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.

Monday, July 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

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

The Greatcoats are back. Fans (of which I am one!) of Sebastien de Castell’s fantasy adventure series have been awaiting the release of the fourth and final book, Tyrant’s Throne. Naturally books 1, 2, and 3 should be read first. Then you’ll be pleased that Falcio val Mond, the "First Cantor," and his brothers-in-arms, Kest and Brasti are still together and still determined to save the kingdom of Tristia from. . .well, from everything.

After the last book, Saint’s Blood, it was difficult to see what else de Castell could find to throw at the heroes. They had already battled evil aristocrats, brutal magical foes, and even gods. Despite deep bonds of friendship and loyalty to their dead king’s ideals, and, most importantly, the entertaining banter among the three leads, the series had become increasingly dark and violent. When this novel opened with a threatened public rape, I almost gave up on it without reading further. But I read on past and the story improved, thankfully.

Tristia is still being governed, loosely, by Valiana the Protector of the Realm, Falcio’s adopted daughter. And they are still awaiting the coronation of the heir to the throne, young Aline. But the nobility, each in their own little domains, are unwilling to see a female rule over them.

In the midst of the political maneuvering, Falcio gets to hankering for the clarity of the good old days when his role was to simply pick up his sword and fight for his beliefs. There is too much ambiguity in politics. He finds himself in too many situations where he is tempted to betray the king’s rule of law in order to do what he thinks is best for his loved ones and the kingdom–at least in the short term. Fortunately, his trusted comrades are there to keep him from abandoning the faith.

Tristia is, as always, faced with numerous threats from within, but the more immediate concern is a new threat from without. The barbarians from over the mountains, fierce warriors who intermittently terrorize the border dukedoms of Tristia but who haven’t been considered much of a threat because of technological and strategic inferiority, have found a new warlord. He provides them with weapons and teaches their armies to fight with discipline. They are coming over the mountains and the divided dukedoms of Tristia are in no way prepared for the fight.

Falcio is no soldier. He doesn’t lead armies, he fights alone or in his small band of Greatcoats. This new battle is one that he’s not sure he wants to undertake. Worse, he has to band together with the worst of his old enemies to fight the new ones. Is such a compromise worth it? Is Tristia worth it?

In some ways this book goes back to the basics: nothing magical or supernatural and the story is better for it. The straightforward adventure is a fitting end to a thrilling series.

Monday, June 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo is a sweet and heartbreaking story of the love between Botticelli and his muse, Simonetta Cattaneo, the model for Botticelli’s masterpiece: The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta is the daughter of a minor nobleman in Genoa who captures the eye of a handsome, wealthy, politically-connected Florence noble named Marco Vespucci. By showing appreciation for her love of Dante’s poetry as well as her extraordinary beauty, (mostly the latter, though Simonetta fixates on the former), he woos and wins her. He promises she’ll be the toast of the court of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who is a great patron of the arts. Although she’s a little intimidated by all the wealth and power, and by the sometimes heretical-sounding conversations, Simonetta is eager to immerse herself in the intellectual and artistic company that surrounds Lorenzo.

Marco is right. The court (at least the men) fall at Simonetta’s feet. At Lorenzo’s home, Simonetta first notices Botticelli’s art and then she is introduced to the man. At once, he makes known his desire to paint her. Simonetta is thrilled, though at first it seems wishful thinking on both their parts rather than an actual possibility. Marco doesn’t take to Boticelli, a social inferior.

The marriage between Marco and Simonetta is a happy one at first. He is devoted and she wants to be in love. However, their interests diverge. Marco is a political "climber." Having a wife who is known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, perhaps all of Italy, and who is intelligent and charming as well, helps to make Marco a favorite with the Medicis. But he doesn’t share her love of art, poetry, or literature. He’s a busy man. So when Simonetta is finally allowed to sit for a portrait by Botticelli, and they fill long days with conversations about topics dear to Simonetta’s heart, it’s clear that the marriage is in trouble. Marco’s subsequent behavior makes things worse.

This novel lushly describes the beauty of Renaissance Florence by making Simonetta its emblem. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical attributes and the way she accepts that advantages flow her way because of her appearance yet never seems particularly vain, and her frustration with being seen always as an object make her a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. She retains a sweet naivete even as she challenges expectations and breaks rules.

But even perfect beauty and a generous spirit provide no guarantees against heartbreak. This poignant love story is a wonderful addition to the genre showing artists and the significant others who give them inspiration.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of reviews for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is uniformly praised as one of the best novels about books—a literary historical fiction adventure. I finally sat down to read it.

The protagonist is Daniel Sempere, the son of a rare book seller in Barcelona in the mid-twentieth century. When Daniel is just a boy, his father takes him to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a secret place, in an attempt to help ease his heartbreak over the fading memory of his deceased mother. Daniel wanders through miles of bookshelves to find just the right book to adopt and settles on The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He falls in love with the book and determines to read everything by Carax. However, he discovers that not only is Carax virtually unknown, but that to the rare bibliophiles who have heard of him, the books are secondary in importance to the mystery surrounding him.

Julian Carax was an obscure man whose works were published in limited runs by tiny presses. The books never achieved any success. Carax died in mysterious circumstances. Someone went around acquiring and destroying every copy of his work. Now it seems that Daniel has the only existing copy. The book and Daniel become targets.

Daniel devotes his young life to learning about Carax and trying to unravel the explanation for the destruction of the books. Along the way, Daniel grows up, grows apart from his devoted father, falls in love a couple of times and works in the bookshop alongside his father. He also is threatened by a mysterious figure who smells of burned paper and who tries to get the book away from him.

The plot becomes increasingly complex as Daniel meets more and more characters related in one way or another to Carax. As he comes closer to understanding, he also notices more and more disturbing parallels between himself and the author. As he inserts himself into Carax’s story, the danger increases for Daniel and for those close to him.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It has a lengthy set up and the first half reads slowly. The set up is necessary, but the book was very easy to put down and I kept considering switching to something else. Still, I was determined to finish. After about 200 pages, enough of the plot was coming together to keep me reading. Some of the secondary characters were compelling, though I never really warmed to Daniel. The prose was quite beautiful with wonderful imagery, but the unfolding of the story was sometimes clunky.

The novel does wind its way to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and things that seemed coincidental were shown to actually have been carefully plotted. It’s a book I’m glad to have read, but am also somewhat disappointed to find it didn’t quite live up to expectations—which may be a fault of the expectations rather than of the book.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My most recent read is The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small farming and fishing village in Normandy in the time leading up to D-Day. The heroine is Emma, a young, talented baker, who learned her craft from a Jewish baker. "Uncle Ezra" was much beloved by the villagers, but they were powerless to help the day the occupying Germans shot him on a trumped-up charge.

