The fact that his beloved wife, Julia, who came from a Missouri slave-holding family, kept “her girl” Jule into the early days of the war until the woman escaped is one of the incongruities in his life. Grant makes excuses for slaveholding even as he is leading the Union forces. Those excuses, and the failure of the war to make the difference he’d hoped for, haunt him throughout his life. The war years are lightly remembered even though, as a general, he was most in his element. Likewise, he does not delve into the politics of his presidential years. He does ruminate over the scandal that left him financially ruined. Interestingly, here he portrays himself as a victim of his own naivete and gullibility: he is such a good man that he is unable to see evil in others. 

Like any biographical novel, there are certainly elements of imaginative license mixed in with the historical facts. Clinch does a superb job of immersing the reader into Grant’s mind-set, so that it all seems believable – or at least, we can believe that it is what Grant believed. And Grant is now, in my mind, an admirable and sympathetic human being.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 8, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Day by Michael Cunningham

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

Day by Michael Cunningham starts with a compelling premise–a look at one family on three individual days: April 5, 2019, April 5, 2020, and April 5, 2021. So, before the pandemic, in the midst of it, and as it is fading from attention but certainly not gone. And while I’m not quite sure I’m ready for pandemic stories, I did really love Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, so I thought I’d give this one a try.

The father in the family is Dan, a forty-ish stay-at-home dad who took time off from his rock-star ambitions and is now trying to make a comeback. It’s hard to call it a comeback, though, since his career never really took off in the first place. The mother is Isabel, a driven photography editor for a magazine, who works long hours, makes good money, and is growing depressed over the fact that print magazines are soon to be a thing of the past. They have two children, a tween boy who is wrapped up in his friends and wants to distance himself from his parents, and a six-year-old daughter, a pleaser, who is a bit fey. At the center of the story is Robbie, Isabel’s younger brother (younger being his late thirties.) Robbie is the cool, gay uncle who lives in their attic apartment. Both Dan and Isabel are, the novel makes a point of saying, in love with Robbie. It’s not sexual, just romantic. Robbie is in love with them too. However, he has just been dumped by his latest lover and feels he really needs to get on with his life. He teaches sixth grade and hates it. He was admitted to medical school long ago, but didn’t go, and thinks maybe he should reapply. Mainly though, he feels he needs to move out of his sister’s house–if only he could find something decent in his price range in NYC.

This is all established in chapter one, in 2019. It’s fairly clear that the family is bound together by very loose threads. In 2020, those threads are unraveling, but the characters have nowhere to go. (Although Robbie does get away, to Iceland, where he is stranded.) In 2021, the adults are able to physically separate, but the kids are still trapped.

The writing is quite fine, with a narrative distance that fits well with a pandemicky, claustrophobic, fearful vibe. However, the characters never came alive or seemed like real people. The emotions were analyzed rather than felt. And for all they were living through history, the drama focused on small domestic trials, and the stakes remained small with muted conflicts. One motif of the novel was the Instagram character “Wolfe,” whose daily life events were posted by Robbie with occasional input by Isabel – a sort-of handsome-ish, likeable everyman. The photos were stolen from stock photos on the internet. He wasn’t real but seemed vaguely real. This is how the characters of Day seemed to me.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Dot and Ralfie by Amy Hoffman

Dot and Ralfie by Amy Hoffman is a poignant look at aging in the modern era. It’s realistic, and so it’s rather frightening. For anyone experiencing or facing the inevitable difficulties of growing older, or dealing with family members in that situation, this couple’s tragedies (knee replacements, falls, heart attacks, monetary concerns) are all too recognizable.

Dot and Ralfie are in their late sixties. A lesbian couple who have been together forever, they have their quirks as individuals and as a couple. They have friends, coworkers, and family (Dot has a sister), who are sympathetic to their difficulties, but who can’t really offer solutions (although Dot’s sister tries.) Unfortunately, there is no cure for getting old. There are work-arounds that might help one “age in place,” but all that depends upon the acceptance of the fact that this is the new reality. And yet, it isn’t as bleak as it sounds. Relationships remain important, and the protagonists certainly rely on their relationships.

This is a short novel, and so it condenses the drama into vignettes. Even so, it is a realistic exploration of issues surrounding aging from the unique perspective of a couple in the LGBTQ+ community.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson IV: Winter by Sigrid Undset

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

The fourth and final novel in Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece of historical fiction, Olav Audunsson IV: Winter (translated by Tiina Nunnally) has recently been released. I really can’t praise this quartet enough. Please read the series in sequence — I: Vows, II: Providence;III: Crossroads, and finally, IV: Winter. This new translation manages to be both spare and beautiful.

The novels are set in 13th-14th century Norway, a generation before Undset’s Nobel Prize-winning Kristin Lavransdatter.

The story follows the life of Olav Audunsson from childhood until death. He is a God-fearing man. He inherits property and eventually becomes a wealthy, respected member of his community. And his whole life is centered (for good and bad, mostly bad) around his undying love for his childhood friend, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. Everything happens that one might expect: death of parents, unwise premarital sex, exile, war, murder, unfaithfulness, reconciliation, marriage, birth of children, death of children, estrangements, and religious agony and ecstasy. Even so, it is in many ways a quiet book, with more happening internally than externally.

The tragedy of Olav’s life rivals that of any Greek tragedy. The cascading misfortunes that follow youthful errors haunt him his entire life. His sins are visited upon his children. He is unhappy throughout his life and his actions cause others misery as well. And yet, for all my frustration with him, I also had enormous empathy for him. This medieval man truly lives and breathes on these pages.

Friday, December 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Hearts of All on Fire by Alana White

The Hearts of All on Fire by Alana White is the second book in her A Guid’Antonio Vespucci Mystery series. (See review for book one, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin. It isn’t necessary to read book one first, but historical political mystery fans will enjoy both.)

Set in 15th -century Florence and based on true historical figures, this tightly plotted thriller is hard to put down. The protagonist, Guid’Antonio, is a doctor of law, currently assigned to the case of an old man accused of abusing, killing, and burying his own granddaughter. The man’s guilt is clear. Unless, like too many of the men swirling around this 11-year-old child, the judge decides the girl was a temptress who deserved her fate.

But this is the least of Guid’Antonio’s problems. Hovering over him is the uncertain outcome of his recent diplomatic mission. As ambassador of Florence, he’d gone to the duke of Milan to arrange for the purchase of the town of Imola. Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, wants to keep the town out of the Pope’s greedy hands. Guid’Antonio thought the deal had been done, but the contracts have failed to arrive.

With all this, he does not need new trouble. Nevertheless, trouble rains down. During a holiday party at his house, one of the guests drops over dead. The physician who performs the autopsy (the only female physician in Florence and Guid’Antonio’s ex-lover) finds evidence that the man was poisoned by mushrooms. Mushrooms fed to him by a young servant in Guid’Antonio’s house. A series of necessary interactions with this physician causes his new young wife to grow jealous and mistrustful. And maybe she has cause to be.

The author deftly combines meticulous historical accuracy, top-notch plotting, and a compelling cast of characters to create a gripping not-to-be-missed thriller. I hope there is a book three!