News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In my neck of the woods we all know about Mary Jemison from the Letchwood Park area in New York State who was captured and raised by the Seneca Nation in 1755. While I’ve wondered about her experiences, I’ve never dwelled on what it must be like to leave one world and enter another. News of the World by Paulette Jiles explores this very issue as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is given the task of delivering a ten year old girl brought up by the Kiowa to her surviving relatives, an Aunt and Uncle from Castroville, Bexar County outside of San Antonio.

After living four years with a Kiowa family, Cicada, newly dubbed Johanna Leonberger, has no recollection of life with her original parents who were killed by her captors. She wants to go back to the existence she knew and is fearful of this current situation, unsure of exactly what will happen next. The 71 year old Captain is reluctant to take on the arduous 400 mile journey, but has an empathy for the wild child. He attempts to teach her the ways of the “civilized” world, but she consistently breaks the rules, unaware of the taboos of society. Slowly Johanna learns a new way of life as they travel across Texas, and eventually she is able to help out the “Kep-dun” by collecting the ten cent admission to the Captain’s read aloud. His job is to go from town to town, reading bits and pieces of articles from newspapers throughout the world. Avoiding local politics, since the Confederacy lost and this is Texas, he deals with information from far away places such as France or the North Pole, talking about inventions which will change the world, and peaking the ranchers’ interest with information about a huge modernized packing plant in Chicago. In this way the Captain is able to eke out a living in the rough and tumble world of the West in the 1870s. Somehow, in spite of rain and the threat of violence, the two seem to get along, building a grandfather/granddaughter bond. The Captain is leery about what the future holds for his temporary ward, but he does his best to complete their quest.

An interesting tale featuring Texas front and center. Full of details of the landscape and weather encountered in their travels, and the politics and lifestyle faced by the slowly growing citizenship of the newly born state, the author creates a setting reflecting life in the post civil war era. In fact, it seems more emphasis is placed on the land than on the people in the story, although all sorts of characters are met along the way (and some aren’t so nice). Jiles throws in quite a bit of historical information about the issue of land ownership in a section of our country which was once dominated by Spain, as well as some background about the various battles of the era using the Captain’s backstory as a justification for including this into her tale.

As in the book Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, it amazes me that in such a sparely populated state everyone seems to know each other’s business, in spite of the vast span between towns. More than once when “out on the trail” the Captain is a recognized by some passersby as “The Man Who Reads the News”, a title which earns him respect (in most cases).

While the relationship between the Captain and Johanna is sweet and the author attempts to create a realistic depiction of the times, I had a few issues with this book. Jiles lack of quotation marks to indicate when someone was talking left the reader wondering what was spoken aloud and what was simply a thought, especially when comments were made in the midst of a paragraph. I also had some questions involving the conclusion and how our hero was able to justify his actions and avoid entanglements either with the law or with his stellar reputation. However, kudos to Jiles for featuring a hero from the older generation. It’s nice to have an author revere their elders instead of stuffing them into a nursing home sitting and drooling quietly while they await their death. Captain Kidd was able to hold his own quite nicely in spite of a few to-be-expected aches and pains. Three and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby is a sweet little Scottish Medieval Romance, short enough to read in an afternoon, long enough to be chockful of action. Mistress Alesone MacNiven is under the protection of the rightful King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, when she comes across a group of men on horseback. Not sure if they pay allegiance to Bruce or his mortal enemy, Lord Comyn, she sends a masterful warning shot with her arrow, barely missing the heart of Sir Thomas MacKelloch. Leary of each other’s intentions, Thomas binds the maiden to keep her from escaping so he can verify her story of being the King’s healer. Once truths are revealed, the two find themselves on the way to safety in Avalon to avoid a disaster which would tear Scotland apart. Each has a series of secrets which affect their outlook on life and both feel a growing affection which doesn’t fit into either of their future plans. The road is not easy, not just because of the tough terrain, but also because the enemy is on their tail, and anyone who helps them also becomes a target. While this Medieval tale is full of violence, it is tempered with love as Sir Thomas and Alesone both attempt to reconcile their pasts. Although this is Part 2 of the Forbidden Series, you don’t need to have read the plot of Book1 to gain an understanding of the moral codes of the times.

