Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

I Tweet not, neither do I Like. OK, so now I Tweet. So sue me.

Here we may criticize the book, but never the one who reads it.

Proud supporter of the Oxford comma, and any other comma I can wedge into a sentence.

Authors: You are welcome to comment here, on the review of your book or any other post.

Friday, January 30, 2015

With This Curse, by Amanda DeWees (Victorian, gothic, romantic suspense)

This was free through the Kindle Lending Library. I enjoy a gothic from time to time. I was very nearly put off by the mention of its being in the spirit of Daphne du Maurier, because I'm a little weary of hype, but this was quite good. I fell just a little bit in love with the hero, and I liked the heroine also.

Clara, age nine, goes with her mother (widowed?) who is going to be housekeeper at Gravesend on the Cornwall coast (of course it is), the seat of a barony. On the way there, the mother lets it slip that Gravesend is cursed such that the people who live there will lose what they love most. Next we see Clara at age 16 or 17, besotted by Richard, the younger of a set of twin brothers, who would really like to take liberties with Clara, but only gets to first base. When it is discovered that Clara has been kissed by Richard, she is accused of carrying his child (untrue, she is a virgin) and cast out of the home. Her mother doesn't believe her, either, but at least sends her off with the names of a few contacts for work in London. (The reader is able to see that Richard is not the gallant young lover Clara thinks he is.)

We learn that over the next 17 or so years, Clara makes her way, barely, sewing. Her mother dies of - typhoid fever I think - so fast she does not get to say goodbye. Richard dies in the Crimea. Clara, now approaching middle age, has managed to find a pretty good position as seamstress for a renowned actress. However, the actress is getting married and moving to America, and that's the end of the job. She can't find another job (an old employer is blackballing her, unfairly) so she puts an ad in the paper for work.

Who appears at her door but Atticus, the older twin brother from Gravesend. He knows she's out of work. He offers her a marriage of convenience so that his dying father can rest easy about the barony going on. Clara nearly can't stand it, because every time she looks at Atticus (nicknamed Atlas) she sees Richard, darling Richard, with whom she is still in love. But it's a good deal. Once the old man dies, Atticus will settle a good sum of money on her so she will be free and independent forever. It shouldn't be long. The old man has had one stroke and is in sad shape. Clara agrees.

Atticus is a nice guy. He was born with a club foot but now is able to walk fairly normally with a cane. He limps if he's tired. Other than that, he's a dead ringer for Richard. Except he seems more gentle than Richard, if less fun-loving. He's intelligent, gently funny, and seems to have a good heart.

They do marry and arrive at Gravesend with a cover story for her so that no one will know she is the same Clara who used to work there. They give it out that she married an American and traveled about America for many years, so if she's not quite … quite, that explains it. Oddly (to me), this seems to work, and nobody seems to recognize her from before.

Atticus treats Clara as if she were in fact a cherished, beloved wife. Clothes, jewels, little pats on the arm, deference, courtesy, small jokes, good conversation. Clara can't bear to be touched by him, however, because of the memory of Richard. However, Clara begins to admire him for his goodness, and his kindness to her. He really starts to grow on her. He's a philanthropist, setting up a school and dwelling for fallen women and their children. He takes in a charming young woman rumored to be his daughter, and she sure does look like him. He handles his very difficult, possibly slightly insane vs. simply malicious father with compassion but firmness.

Predictably - I mean, it is a gothic - on Clara's first night at Gravesend, she hears a ghostly but clear whisper of her name. She can't help shivering a little bit, but is not overly concerned about it. There's a menacing figure of a villager who has a grudge against Atticus, and he finds a way into the house. There's the old baron's valet whose loyalty is to the old baron and nobody or nothing else. There are disturbing anonymous notes. Clara begins to see that Richard may not have been all that.

When the old baron dies, Clara knows she can now be free and leave, but does she want to go or is she ready for a true marriage? Atticus has made it clear that he wants a true marriage, that he loves her, but he's got secrets, too, and the old baron's death was not from a stroke. Nobody is on firm ground here.

Well, I had a good time reading this. If you don't care for gothics, it may not be your thing, but I do like one once in awhile and this was just grand. Atticus and Clara are both intelligent, compassionate, and have some life experience, and isn't that a nice change? Clara did a lot of growing in this book. If she had held on to her image of Richard the Perfect a little longer I might have taken a dislike to her, but she grew. I found her reaction to the clubfoot to be correct for the time and place, with no 21st century attitude grafted into a 19th century brain. The ward is a nice young woman. The agent is a nice young man. Anyone who has read more than two gothics in their life can figure out the mystery but it was fun getting there. I was well entertained.

It's well written. Good dialog. Enough description that I knew where I was without boring me to death. Since Clara is a seamstress, there's some loving detail about clothing, but not too much for fashion-agnostic me. I could hardly put my Kindle down.

Kindle formatting perfect. I didn’t see any errors in grammar. Told in the first person, which annoys some people but doesn't bother me. I fell in love with the characters fairly quickly and got into the plot without difficulty. There's a little bit of violence at the end but it's not bloody or disgusting, more sad than anything else. It's pretty clean, kisses mostly, a little horizontal activity but between married people, and they're interrupted before they get very far. The ghostly whispers and such are not overdone. We get to see the ton at its cattiest, and Clara's response is classic. There's humor in the book.

The old baron is malicious, a little creepy (he collects death masks and displays them in his sitting room), and definitely arrogant and too prideful for words. I'm not sure that Atticus and Clara could truly get away with some of what happens, but on the other hand, they don't really care much about the ton. I enjoyed seeing how sensible the young ward is at seventeen, compared to how naïve Clara was at the same age. I enjoyed the theme of parenting that runs through the book. We see what it must have been like for a woman in those times with very few choices, especially for those in the working or servant class.