Emma’s bread is discovered by the German commander occupying her town. He decrees she must make twelve baguettes per day for his table and he’ll give her the provisions to do so. It occurs to her to stretch the dough with ground straw so that she can make two extra loaves each day that she secretly distributes. As she gives away the bread, she learns the particular needs of her neighbors, as well as what each is able to provide in return. Slowly, she creates a network of exchange that helps undermine the German oppression and helps her neighbors to survive.

Emma is a wonderful protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She’s judgmental and holds grudges. But she’s also patient, intelligent, and good. She’s pragmatic, dealing with each day as it comes, refusing to indulge in the rather hopeless optimism of those who wait for the allies to liberate them. She also regularly confronts the village priest whose exhortations to attend mass and pray seem to her to fall short.

Other characters round out the village: Odette, the cafĂ© owner who hides her knowledge of the German language and serves both villagers and enemies with black market goods; Guilhaume, the gentle, large-hearted veterinarian; the Monkey Boy, a cross between village idiot and idiot-savant; the Goat Boy (cruelly named by Emma), a rag-tag member of the resistance; Pierre, an old farmer, veteran of the Great War. There are also collaborators, the beautiful Michelle and the embittered, petty tyrant DuFour. While they are all types, they are also well-developed. Emma has compassion even for those she doesn’t like.

The French villagers have hunkered down in survival mode. Time grinds them down. The Germans, uniformly villainous, murder for the flimsiest of reasons. In this atmosphere of terror and deprivation, they wait for deliverance, doing what they can to support one another and the resistance.

The book has a slow build but then becomes impossible to put down.

WWII fiction is always compelling, but so depressing. Even though they often have uplifting messages and brave, compassionate protagonists, the good people are surrounded by ugliness and the worst examples of humanity. It can be painful to read. Nevertheless, The Baker’s Secret is well worth it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I am a big fan of Ruta Sepetys’ writing. Between Shades of Gray still stays with me as one of the best examples of YA historical fiction I’ve read. Although Out of the Easy was not as memorable for me, it was still an excellent read. Just a different focus. Now Sepetys has returned to the WWII setting in Salt to the Sea. She has a talent for bringing attention to the more obscure atrocities. This time, the novel centers on the evacuation of refugees from East Prussia as the Russians advanced against Germany. The devastation and loss of life among civilians was appalling.

Salt to the Sea is told from four different viewpoints. Joana is a young Lithuanian woman who was repatriated to Germany where she worked as a nurse. Intelligent, stalwart, compassionate, and pretty, she carries a lot of guilt because she has survived where so many, including some close family members, have not. Emilia is a fifteen-year-old, pregnant Polish refugee. She speaks little German but is extraordinarily sensitive and can discern things about people that others do not. Florian is a young German man, an art restorer, who was involved with Hitler’s campaign to steal and warehouse art to put in the private collections of Nazis. Florian was not truly aware of what was going on until it became impossible to ignore. Now, he is on a mission of vengeance. And Alfred is a young Nazi. Cowardly, bullying, perverse, and verging on mentally ill, Alfred is a cog in the Nazi wheel, one of the sailors manning the evacuation boats.

The first three are thrown together in a small group of refugees making their way to Frauenberg, hoping to find a way west, away from the Russian army. There are other misfits in the group: Ingrid, who is blind but fiercely brave; Eva, a bristly older woman; a wise and kindly cobbler who they call "the shoe poet," and an orphaned, six-year-old named Klaus who stumbled upon the group and was named "the wandering boy." Joana is unofficially the leader. She holds them together and champions the weak. Florian, a late arrival, tries to stay detached–his mission pushes him onward, but he needs them even more than they need him.

Short chapters in each of the POVs propels the story onward. The characters’ concern for one another grows along with the readers’ concern as they move toward their goal. Obstacles and dangers are present every step of the way. And even when they reach Frauenberg and have safety within reach, the dangers increase.

This is a heartbreaking novel. It’s painfully realistic and re-emphasizes the horrors and cruelties of war. Sadly, although this is historical fiction, these horrors are not all in the past. Novels like this one are important. News can be numbing. Strangely enough, fiction can sometimes make the human cost more real.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Having so enjoyed the first of M.J. Carter’s Blake and Avery books, The Strangler Vine, I jumped right into book 2: The Infidel Stain.

Three years have passed since William Avery met Jeremiah Blake, when they were paired by officers of the East India Company to find a lost poet in India’s interior. Avery, who remained in India, is Captain Avery now. He has returned to England a war hero with a pregnant wife to settle down as a country squire. It’s not the life he particularly wants. When he is summoned to London by his long-lost partner, he goes–eagerly and warily.

Blake has been working in London as a private inquiry agent for the same men who utilized his services in India. He dislikes them, but he’s good at it and has to earn his keep. He is, if anything, even more jaded and downtrodden. But he’s as clever as ever.

Blake and Avery have been recommended to Lord Allington, a crusader for the destitute of London, for a special task. An impoverished printer was found butchered in his workplace. The police are doing nothing to find the killer. Allington wishes to show the working people that they are not forgotten and that the law works for them as well as the upper classes. He wants the murderer found.

The book starts slowly as Blake and Avery reconnect and start to look for clues. This is more of a classic whodunit than The Strangler Vine, which had more of an adventure element to it. As Blake and Avery collect clues and suspects, the bodies start to pile up. Criminals, blackmailers, printers of pornographic material, political activists, religious do-gooders, Chartists and journalists are all tangled up in the crimes and the two protagonists have to sort it all out before being killed themselves by one faction or another, or before being arrested as murderers themselves.

Avery is not quite the innocent he was in book 1, but he still has many of his illusions intact. He is even more the gentleman than he was before, and, as a member of the privileged class, has a hard time coming to grips with the poverty and desperation he encounters in London. Blake is under no illusions. Always one step ahead of Avery, Blake nevertheless relies on him, even if it means using Avery’s naive blundering as a means to his own ends.

The two make a splendid pair. Once again, the author describes the settings meticulously and does a wonderful job of incorporating political and historical context. Blake may be a little bit too clever to be entirely credible, but the book is such a page-turner that I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I want Blake to be larger than life. And now I have to read book 3.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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

I just finished a beautiful, melancholy World War II novel, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Two of the main characters, Marianne von Lingenfels, an aristocrat, and Benita Gruber Fledermann, a peasant who married Marianne’s best friend, are introduced at a party in 1938. During the party (at the von Lingenfels country castle), they learn of the rioting and destruction of Jewish businesses and property later known as Kristallnacht. A small group of guests, anti-Hitler intelligentsia, coalesce in their determination to stand against fascism. One of these is Albrecht, Marianne’s husband, and another is Connie Fledermann, Marianne’s oldest and dearest friend, with whom she is more than a little in love. Connie assigns Marianne the task of being "commander of the wives and children." Even though she finds the designation affronting, she takes the task to heart.

