Sunday, June 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor

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

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor is a heartbreaking literary historical novel. Set in 1938, on a fictional island off the coast of Wales, the story is narrated by an 18-year-old island woman named Manod.

Manod is intelligent and caring. She’s attuned to the rhythms of island life, but yearns to expand her horizons. Many of the younger islanders have already moved to the mainland in search of better opportunities, and Manod hopes to do so also, but it’s unclear whether their lives improve or if what they sacrifice in leaving is too great a price to pay.

The story begins with two arrivals. The first is a dead whale that washes ashore. As it slowly decomposes, it becomes part of the island, incorporated into children’s games and adult rituals. The second is an invasion by two English ethnographers, who are eager to record the culture of the islanders before it disappears. They enlist Manod’s help as an interpreter/transcriber. She begins to see them as the means for her escape. Yet her admiration for them slides into disillusionment as she discovers how they manipulate their observations to tell the story they want to tell.

As expected, the ethnographers are more interested in creating a compelling story for the book they are writing than in presenting a realistic picture of the people and their customs. In the act of “preserving” the culture, they are instrumental in distorting it.

The language is spare. The pace of the novel is slow, but there is a tension in it that held my interest – a sense of impending doom. The whale is potentially an evil omen. The ethnographers are unprincipled. The culture is slowly dying. And WWII is approaching. This is not exactly an enjoyable novel, but it will make you think.

Friday, June 28, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Feisty Deeds: Historical Fictions of Daring Women (multi-authored)

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

Feisty Deeds: Historical Fictions of Daring Women
is a multi-authored collection of 23 short stories featuring fictional women throughout history, from medieval times to the 1970s. It’s not a book that I can sit and read cover-to-cover, but it’s great fun to dip into. Pick a theme (Gambling with the Unknown; Dangerous Deeds; Moral Combat; or Defying Domestic Authority) and enjoy! There is something here for everyone!

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: A Deceptive Composition by Anna Lee Huber

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

A Deceptive Composition is the twelfth book in Anna Lee Huber’s historical mystery series, Lady Darby Mysteries. It continues the sleuthing careers of Kiera Gage (the one-time Lady Darby) and her husband Sebastian Gage, an inquiry officer for the King. Included now in their team is Kiera’s irascible father-in-law, Lord Gage.

The trio are summoned to Roscarrock, in Cornwall, Lord Gage’s childhood home. The summoner was Lord Gage’s Aunt Amelia, who requested help with the investigation of the murder of her brother Branok. Lord Gage is loath to go. He left Cornwall at age 11, after being embroiled in the family’s smuggling operation. He and his best friend were caught. His best friend was killed. And Lord Gage was sent off to the Navy. He has never forgiven his family for dragging him into the illegal business and for abandoning him when he was caught. However, Sebastian and Kiera feel that, after fifty years, it’s time for reconciliation. Sebastian has always been curious about his Cornwall relations. Moreover, they can’t refuse to help investigate a murder in the family.

Lord Gage warns them that the people in Roscarrock are shifty and untrustworthy. And that they are still smugglers. Nevertheless, they set off. Their company includes the men’s valets, Kiera’s maid, their baby daughter, Emma, and Emma’s nurse. The whole crew becomes involved in untangling the mystery, which includes murder, deceit, and a missing treasure.

Once again, the series delivers a compelling mystery and a deep dive into family bonds and family dysfunction. The Lady Darby Mysteries continue to engage!

Friday, June 21, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Long Island by Colm Tóibín

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

I love Colm Tóibín’s novels. I recently read Brooklyn in preparation for his newest release, Long Island. The new book continues the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant to New York, who married an Italian plumber, Tony Fiorello, and thus became part of a large Italian-American family. Now the mother of two teenagers, she has adapted to a life in Long Island, but she has never quite fit in. She hasn’t been back to Ireland in over 20 years, and feels disconnected from both her old family and her new.

The vague dissatisfaction she feels with her life worsens to a crisis when a strange man shows up at her door. He claims his wife is pregnant with Tony’s baby. And when the baby is born, he intends to leave it on the Fiorello doorstep because he doesn’t want it in his house. Eilis doesn’t want it in her house either. Although she makes her wishes clear, the Fiorellos make plans behind her back to take the baby in.

While Eilis’ position may seem harsh, the utter disregard for her feelings highlights her isolation. When she decides to go back to Ireland for her mother’s 80th birthday, it is clear to Tony and everyone else that she might not return.

As Eilis is dealing with this, the novel turns to two of the people she left behind in Ireland. Her one-time best friend Nancy, who is now a widow, and Jim Farrell. Jim owns and runs a tavern. Twenty-years ago, he and Eilis had a summer romance (unconsummated), back when Eilis was newly married to Tony. One can imagine Eilis and Jim picking up where they left off, except for one complication. Jim and Nancy are now involved, and secretly engaged.

Tóibín is able to crawl inside these characters’ heads, making them all tragically sympathetic to start. (At least the three protagonists. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Tony.)  It is impossible to resolve the triangle without a great deal of heartache. I read along, hurting for the characters, unable to guess how it was going to work out, completely engrossed.

While I think Long Island is the better book, I recommend reading Brooklyn first. It’s also superb and will set the stage for the emotionally compelling sequel. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

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

The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club is a new release from Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Set in the summer of 1919, in a British seaside resort town, it explores the alteration of British lives in the aftermath of WWI and the Spanish flu.