I'm probably going to buy this book when I can, because I can see myself reading it again some day. I see that the actress who was Clara's employer has her own book, and I'm going to take a look at it. The author also has a YA series, not my thing.

ETA: Covers don't matter so much on an old b/w Kindle, but this has good cover art. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

So Anyway …, by John Cleese (memoir, review is a bit rambling and not well organized)

If I had been five to ten years younger, I would probably have been a serious Monty Python fan. As it was, I was out of college, married, working two jobs, and caring for my dying mother when they became popular in the US. I think I would have appreciated the absurd humor, and I do like, for example, the dead parrot routine and assorted cuts from the movies. So I came to this memoir with no real expectations.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book. I've seen various interviews with Mr. Cleese over the years, and he seems to be an engaging conversationalist with, of course, a sharp sense of humor and endless interesting anecdotes.

We start with excruciating detail about his early life, his first memories and the reasons he's certain that they are valid memories, and then long descriptions of the histories and personalities of his parents, grandparents, and all of his teachers up to the time he was at Cambridge (degree in law, top level of a second-class degree, if I understand his terminology correctly). He acknowledges that he's not always comfortable in company and has difficulty relating to women in particular, things he blames (and blames and blames) on his mother, who sounds like a person with a serious anxiety disorder, narcissism, and a few other things. He admits that he was never beaten, starved, ill-clothed, or abused in any way, but still blames his mom for pretty much everything. Okay.

After he leaves school, then it's kind of - well, I did this and then I did that and David Frost and then I did this other thing and Marty Feldman and then some other things happened. He talks about success but his descriptions of his times on stage seem … joyless. Even at the end, when he mentions a Monty Python reunion, he remarks on how little excitement he felt about the whole thing.

He seems like a disappointed and slightly angry man, and it's very hard, I think, to prevent such emotions from coming across. I think an audiobook (not yet done, as far as I can tell) would improve the reading experience.

For fans of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python: there's not much about either one in this book. Apparently most of that is being saved for a volume 2 someday.

The author is clearly a very intelligent person, witty, well-read, knowledgeable about a number of things in life. One suspects that he has a Kindle packed full of important reading and a suitcase with 20 paper books. He has had extensive psychotherapy from the sounds of it and says that if he had gone for a career in the sciences, then it would have been in psychology. He makes glancing references to nearly all the big psych people and a few of the lesser-known ones as well. But, apart from the mother-blaming and what he calls his bad genes, we don't reap much of the insights he must have achieved from such study and analysis. Which is a shame, really. It could have been instructive for others, for surely growing up with at least one semi-monster parent is not unusual.

He notes, incidentally, the truth that before the late 1970s, if you missed seeing a movie or TV program, well, that was just too bad, because there were no VCRs or DVRs in those days, no Netflix, amazing as that may seem to younger readers. If you didn't see a non-blockbuster movie when it was in the theaters, you were simply out of luck. He points us to YouTube for (kinescopes, maybe?) of some early work, and transcribes for us the dialogue for some other early sketches.

You may want to read up on cricket terminology, if you're an American, before you read the book.

That he managed to make parts of this first, oh, third of the book amusing is remarkable, really. He notes how hard it is to write comedy, and since he seems to me to be more of a physical comedian, it must be harder yet when it's just words on a page.

I found the first part, wherein he discussed his childhood and youth, to be interesting and funny at times. Lord, the list of his mother's phobias was both hilarious and pathetic. I enjoyed his discussion of the time he spent teaching 10 year olds in subjects he himself knew little about, staying about 1 page ahead of them and having a pretty good time with it. After that, it became a bit of a slog. Details, so many details, about shows long since aired and gone, glancing references to people now gone (Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, others). But very little about his marriage(s), and really not a lot of insight into audiences or the process of humor. He can be quite waspish, but also generous.

Kindle formatting fine. A review mentions an index but there was no index on my Kindle book that I got from the library. If you're a fan and want an index to search out certain people or things, better look at the paper copy. There are some photographs, some without dates. Interesting as a case study in psychology, but otherwise for rabid fans only, I think. I'd get it from the library first and buy only if you like it (it's $28 in hardback) and I don't think I'll bother with the inevitable second volume. Again, it could be better as an audiobook, since I always find interviews with Mr. Cleese to be quite entertaining.

Quotes: …Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class. Whereas [Mother] … was almost middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle class.
 [On his dancing] … immediately transformed my prancing into an imitation of a man in battle trying to avoid one of those chariots with nasty sharp knives sticking out of their wheels. The real trained dancers […] I sometimes caught them watching me with the same fascination people display the first time they see a duck-billed platypus. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Duke's Wager, by Edith Layton (reissue, Regency)

Still having internet problems. Frustrating!

ETA: There is no spoiler for the ending in this review, but there may be in comments, so conduct yourself accordingly. :-) 

There was a good deal of excited chatter online about the recent reissue of this 1980s book. It was much anticipated, although not without controversy. Reading romance reminds me of going to an art museum. You walk past the displays of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and you find some pieces that you know will stay with you forever. Other pieces are things for which you can admire and appreciate the effort and skill that went into creating them without enjoying them particularly or remembering them past the parking lot. I can see the skill involved in the writing of this book, but I can't say that I enjoyed reading the book. I think I will remember it, though.