The story is told in non-chronological order. The story jumps to the end of the war to find Marianne searching out the wives and children of men who had bound themselves to the resistance. Albrecht and Connie had been among the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler but were caught and executed. During the war, wealth and connections helped spare Marianne the worst of Nazi punishments, but she could do nothing to help her fellow widows. As the war drew to a close, Marianne found Benita and her son Martin, and later, a woman she’d never met but whose name had been on her list: Ania Grabarek, along with her two sons. Marianne brings these families to live with her at an old family castle in the countryside.

The novel tells these women’s stories, what they experienced during and after the war. They are very different but linked through suffering and the desire to protect their children. Each is guarding secrets which are slowly revealed through the course of the narrative.

Although the time shifts in the novel make it a bit choppy, the story holds together well and is, in fact, difficult to put down. The psychological studies of the women are poignant and credible. Marianne is at the center of the book. Extraordinarily strong and full of conviction, she never strays from her sense of duty or her clear-eyed view of right and wrong. While this serves her well as far as moving forward despite aching loss, it does blind her to shades of gray that have influenced the actions of the other women, costing her friendships that might have blunted her own pain.

A varied exploration of the experiences of women inside Nazi Germany, The Women in the Castle is deeply moving, important, and sad.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey

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

I was ready to change gears and read a lighthearted Regency Romance, so I pulled Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey from my Netgalley queue. This novel had a premise that enticed me. An orphaned heiress has reached the age where she must marry, but her heart is already given—not to her guardian, but to her guardian’s best friend. This twist on the "he loves her but it’s not honorable to seduce a young ward" plot line sounded like fun.

Lady Eleanor is the heiress, living with her guardian Cousin Charles and his wife. Charles’s best friend is Sorin Latham, an earl (Lord Wincanton). Sorin practically helped raise Eleanor, and is trusted almost as a member of the family. So when he sees Eleanor at sixteen, after a brief absence, and realizes he has inappropriate feelings for her, he absents himself for 5 more years, thinking to wait until she’s safely married before returning.

Eleanor, however, has no desire to marry any of the men who’ve been presented to her. None of them come close to Sorin.

Sorin returns because his duties won’t wait forever. Naturally, he can’t avoid contact with Eleanor. As they are both in need of spouses, they go to London for the "Season," each pretending to be looking for someone else to wed. Charles specifically asks Sorin to help chaperone Eleanor to keep gold-diggers away, so the two spend a great deal of time together.

Each feels the other cares only as a sibling would. Family and friends can see the sparks flying between them, but they are both so insecure that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they embark on secretive quests to win the other over, without betraying their own feelings, lest it ruin their friendship.

While the premise is cute, they drag it out for the requisite 300 or so pages until it is so tedious I no longer cared whether they got together or not. In fact, in the final confrontation between the two, when Eleanor stares at the obvious but refuses to see it, I found myself wishing Sorin would give up and go home and the two could be miserable-ever-after.

More interesting than the relationship between the two was the rival for Eleanor’s affections, a low-class bully who was so deep in debt he would stoop to anything to entrap Eleanor. He was not an actual rival, since no one could stand him. Eventually, desperate, he sinks as low as he could go to cause a scandal that would force the issue. Eleanor is rescued in the nick of time, but here the book lost me completely. Sorin behaves in a way that is so appalling that all his previous shilly-shallying for the sake of behaving honorably appears ridiculous.

So, despite an initially interesting premise and a few entertaining scenes, this was not a Romance I particularly enjoyed.

Monday, May 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

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

Fictional biography is one of my favorite subgenres of historical fiction, and I particularly gravitate towards novels about writers or important people in the lives of writers. So I was pleased to have the chance to read The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber (to be released this summer). This is a dual fictionalized biography of Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter, the artist and child prodigy, Pamela Bianco.

This is a beautifully written, entrancing book. It is not a story of Margery Williams’ writing career, though her writing is briefly touched upon; it’s more the story of the relationship between mother and daughter, and how that relationship is complicated by Pamela’s early fame and later mental illness.

Margery is portrayed as a solid, loving, steadfast, though sometimes overwhelmed, mother, who is unsure of the correct path to take when her daughter’s artistic genius is discovered. She bows to the wishes of her husband, a more aggressive personality. He lives vicariously through the attention paid to his daughter. Margery, on the other hand, constantly questions their choices, wondering if she should have protected Pamela from the stresses of being a "child prodigy," while at the same time believing that her daughter’s love for painting and talent were too great to suppress.

Pamela, desperate for approval, never feels she is quite good enough. A failed, rather one-sided relationship early in life reinforces Pamela’s insecurities. And then she falls ill with severe depression and battles with mental illness the rest of her life. Margery’s role is to pick up the pieces and lend her support, but she can’t cure Pamela, and this is heartbreaking for her.

The novel delves deep into the emotional roller coaster of obsession, artistry, love, and familial pressures. Alternating between their two points of view, the novel presents different sides to each of the defining events in their lives. Their love, understanding, and forgiveness make this book shine.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Minotaur takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

This novel was a staff pick in a bookstore I was browsing in last weekend. The premise was just so odd, I was intrigued. If you find yourself in the mood for a well-written, sad, and very strange story, pick up a copy of The Minotaur takes a Coffee Break by Steven Sherrill.

The Minotaur is that minotaur, but he is nothing at all what you would expect. An immortal half-bull/half man, he is not mythological but very real, very lonely, and tired.

"M," as he is called by those around him, has settled in to a life as a cook in a steakhouse-type restaurant in a small southern town. He lives in a small trailer park where he has grown comfortable with his neighbors and landlord. He is friends, more or less, with some of his co-workers and tolerates the rest, who try to pick on him because of what he is. M has been around for millenia, so he has a high tolerance level for idiots.

Over the course of a couple weeks, M goes about his business and the reader is treated to the minute details of his daily life and his desperate yearning for companionship. His greatest fear is that the small inconveniences and errors will accumulate to the point where he will have to make a change, move on. His life is a series of moving on, and it wears him down.

Still, hope has not been entirely extinguished. A waitress has come to work at the restaurant who is also different in some respects. M summons up all his courage to make a connection. With so much that can go wrong, is he right to take the leap?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this unique book is just how commonplace the other characters find it to have a Minotaur in their midst. Some people are put off, some are momentarily frightened, but for most, he just is and they accept it. The reader is able to feel empathy for his very human dilemma, even though his alienation is a result of his not being quite human. This should not read as realistic fiction, and yet, it does.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

The next book in our history/historical fiction book group is The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter. One reason I love historical fiction is for the perspective it brings to current day problems. Whenever I start to think we are living in times of unprecedented corruption and instability, a good historical novel reminds me that this stuff has been going on in some form or another for all of recorded human history and probably before that.

In this adventure set in India in the mid 1800s, two men, employees of the East India Company are sent deep into native lands to look for Mountstuart, a missing poet whose latest work has offended the Company and its wealthy backers.

