Book Reviews/Discussions

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay!  This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.  

The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories.  Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.

The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses.  The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West.  This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well.  You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents. 

The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot.  The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most.  She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.

This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on.  It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards.  It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which character was your favorite and why?
  2. Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
  3. What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title?  How does the title have multiple meanings?
  4. Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago?  Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story? 
  6. How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
  7. There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful?  Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Once again I will be out of sync with the consensus.  I really hated this book, in fact, I was angry when I finished it because I felt like I had wasted my time.  I read it because my book group was reading it and because several people had told me it was wonderful–it also had glowing reviews in most of the usual places.

Well friends, they were all WRONG. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read the book and not know what is going to happen, stop reading this review now.

The idea that a little girl could raise herself in the swamp is just one of the many ridiculous plot devices readers are supposed to swallow. Since I did not see evidence that we were engaged in magical realism, I assume the writer meant for us to to think the story could have happened the way she describes. I won’t belabor it too much, but I would like to point out that it is possible to create characters who are damaged and have interesting backstories without making them objects of abject neglect and abuse by a WHOLE TOWN. (See Gillian Flynn or Louise Doughty) But then magically, a boy teaches her to read so she turns into a wildlife writer. Wait, maybe it was supposed to be magical realism after all, there is not really another explanation. Hmmmm…

She’s lonely, so of course she enters into a sexual relationship with someone she KNOWS to be unreliable, that makes total sense.  Also, the identity of the murderer was no surprise, she telegraphed it all the way through. Owens does get points though, for the poems.  They were interesting and added a dimension to Kya’s character. The mother. Come on–maybe you leave, but you walk off and leave a 5 year old child with an alcoholic abuser? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that NOT ONE of the siblings ever so much as considered taking Kya with them when they left or even checking on her until 20 years later. Please.  Consider the limits of my credulity exceeded.

So, I am not going to post any discussion questions for this one.  If you liked it, you can find questions on another site. I am still a little piqued that I wasted valuable reading time on this book. 👿

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess


I got this book as an e-galley and I was really looking forward to it.  It had rave reviews and the pre-pub buzz was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. I should have known better, when I saw the protagonist referred to as a female Philip Roth. Full disclosure–though I have tried many times to read various titles by Philip Roth, I have never made it all the way to the end of one.  Usually I get about a third of the way through, and that is only because I make myself. Call me a Philistine if you want, but he is way too pe— absorbed for me. I have always found him self-consciously literary, and not in a good way. I mean, really, how literary is one man and his constant obsession with sex and his Johnson? Overrated, in my humble opinion…

Our heroine, if we dare call her that, is Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer who works for a small publishing house that really only has one author who makes them any money. Eve is desperate to become a part of the East Coast Literati, mostly snobs who summer in Truro, Massachusetts, summer playground of Boston academic and artistic elite. She leaves her publishing house gig to work as an assistant to one of these literary giants, Henry Grey. What follows is a boringly predictable May/September romance, in which Eve becomes Henry’s willing partner in adultery, brushing aside the much more interesting and actually available Jeremy Grand, who has incidentally written the next great American novel, and whom the Owner of the said small publishing house hopes will save him from bankruptcy and ignominy. Jeremy has an interesting secret, which I will not reveal in case any of you want to read the book.

What Dukess does well is depict the New England Literati as mostly self-absorbed and useless, though I am not sure if that was the point.  The reader wishes Eve were smarter than she is, though she eventually figures out that Henry is not worth her time. I suppose if you like Philip Roth, you might like this book, but for the rest of us (I would guess about 90%), it really isn’t worth spending your time reading it.  I finished it because I was on a plane without a lot of options, having already exhausted my video downloads and the print books I brought with me, if that tells you anything. 

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

I debated with myself about reading this book, since I had already watched the first 2 seasons of Victoria on Masterpiece/PBS.  I am not going to lie, I did not enjoy this novel as much as I did Goodwin’s earlier works–The Heiress and The Fortune Hunter.  Part of it may have been because I had already seen the series and really, the book doesn’t even get through the whole first season.  I also think that this one just wasn’t as good as the first two, but if I am completely honest, I will have to also say that I don’t find Victoria a compelling character.  In Goodwin’s novel she comes off as spoilt, headstrong, and whiny, not to mention more than a little self-absorbed. I was disappointed to learn from reading the endnotes that Ms. Goodwin spent many years reading Queen Victoria’s journals and letters; I was so hoping her portrayal was highly inaccurate. There are so few strong female leaders to look at from history that I hate to find that I don’t really like Victoria, or what is more important, respect her.  I have a much higher regard for Albert when all is said and done, at least for now. This is the same reaction I have had to the series. I love the costumes and the subplot involving Skerritt and Francatelli. In fact, I wasn’t planning on watching Season 3 until I saw that Laurence Fox is in it. I liked him in Inspector Morse, so I will be persuaded to tune in and at least give it a chance. I see some future nonfiction reading will be necessary to improve my factual knowledge in this area and I am hoping that my impression from the novel is fiction, just like the book. We’ll see…