Regina is the daughter of a country schoolmaster, now deceased. She has been educated the way a boy would have been then, and doesn't know how to do fancy needlework, paint, or dance. She's intelligent, well-read, and well able to hold her own in conversation. But she is seriously naïve. An uncle she hardly knows, a merchant in London, takes her into his care for a short time after her father's death, but he also dies unexpectedly while he's on the road without having made the slightest provision for her after his death. While he is gone, excited to be in London and eyeing a pair of opera tickets someone gave her uncle, Regina dresses in her new best dress and takes her (new, stupid, venal) maid with her to the opera. Unfortunately, it is one of those nights where the only women at the opera are call girls and courtesans, and she is so very lovely that a couple of dissolute noblemen take her for a courtesan and enter into a wager as to which of them will be her next protector. Regina flees and holes up in the house for weeks, avoiding them.

The one nobleman is the Duke of Torquay (Jason), a slight, graceful man who is also known as the Black Duke because his behavior is so far beyond that of a rake. He is a complete libertine (although he notes that he has so far escaped getting syphilis), apparently conscienceless when it comes to women. He did not seem to me to be a bad person in other ways. He seems to take care of his people, his lands, doesn't kick puppies. But if you're in a skirt and you're under 80, watch it. We are told (repeatedly) that he has a hoarse, whispering voice that is characteristic of people in his family.

The other is the Marquis of Bessacarr (St. John), who is second in his dissipation only to Torquay. But, as the Duke notes, St. John is younger and will no doubt be Jason's heir in debauchery, given time. St. John is a man who prefers to be secretive about his business, whether it's financial business (the source of his income, merchants he deals with) or his sex life. It happens that he has secretly consulted Regina's uncle for business advice and investments for some years, and shortly before the uncle's death, unaware of St. John's reputation, he asked St. John to be someone his niece could turn to should it be necessary.

Jason, the duke, sets up the bet in such a way that St. John feels compelled to agree to it, although, dang it, wouldn't you just know it, St. John just about five minutes ago installed a brand new mistress in his mistress house. Well, she's expendable, whatever. Jason sets up a scene so that Regina is thrown out of her home, now owned by a relative who thought to give Regina to her icky son. Regina stands in the street with the clothes on her back and a small bag, and Jason just scoops her right up, thinking that he will now have her.

Regina, however, is smart and has a good backbone to her. They converse and argue, and she finally hits him where a small spark of his soul still exists: his honor. Using logic and reason, she asks him if he would willingly sell himself. He sets her down in the middle of the street again, with yet another bet: she must swim on her own, find a way to survive that does not involve seducing a man, or else Jason will come to get her and have his way with her regardless. She knows St. John's name, nothing else, and goes to him. St. John scoops her up, takes her to his estate, passing her off as minor nobility, and he waits.

The big difference between these men in this situation is that Jason is right out there with his intentions: he wants her for a mistress and will set her up nicely for life when he becomes bored with her. He tells her so, flat out. St. John, however, befriends her as a kindly uncle or older brother, hiding his lust for her and his plans to take her as a mistress and set up her up nicely for life when he becomes bored with her. And the tug of war continues.

It's a romance novel, you know there has to be a HEA in there somewhere, but jeepers. Both of these men gave me the creeps, as they are intended to. Neither one of them cares about Regina as a person. All they see is a chance to control and have sex with a beautiful young woman, oh, and BTW, win the bet. That's all they see. Regina, however, being Regina, sees the best in them and seems to bring out little glimmers of what these men could be, if they just had some self-respect. As time passes, the men also see little glimmers of what they could be, what life could be.

There's a lot more to the book than this. It's a complicated story and it is not told simply. You'll need to concentrate just a bit more on this book than you may be accustomed to doing when reading standard romance.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar fine but some word choice problems with desert/dessert, conscious/conscience, pore/pour, and some others. Not enough to take me out of the story, really. No violence. No sex except for some hot kisses and a little above-the-waist fumbling, but there is a little bit of talk of sexual habits, some of them not plain vanilla. The pace is stately, and there are no pirates or housefires or rabbits pulled out of hats, so some readers may get bored. I did not. It's dated a bit in that Regina is able to think logically because she thinks like a man, which got on my nerves a bit (dammit, did I burn my bra for nothing?).

There's a lot of telling, and I think at least half of the book is some character's inner monologue. Worked okay for me. I understand that the loser gets his own book, and I may look it up. You should know that both men derive at least part of their income from the slave trade, which is mentioned only in passing and rather obliquely at that. I had to swallow pretty hard to get that idea down, but I know it is correct historically. The class issue is discussed and in fact permeates the story: Regina is fair game because she is not of the nobility.

I don't know, I'm going to have to think about this one, and I'm glad I'm not giving letter grades anymore. Both "heroes" gave me the shivers, and not in a good way. It takes real skill to write a romance novel like this and make you care about the characters, yes, even the men. Everyone grows and changes so much over the course of the months of this book. Real growth. One man gets his HEA, and the other begins to understand what he has lost. Recommended for readers who want something other than the standard story, readers who want a little more substance and are willing to put up with deeply flawed male characters and a heroine who could use a little work, too.

If you haven't read it and you think you might, be sure to give yourself time. This is not a book to start at bedtime when you have to go to work the next day. I read it in one go while poor Mr. Bat scrambled himself an egg for supper.

1-29-15: Edited spelling. Embarrassing, jeez. . 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Emily Dickinson is Dead, by Jane Langton (1984, cozy? mystery)

Am still having a heckuva time with internet connection. I usually allow myself no more than one hour a day on the internet, but the last week or so I'm lucky to get five minutes a day. Ugh.

I decided to take a break from romance novels, so I went back to my old friend the murder mystery. It's hard to find a good mystery these days. I dislike - I refuse to read - stories with sadistic serial killers and of course what these days passes for a cozy mystery (some widowed quilter, knitter, candle maker, or next door neighbor to the chief of police stumbles upon a dead body, is considered a suspect, does some incredibly stupid things, and launches a second career as a PI) just won't stay down. Gag.