Constance Haverhill is a young woman who has lost both her parents and now her job and home. During the war, she helped run the estate of old family friends. But with the return of men from the war, women were booted back to traditional female roles so that men could have jobs, no matter if the women (and their children) had no means of support. For this summer, Constance is serving as a companion to Mrs. Fog, the widowed mother of Lady Mercer (whose estate Constance had been overseeing.) Fortunately for Constance, Mrs. Fog is a kind woman who allows her a good bit of autonomy. (Mrs. Fog has interests on the side that she doesn’t want her daughter to know about.)

While at the hotel, Constance is befriended by Poppy Wirrall, a feisty girl of her own age who runs a motorcycle taxi and delivery service, staffed by women. Poppy takes Constance for a ride, and Constance is hooked. Poppy also introduces her to her mother, widow of a local baronet and a force in the community. And Constance meets Poppy’s brother, Harris, a sour-faced and angry war veteran, a pilot, whose leg had been amputated after a crash. Harris has means to live an idle life, but he wants to fly again, to be treated as the man he has always been, not be shunted aside as damaged goods.

While Constance is enjoying this time with new friends, abuzz with activity, she is acutely aware of the difference between her social class (and some of Poppy’s employees/friends) and that of Poppy and her society friends. Moreover, Constance is pressed by the passage of time to look for employment. The summer will not last forever, and Mrs. Fog will be returning home to her daughter. She will have no further need for a companion. Constance hopes for a bookkeeping job, but fears those jobs will go to men and she will end up a governess.

The plight of women cast adrift in the aftermath of the war is beautifully shown, as is the upheaval in the lives of veterans. Nevertheless, despite the potentially heavy subject matter, this is a light, charming read thanks to the good-heartedness of the protagonists and their enjoyment of what the summer has to offer.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

They say you never get over your first love. Lara Nelson, the protagonist and narrator of Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake, believes that this is not true. Lara’s first love was Peter Duke, a handsome, young, charismatic actor at the beginning of his career. They met at a summer stock theater in Michigan, at a place called Tom Lake. Lara was twenty-four and also an up-and-coming actress. The play was Our Town. Lara starred as Emily Webb. Although brilliant as Emily, she soon discovered it was the only role she could play well. In contrast, Peter Duke was a huge talent who went on to movie stardom.

It is now a pandemic spring. Lara, her husband, and their three adult daughters are in their bubble at the family cherry orchard in Michigan. They are spending long hours every day harvesting the cherries, because someone has to and workers are hard to come by. While they work, the girls ask their mother to tell them the story of her summer at Tom Lake and her love affair with the famous Peter Duke.

The story alternates between the farm/current day and Tom Lake more than 30 years before. Lara thoughtfully relates the story, a compelling story of youth, ambition, innocence, and innocence lost. Lara also narrates the current day, where her love for her family and contentment with the way her life has unfolded shine through.

The book is also an homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play I never liked much but now have a greater appreciation for.

This is a beautiful, poignant, and affirming novel. I have to read more by Ann Patchett. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

I heard good things about The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon, and bumped it to the top of my TBR pile. This is a historical mystery that definitely lives up to its hype.

The novel is inspired by the story of Martha Ballard, a late-eighteenth century midwife in Maine, who kept a daily journal of her work. I read about this fascinating woman decades ago in the award winning biography A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. That nonfiction account puts Martha’s life in the context of the time. I still recommend it all these years later.

In this novel, Lawhon breathes new life into the story by focusing on diary entries recording the rape of one of the townswomen, Rebecca Foster. She named the local judge as one of the rapists. Although The Frozen River is fictional, truthful (painfully true) elements seep through. (Be sure to read the author’s note at the end!)

I don’t want to give away the plot(s). So I’ll just say the writing is superb. The questions that are raised throughout, the desire to see justice done, and the fear that it won’t be, makes this a book that is difficult to put down. The love story between Martha and her husband Ephraim gives the book a soothing, hopeful core while corruption, male privilege, rape, and murder swirl around them. This novel is highly recommended as a must-read for fans of historical fiction.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: My Fair Katie by Shana Galen

My Fair Katie by Shana Galen is the second book in the Misfortune’s Favorites Regency Romance series. The first book, The King and Vi, was so much fun that I pre-ordered book two.

The set-up in this novel is the same as the first. Three 13-year-old sons of peers were sent to boarding school in Scotland after being kicked out of the usual boys’ schools for misbehaving. One night, the three (King, Henry, and Rory) decide to steal a barrel of whiskey from two impoverished sisters who live near the school. Making and selling whiskey is how they survive. The entitled brats take the whiskey and then drop the barrel as they are making their getaway. The sisters (known locally as “witches”) catch them. In convincing witchlike fashion, one of the sisters calls down a curse that when they are thirty years old, they will lose everything that they love.

The curse has seemingly come true for King in book one, and for Rory, who we will see in book three. But now, it’s Henry’s turn.

Henry is now a duke, but is already on the road to losing everything he loves. He is a compulsive gambler. What he loves most, it seems, is the thrill of the cards or dice. He has already gambled away his country home. On his thirtieth birthday, he loses his London townhouse in another unwise bet. Just as he is doing so, he sees an image of the witch from his past and recalls the curse.

Now, Henry is impoverished and disgraced. The winner of both bets (and new owner of both houses) is the vile Marquess of Shrewsbury, who seems determined to ruin Henry, though Henry has no idea why.

Katie (Lady Katherine Malfort) is the daughter of the marquess. He has sent her away to the country home he won from Henry, partly as punishment for showing a burst of independence, but also to hide her away. She has a port wine stain on her face that the marquess is ashamed of. He has convinced her she is ugly and marred and that no man will ever want her.

