Thursday, October 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Philippa Jane Keyworth

A while ago, I reviewed Philippa Jane Keyworth’s Regency Romance The Unexpected Earl for the Historical Novels Review. It was sweet and fun, so when I saw that her current novel, Fool Me Twice, was a kindle freebie I grabbed it.

Caro Worth is a strong-willed, determined young woman of good birth who has been thrown out into the world orphaned, abandoned, and destitute. She does have a brother who should be her support, but he ran off to the West Indies to make his fortune after deciding she was sullied and unworthy of him. (It isn’t exactly clear why he decided that, but he was wrong.)

Given the world she lives in, Caro has no choice but to make her way to London for a Season and find a rich husband. She is accompanied by a single maid and manservant who follow her devotedly and depend upon her for their livelihood. In order to set up a household and appear "independent," it is necessary for Caro to have money. So she invents an alter-ego, an illegitimate half-sister, Angelica, who frequents the gaming hells to acquire cash.

The hero of the story is the wastrel second son of a straight-laced viscount, Honorable Tobias Fenton. Unable to please his father, Fenton has taken the tack of exasperating him instead. Nevertheless, his heart is good and he is cleverer than he seems. He is the first to put two and two together and realize that the demure, respectable Caro Worth and the flirtatious, scandalous Angelica Worth are one and the same.

Beautiful and vivacious, Angelica attracts the wrong man and compounds the error by winning a great sum of money from him. He determines to have her for his mistress and Caro is caught in the web of her own deceit.

Fortunately, Caro has friends, among them Fenton, who is smitten. When she realizes she can rely on friends and doesn’t have to go it alone, her prospects change.

The plot is a bit far-fetched and Caro, when desperate, is inclined to take bad situations and make them worse. Plus, a petty irritant is how often people are described as "saucy" throughout the book, especially at the beginning. However, the story is light-hearted and fast-paced and the banter between Angelica/Caro and Fenton was entertaining enough to keep me reading until I was drawn in by the charming character Fenton grew to be. Fans of clean historical romance with a hint of danger should enjoy Philippa Jane Keyworth’s books.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Rose and Poe by Jack Todd

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

A few years ago, our local theater staged a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I usually love when they do Shakespeare, but I wasn’t crazy about this one. Too much otherworldliness and spectacle.

Nevertheless, I enjoy re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays and I was curious to see how the author, Jack Todd, would tackle The Tempest with Rose and Poe.

Rose is a warm, generous woman. Orphaned as a child, she’s brought up by a witch of a grandmother. Rose gets pregnant. The father feels he is too good for her and she thinks so too, so she determines to raise her baby by herself. Despite the unfairness of her world, Rose never holds grudges (except against her grandmother) and she comes to be loved by the community of her small, isolated New England town. Her son, Poe, is different, but Rose refuses to let that be a problem. Huge, six-fingered and six-toed, monstrously strong but gentle as a lamb, Poe is "simple." In spite of everything, he and Rose carve out a life for themselves raising goats and selling cheese.

Their neighbors, Prosper Thorne and his daughter Miranda, are good to them. Prosper has given Poe purpose by assigning him the task of building a stone wall. Miranda, who is young, athletic, and beautiful, has been a friend of Poe’s throughout their lives. However, Miranda has gone off to Boston to college, returning home for vacations and to check on her father. Prosper is in the early stages of dementia.

Throughout her life, Rose has faced daunting challenges in her quest to mother Poe. Despite her circumstances, she succeeds. But the true test comes when Poe emerges from the woods one day carrying the beaten, bloodied, near-dead Miranda. He stumbles across the path of the local sheriff and is unable to say more than "get help." Poe is immediately arrested. The town turns against Poe and as Rose fights to protect him they turn on her, too.

Rose is a character to adore: uncomplicated, feisty, loyal, and loving. Grateful for the blessings that come her way, seeing things as blessings that others might grumble over, she decides on a goal and single-mindedly pursues it until she accomplishes it.

The story put me in mind of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill, another book in which an oddball outcast finds himself falsely accused of assaulting a female friend. The characters are quite different but the themes are similar.

You don’t have to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy this novel (released this month). And if you are, you don’t have to have liked it very much to like Rose and Poe. And those who love The Tempest are sure to find Rose and Poe an impressive re-imagining.