This looked interesting, and the author new to me, and the price was right (free). I like Emily Dickinson's poetry, although I don't pretend to understand more than about 5% of it on a good day. I bit. The book bit back. Oh well.

There's an Emily Dickinson symposium in Amherst on the 100th anniversary of her death. The garbage-for-brains professor who set it up invited only men to speak. Well, really. There's arson and murder, and we know who the guilty party is from the beginning. There are what I'm assuming were supposed to be hilarious send-ups of "types": the welfare mother, the fat girl, the Japanese tourist, the yuppie, the feminist, the academic.

Can I tell you without spitting all over the screen how deeply offensive some of the writing is? I'll try. No spoiler here, we know right away: the murderer is the stupid inarticulate fat girl who thinks she is in love with a professor. The author makes much of the rolls of fat on her neck and elsewhere and talks about the flapping sound her thighs make when she walks, her wide stance, her piggy face, her hatred of pretty girls, her lousy diet. It made me tired. "Winnie wallowed across the floor, slapping down her sponge-soled wedgies, her thighs slubbing against each other under her dress." "Winnie crouched down, wheezing with effort…." " [T]he kind of knowledge that tucked itself into hidden crevices in her layers of fat, deep down in the creases of her neck, or in the chubby folds of her knees."

And we have the Japanese professors who take photos constantly and talk a kind of pidgin English, the sort of thing one saw in the WWII Bugs Bunny war-effort cartoons where the Japanese were all eyeglasses and teeth. I mean, really?

What broke my heart, though, was the author's skill in writing otherwise. Listen to this, the opening paragraph of the book: "After the death of his wife, Owen Kraznik went on living and teaching in Amherst, but his days had become a bewildering fluster, a tangled wilderness, a formless and perplexing dishevelment. Snatching at the chaos as it hurtled past him, end over end, Owen struggled to arrange it in a rational pattern." Now, is that not a fine description of grief? Isn't that exactly how it feels?

Clearly I'm just not smart enough or sophisticated enough to fully appreciate this book, which I guess is a satire, or partially a satire. That's okay with me. It's at the midpoint, it's been repeating itself for a few chapters now, and I think it's fine to put the book down and move on. DNF.

Okay, now I'm looking at reviews and I see that this book was nominated for an Edgar and received a Nero. So YMMV. It was not to my taste.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is doing okay. He's having some trouble with swelling and some shortness of breath, nothing unexpected given his condition. He's still my guy, cheerful and content, glad for what he has and not worried about what he doesn't have. He had some follow-up tests last week, no results yet but I don't expect anything showing improvement, since clinically he's not as good as he was last summer. Still, he's here, we've had almost a year they said we wouldn't have, we had some pretty doggone good potato soup for lunch, we watched it snow this morning, and we still fall asleep every night holding hands. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Drive-Through Reviews, mixed bag

Internet access is becoming rough around here. I had the same problem last winter. I think it's probably the cable wiring in this old building. I haven't kept track of everything I've read, but here are some drive-through reviews, prepared in Word and then quickly (I hope) pasted into my blog. Jeepers. I'm not ignoring your comments, believe me. As soon as I can get a good connection, I'll respond.

Bridal Favors by Connie Brockway. Historical. This was the only Brockway my library had for Kindle. It was cute. Truly funny in places, like the drunken dove situation (Had a similar situation in real life. Bride's mother hysterical. Bride also hysterical - with laughter.) Evelyn thinks she is ugly, especially compared to her ravishing sister. She does nothing to help her appearance. An aunt elopes and Evelyn takes over the aunt's wedding planner business. Now, Evelyn is good at almost everything, but she's not a good wedding planner. Desperate to save the business for her aunt, she turns to Justin, a man with whom she has a long-ago brief history based on misunderstanding, for reasons that are explained. It was a romp. It was impossible to take seriously. I enjoyed the characters and kind of let the plot wash over me without paying too much attention to it. Oh, BTW, spies.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by David McCullough. Noted historian McCullough sets out to show us the wonders of Paris seen through American eyes 1830 to about 1900. Tremendous detail, at times a little repetitive. I read it sitting at the computer so I could look up people and other things. Try to get it in paper because the color panels are very nice, although they came through okay in black and white on my old Kindle. Ends at the 57% mark with references and such following. It was rather dense reading but I learned a lot and enjoyed it generally. I made me want so much to have gone to Paris when I could have. There's some medical detail that may be too much for the very sensitive of tummy.

A Free Man of Color (A Benjamin January Mystery), by Barbara Hambly. I've been wanting to read this book for several years and finally got it from the library. Takes place in 1833 New Orleans (I love books about NOLA). The main character is a free man of mixed blood, trained as a surgeon but he's not allowed to practice due to his color. He works as a musician and backs into doing some detective work. It's a dark story and I wasn't up for it, especially since I read it directly after a book about Civil War spies that had some extremely hurtful words and attitudes in it. It was overload for me. I'll try it again another time, though, because it's beautifully written. I got confused about people's names and will keep a scorecard next time so I don't get tangled up. I appreciated the author's forward in which she discussed terminology, words that can hurt but are historically accurate - I thought it was well-done and I liked that it was in a forward and not an author's note at the end. I'll try it again later.

