Monday, March 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My book group picked The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for our next meeting. I had mixed feelings about the choice. It’s award-winning historical fiction, so I’ve felt for quite a while that it should be on my TBR pile and this was a great way to nudge me to read it. On the other hand, the premise didn’t grab me. The escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad imagined as if the route was an actual train? Why?

And my reaction to the book after reading it is also mixed. It’s essentially magical realism, which may explain why I found it slow going. I’ve found books in this genre usually fail to grab me. And then there is the unrelenting, mind-numbing brutality that seemed to deaden the emotions of the characters so that they never really came alive. (Maybe that was intentional?) Although I’m sure the horrors represented in the book are based on fact, it nevertheless never seemed real.

Cora is a young, enslaved woman, who is isolated from her fellow slaves as someone who just doesn’t fit in anywhere. Her father is gone. Her mother abandoned her in order to escape the Georgia cotton plantation and run away north. Of all those who attempted escape from this particular plantation, Cora’s mother is the only one to succeed. That notoriety burdens Cora because she isn’t proud of her mother. She’s angry.

A new arrival named Caesar takes notice of her. He, too, is different, having been educated by his former owner. The elderly woman led him to believe he’d be freed at her death. She lied. When he decides to run away, he asks Cora to join him. Although hesitant at first, changes taking place on the plantation make the decision for her. Caesar has contacts with the Underground Railroad. The escape is difficult, but they make it to the first stop. And here, they learn that a true railroad exists deep underground.

Until this point, the narrative is a fairly typical fictional story of desperate slaves risking all for freedom. But once on the railroad, Cora’s experience broadens to incorporate multiple forms of brutality, exploitation, humiliation, terrorization, and loss. There are a few good people who try to help, but the majority are untrustworthy at best and threatening as a rule.

The book bounced from place to place, event to event, even person to person, to show as much of man’s evilness to man as possible. I was pulled into some of the scenes, curious how they would play out, but on the whole, the characters were too much symbolic "types" to really care about. The book ended abruptly, which didn’t bother me since I was simply glad it was done.

The book is ambitious in scope. It’s clearly written. And it succeeds in making the reader uncomfortable about the sickening underpinning of our country’s foundation and growth. It’s a worthwhile read. But not a book I’d read twice.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Brush with Shadows by Anna Lee Huber

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

I’ve been following Anna Lee Huber’s The Lady Darby Mysteries ever since book one, The Anatomist’s Wife. The books are excellent mysteries with thoughtful, kind, intelligent protagonists whose relationship development is as compelling as the detective plot. Set in the mid-1800s, primarily in England, the historical setting and bits of the politics of the day add to the enjoyment of the read.

In A Brush with Shadows, Lady Darby (Kiera Gage) and her husband Sebastian Gage have been summoned by Gage’s aged, ill grandfather to the old family manor in Dartmoor. Gage’s cousin Alfred, the heir to the estate, has gone missing.

Kiera is aware that Gage had an unfortunate childhood. His mother died when he was a young man. His father, a nasty old sea captain, was absent most of the time. They are all but estranged now, although they are both inquiry agents and the father relies heavily on the talent of the son. Although Kiera knows Gage was unhappy growing up, she doesn’t know the details. He has always been very supportive and understanding about her past traumas, but very close-mouthed about his own.

It doesn’t take long for Kiera to grasp the family dynamics. And while she is 100% behind her husband, she does have a bit more perspective and her kindness and perceptiveness allow her to see behind some of the cruel facades.

They soon discover there is more to the story of the missing cousin. Alfred is something of a wastrel and is heartily disliked by just about everyone–especially Gage. Still, he has to be found.

Once again, the author constructs an intricate plot with contradictory leads, multiple possible culprits, and multifaceted characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Kiera and Gage have to navigate new difficulties in their relationship as this time, Gage is the vulnerable one.

Readers may figure out whodunit before the climactic revelation, but the conclusion is nevertheless tension-filled and fast-paced.

This series is highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle a while back and it made me determined to read more by this critically acclaimed but often overlooked British author.

A Glass of Blessings, first published in 1958, is another delightful comedy of manners. Following the musings and day-to-day activities of a British suburban housewife, Wilmet Forsyth, it presents an humorous look at the rather dull middle class.

It is Wilmet’s thirty-third birthday. She begins the day at church, mainly to see what is going on rather than to worship. The reader is introduced to the elderly Father Thames and the not-quite-as-old Father Bode. (Clergy always play a role in Pym’s work.) But Wilmet’s interest is caught by the unexpected presence of Piers Longridge, the very attractive brother of her best friend Rowena.

