Monday, March 8, 2021

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Eye surgry and a massive kidney stone means my reading has been rather limited. This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

Inlaws and Outlaws by Kate Fulford
The Belinda Chronicles by Linda Seidel

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Jane in Love by Rachel Givney
Lovely War by Julie Berry

Reviews posted this week:

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
Murder on Millionaire's Row by Erin Lindsey
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? by Sean Dietrich
Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa
What the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
Minus Me by Mameve Medwed
We Think the World of You by J.R. Ackerley
What You Wish For by Katherine Center
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Initiates by Etienne Davodeau
You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle
The Arctic Fury by Greer MacAllister
Writers and Lovers by Lily King
Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Austenistan edited by Laaleen Sukhera
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Love Is Blind by Lynsay Sands
Saving Miss Oliver's by Stephen Davenport
Refining Felicity by M.C. Beaton
Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams
Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
More Confessions of a Trauma Junkie by Sherry Lynn Jones
Inlaws and Outlaws by Kate Fulford
The Belinda Chronicles by Linda Seidel

Friday, March 5, 2021

Review: What the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Scandal. It seems human beings have always been fascinated by scandal, especially when it happens to famous or wealthy people. And there were fewer scandals at the time in Chicago as big as the decades long extra-marital affair between department store owner Marshall Field and wealthy socialite Delia Spencer Caton. Renee Rosen takes this affair and weaves a romantic and tragic story around it in her novel, What the Lady Wants.

When the novel opens, 17 year old Delia (Dell) Spencer, daughter of a wealthy dry goods purveyor, is attending a ball celebrating the opening of Palmer House in Chicago just as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 starts. It is here that the young woman will first meet Marshall Field, her father's rival, a married man twenty years her senior, with whom she becomes completely intrigued and he equally intrigued by her. Despite the devastation of the fire, which wipes out rich and poor alike, Field rebuilds his store, turning it into the famed department store that bore his name. And while he rebuilt his store into something grander and visionary, his personal life and marriage continued to be unhappy. Dell meanwhile is reacquainted with Arthur Caton, eventually marrying the wealthy young man only to quickly realize that their marriage was not destined to be happy for reasons beyond her control. But she plays at the frivolous and unfulfilling life of a rich woman as expected by society even as she continues to be conscious of and attracted by Marsh. Eventually their mutual attraction cannot be stopped, the two of them embarking on an affair that causes their respective spouses to react quite differently and sets Chicago society on its ear.

This is very much a love story between Dell and Marsh and much less of the story of his founding of Marshall Field's department store. With the narrative centered on Dell, the reader sees all of the action from her perspective so there's more insight into her marriage and her deep love and obsession for Marsh, her appreciation for his genius, and the impact their affair had on her life as a society matron than there is on his feelings about any of it. The time period is very thoroughly evoked; in fact, early on there's a bit of an info dump feeling to the narrative. Certainly major historical events happened in Dell's lifetime, the Great Fire, the Haymarket Incident, and the Chicago World's Fair and each of these drove the narrative to greater or lesser degrees but some of the information given on these events still sits awkwardly in the story. The novel is both historical and biographical fiction and while it is definitely engaging, keeping the reader turning the pages, it is also a bit uncomfortable to know that Rosen created stories for Arthur and Nannie that reflects badly on them given that they were real human beings about whom not that much is known purely for narrative tension. These invented stories certainly make Dell and Marsh's long love affair more forgivable and understandable than it might be otherwise. Dell's position, in spite of her charity work, very much highlights the essential uselessness of women in the eyes of high society, especially a woman who did not have children, and this position, and the repeated tragedies and nastiness that Dell suffers despite her incredibly privileged life, will evoke sympathy for her. Her hero worship of Marsh, though, gets rather old and one-note. Marsh himself stays far more enigmatic than Dell here. This novel's reader would do well to remember this is fiction but it can also be pure, fun escapism.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Review: Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa

Poland is not often the country we in the US think of when we think of European countries. But it has a rich and varied history, including being partitioned by Russia, Austria, and Germany (Prussia) from 1795-1918, wiping its very existence off the map. In fact, Cracow in 1893 was very diverse in population and complicated politically and religiously, at least in part because of this partition. The authors behind the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa have written a Golden Age inspired mystery set in this very complex time and place in Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, the first in a new series.