Baking Bree (Recipes for Romance Book 1), by Sarah West. This is a contemporary, part chick lit, part romance, I guess, and the FMC is too old for it to be NA, but it read like NA, which I really dislike. (Sorry, lived through it once, once was plenty.) Bree comes from a comfortable background but has no self-confidence because of her hideous mother and sister and ineffectual father. She's 27 and hasn't done anything with her life. She inherits a boatload of money and decides to find herself. She takes a cooking class. She is a disaster. She and the chef probably hook up, I don't know, because I read to about the 30% mark and DNF it. I'm way too old for this book. I suppose her klutziness and scatterbrained behavior were supposed to be funny but she just annoyed the hell out of me. Parents and siblings were paper-thin and too rotten to be believed. What's with all this Mee Maw or Maw Maw and Paw Paw instead of Grandma and Grandpa these days anyway? (At least there's no Pee Paw.) (Get off my lawn.) Sensible gay friend also cut from cardboard. Dammit, children are starving while you're ruining chicken after chicken because you won't pay attention. DNF and F. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

All Roads Lead Home (Bellingwood Book 1), by Diane Greenwood Muir (contemporary cozy mystery)

First, please forgive me for not responding to comments. My internet connection is all balled up and I can stay on for only a minute or so at a time. It's this old building. I will respond as soon as I can keep a connection going for more than a few minutes. 

Honest to Pete, I have no idea why I picked up this book, and having picked it up, why I continued to read it all the way through. It is not my type of book at all. It was a freebie a couple of months ago for Kindle, and I've been reading mostly library books and freebies. Awash in TBRs, with hundreds of unread books on my Kindle, another hundred on my Nook, and honestly thousands in the cloud, unable to choose, I arranged my books alpha and this was on top. I opened it.

You need to know that my hometown is just a few miles away from the fictional town in this series. I shopped in Ames, Boone, and Story City, Iowa in my youth. I almost went to college in Ames. I took some community college classes in Boone. These are my stompin' grounds, these are my people, despite the fact that I haven't been back except for funerals in nearly 50 years. That's the only explanation I can give.

Polly grew up on a farm in central Iowa but went to college in Boston and stayed there, working as a librarian and having a rich, full life. But she wasn't home when the kind woman who half-raised her died, and she wasn't home when her dad died, and now she has a psycho boyfriend stalking her. Dad left her a hunk of money - farmland here is some of the richest in the world and prices reflect that - and Polly has decided to move home to Iowa, buy an abandoned schoolhouse (the state is full of them, sadly), and turn it into a community center.

And so she does.

Old brick schoolhouse common in Iowa 20th century:

During renovations, two skeletons fall out of a false ceiling, and there's an unexplained stash of nearly-worthless stolen goods in another hidden room. Polly, of course, gets involved in the mystery, and it's no surprise to anyone when the psycho ex-boyfriend tracks her down and does his thing.

Fortunately, the townspeople have embraced Polly and take care of her and all is well that ends well, except it doesn't, because there are, like, six books in the series.

Okay, the review. This is tough. There's a niche for these stories, very gentle mysteries and series with lots of loveable eccentric characters. I'm trying to review it from that standpoint.

The book needs some editing. Way too many characters are introduced way too quickly. I'm sure they are recurring characters, most of them, and it's pretty easy to pick out who is going to be an important recurring character, but still I felt as if I needed a scorecard like it's a Russian novel. There's also much too much detail about mundane things. If Sookie going to Wal-Mart and having pork chops for supper made you itchy, this book will have you tearing out your hair. The character hears her alarm go off, thinks something that we get to hear, stretches, gets up, takes a shower with x number of jets in it, dresses in purple underpants and bra, then a green t-shirt and jeans and sneakers, and walks downstairs to fix coffee and take a frozen breakfast sausage sandwich out of the freezer to nuke it. It's a pretty good sandwich. Then a person comes in to work on the building and he gets a cup of coffee and a doughnut and they say Good morning and then Polly runs some water in the deep sink and adds some dishwashing liquid and puts the dirty dishes into the sink and … the whole book is like that. Detail, detail, detail. Irrelevant detail. (About everything but the darned skeletons, which are not described at all!)

The author also has an allergy to the word "said." Characters wink, whine, moan, chuckle, snap, growl, shout, and I don't remember what all, but nobody "says" anything. This gets old after awhile. I'll bet there's a term for this, but I don't know what it is. Someday I'll take a lit class, honest. Also there's a phase/faze problem. 

And then Polly. Maybe it's all that time on the Boston MTA or something, but Iowans don't usually snap and scream at people and lose their temper in public places the way she does. She's snippy - a lot - and while quiet sarcasm is encouraged here, snippiness is not. Maybe I'm supposed to see this as evidence of her having lived "away" but she got on my nerves. And if she told me one.more.time that she was thirty-two years old, I would have sat down and cried.

So I can't really recommend the book except for a particular market. I think it would be a fine choice for someone like your elderly Aunt Mabel who reads nothing but the most extremely gentle of love stories or cozies. I think someone who has lived in small-town Iowa might get a bit of a bang out of it. I could see my sister-in-law as one of the main characters in this book, right down to her socks. One thing I did like is that while this is a small-town-good story, it's not a big-city-bad story. Polly has faithful, loving friends back in Boston, and many fine and fond memories of her time there.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar fine except when a character was misusing English. No real violence, a brief description of a crime committed long ago, nothing gory. The psycho ex-boyfriend is creepy and there are some sexual overtones to some of his conversation, but there's no attempted rape or that kind of thing. A couple of times he grabs her arm, and at one point has her at gunpoint, but it's not very detailed. It's clean.The story ends at the 75% mark, followed by a Christmas novella I didn't bother with. I'm sure it's sweet and gentle. There are at least five or six books in this series and people seem to love them. There's a website with recipes and everything. So I'll say that it's probably a fine book, just not for me. Specifically not for me. My Aunt Lou, however, would undoubtedly have gone on an all-out glom and bought everything in the series plus the coffee cup (yes, there's a coffee cup on CafePress…).

