Book Review: A Sunday Kind of Love by Dorothy Garlock

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The empress of small-town Americana novels is back with Sunday Kind of Love. Gwen Foster is living in 1950s Chicago with her lawyer boyfriend, Kent. And now, she’s taking him to Buckton, Indiana, to see her parents. What she doesn’t realize is that Kent is planning on telling her she’s getting married… to him. And that’s just the start of their problems; Kent is from a wealthy, traditional family, and his attitude is that women should be at home in the kitchen. When he doesn’t ask Gwen to marry him, she starts to see the end of their relationship. It doesn’t help that Gwen’s deepest longing is to become a writer, and Kent will have nothing to do with that.

Hank Ellis is Buckton’s pariah. Accused of killing his brother in a horrible auto accident, Hank can’t catch a break in town. People shun him, start fights with him, or generally go out of their way to show him scorn and derision. When Gwen—after a heroic rescue—ignores the town’s, and her parents’, chastisement of Hank, they begin to piece together new lives, and eventually secrets are revealed and relationships forged.

Sunday Kind of Love follows Garlock’s familiar pattern: girl has boy, girl meets dashing rogue, girl falls in love with new boy. It’s typical romance writing, but in Garlock’s deft hands and writing mastery you’ll know the outcome but enjoy the stroll there. For historical fiction fans, this story resonates with Gwen’s flowering as a strong, independent young woman in the socially rigid 1950s. She’s an early feminist in Kent’s staunchly conservative world. It’s Gwen’s personality and drive that will pull readers through to the end, championing her newfound freedom and enjoying Garlock’s small-town America.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

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Book Review: Saffire by Sigmund Brouwer

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Panama is a fledgling country, born out of a revolution supported by the U.S., and now a canal is being ripped through the country. The setting is ripe for political corruption and intrigue, and into the maelstrom is plopped James Holt, a widower cowboy from the Dakotas. He’s all cowboy – he even toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Holt’s there on a personal favor for Teddy Roosevelt. The only thing certain for Holt is that he plans on getting home as soon as possible. But in the sweltering, mosquito-infested Canal Zone, nothing is certain anymore.

Holt finds himself assigned to find the missing mother of a little mulatto girl named Saffire. Other than her, no one in Panama wants this woman found. As Holt digs deeper into the underbelly of Panama, he is drawn into intricate webs of deception, political shenanigans, and, eventually, the arms of a woman who will change his life forever.

Brouwer’s command of language is such that the heat, humidity, and hum of insects in Panama resonate off the pages. Part history lesson – some characters are real, and their involvement in the Canal construction is nuanced – and part romantic thriller, Saffire delves into the real struggle to build the canal while interweaving a kidnapping and mystery story into the history lesson. It’s listed as a Christian historical novel, so fans of that genre may be disappointed that the only source of religious inspiration comes nearly 300 pages into the book in the form of a single paragraph spoken not by Holt, but by a nearly irrelevant dying character. In the end Saffire is a nice historical look at the Panama Canal construction mixed with a nifty little American Wild West cowboy drama-meets-thriller.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: Hell Bay by Will Thomas

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Together for the 8th time, Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, embark on another case. This time, they are called to provide security for a secret conference – being held under the cloak of a debutante-like ball – on the remote Scilly Island estate of Lord Hargrave. But just as they are getting settled on the island, Lord Hargrave is killed. Over the course of the next couple days, members of the Hargrave family are being killed, and it is up to Barker to find the killer and keep all the guests safe. Barker’s plan is to hold everyone inside the estate and ferret out the killer. This leads to all kinds of accusations and mistrust; suspicions and fears drive the guests into various allegiances and pit one against the other.

Hell Bay is a locked-room thriller that will immediately remind people of Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None) or John Carr (The Hollow Man). It follows the traditional theme of a killer that seems to sneak in and out undetected while the other guests hurl accusations against one another. Barker is a rather passive investigator; he’s always reacting to a murder rather than proactively searching for the killer. It felt like Thomas wrote it this way to keep the story going, as it was fairly easy to figure the general notion of who the killer was from the first few pages. The characters are likeable, the setting appropriately eerie – lighthouses and hedge mazes – and Thomas’ writing is quintessentially British mystery in voice and pace. Readers may feel put off by the actions of a few characters at the end, but all in all, a fun little thriller.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: The Golden Age by Joan London

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Meyer and Ida Gold flee Hungary during World War II and find themselves in Perth, Australia, with their son, Frank. They hope to start a new life, but everything comes apart when Frank contracts polio. In 1954, he is sent to recover in a pub converted into a convalescent home called the Golden Age. There, Frank meets Elsa, a 12-year-old Perth native, and slowly the two begin to aid in each other’s recovery while falling in love. For the Golds, Australia is a world away from Hungary, and they are isolated and alone. Ida, once a renowned concert pianist, shuts down; she refuses to play and struggles to accept life in her adopted country. Meyer, in turn, works to find little joys in discovering his home and sheds wartime loss as he integrates with society. Intertwined are the stories of Olive Penny, a nurse at the Golden Age, who struggles with relationships, and Elsa’s mother, Margaret, who gives up the notions of being the perfect wife and mother and tries to reconcile with her daughter’s illness.

The Golden Age has won numerous awards in Australia, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. London’s writing is at its best when bringing to life the coming-of-age story between Frank and Elsa: their hopes and fears (and those of other polio-stricken children), their resolve, and their disappointments. The setting and place are rich and detailed, and Perth feels alive. The side stories interrupt the main one; serving as little vignettes, they make the book feel disjointed, more like a collection of short stories. Though they’re well-written, I would have not missed any of them and would have just enjoyed Frank and Elsa’s tale.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

mooreOne billion dollars. That’s the value of electric light in 1888. Or, that’s the staggering sum for which Thomas Edison is suing George Westinghouse, his rival in the electricity gambit, for sole control of who lights up America. For his defense, Westinghouse hires a fresh-out-of-college lawyer named Paul Cravath. Together, they plot against the man beloved by Americans as the Wizard of West Orange and backed by the wealthiest man in the country, J. P. Morgan. Paul’s task seems insurmountable.

Enter two unlikely allies: Nikola Tesla and Agnes Huntington. Tesla becomes a naïve pawn in the battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and Paul is blind to their manipulations. Agnes Huntington, a society belle and renowned singer, initially reaches out to Paul to defend her in a small contract dispute, but ends up befriending Tesla—and defending him against the two capitalists—and a romance begins between her and Paul.

The basic facts in this novel are true: There was a war for currents with Paul Cravath at the center of it all. The main characters are real—including the relationship between Paul and Agnes—and Graham Moore does justice in rendering them all as honestly as possible, but there are a number of liberties taken in the general timeline which Moore admits in the notes. For me, these liberties were somewhat off-putting. By condensing the history, the book feels more like a screenplay than a novel. Moore’s writing is sharp and as energized as his topic, but the chapters read like quick vignettes, making it hard to connect with the characters. One thing can be said: Despite the screenplay nature, this is a riveting book that will hold your attention and will illuminate many on the birth of the electric light in America. Part legal thriller, part romance, injected with a history lesson. Worth the read.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016