Mini-Reviews: Women, Coconut, Belle

Madeleine St. John, The Women in Black

This novel follows the lives of four women who all work at Goode’s department store in 1950s Sydney, Australia. Patty, in her mid-30s, is married but unhappily childless, and her husband Frank is oblivious to her emotional turmoil. Fay is around 30 and has been going out with men for years, but somehow none of them seem to want to marry her. Lisa, a temporary hire for the Christmas season, dreams of going to university and becoming a poet, but her strict father won’t hear of it. And Magda, a glamorous Slovenian immigrant, is adjusting to a culture very different from her own. I loved this book and devoured it in a single sitting. It’s light and charming and slyly funny, and I became invested in the stories of all four women. I especially loved Magda, who enjoys the finer things in life and is generous in sharing them. There’s a bit of romance, but the main focus is on women’s experiences and relationships. The book reminds me a bit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but with a slightly more satirical edge. I expect to revisit it often and would recommend it as a great comfort read!

Amy E. Reichert, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

Milwaukee restaurateur Lou Johnson is having a run of terrible luck. First her fiancé cheats on her; then, that very night, food critic Al Waters samples her cooking — which is subpar because of her distress over the breakup — and writes a scathing review. The day the review comes out, Lou goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and meets Al. They’re attracted to each other and soon strike up a romance. The only problem is, he doesn’t realize she owns the restaurant he panned, and she doesn’t know he’s the hostile reviewer because he writes under a pen name. I’m a sucker for a You’ve Got Mail story, and this is a fun one that made me want to visit Milwaukee and eat some fried cheese curds immediately. I never quite believed in Lou and Al as characters; they seemed like stock types rather than real people to me. But I liked the setting and the overall cheerful, Hallmark-esque vibe of this novel, so I’d consider trying more by this author.

Paula Byrne, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

The idea for this book came from an 18th-century English portrait of two young women — one white, one black — who are portrayed as equals, almost as sisters. The black woman was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an English naval captain and an African slave. She grew up in the house of her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice and who decided several cases that would be crucial to the antislavery movement in Britain. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately, there’s very little about Dido in the historical record, and consequently very little in the book! Instead, Byrne focuses on the English slave trade, the status of black individuals in London, the Earl of Mansfield’s legal career, etc. It’s all interesting, but I was hoping for more biography, less history. The book does have numbered endnotes, many of which cite primary sources, yet Byrne also editorializes a fair amount. I’d say it’s more of a popular history than a scholarly one. Overall, I’d recommend it for people who are interested in the period. Apparently there’s also a movie about Dido, called Belle, which I’m interested in watching now.

Here is the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray:

Mini-Reviews: Reading, Jeeves, Enchantment

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

In this short volume, literature professor Jacobs speaks to people who would like to be readers but feel too busy or intimidated to try, and to people who once were readers but aren’t any longer. He champions the idea that reading can and should be a pleasure, not an obligation. His slogan is “Read at whim” — that is, what you actually enjoy, not what you or others think you ought to read. He discusses the perils of the reading list, the specific joys of rereading, and the notion that different kinds of texts can be read with different types of attention. I think this book is probably preaching to the choir for most of us, but I still found it very interesting, and I liked Jacobs’s friendly and humorous tone. Recommended for current and aspiring readers!

P.G. Wodehouse, How Right You Are, Jeeves

Affable, dimwitted Bertie Wooster gets into scrape after scrape while visiting his Aunt Dahlia in the country. Fellow guests include Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a beautiful redhead who is pretending to be Bertie’s fiancée while actually being engaged to his friend Kipper; famous mystery novelist Adela Cream and her playboy son Willie; Aubrey Upjohn, the menacing former headmaster of Bertie’s preparatory school; and Sir Roderick Glossop, a celebrated brain scientist currently posing as Aunt Dahlia’s butler. Naturally, complications ensue, and Bertie must call Jeeves back from his annual vacation to sort out the mess. Wodehouse is always good for the soul, and I found myself chuckling my way through this novel. A fun and breezy lark to kick off the year with!

Margaret Rogerson, An Enchantment of Ravens

Isobel is an extremely gifted painter, which means her work is in high demand among the fair ones. But when Rook, the autumn prince himself, requests her to paint his portrait, she makes a fatal mistake: she paints human sorrow in his eyes, which is both alien and scandalous to the fair ones. To clear his reputation and defend his throne, Rook whisks Isobel away to fairyland, where they encounter many perils and slowly come to a deeper understanding of each other. Yes, this book is YA, and it’s a bit dramatic and angsty at times, but I still really enjoyed it! I loved the magical portrayal of the fairy world, and I wish there were a series of books set in the various fairy courts. Isobel is a strong and practical heroine, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the sulky, emotionally oblivious Rook as well. I also loved Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, and I really hope she comes out with another book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Starlight, Tempted, Detective