ETA: I don't think those photos are copyrighted. If they are, I apologize and will remove them immediately. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Kiss and Tell (Sweetest Kisses), by Grace Burrowes (contemporary, novella)

Let's see if I can hold an internet connection long enough to get this posted.  This is my January offering for Wendy the Super Librarian's TBR challenge. January: http://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/p/2015-tbr-challenge.html   Lots of good reading there, my friends, but your budget may suffer. :-) 

Grace Burrowes can hook me into a story faster than anyone else, and I just like the way she writes, her voice. A couple of her Regency books are favorites. But: she has a real problem with anachronistic attitudes and speech, and while I'm no historian, I am sufficiently aware of some things - attitudes in particular - that it takes me out of the story. I gave up, pretty much, on her historicals for that reason, and believe me, it was with great regret, because she can tell a story, this lady can.

But this was a contemporary and was recommended, I think, by Sonomalass on Twitter, and seconded by several others. So I bit. I had a lot of fun with it.

You need to know that in one of my many nursing subcareers, I worked for litigation lawyers. "Legal nurse consultant" is the fancy name. Mostly you read medical charts, explain diseases, injuries, anatomy, and treatments to lawyers, talk doctors into writing reports about causal connection and permanent disability percentages, and do a lot of health teaching and counseling. I used to write health tips for the daily newsletter. It was a great job for someone unable to do heavy lifting, and I loved it, even when I hated it. So I know lawyers - from the outside of their box, at least. Ms. Burrowes is lawyer who practices in family law = divorces, child support, guardianships, that kind of thing. So I expected, and I got, serious amounts of lawyer snark in this book and I loved it.

Jane and Dunstan are both sole practitioners, both in family law in a small city in western Maryland. Jane represents the husband in a divorce case, Dunstan the wife. They haven't been on opposite sides before and in fact don't really know one another. Both are very smart, very good, very honest and honorable, very dangerous land sharks in the courtroom. We see that they are also very lonely. Jane has her work and it doesn't sound like much else, not even a pet or a potted plant. Dunstan, a transplant from Scotland, has his cabin in the woods, his cat, and his not-often-enough trips back home to see his beloved family. He dreams of making enough money to move home.

In divorce cases, when possible, the attorneys meet both with and without their clients to try to hash out some of the details outside of court, to try to make this truly devastating process a trifle easier for the parties - and their children. When Jane and Dunstan meet, there are little bitty sparks, and the sparks threaten to become flame. This can be a problem because of attorney ethics: it's a no-no to have a dating/sexual relationship with opposing counsel, and the very least you are risking is a public reprimand. You can get suspended from practice or even disbarred.

But oh, those sparks! That flame! That fire!

It's a short novella and I'm not going to spoil it for you. It's a romance. Things happen, things that, well, might happen, not totally impossible, and then more things happen, somewhat inevitable. The plot made sense to me, although things moved awfully fast, a common problem for me with novellas. I wondered how the author was going to pull this one out of the fire, and she did, by nearly the only means possible.

Kindle formatting okay, grammar fine as I recall. There are a couple of extra words that escaped editing. Maybe folks out east talk differently, but I've never heard someone in the 20th or 21st century say "turn me up sweet," which sounds more historical or perhaps UK? We get just enough of Dunstan's burr to hear it in our heads, but not so much as to annoy, so no overload of dialect. There's a sex scene, pretty mild, tender. No violence at all, except that of the spirit when a long marriage ends. There's a really good cat named Wallace. No hairbrushing scene and no discussion of menstruation in this book, for which we thank Biblio, god of books.

If you've recently survived a painful divorce, the truths that are told in this book about divorce, and the snark, and the outcome, may be difficult for you to read. You must be your own judge of that. Both attorneys urge counseling, and everybody worries about the impact of the divorce on the children. There is a tender little scene between the parties that we see only from a distance. This is honest material, this is how it is. If you're still bleeding, it may be a little much. On the other hand, you may find it helpful to live through the situation vicariously.

I found it funny and entertaining. It was exactly what I needed after book after book of either heavy non-fiction or heavy fiction. Sometimes you just want something that will take you out of your own head for an hour, and this was it. The author has a series going - of course she does! - and if prices fall I may pick up another. This is book 0.5 in the series.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the [American] Civil War, by Karen Abbott (non-fiction)

I've read some of Karen Abbott's work before. She can get her teeth into history and make it live. I have waited in line for four months at the library to get this book for Kindle, and it was worth waiting for. For the most part.

Here's part of the blurb:
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Ms. Abbott says that the Civil War was not much on her radar until one day, stuck in traffic in Georgia, she saw a bumper sticker that said, "Don't blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis." A recent northern transplant to the south, she was surprised at how this war, over for about 150 years, still permeated the atmosphere, both in recreation and in politics. She obtained access to what looks to be quite a bit of new primary sources and also interviewed surviving family members of her subjects.

Please understand that I am not a historian and have zero standing to analyze or criticize the facts in this book. The author makes it a point to tell us that every quote can be referenced, and the book ends at the 69% mark with notes and references following. But a couple of things bothered me. One was her inclusion of the song "Taps" at least a year or two before it was composed. Perhaps she meant a general "lights out" type of nightly bugle call, but she said "Taps" and it's too early in the history. She also tells us quite a bit about what the women were feeling, their desires and motivations, details of their dresses, and since one of them did not even write a memoir, I'm wondering how she could know these things. Even given the fact that I can usually tell what is creative license and what's fact, it bothered me just a tad. These things always make me wonder what else wasn't quite carefully researched.