Wilmet’s social circle is relatively small, consisting of fellow parishioners, Rowena and her husband Harold, Wilmet’s own husband Rodney, and her mother-in-law, Sybil. (Wilmet and Rodney live in Sybil’s home, and the two women are close.) Wilmet’s daily life consists of shopping, having tea, gossiping, and wishing she was more useful. After reconnecting with Piers, she also starts considering--even planning--an affair.

Wilmet is stylish, pretty, and reasonably sociable. She’s bored at home, having no interest in what Rodney does "at the Ministry" and seemingly very little interest in Rodney. Aware that Rowena worries about her brother because he can’t seem to settle into a permanent occupation and because she does not approve of his friends, Wilmet decides to make him a project. This is her excuse for trying to see him more often and allowing herself to flirt.

Meanwhile, she also tries her hand at a few other projects: finding a new housekeeper for the clergy, befriending the dowdy do-gooder who makes her feel particularly unworthy and, at the same time, superior, and even learning a little Portuguese in advance of a summer vacation.

Wilmet is a surprisingly shallow character, considering how she shines as a protagonist. She is remarkably self-centered. She’s kind, but her motivation is really because she believes it will reflect well on herself. And she is a bit miffed when any attractive man seems to show interest in someone else. Still, the running monologue going through her head and the quips she makes are very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. And, to her credit, when things don’t go her way, she takes it all in stride, never turning petty or mean.

This is an odd book. Wilmet does not lead an exciting life, and the minutiae of her activities would make for dull reading if not for the underlying irony. The book flies by considering how little happens to Wilmet. (Although plenty is going on around her, to which she is more or less oblivious.) Pym’s novels are a wonderful way to pass the time and give you something to think about when the story is through.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Dying for Rome. Lucrezia's Tale by Elisabeth Storrs

I received this book for free from the author through "Book Funnel." This did not influence my review.


I loved Elisabeth Storrs’ historical trilogy: Tales of Ancient Rome. (The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice, and Call to Juno) These wonderfully immersive novels took me to the fascinating world of the Etruscans, who became the arch-enemies of early Rome.

Now Storrs has written a historical novella, Dying For Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.

The "Rape of Lucretia" is a well-known historical event (though various accounts of the event differ slightly in the details) in which a virtuous Roman woman was attacked by an Etruscan prince, the son of the nasty king of Rome. The people of the various towns ruled by the king were tired of being oppressed, but too terrified to rebel. This changed after the dishonored Lucretia committed suicide. She became a martyr to the people, who rose up, overthrew the king, and established the Roman Republic.

The politics of all this are challenging. Fortunately, Storrs has a solid grasp of the history and is able to pare it down to the essentials. In this novella, a slave girl belonging to Lucretia bears witness to the fateful events.

Historical fiction as a rule is not short. It’s difficult to bring the reader into a long-ago world, establish the historical framework, and bring the characters to life. Dying for Rome succeeds as a short work because its focus is so narrow. Even so, what a wonderful subject for a full-length novel this would be!

If you’d like to dip your toe into the waters of very ancient Rome, give this novella a try. If you’d like to dive in, get hold of The Wedding Shroud.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Coffin Scarcely Used by Colin Watson

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Farrago Books is re-releasing the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Book 1, Coffin Scarcely Used, was first published in 1958. Set in a small village in England, this detective story is a delight.

The first death, that of Harold Carobleat, a wealthy local businessman, was suspicious only in that the funeral was so understated as to be a non-event. However, months later, the bizarre possible suicide of Harold’s neighbor triggers an investigation by the low-key detective, Inspector Purbright. Aided by an eager (and naive) young policeman, Purbright doggedly pursues leads that don’t add up, convinced that things will eventually fall into place. He’s certain the "suicide" was a murder and is determined to prove it. Although others in Carobleat’s circle are either frightened, threatening, or both, and although it’s clear more deaths will follow, there isn’t the building tension of "catch the villain before he strikes again." Purbright is methodical. And very entertaining. His patience and gently paced investigation swept me along.

The character sketches are ironic and the tone of the book is humorous, despite the underlying violence. It isn’t gory and sadistic. It’s almost. . .quaint. But not quite cozy.

Although I don’t think it was written as a historical mystery initially, it belongs to its time period and, being more than fifty years old and dated in a good way, I’m counting it as historical.