Teri Bailey Black, Chasing Starlight

After a series of misfortunes, aspiring astronomer Kate Hildebrand is forced to move in with her estranged grandfather, a former silent movie star, and an assortment of male boarders. Though she dislikes her situation at first, Kate gradually becomes fond of her grandfather and some of the other boarders — particularly the handsome actor Hugo Quick. But when one of the other boarders is murdered, and Hugo and her grandfather are both implicated, Kate must decide whether to cooperate with the police or protect her friends and solve the crime herself. Meanwhile, she gets a job as a production assistant at a Hollywood studio and begins to rethink her career aspirations. I very much enjoyed this YA mystery set during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I loved the atmosphere, which ranges from the glamour of the film studio to the seedy danger of a gangster’s club. The mystery is a little weak, but adequate since I really liked the setting and the main characters. I’m not sure if a sequel is planned, but if it does materialize, I’ll certainly read it!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Tempted

When Gervase Ashford, the Earl of Rosthorn, spots Lady Morgan Bedwyn across a ballroom in Brussels, he can hardly believe his luck. He has spent the past nine years on the Continent, having been banished from England as a direct result of certain actions of Morgan’s brother, the Duke of Bewcastle. Now Gervase has the opportunity to take his revenge by flirting outrageously with Morgan and making her the subject of unsavory gossip. But the more time he spends with her — and especially when he sees her strength and determination in helping the wounded after the Battle of Waterloo — the more he genuinely comes to admire her. Meanwhile, Morgan knows that Gervase is an experienced rake, and she’s determined not to fall for his act; but she didn’t expect him to become her closest friend. I think the Bedwyn series gets better and better — I really loved Gervase and Morgan’s story! It’s on the heavy side for a Regency romance, because Waterloo and its aftermath play a pivotal role in the story, but seeing both characters work through their traumas and find love in the process is a fulfilling experience. I can’t wait to continue with the series!

P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think I expected more of a general survey of detective literature, whereas the book is a very brief overview of mostly British writers, mostly from the Golden Age — in other words, authors that P.D. James herself happens to like. Nothing wrong with that, of course! It just wasn’t quite what I wanted. I was also annoyed by the occasional spoiler; the book does a good job of avoiding them in general, but then goes and gives away the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd! Being a fan of Golden Age British mysteries myself, I found a lot to enjoy in the book, but I also didn’t really learn anything new or add any books to my TBR list. There’s not even a list of recommended detective novels in the back, which I would think is pretty mandatory for this type of book! All in all, I was pretty “meh” on this, but maybe fans of James’s would enjoy it more.

Mini-Reviews: Switch, Liturgy, Book

Beth O’Leary, The Switch

Leena Cotton has always been driven, but since her sister Carla died more than a year ago, she’s completely thrown herself into her work. But when an anxiety attack causes her to ruin an important meeting, her boss insists on her taking two months of paid leave. Meanwhile, Leena’s grandmother, Eileen, has lived most of her life in a tiny Yorkshire village. Her husband has recently left her, and now Eileen yearns to have the adventures she missed out on as a young woman. So Leena and Eileen decide to switch places: Leena will use her sabbatical to rest in the country, while Eileen will go to London and explore the world of online dating for senior citizens. The premise of this novel might be a little farfetched, but who cares when it yields such delightful results? I really enjoyed both women’s stories, but Eileen totally steals the show: she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it! I loved her benevolent meddling and the fact that, as a 79-year-old woman, she’s allowed to find love and have adventures. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for something fun and pleasant in your life right now!

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

Anyone who’s ever been to a Catholic mass will know that it follows a very specific, structured order called the liturgy. This book explains the “why” behind various liturgical practices and also talks about the philosophy of liturgy itself. I found it very interesting, though heavy going at times, and I definitely received some new insights on why certain liturgical rules exist — for example, that churches should be oriented to the east — and why they are important. I would definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in the subject and who already have some knowledge of Catholic liturgical practices. It wouldn’t be a good introductory work, however!

Amanda Sellet, By the Book

In this cute YA romance, Mary Porter-Malcom is a socially awkward teenager who’s accumulated most of her knowledge of the world from classic literature. As you might suspect, she’s not terribly popular; but when she overhears a group of girls discussing a notorious “cad” at their high school, Mary can’t help but share her opinion and cite the novels that support her theory. In gratitude, the girls accept Mary into their friend group. But as they apply Mary’s literary wisdom to their other relationships and potential romances — and as Mary starts to fall for the cad herself — she risks losing both her friends and her crush. I liked the premise of this novel and thought it was executed fairly well, but it panders a little too much to its target audience of bookish teen girls. The romance is predictable but fine, and I liked that Mary’s friendships are at least as important to her as her love life. A fun book, but not a keeper for me.

Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Midwife’s, Check, Talking

Midwife's ApprenticeCheck Me OutTalking as Fast as I Can

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Catherine, Called Birdy was one of my favorite books as a child, but I don’t think I’d ever read The Midwife’s Apprentice by the same author. It’s about a young girl in medieval England who is completely alone; she begins the novel by sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm. But the village midwife eventually takes her in as a servant/apprentice, and the girl’s life improves somewhat. Eventually she learns enough about midwifery to make herself useful, makes a friend, and even gets a name of her own: Alyce. But when Alyce makes a mistake in her work, she runs away, certain that everyone will hate her. Will she ever find a place she truly belongs? I was charmed by this book and wish I had read it as a child; while it’s not a keeper for me now, I would definitely recommend it to elementary schoolers!