William Avery is a first-year, low-level soldier who is naive, loyal to the Company, and a romantic devotee of the poet who has disappeared. Jeremiah Blake is a disillusioned ex-officer who has gone native and wants nothing to do with the Company’s orders. However, he has reasons of his own for wanting to find Mountstuart.

There are elements of the "buddy" novel that I always enjoy. The two men are ill-suited at first, but grow to trust and depend on each other. Blake is the hardened jack-of-all-trades who can speak all the native languages, is a master of disguise, and who seems to have a secret knowledge that gets him out of any difficulty. Avery is fumbling and a poor judge of character, but he rides well, shoots even better, and is blessed with what he himself calls "stupid good health," which is crucial given the clime and the various injuries he sustains. He’s a very honorable man, so his disillusionment hits him hard and the reader will empathize.

Mountstuart left Calcutta for the interior ostensibly to find the subjects for his next poem: adherents of the Thuggee cult, murderous natives who kill to please the goddess Kali. An extensive mythology has sprung up around them thanks to their study by a particularly zealous Company commander who has made it his life’s work to root them out. Avery and Blake are in constant danger from the moment they leave Calcutta, but it becomes increasingly unclear who it is that they have to fear.

This dark novel puts the reader squarely into the exotic locale where the intrigues are palpable. The two heroes are easy to root for. And the historical context is top notch. This is a book one, and there are two more in the series so far, so they are now on my to-be-read list.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

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

Released this week: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King is a superb historical novel set in Ancient Rome.

During the latter years of Augustus’ (and Livia’s) rule and during the reign of Tiberius, a Roman patrician named Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the earliest known "foodies," embarks on a project to make himself legendary. Wealthy beyond measure, he has no talent for the usual methods of making a name for oneself in Roman society, and so concentrates on his one particular skill – exquisite entertaining. For this, he purchases a young slave, Thrasius, who has a reputation as a talented cook, paying 20,000 denarii, a ridiculously high sum.

Thrasius proves well worth the investment. Not only is he a remarkable chef and party organizer, but he is astute and literate. Moreover, he’s a good man, which makes this book a pleasure to read.

As a slave, Thrasius is completely dependent on the good will of his master. Apicius is an unpredictable tyrant, making it necessary for Thrasius to measure his words and walk lightly in the household. In his favor, he makes spectacular meals and Apicius’ fame spreads. Ultimately, Apicius hopes to become the gastronomic advisor to the emperor. Unfortunately, obstacles in his way include a former friend and now deadly rival, Octavius, who is in Livia’s favor, and Livia herself, who holds an old grudge against Apicius’ dear friend Fannia. Even worse, he has an enemy in his wife’s cousin, Sejanus, who holds an important position with Tiberius and thus is well placed to thwart Apicius’ rise.

Thrasius works hard to promote his master, knowing that his own future depends on Apicius’ success. Moreover, he falls in love with the personal slave of Apicius’ daughter. Knowing she could be sold or given away at Apicius’ whim, Thrasius must do everything possible to stay on his master’s good side, even while watching Apicius behave in ways that are counterproductive, selfish, and cruel.

The novel is a fascinating look at Rome from a unique perspective. The lush descriptions of the banquet bring the opulence and decadence of the times fully to life. The uncertain lives of slaves and the menace hanging over their patrician masters keep the plot tight and fast paced. Thrasius is heroic as a man with a unique skill attempting to protect those in his sphere as best he can. Apicius is oddly sympathetic as a mediocre man with a narrowly focused ambition, willing to sacrifice everything, even those he loves, in order to be remembered by posterity. King’s story is a convincing portrait of the man. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Merely a Marriage by Jo Beverley

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

I read this book a while ago, but waited to post this review until closer to the publication date.

I’ve read a few of Jo Beverley’s Regency Romances and enjoyed them, so I was startled to see this latest novel, Merely a Marriage, described as her last. I googled her and was sorry to learn that she died in May 2016.

Jo Beverley’s historical romances have always stood out for me because she doesn’t just set them in the Regency period for the manners of the time. (The manners are important, of course; all the rules of courting and social behavior make these books fun escapism.) She also truly seems to know the time period and inserts more historical context into the storylines than is typical. The history isn’t the focus. It’s never heavy-handed and the books are clearly genre romance. But the historical tidbits are an added bonus.

Merely a Marriage takes place immediately following the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth. England is plunged into mourning. Social events are muted. Dresses must be in mourning colors. And the twenty-five-year-old Lady Ariana Boxstall is in a panic. Her father is two years dead and her brother, a couple of years younger than she, has no intention of marrying and filling the nursery with potential heirs. This could be a problem if her brother, Norris, should suffer an untimely death. Their uncle would inherit, and he’s a gambler and a nasty drunkard.

Norris is too young and healthy to be concerned, which irritates Ariana. So, he challenges her: if she’s wed by the end of the year, he’ll marry right after her. Since she retired from society after a disastrous coming out at seventeen, he feels safe. But Ariana is not one to shy from a challenge.

Ariana is beautiful, willful, and intelligent. However, she has a fatal flaw. She’s much too tall. Since she would never settle for a man shorter than herself, her options are limited in the countryside. She has to go back to London to find a wider field of choices. Her mother is happy to take her, and they will stay with an elderly relative who knows all the right people. Unfortunately, she knows some of the wrong people too: her nephew, the Earl of Kynaston, is one of the young men whose mockery made Ariana’s debut so painful. She might have endured it better if she wasn’t so smitten with him at the time. She’s older and wiser now, but still not prepared to share a roof with him. He’s as gorgeous (and tall) as ever, but he’s also still nasty, and he drinks to excess.

Of course, first (and second) impressions can be wrong.

As Lady Ariana shuffles through the men who survive the first weed-out round (tallness), she discovers that she’s even pickier than she thought. Height is the main thing, but not everything. Thrown together frequently with Kynaston, she finds he has more and more attributes on her checklist. Still, she resents him so much and is so certain he’s not interested in her, that she invents sins to assign to him, fabricating a tale of dissipation, rakish behavior, impoverishment, neglect of his estates and family, all to talk herself out of the attraction she still feels.

Kynaston has his own reasons for keeping Ariana at arm’s length despite his attraction to her. The reader will be convinced that he’s actually a noble character long before Ariana admits it. Ariana’s willful blindness to all the clues gets a bit irritating after awhile. She prefers to invent reasons for his behavior and stick to her own version of his life despite all evidence to the contrary. However, once she is told Kynaston’s history, she does an abrupt about face. Now she sees clearly that he is the perfect man—the only man—for her.