If you enjoy clever writing and puzzle solving, Coffin Scarcely Used is a terrific introduction to this series. I’m eager to read Book 2.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve never read anything by or about Jack London, one of the most famous writers of the early twentieth century. I knew him primarily as the author of the novel Call of the Wild. Although I’d never felt particularly curious about his work, I was nevertheless eager to read a historical novel based on his wife.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg gives a fictional first person account of the life of Charmian Kittredge London. Devoted to her husband, Charmian acts as muse, secretary, editor, and enabler. The once athletic, handsome adventurer is now a gouty alcoholic suffering from kidney disease. Their once-passionate love life has faded into a near platonic literary partnership. Jack plays warped psychological games, pushing her towards other men then becoming furiously jealous, possibly in order to experience emotions that he can then use as inspiration for his writing.

Charmian is getting a bit tired of it all.

Nevertheless, she works tirelessly to maintain both the marriage and Jack’s career, even though the commitment stunts her own ambition. Charmian is strong, healthy, adventurous, and smart. The novel gives one the sense that Jack is dragging her down.

A turning point occurs when she and Jack meet Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess. Both being strong-willed women married to celebrities, Charmian and Bess bond, striking up a true friendship. Jack and Harry don’t hit it off as well. Their egos clash and they constantly engage in macho one-upmanship. It’s a bit one-sided though, since Houdini is at the top of his game, while Jack is fading into a caricature of his past self. But within the foursome, the strongest attraction is between Houdini and Charmian.

As her relationship with Jack suffers one too many traumas, Charmian takes comfort in the cautious, intriguing advances of Houdini. But what kind of relationship can she ever expect to have with a man in the world’s spotlight–a man married to a friend?

This is a beautiful book that takes us deep into the heart of a very conflicted woman, yearning to be loved and desperately in love with her husband, though with eyes wide open to his flaws.

Monday, February 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

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

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith is a richly layered historical novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with interwoven tales taking place during multiple time periods. Each individual story is unique with a well-developed protagonist and compelling narrative. They come together only because of the setting and occasional references to earlier-living characters by the later-living ones. And yet, each of them has in common a yearning for love (or something) and social advancement (or at least security).

Colonial period: A young Quaker girl at the brink of womanhood has to find a way to support herself, her young sibling, and a slave after the death of her mother and loss of her father at sea. Caring members of her community believe she should marry. An older widower is more than willing to step up and wed her. But she balks at a loveless marriage. She has to come up with a bold plan of her own.

Revolutionary War period: A British solder/spy becomes obsessed with the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. In order to have her (not to marry), he is willing to behave dishonorably despite his position as an officer, to lie, even to murder. Clearly dealing with a sociopath, this narrative grows increasingly unpleasant, a counterpoint to the poignant, sometimes disturbing, but generally gentle progress of the other stories. I always cringed during these sections and was glad to get back to the others.

Civil War period: A young Henry James embarks on a mission to train himself to be an observant recorder of the beau monde in Newport as a prelude to a writing career. However, he starts by observing a beautiful, free-spirited girl and, before he knows what’s happening, he is drawn into an unexpected friendship. As the friendship turns toward romance, he wants nothing more than to flee, to the consternation of all involved.

Gilded Age: A social climbing charmer of less than modest means recognizes that he will soon age out of his pretty-boy, jester persona and be dropped by the society that now finds him amusing. He must marry up. Fortunately, he has been adopted as a project by Mrs. Belmont, the former Mrs. Vanderbilt, who rules supreme in Newport society. He is paired with a wealthy widow and is surprised to discover he can respect and even like her. But, he is gay–a fact that must, at all costs, be hidden.

And modern day: An aging professional tennis player, an almost-was, is making a living as a tennis pro at a Newport resort, but is dissatisfied with just about everything. He’s a nice guy, but that has been identified as his weakness. He’s taken up by a wealthy married woman, then has a fling with an artist who lives in the same mansion. He learns that their world revolves around a young woman who is the sister-in-law to his mistress and the employer/friend of the artist he thinks he would prefer to be with. The sister-in-law has cerebral palsy and depression and calls herself the crazy heiress. He’d rather avoid her at first, but slowly his world begins to revolve around her as well.

The author does a fine job turning the spotlight on love, lust, and money–and the interplay among all three. He also does a fine job of defining each character and making them distinct. Almost too fine. This is one of those multi-charactered books that jumps abruptly from story to story. At the beginning, it’s annoying. Just as I’m being drawn into someone’s world, I’m yanked out and have to start over again. Along about the third narrative, I was irritated enough to consider giving up. By the time I got back to the first storyline again, I was wondering if I cared enough to read such a disjointed book. But I found I did care enough. And the writing made me keep going. Eventually, I became more pleased to return to each character than I was annoyed to be jolted from a storyline.

This is one of those ultimately very satisfying novels that rewards a little bit of patience.