Although well written and despite the exciting fight scenes, there was a little too much repetition in the intimacy department as the two lovers agonize over their feelings and despair that this is a romance which can never happen. With a lot of teasingly passionate moments, in the end there’s a nice twist which promises a happily ever after in spite of their doubts. The historical background regarding the Knights Templar and the strife over who will rule Scotland is an added plus.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

When my book club was looking for some lighter fare to read I suggested Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty since I have enjoyed her other novels, and then when the regular study leader could not attend, I volunteered to facilitate. Since I was leading the book discussion, I took a more indepth approach to this novel, both reading the book and listening to the audiotape expertly narrated by Christine Lee. (Yes, some might argue the subject of this particular title isn’t actually in the “fluffy” category, but please note that we had been reading a series of books dealing with subjects such as the Holocaust, the War in Sarajevo, plus the Shakespearean Tragedy MacBeth.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the overall reaction was mixed which was also reflected in the numerous reviews I found on Goodreads. Perhaps I can’t change anyone’s mind as to the worthiness of this title, but I can attempt to give everyone an appreciation of Moriarty’s skill in developing the plot.

I presented this as a circular story where the reader is fed bits of information alternating between the past, present, and future in order to develop a complete understanding of the fateful incident at the barbecue. Even better was the suggestion of one of the book club members who called it a mosaic, or a puzzle which we put together as the story progresses, not seeing the entire picture until the very end. Either way, it took a lot of skill to pull it off, with every segment having an underlying meaning as it connected to the whole.

There are two components to the book, a “big” reveal and a series of smaller reveals. Many readers felt the build up to the incident at the barbecue which was not divulged until 60% through the book, was anticlimactic, as if disappointed that the event wasn’t even more tragic. However, it’s those small secrets which truly make this an excellent read. Moriarty’s real genius is the way she develops her characters. As their foibles are disclosed, we get to know them intimately so they become alive in our minds, especially since each of the characters gets to “speak” making the reader aware of their personal thoughts and motivations.

Like in real life, the relationships are complicated. Erica and Clementine’s close friendship involves mixed feelings of resentment and jealousy, but also an intimacy only found between people who have grown up together since childhood. While the marriage between Erica and Oliver is one between two soulmates, Clementine and Sam’s witty banter indicates a love in spite of their frequent spats, often involving their two young children Holly and Ruby. Add in some flashy, gregarious neighbors along with a grumpy old man who finds fault with life itself, plus some “interesting” parent(s), and you have 410 pages or 13 hours of reading pleasure.

Guilt is the theme, as each of the “cast” members has to deal with both the repercussions from the barbecue as well as the angst found in everyday life, while the resolutions from that fateful day changes the dynamics of the couples, leaning towards a promise of healthier future relationships.

With the successful mini series based on Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies being optioned for a second season, keep your eyes on the look out for Truly Madly Guilty to hit the big or small screen as well, especially since Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have purchased the film rights. One wonders if they will once again change the setting from Australia to California.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

It Started With A Kiss (The Worthingtons, Book 3) by Ella Quinn

Lady Louisa Vivers is excited to participate in her first season, if only she could get rid of the attentions of love sick puppy Boswell, who fancies her for a wife. Everyone knows she is too strong headed and his tendency to dither makes them ill suited. On top of that dilemma, she thinks she is falling in love with Gideon Rothwell, a newly titled duke. Even while wearing gloves there is an undeniable spark of electricity when he touches her hand. He feels it too, but there is no way he can marry. His recently departed father who suffered from dementia has left their finances in ruins, first with gambling debts and then with an expensive mistress who continues to line her coffers with a forged writ of purchase. Yet, Gideon can’t help himself and after exchanging some passionate kisses on a terrace at a ball, Louisa announces their betrothal. Not what Gideon had in mind, but what else would such an innocent infer from his improper advances. Anyway, marriage doesn’t seem like such a bad option. He’s in love and wants his sweetheart in his bed. If he had his way they’d be married right away, but waiting two weeks for Louisa’s mother to arrive from out of town seems doable. Yet the scheming man has several ideas of some lustful activities before the nuptials, if they can ever be left unchaperoned, a difficult feat with such a large family keeping watch. Then there’s his close friend Matt, the Earl of Worthington, whose eagle eye is on the outlook to protect the reputation of his younger sister. Luckily Gideon’s mom heartily approves and even provides them with the opportunity for some “alone time”.