Ariana’s matter-of-fact approach to life makes her an interesting protagonist. And Kynaston is fine as the alpha male of her dreams. But her single-minded pursuit of him, including various plans to compromise herself so that he will have no choice but to marry her, get a bit unnerving. She tackles problems with an end-justifies-the-means attitude where the end is always to get what she wants. Since she’s certain that she knows what’s right for everyone, she sees no problem with forcing the issues. And, while she is naturally right that she and Kynaston are meant for each other (it’s a romance, after all), I found her character rather off-putting. Nevertheless, she is surrounded by charming supporting characters and I had fun reading this.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: My Last Lament by James William Brown

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

I’ve been looking forward to reading My Last Lament by James William Brown. I know pretty much nothing about modern Greek history, and the blurb for the novel intrigued me.

Aliki is an elderly woman recording her "memoir" for an ethnographer who we never meet, who is studying the ancient folk custom of "lamenting" the dead. Visiting Aliki’s isolated village, the student was unable to witness Aliki in action, so she left behind a cassette player and some blank tapes. The result is this novel.

A lamenter is not exactly a paid mourner and not exactly a eulogizer, but something in between. Upon the death of a loved one, a lamenter is brought in to encapsulate the life of the deceased with a poetic remembrance. Aliki’s gift for lamenting came upon her all at once and she performs the task in a semi-trance, not really knowing where the words come from. This recollection of her own life, this encapsulation, is, in a way, her own lament.

Aliki was about 14 years old when the Germans took over her village. Early on, they executed her father for hoarding food, and she was taken in by a neighbor, Chrysoula, who had a young son, Takis. They grew up together and so shared a lifelong bond.

Chrysoula was a woman of action. In addition to Aliki, she also took in a Jewish refugee family from the city, a mother and son, Stelios. Stelios is a bit older. Aliki and Stelios fall in love.

Things are not going to work out well. Though the Germans are eventually defeated, they cause enough havoc in the town that the family is disrupted. Many of the villagers are killed. Then, unfortunately, Aliki, Takis, and Stelios find that post-war Greece is as savage and dangerous as occupied Greece.

Stelios is a skilled shadow puppeteer, and the three set off trying to earn their living by putting on performances, first in the city and then around the countryside. Aside from the dangers of the ongoing civil war, the cohesion of their little group is threatened by the animosity between Takis and Stelios. Takis is mentally ill and hounded by confusion and guilt over what happened back in the village. He’s also fiercely jealous of the relationship between Stelios and Aliki.

The novel serves as a tour of post-war Greece and an introduction to the political divisions that have brought Greece to the position it’s in today. The characters are sympathetic and the action is well paced. Readers may guess the secrets that drive the plot before the big reveal at the end, but that doesn’t detract from the story.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich

Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich is a sprawling historical epic that combines Western fiction with WWII fiction to provide a moving account of Wyoming ranchers keeping the home fires burning during the war and of Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned (interned) at the Heart Mountain relocation camp. Told from multiple viewpoints, the novel is a bit choppy and disjointed starting out, but stick with it. The author slowly immerses you in the geography, the workaday world, and the intense emotional lives of very varied characters. As WWII fiction generally focuses on the atrocities committed by the enemy, it’s too easy to forget about the ugly side of the war effort at home. Heart Mountain shows the conflicting feelings of those left behind (too old to fight, deferred for medical reasons, women) and those disillusioned by fighting (a medic, a prisoner of war, and a wounded soldier, as well as a Japanese-American pilot). It also shows the varying responses of those interned and of the isolated community surrounding the camp. This is straightforward, old-style historical fiction and recommended for twentieth century historical novel fans.

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

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

I finally had a chance to do a little reading, so I picked a YA fantasy: Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves. This entertaining, suspenseful novel is set in the mid-1800s in an alternative fantasy world of England and Hungary, where the ruling elites maintain their status and power not only through bloodlines and money, but through magic. Years ago, a spell was cast by a small cadre of the nobility to concentrate access to magic in the hands of a few. The "Binding" prevented outsiders who might have magical talent from ever learning how to use it. While the rationale behind the Binding made some sense (it also trapped dangerous magical monsters within the spell so that they couldn’t harm humans), in practice it led to grave abuse of power.

Lady Anna Arden is a young woman from a well-placed magical family destined for high English society. However, at her confirmation she was unable to perform a spell and was declared Barren. Since then, she has been kept from the public eye. However, at her sister’s debut in society, Anna inadvertently breaks her sister’s spell, causing considerable damage and raising alarms throughout "The Circle," the ruling body. Her talent is unique and potentially dangerous. It’s a type of anti-magic that threatens their entire way of life if she can’t be controlled.

Anna’s parents and grandmother whisk her off to Hungary, her grandmother’s home country, in the hopes that the scandal will die down and The Circle will lose interest in her. Instead, Anna becomes embroiled in a plot to break the Binding spell and free access to magic to the masses. This does not go over well with those in control.

This is a well-done fantasy with intricate world building and a quasi-historical setting that Eves brings to life with a bold sympathetic heroine, a strong love interest, and new friends who are fully rounded characters. Newly released, this is billed as Blood Rose Rebellion #1, so I look forward to the next installment!

Monday, March 13, 2017


I'm taking part in the blog tour for this wonderful new historical:
by Margaret George
Berkley Hardcover
On Sale: March 7, 2016
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 9780451473387
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes readers through the early life of Rome’s infamous Nero. Through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero became emperor at the age of sixteen, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But the road was a frightening one.  The young boy, an intelligent, sensitive and watchful child, had a series of psychological shocks from an early age.  His cruel uncle Caligula and his scheming cousin Messalina threatened his life, and his domineering and ambitious mother Agrippina married and poisoned two men en route to securing the throne for her son. Agrippina viewed Nero’s power as an extension of her own will. But once on the throne—like the teenage boy he was—Nero did not want to take orders from his mother.  Soon the world was not big enough for the two of them. Thereafter he was remembered as a hedonist and tyrant who “fiddled” while his people burned. But the truth behind the caricature, revealed here, shows Nero to be instead a product of his mother’s relentless ambition, and the incest, violence, luxury, and intrigue that have gripped Rome’s seat of power for generations.
Margaret George is the author of the bestselling Autobiography of Henry VIIIMary, Queen of Scotland and the IslesThe Memoirs of Cleopatra; and Mary, Called Magdalene.
I knew I'd signed up for this tour but couldn't find the info about it so thought I'd missed it. I ran my review early, but loved the book so much I'm posting it again.
I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Last summer, while on a family vacation to Germany, we visited museums in one city (I think it was Trier) that presented a special exhibit on the Roman Emperor Nero. The theme of the exhibits was that Nero got a raw deal from historians. (He’s known primarily for fiddling while Rome burned, which isn’t even true.)
In fact, he was an able administrator and was very much loved by the Roman people, if perhaps not so much by the Senate. Apparently, he took great pleasure in athletic and musical competitions, which was considered beneath the dignity of the office. No surprise, he always won first place. It was a very interesting exhibit and new perspective.