With nowhere else to go, Henry hies off to his mother’s home – the dower house on the property of the country home now occupied by Katie. The two meet. Sparks fly.

However, there are obstacles to their getting together. Henry is suffering from withdrawal from his gambling addiction. (This is realistically portrayed.) And Katie is convinced no man could ever love her because of her birthmark. Still they team up to figure out why the marquess hates Henry’s family so much.

This is a medium-steam romance with likeable protagonists. They earn their HEA, but there is still more to come. Henry, like King, is still under a curse. Book three promises a resolution, and I’ve already pre-ordered the novel!

Thursday, May 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Death on the Tiber by Lindsey Davis

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

I’ve been following the Flavia Albia Roman mystery series since Book 1, The Ides of April. And before that, I read all of Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. So I was eager to read the latest, Death on the Tiber. While the mystery is very clearly Albia’s to solve, Falco and his friend Petronius Longus jump in to help – and it is a delight to meet up with them again.

The tale begins when the corpse of a woman is dredged up from the Tiber, and identified as Claudia Deiana, from Britain. She was the mistress of a well-known Roman gangster named Florius. Albia is determined to find out why the woman had come to Rome. And why she was killed. Albia feels a sense of duty to the unfortunate victim because she, too, originally came from Britain. Moreover, she knew Florius. He ran a crime ring in Londinium, centered on brothels. When Albia was a young orphan, he trapped her, raped her, and tried to install her in one of the brothels. Fortunately for Albia, she was rescued by Falco, adopted, and brought to Rome. Florius is back in Rome, and Albia has a score to settle.

The novel starts slowly as the backstory is established. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, most of whom were seen in previous books, so it does all fall into place. A list of the cast is given at the beginning of the story to help. It’s probably best to have read earlier books to get the full impact of this one.

The mystery of the dead woman is just a small part of the story. Albia finds herself back investigating the dangerous gangs warring for primacy in Rome. One of the main patriarchs has just died, so there is a good deal of jockeying for power (think The Godfather), and all this violence muddies the waters.

Albia is supported by her father (Falco), her uncle (Petronius), her long-suffering husband (Tiberius), and some high-up muckety-muck who appears in deus-ex-machina style to help her sort things out. I feel like this guy must have figured in one of the previous books, but couldn’t place him – one of the disadvantages of having so many characters to keep track of over so many books. For me, the story would have been more satisfying without this secret character. He goes only by a pseudonym, Titus, and his position, Princeps Peregrinorum, and it was a bit frustrating to have them chat so coyly together and not be able to place who he was and why he and Albia were so cozy. Other longtime fans will likely have a better memory than me.

Albia does her usual grand job of gathering information, working in tandem with the authorities, and chasing down her suspects. Her voice, cynical, snarky, intelligent, funny, and at times, loving, make it fun to follow her along as she investigates. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel

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

The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel is a gentle yet gripping historical novel. Set in London amidst plague and the Great Fire of 1666, the novel follows Cecilia Thorowgood, a young widow who lost her beloved husband to the plague. She grieves so deeply that her sister is worried for her health and sanity. After a series of doctors fails to cure her melancholy, her sister takes a bold step, bringing in David Mendes, a Jew.

David understands obsessive grief. He has also lost a loved one, a longtime friend. Because the friend was a man, David never confessed his love. As a Jew and a bisexual, David has to take great care in all he does. Falling for an aristocratic Gentile is perhaps even more perilous than falling for another man.

Gentle and understanding, David is able to reach Cecilia in a way no other physician could. They grow dangerously close. But David learns a secret. Cecilia’s sister’s concern is not as altruistic as she wants it to seem. She wants Cecilia cured so that she can be advantageously remarried. She even has a second husband picked out. And when Cecilia learns what David knows, the fragile band of trust is broken. Can it be restored?

The novel is beautifully written. The setting is richly rendered. And readers will find their heartstrings pulled.

Monday, March 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: James by Percival Everett

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

I love re-imaginings of classic stories, and have been excited to read James by Percival Everett, which will be released on March 19. This is a re-imagined Huckleberry Finn, told from the viewpoint of Jim.

Jim is an enslaved man with secrets. He is self-educated (highly educated) and devoted to his wife and daughter. He is also entangled with Huck (as in Twain’s novel.)

Jim learns that he is going to be sold, separated from his family, so he runs off to a nearby island to hide. There, he meets up with Huck, who has just faked his own death to escape from his cruel drunkard of a father. Now Jim knows he will likely be charged not only with running away, but also with killing Huck. The two flee the island.

Jim’s goal is to find a way to earn money to purchase his wife and daughter. Huck’s goal is adventure. While roughly following the timeline of Huckleberry Finn, this novel follows Jim rather than Huck. His adventures and close calls are even more compelling than Huck’s.

The novel shows the agency of enslaved people and the secretly subversive ways they undermine the institution of slavery. It also shows the fear and loss that are embedded in their daily existence. One of their tools is language. Whenever around Whites, they speak “slave,’ but among themselves, they speak in an educated, grammatical way that allows them to mock the ignorance of Whites. One of the most unsettling and even frightening things that Jim can do is to speak “correctly” to a White man. Language is power. Liberation will ultimately require choosing/claiming his own name, James.

This is a powerful novel that turns Mark Twain’s classic on its head. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto is a touching novel of fraught family relationships that explores how lives are upended as survivors react to death.