Becca Wilhite, Check Me Out

I really liked the premise of this book, with its librarian heroine and Cyrano vibes, but the execution was disappointing. Twenty-four-year-old Greta loves her job and her BFF Will, but she hasn’t managed to find romance yet. That is, until she meets dreamy Mac in the poetry section, and he sweeps her off her feet with his good looks and romantic texts. The trouble is, in person he’s not as sweet or witty as he is in print. Meanwhile, the library is in danger of shutting down, so Greta embarks on a series of fundraising schemes to save it. I thought the library-related stuff was interesting, and the book did a good job of covering the complexities of the situation (community benefits vs. budget, historical value of the library vs. need for a modern, accessible space). But the romance was frustrating for me; I felt Greta was clueless and shallow, and her descriptions of Will (who is overweight) were downright cruel at times. Overall, I was disappointed in this book and wouldn’t recommend it.

Lauren Graham, Talking as Fast as I Can: From “Gilmore Girls” to “Gilmore Girls” and Everything in Between

A fun celebrity memoir by Lauren Graham, best known for her roles as Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman on Parenthood. As a huge Gilmore fan and someone who has always admired Lauren Graham, I was definitely the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it overall. It doesn’t delve very deeply into Gilmore Girls, which I was a little disappointed by, but upon reflection it makes sense: Gilmore was legendary for its long hours and demanding showrunner who expected every line to be word-perfect, so it makes sense that Graham would be reticent about the probable difficulties of working on the show. She obviously feels much more warmly about Parenthood, a show I stopped watching after season 1. Still a worthwhile read for fans of either show, and Graham has a funny, likable voice. But Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs are still my favorites in this genre.

Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Review: Play It Again

Play It Again- An Amateur against the ImpossibleAlan Rusbridger, Play It Again: An Amateur against the Impossible

The author of this memoir is, at the time of writing, a 57-year-old amateur pianist with a dream: to competently play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. This is an extremely difficult and demanding piece, and Rusbridger is understandably nervous about whether he’ll be able to achieve his goal. His project is further complicated by the fact that his day job is editor of the Guardian, a major British news outlet. And of course, the time frame he’s chosen for learning the Ballade happens to coincide with high-profile news events such as the Wikileaks story and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Nevertheless, Rusbridger manages to carve out at least 20 minutes to practice most days, and he also asks for advice wherever he can get it, including from books, music teachers, and even concert pianists. Rusbridger documents his quest to learn the Ballade in diary format, sharing his strategies, doubts, successes, and failures along the way.

I picked up this book because the premise sounded like something I might actually want to do: I’m an amateur pianist who took lessons from second grade up through college, and I still play occasionally for community theater musicals. I also own the score of the Ballade, though I’ve never attempted to read more than the first couple of pages. I think some familiarity with the Ballade is necessary to get anything out of this book; luckily, there are a ton of performances on YouTube, and Rusbridger includes his annotated score in the appendix. But he does spend a fair amount of time discussing the minutiae of the piece, referring to specific measure numbers, fingerings, and rhythms. So if you’re completely nonmusical, I wouldn’t recommend this book. I largely enjoyed following Rusbridger along his journey, although I couldn’t help noticing his privilege in being able to consult world-famous pianists about his project. The book also gets a bit same-y after a while, which made the last stretch somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend this book to any musician, professional or amateur!

Review: Discerning Religious Life

Discerning Religious LifeSr. Clare Matthiass, CFR, Discerning Religious Life

This short book, written by a religious sister, is a guide for Catholic women that describes the process of discerning a religious vocation (that is, a call to become a religious sister or nun). It describes various “steps” of this process in detail, from a woman’s first inkling that she might be called to religious life, to the attitudes and habits she should possess before beginning to discern seriously, to what will happen when she starts researching specific convents and communities. The book is peppered with anecdotes from the author and many other religious sisters who share their experiences of being called and of living out their vocations. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into the theological and historical background of religious life, assuming that the reader will already be familiar with the basics. But it does provide very practical advice and reassurance to women who are questioning whether the religious life might be for them.

Obviously this book is going to be useful only for a very small audience: unmarried Catholic women who are still trying to discover God’s plan for their lives. I fall into this category, and while I’ve never particularly felt called to religious life, I found a lot to think about in this book. My favorite aspect of the book is that it spends a lot of time discussing the sacrifices of religious life — particularly the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and the various obstacles and doubts that many women confront as they consider this vocation. It frankly acknowledges that the religious life is difficult and that the sacrifices it requires are significant. At the same time, the personal stories from the author and the other religious sisters clearly demonstrate the joy they find in their calling. I also really appreciated the book’s discussion of prayer and will definitely be applying some of those lessons to my own prayer life. Overall, I got a lot out of this book and would definitely recommend it to any woman in a similar stage of life.