Zofia Turbotynska is a professor's wife. She's a busybody, a gossip, and a raging snob. And she has nothing better to do with her time than to push her unambitious husband's career forward, ingratiate herself as high up in society as she can, and hire and fire maids. She decides that she should run a charity raffle, intending to ask the nuns at the local church run retirement home for contributions from their residents and to get a countess at the home to head up the effort with her in order to give the raffle benefitting scrofulous children the social cachet it needs. But when she arrives at Helcel House to propose her plan, things are all aflutter, a resident having gone missing. Curious and intrigued, Zofia is the driving force behind finding Mrs. Mohr's body but when the little old woman's death is ruled natural causes, Zofia does not agree. And when a second resident is discovered murdered in her bed, Zofia jumps into an unofficial investigation with both feet, pursuing it personally as well as with the help of her cook Franciszka and of her wide net of social contacts giving her entre into places she should never be allowed.

Zofia is not an entirely likeable character and that, combined with the slow pace of the novel, makes it hard to get fully engaged with the story. The mystery of whodunit itself is quite complex and convoluted although Zofia's strong determination, she's really a force of nature, leaves no doubt that she will be able to collect all the information she needs to prove her case dramatically in an unveiling scene worthy of the greats. Where this novel really shines is not so much the mystery though as in its examination of class in nineteenth century Cracow, the look into the political climate of the time and its recent, bloody past, the confounding complexities of proper etiquette and society, and the rich and detailed historical setting itself. Zofia is smart and deductive and always (irritatingly) convinced of her own superiority. Her keeping her sleuthing from her dear husband Ignacy is rather entertaining but humor at his expense helps make Zofia just that slightest bit more endurable. Even the other characters all seem to find her to be a pill. Zofia's character and the byzantine twists and turns of the mystery (rarely shared with the reader until Zofia's grand reveal in the end) keep this from being the unreserved pick that the fascinating historical situation of Cracow would have made it and I doubt I'll pick up any more in the series but it was a decent enough read.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Review: Will the Circle Be Unbroken by Sean Dietrich

Early tragedy can shape a child's whole life. The death by suicide of a parent is particularly formative, especially as in Sean Dietrich's case, when that parent tried to kill your other parent too. Dietrich has spent years grappling with the legacy of his father and his father's violent death and this memoir is the result of much of that grappling.

Opening with his memory of what he was doing the day that his father shot himself, it is clear that Dietrich is an accomplished storyteller. His stories build up, circling back again and again to his hate and love for his father, each emotion battling it out in his head and his heart. His tone is warm and despite the anger and hurt he feels, an anger and hurt that led him to drop out of school in seventh grade and work years of backbreaking manual labor jobs, he can still find the good and the sweetness in a situation. His stories about his growing up are hard and honest and heartfelt and his arc from furious child to an adult who can extend grace to others, and most importantly to himself, is engaging to read. He has a folksy tone and his essential southerness weaves through the narrative in every word. Readers will come to know his love story with his wife and the bloodhound who was a huge piece of his heart. But most of all, they will come to know a man who is trying to live in hope, to live with his past but still know that he's "going to be okay." The writing is easy and accessible, doled out in vignettes, like sitting on a front porch swing listening to a man tell you all about himself. The first half of the book, when he is still a child, is a bit more engaging than the second half, where he struggles to get out of his own way. And his story of becoming Sean of the South is not as fully written as the earlier stories, perhaps because his avid fans already know who he is. Over all this is a good read for people who like memoirs, who like southern storytelling, who want a positive story about overcoming a sad and hard past, or who want an uplifting story right about now.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Arsonist's City by Hala Alyan.

The book is being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 9, 2021.

The book's jacket copy says: A rich family story, a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East, and an indelible rendering of how we hold on to the people and places we call home.

The Nasr family is spread across the globeBeirut, Brooklyn, Austin, the California desert. A Syrian mother, a Lebanese father, and three American children: all have lived a life of migration. Still, theyve always had their ancestral home in Beiruta constant touchstoneand the complicated, messy family love that binds them. But following his father's recent death, Idris, the family's new patriarch, has decided to sell.

The decision brings the family to Beirut, where everyone unites against Idris in a fight to save the house. They all have secretslost loves, bitter jealousies, abandoned passions, deep-set shamethat distance has helped smother. But in a city smoldering with the legacy of war, an ongoing flow of refugees, religious tension, and political protest, those secrets ignite, imperiling the fragile ties that hold this family together.