The story is set in motion when a young man is killed in a car crash. His seventeen-year-old widow, Darlene, is adrift, crushed by the fact that no one will allow her to fully mourn. She is expected to move on and stop talking about something that makes everyone uncomfortable. But Darlene’s love is still so fresh and new that she can’t possibly let go. She keeps reaching for a way to connect with the dead man, to hold on. 

Multiple viewpoints are employed to explore the aftermath of this tragedy as its consequences ripple through other families. Clayton is a factory worker who found the cars and the dead man. He is haunted by the death, but has no way to vent his emotions, until Darlene approaches him wanting to know more about the setting of the car crash. Darlene feels that in some way, her husband is trying to communicate with her through Clayton.

Clayton’s family life is a mess. He is married to a woman, Berta Mae, who is warped by her own childhood trauma. She has always been trying to win her mother’s love and failing. Now she feels her teenage daughter is rejecting her as well. And her husband has pulled away. Berta Mae is desperate to be loved and is growing as embittered as her mother.

Berta Mae’s mother, Aurilla, married the wrong man. She lived a long life of misery which turned her bitter and mean, and left her unable to love Berta. Aurilla’s husband has also (finally) died, and her reaction to his death, after a long marriage, is the exact opposite of Darlene’s reaction to widowhood, after a marriage of less than a year.

There is a pervasive loneliness and hurt in the novel, and the reader is propelled along waiting for redemption for the characters. While the young man’s death starts a downward spiral for the characters, it also serves as a catalyst, breaking them out of their ruts and giving them a second chance at life.

This is a beautiful story, thoughtfully told.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Diamond and the Duke by Christi Caldwell

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

The Diamond and the Duke by Christi Caldwell is the third book in her Regency Romance series, All the Duke’s Sins.

Lady Ellie Balfour is the youngest daughter of the cruel Duke of St. James, now thankfully the late duke. She bears the scars of his rages and also the misguided guilt of believing she deserved them because she was a willful child. She was always scheming. When one of her schemes goes awry—or maybe not—leading to the forced marriage of her brother (the new duke) to Cailin (illegitimate daughter of the kindly Duke of Bentley- see book two: Desperately Seeking a Duchess), Ellie isolates herself from her family. Her solitude is broken by the arrival of Cailin’s brother Wesley, a soldier in Wellington’s army.

His kindness to her during those difficult weeks after the wedding is something she will never forget. She falls half in love with him then, but he must return to the war. And when she learns that he is heartbroken because the woman he loves has ceased writing to him, Ellie takes up her own pen and writes, pretending to be that woman. This goes on for more than a year. And then, Wesley is terribly injured on the battlefield.

He returns home a broken man. A scarred, pain-wracked veteran with PTSD. His family, who all love him dearly, are barely able to look him in the eye. Their pity is devastating. He wants nothing more than to be left alone. But there is one person who continually imposes her company upon him, refusing to treat him with pity or disdain: Lady Ellie Balfour.

Ellie helps him through his darkest hours, asking nothing in return. He doesn’t know the guilt she is carrying for deceiving him, the love she bears him, or that fact that she, too, is scarred by violence. Her sunny disposition, wit, and matter-of-fact pronouncements have him (and everyone else) fooled.

Wesley has to find his way back to the world of the living. Ellie has to break out of her own prison of silence and shame. And the only way to do that is with each other.

A poignant, moving love story. There are more siblings in these families. Who will be next?

Saturday, February 17, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Beach of the Dead by Cynthia J. Bogard

 New release!

Beach of the Dead by Cynthia J. Bogard is Book Two of the Heartland Trilogy, picking up where Book One, A History of Silence, leaves off. Although this novel can stand alone, there are spoilers in it for book one, so you might want to read book one first, for maximum punch.

Set in 1986, Beach of the Dead follows Jane Meyer in the aftermath of the murder of her lover, Johnny. Jane is the killer. And while the homicide was justifiable, she knows that any jury in Texas will convict her. So she flees across the border to Mexico, adopting a new name, Ana Jimenéz, and a whole new identity. With the help of a kind stranger, which blossoms into the kindnesses of strangers, she makes her way to a beach paradise, Zipolite. (In the native Zapotec language, Zipolite means “Beach of the Dead,” so named because of the strong current that sweeps away unwary swimmers.)

On the beach, she finds a collection of American tourists living a communal lifestyle, taken care of by a local indigenous woman. During the day, life is idyllic. But at night, Ana is haunted by what she has done, by the trauma of her past, and by fear of what the future holds. Can Ana ever feel safe if she is living a lie? 

A beautiful novel of love and redemption, Beach of the Dead is a wonderful continuation of the Heartland Trilogy.

Friday, February 16, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga is an extraordinary book. A work of contemporary fiction, it plays with literary forms, but is nevertheless accessible and compelling. It is divided into three parts. The first comprises short sections in alternating first person voices, each beginning with a question. The second continues the dual narration in a more straightforward way, but includes footnotes to explain cultural references and unfamiliar words. The third part breaks from the narrative and breaks the fourth wall, letting the reader watch a writing class as a piece of theater, where the novel is discussed (picked apart) by the author’s classmates. 

What is the book about? Identity. Colonialism. Passion. Gender. Exploitation. “Woke” politics. You name it.

The two protagonists are unnamed. One is “the American girl.” A young woman born of Egyptian immigrants to the U.S., travels to Cairo intending to stay. Why? The question is answered and not answered. She is escaping her parents’ divorce. She is running away from an instagram celebrity that has imploded. She is exploring her Egyptian identity. She is finding herself. But she can’t escape who she is: a privileged American who can’t fit in no matter how hard she tries. An educated rich girl who can’t let go of her privilege. And why should she?