So I was eager to read Margaret George’s new book, The Confessions of Young Nero. Margaret George is well known in historical fiction circles for epic biographical novels. I’ve had her on my to-read list for a long time.
Nero was a member of the imperial family, though he was not expected to become emperor. His father died when he was young and his mother, Agrippina, had been banished. During Caligula’s reign, Nero was raised by an aunt. (He barely managed to survive Caligula’s casual murderousness.) The manipulations of his family to get rid of Caligula and to jockey for position at court make for interesting reading. Things really get going when Claudius becomes emperor and Agrippina returns. She reclaimed her son and started plotting.

During his formative years, Nero (then Lucius) had no dreams of seizing power. He was content to study history with his tutors, to sneak into an athletic training camp to wrestle and race, and to learn to play the cithara.

Nero is presented as a sensitive and intelligent boy/young man, cursed with a fiercely manipulative mother. Agrippina married Claudius and had him adopt Nero. Claudius’s own son was displaced. To help move things along more quickly, Agrippina employed the family poisoner, Locusta, whose point of view is presented in a few chapters for additional historical perspective.

Nero watched with fascination and horror. At first, he was merely swept along in the current that carried him to the throne. But, once he became emperor, Nero discovered his own taste for power.

George does a wonderful job showing Nero’s growth, his loss of innocence, and his slide from a boy with a conscience to a power-crazed dictator who ceases to listen to his advisors and who believes he is entitled to whatever he desires just because his power is limitless. He’s not a warrior as his predecessors were, which means Rome is able to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity, but he is extravagant and vain.

The book is long but reads quickly. It weaves together politics, court and family intrigues, and romance. It carries the reader up to the burning of Rome. Here, the story breaks off but with the promise of a second novel in the works to continue Nero’s story. For anyone who loves Roman history or epic biographical fiction, this new novel by Margaret George is highly recommended.

Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger

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

Life keeps happening and it’s really cutting into my reading and blogging. Still, I did squeeze in this gem, Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger.

This literary historical novel introduces us to Richard Dadd, a talented nineteenth century British artist who was mentally ill, grew increasingly violent, and was eventually admitted to Bedlam. The novel begins with a visitor to the insane asylum who comes specifically to speak with Richard: Charlotte Bronte. The encounter did happen, though the details here are fictional.

The story branches out to follow the lives of both these characters. Although they don’t come in contact again, they know some of the same people so the links between them hold the separate narratives together. One person who looms large is Charles Dickens. A boyhood acquaintance of Dadd’s, his path keeps crossing Dadd’s and they keep tabs on each other’s professional careers. Bronte and Dickens are not friends but are literary contemporaries.

Charlotte’s sections are somewhat dreamy, as the author is at a later stage in her career, her siblings are dead, and she is contemplating living out her life as a spinster caring for her father in the parsonage. It’s not the life she particularly wants. She has fallen in love with her editor, a handsome younger man, who supports her as an author and friend, but who shies away when her deeper feelings become more obvious. Charlotte is wooed in turn by her father’s curate, a sober, quiet man. Charlotte’s father sent him away, appalled that he dared approach his social superior, the famous author. However, Charlotte keeps him on a string while she decides what course to take. She fears life alone but also fears a life without writing and worries marrying the curate will cut short her career.

Dadd’s life is more tumultuous. One of nine children, Richard is his father’s favorite. His father is a successful chemist who has pinned all hopes for the family’s rise in the world on Richard. This exceptional son is given a first class education and, when he decides he wants to be a painter, tutors are hired and connections are tapped. Richard also finds his own group of up-and-coming artists, and it seems he is on his way.

But Richard is slowly losing his mind. He immerses himself in his art and his interpretation of art, but his thoughts drift farther and farther from reality. Part of the time he frightens himself, but other times he is inspired by his own intellect. Pushed by his father to accept a position accompanying a gentleman on a tour of Egypt, Richard falls off the cliff of madness in the exotic climes. By the time he returns, he is hearing the voices of Egyptian gods telling him to commit murder.

This is a beautifully written book that succeeds in weaving together the stories of these two very different people, who have in common ambition, a love of art, and an ambivalent feeling about fame. Charlotte’s story is bittersweet and grounded in reality. Richard’s is horrifyingly tragic and surreal. The author does a wonderful job of presenting his descent into madness in a vivid, realistic, and sympathetic way.

Monday, February 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

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

Last summer, while on a family vacation to Germany, we visited museums in one city (I think it was Trier) that presented a special exhibit on the Roman Emperor Nero. The theme of the exhibits was that Nero got a raw deal from historians. (He’s known primarily for fiddling while Rome burned, which isn’t even true.)

In fact, he was an able administrator and was very much loved by the Roman people, if perhaps not so much by the Senate. Apparently, he took great pleasure in athletic and musical competitions, which was considered beneath the dignity of the office. No surprise, he always won first place. It was a very interesting exhibit and new perspective.

So I was eager to read Margaret George’s new book, The Confessions of Young Nero. Margaret George is well known in historical fiction circles for epic biographical novels. I’ve had her on my to-read list for a long time.

Nero was a member of the imperial family, though he was not expected to become emperor. His father died when he was young and his mother, Agrippina, had been banished. During Caligula’s reign, Nero was raised by an aunt. (He barely managed to survive Caligula’s casual murderousness.) The manipulations of his family to get rid of Caligula and to jockey for position at court make for interesting reading. Things really get going when Claudius becomes emperor and Agrippina returns. She reclaimed her son and started plotting.

During his formative years, Nero (then Lucius) had no dreams of seizing power. He was content to study history with his tutors, to sneak into an athletic training camp to wrestle and race, and to learn to play the cithara.

Nero is presented as a sensitive and intelligent boy/young man, cursed with a fiercely manipulative mother. Agrippina married Claudius and had him adopt Nero. Claudius’s own son was displaced. To help move things along more quickly, Agrippina employed the family poisoner, Locusta, whose point of view is presented in a few chapters for additional historical perspective.

Nero watched with fascination and horror. At first, he was merely swept along in the current that carried him to the throne. But, once he became emperor, Nero discovered his own taste for power.

George does a wonderful job showing Nero’s growth, his loss of innocence, and his slide from a boy with a conscience to a power-crazed dictator who ceases to listen to his advisors and who believes he is entitled to whatever he desires just because his power is limitless. He’s not a warrior as his predecessors were, which means Rome is able to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity, but he is extravagant and vain.

The book is long but reads quickly. It weaves together politics, court and family intrigues, and romance. It carries the reader up to the burning of Rome. Here, the story breaks off but with the promise of a second novel in the works to continue Nero’s story. For anyone who loves Roman history or epic biographical fiction, this new novel by Margaret George is highly recommended.

Monday, February 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

This month’s book group selection is The Martian by Andy Weir. Despite all the hype, I wasn’t intending to read this one. I watched the movie on a long plane flight last summer and really enjoyed it, but figured the book would be somewhat spoiled since I knew how it would all end.