However, not all is smooth sailing in It Started With a Kiss, Book Three of the Worthington Regency Romance Series by Ella Quinn. There are some people out there who don’t like the way Gideon is handing his father’s debt and vow revenge. Gideon, mistakenly tries to keep the sordid details a secret from his bride to be, but the forceful Louisa expects honestly and wants an equal marriage sharing the good with the bad. How she will react to these omissions is an issue that just might put a crimp in their relationship. Despite everyone’s advice, Gideon stubbornly sticks to his plan unwittingly putting everyone he loves in danger.

On the plus side is a continuation of the lives of the characters from both the Worthingtons and the Marriage Game series. Matt Worthington and Gideon are school chums along with Marcus Finley and Sebastian Rutherford who both were married about a year (to Phoebe and Anna) prior to the start of this tale. Even Kit Featherton, nicknamed Mr Perfect, makes an brief appearance, dancing with a neglected debutante at his mother’s ball. Via all the previous novels, the reader is familiar with numerous members of The Ton, including their past and future endeavors.

Unfortunately, this one just made me work too hard. It would have made a great novella, but there was so much repetition that it dragged as a full length book. While the ending picked up, there was a vast middle which seemed endless. After awhile Gideon’s stubbornness and Louisa’s obsessions were annoyingly over the top. Despite a couple of witty back and forth repartees, most of the conversation was mundane, and the sex scenes were kind of placid, not the passionate encounters found in most of the other narratives. There just was not enough plot to carry the day. Three stars is generous.

A thank you to Netgalley and Kensington Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

The question isn’t whether the teenage Queen Victoria had a crush on her elderly Private Secretary, the question remains about what sort of feelings Lord Melbourne had towards Her Majesty.

Daisy Goodwin in both her book and PBS miniseries Victoria extensively used Queen Victoria’s diaries to weave her tale of Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne. Unfortunately, although Victoria kept all encompassing diaries about not just her actions, but her thoughts and attitudes towards life, her youngest daughter Beatrice edited these reflections (at her mother’s request), copying them over and burning the originals. Thus it is only the redacted words which were left behind. Still, Goodwin was able to glean that Victoria definitely had more than just daughterly feelings towards the 58 year old Prime Minister. The gallant, amiable gentleman did everything he could to please his young mentor, yet despite their closeness, even he at times became the target of her ire.

The novel has Victoria mildly flirting with the man who seems charmed by her youthful exuberance although he keeps his personal feelings private knowing it would be inappropriate for him to have a romantic relationship with the young Queen. Victoria is drawn to his life of tragic romance when as Charles Lamb his wife Caroline ran off with the salacious author Lord Byron gallivanting throughout London Society causing scandalized tongues to wag. Caroline returned to her husband after being dumped by the “evil” Lord, and proceeded to publish a “fictionalized” novel containing thinly veiled details of her affair. Lamb suffered from these insults but remained by her side as she died of dropsy at the age of 42.

Trouble followed the now Lord Melbourne as his name was romantically linked to another lady and brought to court charged with adultery or as they called it “a criminal conversation”. Despite these scandals, he was able to retain his role as Prime Minister of England and ultimately became the Personal Secretary of a Queen who was fascinated by his lovelorn past.

Victoria monopolizes so much of Melborne’s time that one wonders how he was able to fulfill his role of Prime Minister. Her devotion to the man was revealed when she refused to accept his Tory opponent, Sir Robert Peel, as a replacement when Melbourne attempted to step down (after almost losing a vote on an important measure), forcing Parliament to decline his resignation to keep the government intact.