Monday, October 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball

I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And then, I lost the book! I turned my house upside down looking in all the places I usually stash books, and couldn’t find it anywhere. It was one I really wanted to read, so I bought it. I’m glad I did.

Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball is the story of a woman at the very fringes of Queen Elizabeth’s court who became the first, or one of the first, professional female poets in England.

Emilia’s position was always precarious. The daughter of a court musician, she was an exceptionally skilled musician herself. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother made the difficult choice to send her to be fostered at the home of a countess who had very liberal views on female education. Emilia learned Latin as well as court skills. A beautiful girl, she attracted attention but generally of the unwanted kind, since her rank was too low to interest any young lords in marriage. The early part of the book glides quickly over her early years setting up what is to come.

Eventually, Emilia’s patron remarries and she is cast back upon her family: her mother, dying of consumption, and a host of cousins, particularly the concerned, motherly Lucrezia, who explains to Emilia that she comes from a family of converted Jews, some more converted than others.

Emilia has another supporter as well. The generous-hearted (and significantly older) Lord Hunsdon, Henry Carey, the cousin of the queen, has known her since she was a child. He watched her grow up, continued to treat her kindly after she is essentially abandoned by her other court friends, and sends aid and a well-respected physician to her home to treat her mother. Emilia’s fondness for him grows and she agrees to become his mistress, after seeking counsel from Lucrezia. With his backing, she returns to court where she is accepted by many and shunned by others. The female intelligentsia of the court are particularly welcoming.

As time passes, Hunsdon, who is one of the queen’s top military leaders, must spend significant time away from London. Plus, he is aging. Emilia enjoys a great degree of independence because her status as his mistress is known. She meets William Shakespeare and is attracted to his intelligence, charm, and good looks. His flirtation excites her adventurous spirit. She becomes Shakespeare’s lover as well.

Emilia is a strong-willed, passionate woman, who fights for her right to be taken seriously despite her gender. She makes some bad decisions, but has a forgiving nature and generally manages to smooth troubled waters with graciousness.

Emilia is a bold, fascinating character and this novel does a lovely job imagining her story.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil

Time for some nonfiction. My son, in college, wants to eventually study exoplanets, so when I saw this book in the library, I thought: why not?

Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system. Apparently, in the last few years, astronomers and physicists have been discovering new planets at a blistering pace. It isn’t surprising that there are scads of these planets or that their diversity is staggering. What I found more surprising was that the first one was discovered in 1992–which is really just yesterday. I feel like I’ve known all my life that out there in the vast infinity of space there are gazillions of planets. (We watched Star Trek, after all.) But what we all knew wasn’t proven with what was "seen" (in the weird mathematical way that physicists see things) until the first exoplanetary system was discovered in 1992.

exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil is a readable, fairly simple overview of the exploding field of exoplanet research. It explains how recent advances have made study of deep space more feasible, leading to the necessary abandonment of previous "chauvinisms" or at least acceptance of new paradigms. Again, for someone whose view of planetary science was shaped by science fiction, none of these new discoveries seem so revolutionary. But maybe the realization that Diamond Worlds, Ice Worlds, Rogue Planets, and even, possibly, non-carbon-based life forms, are not fiction is what make this such a fascinating field of study.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna

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

I really enjoyed Harmony Verna’s first historical novel, Daughter of Australia, so I was pleased to have a chance to read her latest, Beneath the Apple Leaves.

The setting is now the farmlands of Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh, and the time-frame is WWI. Verna does a wonderful job of placing the characters (and the reader) into the scene.

The female protagonist is Lili Morton, an orphaned farm girl living with her older sister and brother-in-law. Her life has been a nightmare, with an abusive father (now dead), a brother-in-law who is just as bad if not worse, and a sister who is kind but addled from the trauma of trying to protect Lili. Nevertheless, Lili is generous, sweet, hard-working, and, by necessity, remarkably competent.

The male protagonist is Andrew Houghton, son of a coal miner who has promised his father (now dead in a mining accident) that he will do something else with his life–not throw it away in the mines. Sent to live with an aunt in Pittsburgh, Andrew first finds a job working for the railway with his uncle. But a horrible accident puts an end to that.