But she does get herself an Egyptian boyfriend.

The second protagonist is “the boy from Shobrakheit.” He comes from a small, isolated rural community. He comes from poverty and a broken home. He has been in Cairo for several years, having arrived in time for the Arab spring, a time of innocence (naivete) and hopefulness; he is now living in the disillusioned aftermath. He had been a photographer, a photojournalist, for a brief time wildly successful. Now, he is an unemployed cocaine and tramadol addict. And something of a poet. He meets the American girl. He helps her to navigate Cairo. He moves in with her. He falls in love. Or maybe it isn’t love, but rather need. He is stereotypically controlling and violent, but also tender, frightened, and in pain (physical and psychological.)

This novel is a complex and beautifully written chronicle of their relationship. The characters are flawed, yet sympathetic. A highly recommended read.

Friday, February 9, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

After reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat, I said I had to read more by this author, but not right away. (It’s a draining experience.) I finally got around to reading another, The Black Prince. It’s an equally fine book, but also a rather painful exploration of human nature and human flaws. The protagonist/narrator has a Humbert Humbert vibe.

Bradley Pearson is the first person unreliable narrator. He is a 58-year-old retired tax investigator and aspiring novelist. His account of events in his own life form the basis of this work. It’s told in parts. There is an editor’s foreword, another foreword by Pearson, Pearson’s story “in three parts,” a postscript by Pearson, then four postscripts by other significant characters, and finally, an editor’s postscript. The stories don’t all add up, and the reader is invited to choose who to believe.

Pearson is only minimally successful as a novelist. His post-retirement goal is to finally write his masterpiece, but he is cursed with a perennial case of writer’s block. He believes that escaping to a seaside cottage will unlock his creativity, but a series of events prevents him leaving his London home.

The cast of characters includes his closest friend, Arnold Baffin, a wildly successful author of popular commercial fiction. Pearson sneers at his friend’s success, but admits, reluctantly, to some professional jealousy as well. Arnold is married with a 20-year-old daughter, Julian. His marriage is supposedly solid, but Arnold does play around. His wife seemingly puts up with it, but after one violent argument, where Pearson observes the aftermath, she starts coming on to Pearson. For a number of reasons, he is tempted. But while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

Pearson also has a sister who has been miserably married for years and has just left her husband. The sister is a wreck. Pearson is not particularly sympathetic, but feels trapped into helping her–another reason he can’t just up and leave London. His sister is suicidally depressed.

If this all isn’t enough, Pearson’s ex-wife is newly widowed from her second marriage. She returns to London eager to see Pearson. Her motives are unclear. He despises her. Insists he has no interest in seeing her. Ever. And yet, he does. Again and again. The ex-wife has a parasitic, alcoholic brother, who attaches himself to Pearson.

It all gets very complicated. But Pearson has an epiphany. A life-clarifying insight. He falls in love with Julian.

So, ick. While vaguely realizing this is wrong, he nevertheless marches down the path of seducing his best friend’s 20-year-old daughter, full of self-justification and insistence that this is not just a case of a middle-aged man feeling uncontrollable lust for a near-child. This is true love.

All hell breaks loose.

Once again, Murdoch creates realistic and realistically awful characters, whose plights draw readers in. The deeply psychological twists of the protagonist’s mind and the games the characters play with one another make for gripping reading. Murdoch’s wonderful dialogues break all the rules of dialogue-writing, and yet the conversations propel scenes along. 

While I still prefer A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince is also a superb reading experience.

Friday, February 2, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle

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

I’m slowly embarking on reading biographies of writers I admire. So I was happy to receive a galley of The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle for review. This biography intertwines the life story of Mary Anne Evans/Marian Evans Lewes/George Eliot with her writing, leaving me with the sense that her novels included a good deal of semi-autobiographical…not events, but emotions.

Eliot was the longtime partner of a man who was legally married to someone else (George Lewes.) However, they were devoted to one another and she always considered herself to be his wife. This was in the mid-nineteenth century, so the scandal it caused cannot be overstated. Running away with Lewes meant breaking with her family and a good many of her friends. 

This was also a time wihen women writers were considered to be “silly female novelists.” In order to find a publisher, and to be taken at all seriously, she had to write under a male pseudonym. 

Carlisle makes all this abundantly clear. She also emphasizes both the positive and negative aspects of their partnership while bringing up philosophical questions about marriage and relationships. Eliot (and her husband) read, studied, and even translated philosophy. These themes found their way into her novels. Carlisle traces the chronological development of Eliot’s writing and correlates it to the philosophies she was engaging with at the time.

This makes for a fascinating literary study, but one that is also fairly dense. Usually when I read author biographies, I come away wanting to add all their work to my TBR pile. This time, I came away more daunted than inspired. I loved Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. But now I feel like I didn’t read them slowly and carefully enough. And I think that to tackle more of Eliot’s work, I need to be in a classroom. 

George Eliot is a fascinating person, widely regarded as a brilliant novelist who pioneered psychological fiction. This biography explores Eliot’s own psyche and the impact of marriage and her views of marriage on her life and her work.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My book group’s next choice is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I enjoy Brooks’ writing (particularly The Secret Chord) and I loved the premise of this one.