Still, I hope to make it to book group this month and didn’t want to be the one who just watched the movie.

It is a wonderful book!

Set in the not-too-distant future, NASA is sending manned space explorations to Mars. A crew is on the surface of the planet doing what astronauts do, when a sudden windstorm blows in, threatening the mission and the lives of the astronauts. Those outside have to hurry back to the safety of the MAV (the ship that will lift them from Mars and take them home.) Those inside are agonizing over the tilt of the ship and the possibility that it will fall over and never be able to lift off. The heavy winds rip an antenna loose, and it hits and impales one of the crewman, Mark Watney, sending him flying. His crewmates search but can’t locate him. Signals they receive from his biosuit indicate that he’s dead. The only thing that they can do is evacuate, leaving him behind.

Turns out, he’s not dead.

Much of the book consists of Watney’s logs as he struggles with harsh conditions, loneliness, and the near certainty of death. Being the mission’s botanist and engineer, he has a lot going for him. He records in detail how he approaches each of the challenges that face him. Eventually, an astute satellite analyst discovers that he’s still alive. NASA, then the world at-large, and finally his crewmates become involved in a massive rescue operation.

At first, I did find it a bit slow, partly because the movie covers the same material in a much more condensed and visually interesting way. Watney’s logs showcase his wonderful voice, but they are very detail oriented and get a bit bogged down in the weeds. Still, the amount of detail gives the story great credibility. Things get more interesting when the people back on earth get involved. All that dedication and ingenuity both on Earth and on Mars create a very compelling story–even when the ending is known.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Ilsa by Madeleine L'Engle

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

I can’t claim to know anything about Madeleine L’Engle except that she wrote the marvelous A Wrinkle in Time. When I saw this re-release of her 1946 novel, Ilsa, available on Netgalley, I was eager to read it. This is her second novel, written for adults. It’s been out of print for ~60 years.

Ilsa is about unhappy, unfulfilled people, primarily Henry Porcher (pronounced Puh-Shay) and Ilsa Brandes. They meet as children. Ilsa is a three years older and Henry is immediately smitten. She’s a wild and independent girl, living off by the sea with her naturalist father. The circumstances of her birth are mysterious. Henry is an unobjectionable child from an extended southern family who look down on pretty much everyone, but particularly on Ilsa and John Brandes. Henry is forbidden to spend time with Ilsa. Whether he might have rebelled against his parents is a moot question because a fire consumes the town and Henry leaves with his family, not to return for many years.

The rest of the novel is taken up with Henry’s wistful pursuit of Ilsa, which consists primarily of him hanging around despite everyone telling him she’s not interested and he should move on. Ilsa marries Henry’s hateful, drunken cousin Monty because he’s handsome and can be charming. Henry goes away to Paris for eight years, has a meaningless fling with yet another cousin, then returns home to moon after Ilsa some more.

There are a couple of cousins who manage to find a semblance of contentment, but most are miserable. Henry eventually learns the truth about how his family is connected with Ilsa’s, which goes a little way to explain why so many of them are such a mess.

There is some pretty writing in the novel. Unfortunately, it’s dull overall. The plot meanders and doesn’t reach much of a conclusion. Much of the dialogue is stilted. The characters, except for Ilsa, are weak. Ilsa has strength and independence, but terrible taste in men.

Although it was interesting to have a look at a novel so very different from A Wrinkle in Time, it’s not a book I would seek out for its own sake.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor

One of the authors I go to when I’m looking for a sweet, feel-good (even a bit corny) read, is Patrick Taylor. His Irish Country Doctor books are consistently enjoyable. So I moved on to Book 4: An Irish Country Girl.

This novel is a departure from the chronological progression of the first three novels which focused on the newly minted Dr. Barry Laverty and his crusty mentor, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. These good-hearted, dedicated physicians serve the small country village of Ballybucklebo. They are supported by the calm, kind, and highly efficient housekeeper, Maureen (Kinky) Kincaid. Throughout the course of the previous books, it’s been demonstrated that Kinky is, in addition to her more down-to-earth talents, gifted with “the sight.”

An Irish Country Girl gives us Kinky’s backstory.

Kinky is preparing Christmas dinner for the two doctors and their friends. While the doctors are at a party prior to dinner, Kinky entertains the local children with a story from (about) her youth. A young man in her town defied the fairies and was horribly punished. At a suitable stopping point in the fairy tale/ghost story, Kinky dismisses the children and gets back to work. As she prepares the dinner, she reminisces about her youth and the young man she met and fell in love with.

It’s a pleasant enough story with scattered exciting events and some tender family moments. Overall, though, the pacing was uneven and I found the love story to be unconvincing. It’s a love-at-first-sight romance, and I always find those unsatisfying. The device of Kinky remembering the story was also strained as every minute detail is relayed. While that helps put the reader into the moment, it made Kinky’s storytelling feel false.

All in all, it was nice filler in the series, but didn’t feel necessary. Although, maybe as I get farther into the series, I’ll better appreciate this glimpse into Kinky’s life before Ballybucklebo.

Monday, January 16, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty is a contemporary novel about dysfunctional relationships. It uses one day in the lives of three couples (and their children) as a pivot point. One day, an impromptu barbecue is held in the backyard of one of the couples, and the event that takes place impacts all their lives.

Each of the couples is happily married, with husband and wife well-suited to one another, aware of the necessary compromises, etc. As groups of friends, however, they have little in common and don’t mesh well. Nevertheless, they have this barbecue and this thing happens.

The chapters alternate points of view and time periods, going back and forth to the barbecue (with its horrible thing) and the future, which is painfully altered by this disastrous shameful happening that no one can talk about, but that can be hinted about and obsessed over. Each of the barbecue chapters bring us a tiny step closer to finding out what happened, but ends on a cliff-hanger just as an important piece of information is about to be revealed.

The characters and their individual problems were interesting enough, but the book moved slowly as the narrative had trouble taking off. I found myself annoyed with the choppiness and nearly stopped reading, but felt I had invested too much time in the book to give up. I had the impression that whatever the terrible thing was that someone did (or that they all did?) would end up being anticlimactic because the build up took so long.

Once the big secret was revealed, the book actually got better as the characters settled down to healing their wounds and getting on with their lives. There were still a few loose ends to keep the story going until everything could be neatly wrapped up by the end. As it concluded, I found it to have been an interesting plot with likeable characters who grew and learned. It was only the structure of the book that I found off-putting. However, I think it’s the suspense created by this structure that is responsible for the book’s success, so it may be that I was just in the wrong frame of mind for reading it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I held out for a while, not wanting to bring the incredible reading experience to a close, but I finally couldn’t wait any longer. I just finished the fourth and final Neopolitan novel by Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child.

I’ve been addicted to this remarkable story of complex friendship and the detailed narrative of two entwined lives since I first picked up My Brilliant Friend.