Goodwin introduces us to life at Buckingham Palace in 1837 where the willful young Queen has temper tantrums, throws things about, and sulks if she doesn’t get her way. Victoria was mean to her mother, obsessed with her hair and wardrobe, and unaware of the needs of those who surrounded her, lacking any sort of empathy for the very people who fulfilled her demands. However, what can one expect of a child kept isolated and under the thumb of a controlling mother (who forced “Drina” to sleep on a cot by her side and did not allow her daughter to walk down the stairs unassisted), brought up under the auspices of a predestined life of royalty.

My favorite scene is when her two cousins are visiting and Ernest strikes up a conversation with Victoria while the others are vigorously eating their meal. To his astonishment, the footman takes away his dinner mid bite. Although he complains he hasn’t finished, the fact is that when the Queen is done eating, everyone is done as well. (And the Queen was infamous for gulping down her food). Of course the reader knows this will happen since this is not the first mention of this tradition within the pages of this book.

While lengthy, the book only deals with the early years of Victoria’s reign up to the point where she asks her handsome cousin Albert to be her husband. (The mini series proceeds a little farther to when her first of nine children are born).

I was slightly disappointed. There was so much fascinating material here to be fictionalized, yet Goodwin kept repeating the same thoughts or ideas through the voices of numerous characters. I appreciated that the author used actually quotes, but at times the dialogue was too staid and as in many historical novels featuring biographical content, the author included too many particulars from the past, although I personally liked the mention of hairstyles and clothing choices as well as the social scenes such as the various balls, dancing, and the trip to Windsor. Perhaps too much attention was paid to some of the specific events which shaped those first few months of her reign. An author needs to pick and choose their focus so we don’t get bogged down in unnecessary minutiae. If I wanted to read a nonfiction book detailing Queen Victoria’s life I would have read Victoria: the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird (which I just might do).

Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book and recommend it to others. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and St Martin’s Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Art Forger by B A Shapiro

Claire Roth is beautiful, talented, and cursed. Even when she tries to do the right thing, it somehow turns out all wrong. Take Isaac Cullion, all she wanted to do was nudge him out of his funk and help him get his painting done in time for the art opening and look how that turned out? Now here’s Aiden Markell, offering her the chance of a lifetime. All she has to do is paint a duplicate of Edgar Degas’ After the Bath. Who better than Claire, a certified Repro painter specializing in his works? Yet this time her reproduction is more than just a copy, it’s a forgery of a painting which was stolen during the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Or is it? Despite the thrill of having an original Degas in her studio apartment, something isn’t quite right. Nagging doubts cloud Claire’s mind, notwithstanding the mind blowing sex with her new lover or the promise of her own art show at his gallery. Since there’s no one she can comfortably confide in, Claire starts doing her own investigation to uncover some truths which have been kept a secret for over a hundred years.

Barbara A Shapiro once again uses her knowledge of the Art World plus the mystique of Boston to bring us a novel of art and intrigue in The Art Forger. Developing a fascination with Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1983 which was reinforced after the infamous unresolved heist at the famous Boston museum, Shapiro waited until she found a way to combine past historical events with fictional characters to create a cohesive tale of love and betrayal. Weaving truth and fiction, she fabricates a series of letters written by Gardner to her “niece” describing her titilating encounters with the famed Degas in her attempts to buy one of his paintings for the museum she is determined to build. He agrees, but there are stipulations which might not be acceptable to her high brow society peers, despite her already outrageous behaviors. Although there is no written record of these meetings and no true correspondence to relate, the author still frames a plausible background to her modern day tale.

While Shapiro’s descriptions of the history and techniques of various art forgeries over the years is interesting, at times the details of this and other artistic techniques are perhaps a bit too technical for the average reader. In addition I would have liked a bit more depth of character for Claire and her associates to go along with the richly developed Boston setting. Besides the old time letters and narrative about Claire’s current life, there are also flashbacks from three years prior to the start of this story involving her relationship with Isaac, explaining her pariah status. I liked how the reader is given clues utilizing the three scenarios to help decipher the outcome, although for me, at least, there were no surprises, just reasonable expectations. In the end, Claire was a bit too self righteous and not entirely innocent, plus she made a lousy girlfriend – still from notoriety comes fame (see the Kardasians).

The Art Forger has been on my to read list since last year when I read Shapiro’s book The Muralist and it didn’t disappoint with a plot richly layered just like the paintings Claire designed. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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