In a novel teeming with wisdom, warmth, and characters born of remarkable human insight, award-winning author Hala Alyan shows us again that fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us (NPR).

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Review: Murder on Millionaire's Row by Erin Lindsey

What do you get when you mix a historical mystery with paranormal fantasy and a whiff of potential romance? You get this first in a new series, Murder on Millionaire's Row by Erin Lindsey.

Set in 1886, in Gilded Age Manhattan, the novel tells the story of Rose Gallagher, an Irish girl from Five Points who works as a housemaid in the Fifth Avenue home of the wealthy, single, British Thomas Wiltshire. Rose wants more from her life but is happy enough, a conscientious hard worker who has a fierce crush on her handsome, somewhat mysterious employer. When he goes missing and the police seems unlikely to take his disappearance seriously, Rose decides to search for him herself, inadvertently getting herself mixed up in something far bigger than she could ever have imagined.

There is murder, kidnapping, theft, Irish gangs, Pinkerton agents, Freemasons, magic, ghosts, witches and more here. The novel is told in the first person from Rose's perspective so the reader gets to know her very well indeed. She is smart, perceptive, intuitive, and observant. She is also delightfully spunky and stubborn, determined to find Mr. Wiltshire and to solve the larger case he's wrapped up in too. Her sheer joy and excitement at investigating is charming although there has to be more to her wanting to find her employer than simply her longstanding crush. The interactions between upper and servant class are perhaps too modern for the time the novel is set in and the interactions between different races also reads a bit unbelievably. Lindsey has drawn a wonderful, atmospheric, historic New York though, capturing the grimy underbelly of places like Five Points and an abandoned gas works. The characters were appealing to spend time with and although this is not a mystery the reader could solve, it did feel as if we were learning information right along with Rose so were close to the action in an interesting way. This novel does stand alone fine but it also makes for an intriguing introduction to a new series too. A fun read for historical mystery fans who want a pretty big dollop of paranormal in their mysteries.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Review: Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Just saying 1955 Cannes evokes glamour and style, doesn't it? And who better to epitomize that old Hollywood glamour than Grace Kelly? How hard must it have been to be so sought after, so in the spotlight, all the time. But even as Kelly was embarking on what was seen as a real life fairy tale, another, quieter love story was happening around her in Meet Me in Monaco, a charming historical novel by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb.

Sophie Duval runs her family's boutique parfumerie in Cannes. The shop and Sophie are both struggling after the death of Sophie's beloved father. But on a day when the film festival is in town, Grace Kelly ducks into Sophie's shop in an effort to elude a very persistent British photographer. Sophie makes the split second decision to protect the star, kicking off a warm connection between the women that will change Sophie's life. The photographer, James Henderson, snaps a photo of Sophie instead of his intended subject and after he abruptly returns to England, he will not be able to forget the beautiful parfumeur and the brief, happy time they spent in each other's company before he was called home. Given a second chance to photograph Grace Kelly, this time for her wedding to Prince Ranier, James contacts Sophie in hopes of meeting her again.

There is a love story, the threat of financial ruin, duplicity, soul mates, Hollywood, and royalty all wrapped into this story about two people brought together by chance in the orbit of Grace Kelly. It is far more Sophie and James' stories than Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier's but the glamour of the moment swirls around the lesser known couple too. Love is won and lost and never forgotten. The romance was a bit predictable but still pleasing for all that. The details of creating a perfume, the chemistry and the special intangible spark, that go into an entirely new fragrance are fascinating and the personal tale is bittersweet and mostly lovely. Fictional newspaper reports about the courtship and wedding are sprinkled between chapters, showing the world's love affair with the princess to be and giving a timeline for James and Sophie's relationship. The story behind the breathless newspaper accounts is interesting for showing more detail of the realities of covering the wedding of the century and the reserved young woman marrying a prince. The various secondary characters are drawn to different degrees of completeness but each of them help James and Sophie come to realizations about themselves and about what matters most to them in their lives, family, passion, loyalty. In the end, this is an engaging novel for fans of historical fiction and of novels set in France or Monaco who don't mind more than a little romance in their stories and who don't care if the famous person in the novel is not the focus.

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