Hanna Heath is a young book conservationist who is offered a dream job, working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. This is a very old (circa 1350s?) Jewish text, created in Spain, and lavishly illustrated. The survival of the text through the centuries, despite tumultuous wars, pervasive anti-Semitism, transportation across great distances, and ravages of time, is something of a miracle – something of a diaspora in a microcosm. The book ended up in Bosnia. During the Serb shelling that occurred during the Bosnian War, it was smuggled into hiding by a Muslim librarian. And now, it is being evaluated and cared for before it is tucked into a museum for preservation.

Hanna is the main protagonist. She has a sad backstory (dead father, distant, toxic mother). She is very talented at what she does, and takes pride in it, but still fights insecurities because her mother has told her, since birth, that she is a loser. Hanna undertakes the project – and also has a brief affair with the heroic librarian who hid the book. As she sorts out what she can of the mysteries of the Haggadah (who created it, how did it travel across space and time, and who were its saviors?) she also works to sort out her own life.

Interspersed with Hanna’s life are chapters each telling a vignette in the life of the book. Each of these pieces to the puzzle are inspired by little artifacts found in the binding of the book (ie. a butterfly wing) or in wine stains on the parchment, or in the fact that there once were silver clasps on the book but now they are gone.

Reconstructing the history of the book is a wonderful way to pull the story together. Except that I grew a bit frustrated with the choppiness of the narrative. Hanna couldn’t actually know all the details that were presented. And the stories picked up and then dropped. There was essentially no continuity to the lives of the people, except that they had each touched or contributed to the book. This is a great concept for a structure, but I found it very easy to put the book down in between chapters and not particularly compelled to pick it back up. There was more continuity to Hanna’s story. However, the ending, much like the epilogue of Year of Wonders, had a tacked on feeling, one which didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the novel.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Super-infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

I like to think of myself as a John Donne fan but, embarrassingly, that’s based on very little evidence. I knew a tiny bit more about his life story than I did his actual writings. When I saw a blurb for a new(ish) biography, one that incorporates some literary analysis, I decided I needed to read it.

Super-infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
by Katherine Rundell is a fascinating book. It’s a quick read that will immerse you in the life of this brilliant man, give you a sample of his poetry and prose, and introduce you to the love of his life, Ann More. Donne can be (is) difficult to interpret, but Rundell writes with clarity and humor that makes me wish I could take a literature class with her as the professor.

Rundell’s enthusiastic admiration for Donne the man and for his work is contagious. Now I need to read more of his poetry.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The King and Vi by Shana Galen

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

The King and Vi by Shana Galen is a the first book in a new series, Misfortune’s Favorites. It’s a thoroughly engaging Regency Romance – with witches. I was intrigued, if a bit skeptical of a premise involving witches, but the story sucked me in.

King (the Marquess of Kingston) is cursed. As an obnoxious teenage bully, along with two equally obnoxious sons of lords that were his best friends, he had embarked on yet another prank. His pranks were attempts to win some attention from his father, a duke, who ignored him. But this prank, stealing a barrel of whiskey from the impoverished sisters living a short distance from his boarding school, was not only stupid, it was cruel. The women made the whiskey to sell, and it was their only means of support. The boys meanly called them “witches.” It turned out, they were right. The barrel broke. One of the old women caught them. And cursed them, saying that at the age of thirty, they would lose everything they cared about. Although King more or less forgot about the curse, on his thirtieth birthday, it came true. At first, a reader could well be thinking: Good!

Violet Baker (Vi) is a young woman running a public house in the notorious Seven Dials region of London. She is trying her best to raise her two younger brothers, but barely scraping by. One of her biggest concerns is the gang leader who runs the local protection racket. If she doesn’t come up with her payment, he will steal away her brothers and take possession of her. Although she has always come up with enough in the past, this time she fears she won’t. Because a group of aristocrats came into her public house, drank themselves stupid, and started a brawl. The place got wrecked. And she lost a good amount of alcohol. The next morning, when she learns the name of one of the aristocrats, the Marquess of Kingston, she is determined to track him down and make him pay.  But when she arrives at his house, she finds him in the midst of being evicted and hounded by duns.

Vi adds her voice to the chorus of creditors demanding payment. Seeing her as the least threatening, King sneaks off with her. She refuses to let him out of her sight until he pays her a sum that is paltry to him, but means everything to her. The problem is, he can’t get his hands on even that paltry sum. He finds himself homeless, penniless, friendless, and about to be stripped of his title.

King’s redemption evolves at a credible pace. Vi softens toward him as he grows more likeable. Their day-to-day lives are a departure from what is found in most Regency Romances and it makes the obstacles to their coming together a satisfying mixture of external forces and internal hesitation. 

The steam level is moderate. The sex scenes don’t come across as gratuitous. And the romance is heartwarming. Plus, there is banter!

I’ll be pre-ordering book 2!

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: How I Danced with the Duke by Eva Devon

How I Danced with the Duke by Eva Devon (first book in the The Duke’s House Party series) is a short (<200 pages) Regency Romance that made for an entertaining one-sitting read.

The set-up is this: five tall handsome dukes (and one avenging commoner raised in Seven Dials and now a friend to the dukes) are all bent on revenge for slights (significant ones) in their past. The hero of this book, Griffin Harrington, Duke of Wildwood, wants vengeance for the killing of his sister by the Earl of Wexford. The plan is to hold a house party where all the dukes and their targets will be present - and then exact their revenge.

Lady Virginia Milton is a pretty young lady in her second Season, who is more interested in her art than in finding a husband, although a husband might be nice too. She is independent and courageous. And she has the support of her grandmother, a feisty woman also. She and her cousin have been invited to the house party. Before things get underway, she slips off into the woods to sketch. There, she comes across her host, the duke.