Lila and Elena are now grown women. Elena has achieved the two main goals in her life: she’s a respected author and she’s finally in a romantic relationship with the man she’s loved since her childhood, Nino Sarratore.

Lila has remained in Naples and has set about organizing the decaying neighborhood in opposition to the Solara brothers, thorns in the sides of Lila and Elena since childhood. The brothers are now crime bosses and rule much of the neighborhood with legal and illegal businesses.

There is far too much going on to summarize. The plot is important–it’s the story of their lives and it continues through their middle age. Their lives are complicated and rich, and through them we get a glimpse of Italian political, literary, and intellectual debates of the times. But what makes the novels so compelling is not so much the happenings, but Elena’s interpretation of them and the way she connects everything to the push and pull between her and Lila.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is remarkable. The language is always precise and beautiful and I never feel like I’m reading a translation.

The novels go right to the heart of friendship, everything good and bad in a relationship that is intense in its devotion and rivalry. Family dynamics, love, disillusionment, and the satisfactions and dissatisfactions, joys and terrors of parenting are all shown with an intensity that always feels real. Ferrante’s ability to bring the reader completely inside the head of the protagonist, to let us empathize with Elena’s conflicts, her vanities, her doubts. . .even when Elena is behaving badly, stupidly pursuing Nino or descending into pettiness, even when she is lying to herself, she is honest with the reader. The ending is painful but perfect. These books are extraordinary. I don’t often re-read books any more because there is just too much out there to read, but I can see myself starting over again with book one.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is a Regency Romance writer whose novels I consistently enjoy. A couple of months ago I read the first book in her new Westcott series: Someone to Love. The second book, Someone to Hold, will be released next month and I was very pleased to receive a copy from Netgalley.

In Someone to Love, one of the women who suffers the most from Anna Snow’s good fortune is the disinherited Lady Camille Westcott. Camille discovers she is illegitimate and has no claim to her title. Although her newly discovered half-sister would love to share her inheritance with the family she desperately wants to be part of, Camille will have none of it.

Now, Camille and Abby, her younger sister, are living in Bath with their still respectable grandmother. While Abby tries to make the best of the situation, Camille has retreated from society. But Camille is no quitter. She answers an advertisement for a teacher in the local orphanage, the same orphanage where Anna grew up and later taught. Her motivations for doing so are mixed, but primarily she wants to do something. And she needs to discover, if she is no longer Lady Camille, who is she?

On her first day at the new job, Camille meets Joel Cunningham, a local portrait painter of some renown, who was and is Anna’s best friend. He also grew up in the orphanage and teaches there part time. He was also in love with Anna, but knows he has to put that love aside. He’s aware of how badly Camille treated Anna in the past, and he has no desire to see her step into Anna’s old teaching position. The two are predisposed to dislike each other.

Naturally, their initial dislike turns to grudging respect to love. Again, what makes Balogh’s novels shine is the characterizations of her protagonists. They are warm, intelligent people who deal with their problems in a mature, reasonable way. They have misunderstandings but don’t let them get ridiculously out of hand. They are frank, honest, and amusing.

It’s wonderful how Balogh can take the nastiest of characters from book one and show her in a different light—the same person, but with a believable change of heart and emotional growth. I don’t know who will be the focus of the third Wescott book, but I’m sure I’ll read it!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis

I kept going with Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series. I’m on a roll. Book 4, The Graveyard of the Hesperides was also a Christmas present. I decided to keep reading while the characters are fresh in my memory.

This book counts down the days of the week until the wedding of Flavia Albia and Manlius Faustus. Naturally, the hard-boiled informer is not about to spend her time planning a wedding. That task was given over to her younger sisters, with help from her parents. Albia has crimes to solve.

Her husband-to-be, anticipating the end of his term as an aedile, has embraced a new career as a building contractor. He’s busy renovating the house they will live in and he has also inherited a job renovating a bar in a seedy part of town. The bar is known for an old tale that the previous owner murdered a barmaid and buried her in the courtyard. This just added color to the place until bones were discovered during the renovation. Now Albia and Faustus feel obligated to find out the truth.

Albia goes about the investigation with her typical cynically humorous style. Hanging around the poverty/crime/vice-ridden locale brings back memories of her traumatic childhood as an orphan in Britain. So, in addition to her detective work, Albia spends time reflecting on her life, her good fortune in being rescued and adopted, and her upcoming wedding. Faustus continues to be a perfect match for her. Although involved in the investigation, he’s a busy man and leaves the bulk of the work to her. He doesn’t nag her to take care or chastise her for running risks. He has complete faith in her competence, enough to tease her when things are going badly.

Of course, one set of remains turns into several. Ultimately, I was able to figure out who-dunnit before Albia did, but there were enough twists and turns to keep me interested throughout. This is a series that grows on you. I hope marriage doesn’t turn the pair dull, but Lindsey Davis is skilled at keeping a series fresh and entertaining, so I look forward to book 5.

Monday, January 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: A Pinch of Poison by Alyssa Maxwell

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

I started the year off with a cozy historical mystery-- Book two in the series A Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery: A Pinch of Poison by Alyssa Maxwell. I enjoyed the first book, Murder Most Malicious, so I was happy to see where these two amateur sleuths went next.

Lady Phoebe is the Lady half of the pair, the middle granddaughter of Lord Wroxley. Eva Huntsford, her lady’s maid, is the other. The two are good friends despite the difference in their social standing and have teamed up before to solve a murder. This time they have teamed up to work on a charity drive to raise awareness and collect goods for war veterans and widows in the towns surrounding the Wroxley estate. The local girls’ school (once attended by both Phoebe and Eva, and now attended by Amelia, the youngest granddaughter) is the sight of a celebratory dinner. After speeches, during dessert, the headmistress drops dead, the obvious victim of poisoning.

Once again, the inept Chief Inspector is called in, fortunately accompanied by Constable Miles Brannock, a man who helped solve the first murder and who is attracted to Eva. Also shortly appearing on the scene is Lord Owen, an old family friend and eligible bachelor whose interest in Phoebe is more than friendly.

There are plenty of suspects, but Eva and Phoebe can’t accuse women or students simply because they are unpleasant. The sleuths must discover a motive and look for proof. The constable is glad of their help since it would be awkward for him to have to question well-bred females. As Phoebe and Eva investigate, they learn those in the school are hiding a multitude of secrets, some poignant, some suspicious, and some dangerous.

The mystery is interesting and the women are independent-minded and clever. The male supporting players are content to step back and let the women take the lead, and the two prove up to the task once again. Eva is the more sensible and empathetic. Phoebe forges ahead with an ingrained authority and self-confidence, but has an irritating habit of immediately betraying any confidence related to her.

The books are light and readable. The characters are not particularly deep but if you’d like a cozy mystery with a Downton Abbey-esque flavor, give the series a try.