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 Jimen├ęz, 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.