Andrew’s uncle is a good man, but life has beaten him down. Originally from Germany, with a last name of Kiser, this uncle (as well as the aunt and cousins) discover that the prejudices of their fellow Americans make it impossible to continue living in the city. They move to a rundown farm in the country, where life just keeps getting harder.

The one bright spot is that Andrew meets Lili. He adjusts to his new life with a calm, clear-eyed viewpoint and a steadiness that helps support his family when everything else falls apart around them. He and Lili make a perfect pair, although first they have to overcome misunderstandings and insecurities that keep them apart.

Like Daughter of Australia, Beneath the Apple Leaves is a sweeping novel that depicts good but troubled people struggling through adversity to ultimately find love and contentment. Historical fiction fans can dive in and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Our history/historical fiction book club is meeting soon and chose The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, an amazing book that I read in one sitting, wrenching me out of my reading slump.

The book is fiction, but written as an intertwining collection of short stories with a "memoir-like" feel to it, even though it jumps from one point of view to another. The primary narrator is a Vietnam veteran named Tim O’Brien, who has a squishy relationship to the author because it is fiction, not really memoir or autobiography. This gives the whole narrative a real but unreal tone, which meshes with the narrator’s ruminations on the telling of war stories and how-impossible- it-is-to-get-at-the-truth-but-it’s-all-true. It has an immediate feel, even when a character is looking back, and an honest feeling whether or not it’s true.

Each chapter is a story in itself, anecdotes about a company of soldiers in Vietnam. Reminiscent in a way of All Quiet on the Western Front, these are very young men who don’t really have a "big picture" view of the war, who are focused on personal survival and the survival of their buddies. It shows the awfulness of war: its tedium, terror, discomfort, dehumanization, guilt, and ongoing trauma, as well as the closeness of the interpersonal bonds and the giddiness that comes with surviving.

The writing is beautifully stark and evocative. The characters, though presented in snapshots, end up fully realized.

Even for those who don’t think they would be interested in Vietnam War fiction (I didn’t think I would be), this book is a should-read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen

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

Finally! I’ve read a book. This has been a bizarre summer and I’m getting no reading done.

However, The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen is being released this month, and it sounded like a good candidate for bringing me out of my reading slump.

I’ve read a few books in the Proper Romance line published by Shadow Mountain. They are clean romances that are consistently a cut above. The Secret of India Orchard is no exception.

Sophia Elliot, sister of the Earl of Stansworth, has caught the eye and the heart of her brother’s best friend, Anthony Blake, the Earl of Wilshire. He has determined to court her formally. Unfortunately, on the same day that he plans to ask her brother’s permission, he is contacted by his old employer, Lord Braxton, head of spies in the War Department. Although Anthony felt himself happily out of the business when he inherited his title, Braxton has another job for him. A top secret document, naming all the important spies as well as their habits, families, and acquaintances, has been stolen from Braxton’s office. Anthony is the only one he trusts to hunt down the document before it is sold to the French or some other enemy.

Anthony does not like Braxton and wants to refuse. However, that would put all his former colleagues at risk, as well as his friends. Sophia is named in the document. To keep her safe, he must take the job.

The onerous duty requires that he leave immediately, dumping Sophia in a letter which stresses the brotherly friendship he feels for her, to return to the continent and resume his previous undercover activities, which include acting like a devil-may-care playboy.

Sophia is heartbroken.

Two years later, the document is still not recovered. Anthony has traced it to India. Sophia has also decided to go to India for an adventure to take her mind off her continuing heartbreak. There is an alternative marriage mart there for Englishwomen who haven’t had success in London. (Sophia would have had great success but for her continued devotion to Anthony, despite her best attempts to forget him.) Sophia wants to move on. On the other hand, she knows Anthony will be there. . .

Naturally, they are thrown together and the feelings they had for one another blaze back to the fore. To the book’s credit, the love story does not bog down in mutual misunderstandings and petty recriminations. They care for and respect one another too much for that.

In addition to a thoughtful, mature, sweet Romance, there is a page-turning mystery for the two to solve. Who stole the documents and why? There is abundant danger, a little bit of clashing of cultures, and despicable villains–something for everyone! For those who enjoy historical mystery/Romance, this one comes highly recommended.