Ms. Abbott tells the story in (more or less) alternating chapters, which I found hard to follow at first until the characters finally defined themselves enough so that I could say, oh, okay, Emma is the cross-dresser, Belle the narcissist possible sociopath, and such. I'd just get into Belle's story when the chapter would end, not necessarily at a logical ending point, and we'd pick up Emma's story. The histories don't really overlap, so I do think it might have worked better to tell Emma's story all or nearly all the way, then Belle's, then the other two, but again I have no standing to have such an authorial or editorial opinion. It took me some work to get into the book. We'll leave it at that.

But once I became engaged, I could hardly put the book down. Fascinating, really. Women were so discounted, their actions and opinions and intelligence so discounted, that no man seemed to take these women seriously until it was explained to them in words of one syllable, with hand puppets. These women hid dispatches in their covered dishes, in their underwear, in their hoop skirt frames, in the head of a daughter's doll. They were very inventive, and very brave. Most of the time they made no bones about asking about troop numbers and such because men at that time would tell a woman darned near anything, figuring it would go in one ear and out the other. I could not believe some of the stupid things men in charge did with respect to these women, simply because the men couldn't seem to take them seriously. When they finally did arrest or detain them, they didn't seem to know what to do with them.

You should be aware, if you choose to read the book, that some of the ways that non-whites were talked about by whites shocked the socks off this old (mostly) white lady. You can know, intellectually, that things were bad, and you can even have seen some of it in your own life, but reading the stuff that some of these people said and wrote routinely and casually about non-whites, it just took my breath (and my appetite) away. There is very, very hurtful language in this book, because that is the way some people talked and acted and thought at that time, and to see so much of that attitude concentrated into one fairly short book just … well, it's been awhile since I've read something like this. Be warned. It's history, and history is often ugly, but it took me aback to be reading about some woman, admiring her courage and resourcefulness, and then read some incredibly awful and disgusting thing she said about non-whites.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar unremarkable. The photographs came through pretty well on my old Kindle. The few maps did not do as well. There's a lot of war-type violence in the book, especially because Emma was a solider who saw a lot of action, and also acted as a battlefield nurse. If you're made uneasy by fairly short, matter-of-fact descriptions of what a bayonet or bullet or cannon ball can do to a human body, and what the process of nature does to a dead body, you're either going to be looking away a lot or reaching for the ginger ale often.

More than anything else, it reinforced for me how little control women had over their lives at that time. Their choices were so limited, their power nearly nil. I realized that these women took naturally to spying because they'd spent their entire lives subtly manipulating men to get what they wanted or needed. I found reading about these four women worth my time. If I can find it in the UBS for a price I can come up with, I'll buy it in paper. There are things I would like to track down and do my own research on, and I simply don't have the time because my loan is expiring. I wouldn't pay full price for it, however. I'd prefer to verify some facts before making a whole-hearted recommendation. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mistaken Kiss: A Humorous Traditional Regency Romance (My Notorious Aunt Book 2), by Kathleen Baldwin

Normally I would be wary of a book with a title that tells me that it's humorous. It should not be necessary to tell me, and I think it sets up expectations on the part of the reader. I think independent authors perhaps are encouraged to do this in order to set them apart from the herd in some way when people are scanning the multitude of offerings without benefit of reviews. Nevertheless, it was free, I was wanting something light in the midst of a series of heavy lifting reading. I bit.

Incidentally, the author further sets herself up for difficulties by calling the work her salute to Oscar Wilde and, of course, Ms. Heyer.

Willa is the (much?) younger, apparently orphaned sister of a vicar (Jerome). I don't know if he's just stingy or if there is a money problem, but she wears her mother's clothing that is 20-plus years old because, hey, it's still good fabric, even if it's too short, too tight, and too low in the neckline. No sense in wasting it. After all, she has abundant red hair (wouldn't you just know it) and is so nearsighted that the world is a blur without her spectacles; it's a blur with them, as far as that goes, because she needs a new prescription (see stingy above). The evidence of her maturity (age 18) is apparent to Jerome one day while riding in a bumpy carriage, Willa's bosom bouncing. Talking about her in front of her with his best friend, he discusses his reluctance to send her to London for a Season. I think it's both penny-pinching and a reluctance to do without the benefits of having a woman, oh excuse me, a female, in the house. (Sorry, but my back goes up anytime I hear a man in general conversation refer to women, singular or plural, as "a female".) Also, he thinks with her red hair and eyeglasses, she wouldn't take anyway so it would be money down a rathole.

His buddy, Sir Daniel, off-handedly offers to marry her in order to solve the problem and allow the two guys to go on with life as usual. Willa, sheltered and provincial but no fool, declines, but agrees to discuss the matter later that day. Willa is not experienced but has done a lot of reading, and decides that she will make her decision based on the way Sir Daniel kisses. (Yeah, I know.) She sallies forth to the garden and sees him there, or at least she thinks she does, looks like him (I think she maybe has taken her glasses off) and asks for a kiss and gets one that pretty much makes her socks roll down and then up again. Gracious. It develops that the kisser is Sir Daniel's brother, Alex, who is a darned sight livelier than Sir Daniel. Probably too lively. Only a rake could - and would - kiss like that, and who wants to be involved with a rake? Well, what to do, what to do? Willa demands a kiss from Sir Daniel, who approaches the whole thing as if he'd really rather be off somewhere cleaning latrines, and Willa decides she will have passion or nothing.

