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

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.