There is an immediate chemistry between them. And this attraction grows during the party. The only difficulty is that Griffin needs to exact his vengeance without distraction, and Virginia is definitely distracting. When Wexford makes his interest in her known as well, Griffin is spurred to more drastic action. Will this drive Virginia away?

It’s an interesting set-up, with likeable protagonists and great series potential. My only disappointment was my own fault. I wanted a quick read, but this felt rushed. I would have liked more time to settle in with the characters and experience their dilemmas. I’ll have to look for more of this author’s longer books.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Always Remember by Mary Balogh

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

Always Remember by Mary Balogh is the third book in the Ravenswood Series. This one is “Ben’s book.”

Ben Ellis is the oldest brother in the Ware family, but he is an illegitimate half-brother, the son of the old earl’s mistress. The earl brought him into the care of the countess when he was just three years old, after the death of his mother. Although he is loved by all as a brother, there is an underlying awareness of his status. And Ben is most aware of all. He has always tried to stay in the background.

After a family calamity several years before, Ben followed his brother, Devlin, into battle against Napoleon. There, he met a washerwoman, impregnated her, and married her. She died, and Benjamin now has a three-year-old daughter, Joy. Joy needs a mother. And Ben, who lives near the sea on his own estate, wants a wife. Indecisive about which of three potential “ordinary” women to ask, he goes back to Ravenswood (the Ware estate) for a summer festival, to think about his future. While he is there, he is reacquainted with Lady Jennifer, sister of the Duke of Wilby (from book two, Remember Me.)

Jennifer is recuperating from a romantic disappointment. She is twenty-five, beautiful, a duke’s daughter, etc. But she has a withered leg, the result of a childhood illness, and is confined to a chair. For this reason, she doubts she will ever know true love. Nevertheless, she is determinedly cheerful.

Ben and Jennifer are both beloved, but are outsiders. During the lead-up to the festival, in the midst of the family gathering, they spend a good deal of time with one another, talking. Ben is made aware of Jennifer’s secret desire for more autonomy. Being a problem-solver, he works on ways to help her increase her mobility. Before long, they have fallen in love.

But a duke’s sister cannot marry a man stigmatized by illegitimacy.

Always Remember is written with Mary Balogh’s usual aplomb, with a narrative voice that is calm, reasonable, and yet, deeply emotional. The families are huge, so there is plenty of room for more stories!

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Lily of Ludgate Hill by Mimi Matthews

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

Having thoroughly enjoyed Mimi Matthews’s first two Belle of London Novels, (The Siren of Sussex and The Belle of Belgrave Square) I was excited to receive book 3, The Lily of Lugate Hill for review. These novels focus on four unusual Regency heroines, whose friendships first centered on their equestrienne skills.

Lady Anne Deveril is the current protagonist. Since the death of her father over six years earlier, Anne has devoted herself to the support of her heartbroken mother. Her mother has, in turn, devoted herself to the occult as a way to deal with her loss. She has made herself into an acknowledged oddity, and her daughter as well. Anne, who has entered perpetual mourning alongside her mother, is now in danger of being forever “on the shelf.” However, she is spurred to take independent action when she learns that her close friend, Julia Wychwood, has eloped (or been abducted) by the dour Captain Blunt. To rescue her friend, she has to rely upon the help of her nemesis, Mr. Felix Hartford, grandson of the Earl of March.

Long ago, Anne and “Hart” were in love. They’d even kissed and entered into a secret betrothal. But then Anne’s father died, and she entered into what was supposed to be the customary year of mourning. At the same time, Hart was asked to accompany his grandfather, an avid botanist, on a collecting tour. When the year was over, Hart hurried to Anne, expecting the marriage to take place post-haste. When she balked, he took offense. They had words. She broke off the engagement. And things have been terrible between them ever since.

However, Hart is still desperately in love and is determined to win her back. Anne also still loves him, but she is determined to remain the staff her mother leans upon. When she looks at Hart, she sees a frivolous, unserious man who cares for nothing but himself. She couldn’t be more wrong.

The two protagonists discover and keep one another’s secrets as they earn their way back into each other’s good graces. This lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romance keeps this series humming. I look forward to book 4!

Thursday, January 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

If you’re interested in reading a historical novel set in Regency Era England that is not a Regency Romance, you can’t do any better than Margaret Kennedy’s 1953 book, Troy Chimneys. Written as a somewhat fortuitously discovered cache of an ancestor’s papers (papers located in 1879, authored in 1818 about a life lived 1782-1818), this work of fiction can easily be mistaken for a real-life tale.

The protagonist, Miles Lufton, is a good-looking, intelligent, talented “nobody.” His father was a country parson and his mother was a sweet-natured parson’s wife. As a boy, Miles lived so sheltered and happy a life, that he didn’t realize his lack of birth and property would condemn him always to being seen as an inferior by gentlemen and ladies (even by quite minor gentry.) His own cousin, Ned, is a country squire and therefore, a cut above, even though Miles feels himself superior in every tangible way. It isn’t until he is sent off to school that he begins to learn the unfair, unkind ways of the world. He discovers that in order to be even a hanger-on in the company of his “betters,” he can’t lead the leisurely lifestyle that they do. He needs to make a living. So early on, he adopts a charming, worldly, and very ingratiating persona that allows him to circulate in aristocratic company. He earns the nickname “Pronto,” a name that galls him, but that he nevertheless answers to. And ever afterward, he leads two lives. He makes his way up to MP (member of Parliament) thanks to the preferment of friends. He has a good income. He even buys a house. (This house is “Troy Chimneys.”) But writing his memoirs while recuperating from a fall, Miles tries to separate his real self from the false self that he both despises and leans upon. During the course of this memoir, the reader learns of a terribly misguided love affair in Miles’ youth. And a heart-breaking thwarted love in his adult life. And everything circles around to a tremendously sad ending. The life of an almost forgotten man. And yet, this novel is infused with humor and pithy insights throughout -- it is not a depressing book at all.