Nothing looks like a real possibility until their aunt, Countess Alameda, who has hennaed hair and an informal (probably supposed to be zany) manner about her, swoops down on them. She sizes up the situation and decides to give Willa a Season, or perhaps make her a companion, or something or other, lots of possibilities here, it's all kind of vague. So they go to London for Willa to have a Season under the rather unreliable chaperonage of the aunt, who plans to make Alex jealous and so seal the deal.

While they're in London, Willa gets a makeover and does the rounds of the balls and visits, and she sees rather a lot of Alex, who is charming and sweet and compliments her on her appearance. (One of the things I liked about Alex is that he liked her looks and was attracted to her before her makeover. Moonstruck Cher before the beauty parlor.) We learn that he is a nice man. Lots of things happen, near-drownings, and Willa helps deliver a foal born to Alex's favorite horse (so we get to see how kind and gentle he is)and she gets nothing dirty except her hand despite being right up there where the action is, and there are actually three or four men who want to marry her … her dowry and falsely rumored expectations, that is.

It all galumphs off and you can imagine the ending. Oh, we have kisses in a carriage, and the most half-assed duel scene I've ever read, and that takes in some territory. The final scene is an all-hands-on-deck confusion that I think was supposed to be funny and Wilde-like. At least she doesn't get kidnapped, and we're nowhere near Cornwall, so no smugglers or pirates. At the end everyone is more or less happy. It would have been more interesting if even one of the other suitors had been a decent person and genuine prospect for marriage, but they're one-dimensional.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar … okay, I guess, with some word choice problems (loose vs. lose, apostrophe plural, that kind of thing). No violence to speak of, a little self-inflicted cut on the arm (makes sense in context) (sort of). A couple of chapters about a mare foaling which may be a trifle graphic for the very sensitive of tummy. We learn more about Alex than we do Willa. Willa is fine, smart, stands up for what she believes in, nice girl but nothing memorable. It's supposed to be funny, but I never cracked a smile. Mostly I was bored. I had to go back to the book to find everyone else's name, including Alex. It's clean, kisses only. Nice cover art, looks the way the heroine might look. For reasons I can't put my finger on, it seemed more Victorian than Regency. 

The first, oh, third of the book wasn't bad, but it lost steam quickly and sputtered to a close. Ends at the 91% mark, followed by teaser chapters for the next one. I doubt I'll bother with it, even if it turns out to be free also.

Looking at other reviews, I see I'm one of the few who wasn't impressed. It's not a terrible book, it's just not very good. If you like a really, really light and clean romance, or maybe something to give your tween niece, it might be right down your alley. I think I suffered from inflated expectations. I'd love to close with a pithy Oscar Wilde quote, but the book has left me so bored and lazy that you'll have to Wiki your own. Sorry.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Only Enchanting (Survivor's Club), by Mary Balogh (post-Regency)

Not much into these series that seem to abound now, groups of people knit together by some circumstance, usually ex-spies or war survivors, and everyone gets their own book eventually. Some of these series work, some don't, most have at least one weak book. This book worked for me, mostly, but sitting down to write this review less than 48 hours after finishing the book, I find I don't remember all that much about the book except that it was pleasant enough.

Here's the blurb, because honest to goodness, I couldn't even remember the names of the characters:

The Survivors' Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, in the fourth novel of the Survivors' Club series, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation—in the love of a most unsuspecting woman.…

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée’s desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back—and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love—and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she’s determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

Here's what I remember. Flavian has been tricked - more than once, we learn - by a manipulative, cold little witch (Velma?) whose primary goal is a title, wants people to have to curtsey to her. He is wary of love. Really doesn't trust. But he is almost instantly attracted to Agnes, although he tells himself that these feelings are just lust. Agnes has her own reasons for wanting to avoid passion. She didn't have it in her first marriage and sees no reason to have it in the future. Messy thing, passion. Scary thing, passion. Often causes one to hurt people, say, just for an example, a young daughter. Best to avoid the whole thing.

Flavian has had a serious head injury in the war, and he stutters and also has blank places in his memory. The blank places bother him a bit. Turns out that Little Miss Witch Velma is in some of those blank places, and she knows it and takes advantage of it. He has a history of violence - not against people, but more like throwing things or beating his fist against the wall - which subsided once he got under care at Penderris. Still, he worries about hurting people, because he still has internal rage at times, and terrible headaches.

One of the things I liked is that Flavian and Agnes face up to their problems and talk about them. When Little Witch starts doing her thing, Agnes doesn't run to her bedroom and refuse to let Flavian in. Instead she does a very graceful but assertive riposte, and then she and Flavian talk about it. One of the things that annoyed me is that neither Agnes nor Flavian is 100% honest about their past and their reasons for their fears of passion or love, but the Big Reveals were actually well done given the structure of the plot. I also thought that Flavian was a bit high-handed toward the end but it did have a purpose and Agnes was being stupidly stubborn on the point, as we all can be when we're that afraid, and Agnes handled it like the mature person she is. At one point they don't fight fair, but nobody fights fair 100% of the time. 

I liked seeing the power of friendship among the Survivors. There was a bit about Flavian's older brother's death that made me tear up, the love, the way an older brother tried to protect his kid brother, even when on his deathbed. There were a few paragraphs about the woman in the Survivors, things that made me think that her story may be horrific and hard to read. 

Kindle formatting was okay, grammar nothing I took notice of. I don't recall anything that particularly bothered me. There's a little bit of war violence but it's not described to speak of, more a matter of things mentioned in passing. There were some sex scenes, not very explicit as I recall, waking passion in Agnes. 

I guess we'll call it a slightly above average read, nothing to shake your world up. May be worth a read just to see two adults actually talking to one another about problems instead of ignoring them. I got it from the library. If it ever turns up as a bargain, I might add it to my Kindle, but otherwise, not a keeper for me.