The narrative is framed by letters about Miles, but in the context of looking for information about someone supposedly more important and interesting. And the narrative itself consists of a couple of Miles’ letters, and his attempts at writing an autobiography, a journal, and his memoirs. The artistic device reminds me somewhat of Hernan Diaz’s Trust, a novel I also thought was superb. 

I love when older novels are brought out again for new generations to enjoy. Troy Chimneys was re-released in 2022, so it’s readily available. I found it through an instagram post. Though I can’t remember whose, I’m grateful for it. This is a book I’d like to turn right around and read again

Monday, January 8, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Still True by Maggie Ginsberg

Still True
by Maggie Ginsberg is a contemporary novel set in small-town Wisconsin that demonstrates the power of love and forgiveness. It utilizes familiar twenty-first century themes of dysfunctional families, buried trauma, stale marriages, alcoholism, and a web of well-intentioned lies, but the author weaves it all together, in gorgeous, understated prose. The characters are so true to life that their dilemmas are heart-wrenching. The lies they tell are understandable. This isn’t one of those books where a little open communication would make the conflict go away. Here, the truth has consequences. A beautiful novel - highly recommended.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

 It's time to sign up for this year's reading challenges. Historical fiction is where I always start.

Thank you, once again, to The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for hosting. Sign up for the challenge can be found here.

I'm going for the "prehistoric level" - 50+ books.

I'll link back to my reviews here:

1. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

2. The Lily of Ludgate Hill by Mimi Matthews

3. Always Remember by Mary Balogh

4. How I Danced with the Duke by Eva Devon

5. The King and Vi by Shana Galen

6. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

7. Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Yamamoto

8. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

9. James by Percival Everett

10. The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel

11. Death on the Tiber by Lindsey Davis

12. My Fair Katie by Shana Galen

13. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

14. The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

15. Long Island by Colm Toibin

16. A Deceptive Composition by Anna Lee Huber

17. Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor

Friday, January 5, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington’s Doctors. The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars by Dr. Martin Howard

I just finished one of my Christmas presents, part of my research into the Regency Era and the Napoleonic Wars: Wellington’s Doctors. The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars by Dr. Martin Howard. 

The title gives away the content. It’s a study of how medical and surgical services were provided to soldiers during the wars. It’s a fascinating and well-researched look at the state of medicine and surgery at the time, the politics of supplying these services, the increasing respect accorded these providers over time (starting from a very low bar), and the way these medical officers and their assistants lived while on campaign. The information is a mixture of anecdotes and statistics, and while the statistics are likely approximations, they still provide a good picture of the care available. One of the most damning conclusions is that doctors probably harmed more than they helped.

The book has a narrow focus, but covers the material in this niche of the Napoleonic Wars quite well. For those more interested in the French side of things, the author has written a companion book, Napoleon’s Doctors.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Bereaved by Julia Park Tracey

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

The Bereaved by Julia Park Tracey, based on the author’s own family history, tells the story of “the orphan train” from the viewpoint not of orphaned children, but of a grieving mother.

Martha Lozier (once orphaned herself and farmed out to relatives) had found happiness as the wife of a prosperous farmer. Unfortunately, he dies suddenly, leaving her a widow with four children, one still a baby. The farm goes to Martha’s brother-in-law, and she is left without resources. Her children are put under the guardianship of a local lawyer, known by Martha (from personal circumstance) to be a dirty old man. His first act is to assault Martha’s teenage daughter. Knowing she has to keep her children safe, Martha steals them away to the city.

Martha is a skilled seamstress, but, taking refuge in a tenement, she can find only piecework. (Prostitution is the only other option.) Living hand-to-mouth, working from dawn to dusk at jobs that are not steadily available, unable to have her children educated, watching the older two reduced to menial work as well, all while slowly starving, makes Martha desperate. When two of her boys stumble across a “Home for the Friendless,” a religious set-up for orphans that was a front for child theft, where they find warmth and abundant food, she goes to see it for herself. Because it promises education, cleanliness, warmth, and nutrition, Martha agrees to put her two boys into the home. She signs papers “surrendering” them, little realizing the surrender is permanent. A few months later, in still more desperate straits, she surrenders her daughter and baby.

It isn’t until she begins to find her footing, and tries to retrieve her children, that she discovers they have been sent away on the orphan trains to be adopted or indentured. Now Martha begins to struggle to get them back.

This is a moving story of a woman fighting against almost insurmountable odds. While she is a sympathetic character, it’s hard to find anyone else in the novel (at least the first 80% or so of it) who isn’t either cold and unfeeling or downright evil. It probably wasn’t the best choice for a holiday-week read because, although ultimately redemptive, much of the book is a misery-fest.

Well-written, grounded in the historical context, and steadily paced, this is a convincing and unsettling look at how society treated women without power, and how families were torn apart when mothers and children fell through the cracks. It’s pretty scary to think we are going down the same broken path.