The front cover of the copy I bought has an emblem which says “Reading Group Gold” from Macmillan. Whilst I am not sure I completely agree with the “gold” assessment, I can see where this would be a fun, easy read for a book group.  Toward that end, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Most of the novel is from Victoria’s point of view and she doesn’t extend her mother much compassion until her own “impossible” love interest in Lord Melbourn comes to a close. Do you think she should have realized sooner that her mother was in a difficult position?  Why was she so oblivious to the way her mother had to negotiate a very narrow path?
  2. Do you think someone like Melbourn would have been interested in Victoria as she was at eighteen and nineteen? What about her makes him love her?
  3. How is Lord Melbourn a tragic figure?  Does he act as if he thinks he is tragic, how or how not?
  4. Albert is characterized as very serious.  The other characters describe him as such and he has a sincere interest in reform and progress and modernity.  How does this contrast with Victoria’s character?
  5. What do you think of Uncle Leopold? Why do so many of the royal characters and others make such a big deal about Belgium being a “made up” country? How do you explain the fact that Victoria in the novel is so set against Uncle Leopold’s plan to marry her to Albert, but then she marries him?  This seems to be a plot hole. Do you think it is adequately explained in the novel, why or why not?
  6. The television series offers a more in depth look below stairs. If you have both seen the show and read the novel, do you think the novel suffers from this absence?  Why or why not?
  7. Can you see a great monarch in the young Victoria as portrayed by Goodwin, why or why not? How do you see Victoria of the novel maturing over time–what does her future self look like?
  8. Are you convinced of Albert’s love for Victoria in the novel?  If yes, what convinces you? If no, given Albert’s seriousness and honesty, how do you explain his decision to marry her?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold

This book was recommended to me by a fellow Janeite and it is wonderful if you love history, scandal, and thinking about how the choices we make matter.  Seymour Dorothy Worsley (nee Fleming) was married at 17 to Sir Richard Worsley in 1775. In the decades preceding the beginning of the eighteenth century, life among the gentry was, shall we say, permissive.  As long as no one was hurt and everybody played by the rules, which were that one did not embarrass one’s husband by indiscretion, or at least not publicly. Apparently, the Lords and Ladies mostly had what could be termed open marriages, at least according to Rubenhold, but I did verify this with other sources (see the Duchess of Devonshire and Grace Dalrymple Elliott). Although it appears that mostly it was the men who could sleep around and the women who had to be discreet.  It is perhaps this “role reversal” which makes Lady Worsley’s Whim so entertaining.

Seymour had several affairs, but eloped with George Maurice Bisset, a friend of Sir Richard’s in 1781.  The two lovers holed up in a London hotel and waited to see what Sir Richard would do. Unfortunately, he decided to sue Bisset in court for Criminal Conversation, seeking damages in the amount of £20,000. Sir Richard further decided to go for a “separation of bed and board,” which meant that though the married couple would be legally separated, neither would be eligible to remarry, effectively thwarting any hopes Seymour had of marrying Bisset.

The book goes into glorious detail about the Criminal Conversation trial, one of the most famous of its time, and further follows Sir Richard and Lady Worsley to their deaths. The Criminal Conversation suit was widely covered in the press and lampooned at the time. Though Sir Richard expected to win huge damages (legally, a wife was a husband’s property, and by besmirching her honor adulterous lovers owed the husband damages to his rightful property) Yep, that’s right women as chattel, even wealthy heiresses. When their fathers declined to settle the fortunes on them, A daughter’s marriage settlement belonged to the husband and could only be reclaimed by wives if they survived to widowhood. Still, the Worsley/Bisset case was unusual.  Sir Richard had secrets he should have been more concerned about, mainly that he essentially pimped his wife out. At the very least, he knew about her numerous affairs and at worst he approved and possibly watched. Speculation aside, what is known is that he invited Bisset to view Seymour as she dressed after visiting a bathhouse; the gentlemen having already finished dressing. The jury found in Sir Richard’s favor, but awarded him 1 shilling, or 1/20 of 1£.

Further humiliation soon followed, as Seymour aired their dirty laundry throughout the trial and afterward in the press. She managed to save Bisset from financial ruin, but since she would not be free to marry, the lovers split in 1783, while she was carrying his child. Seymour goes on to a fairly long career as a professional mistress, while Sir Richard retreats into collecting antiquities and art.

Rubenhold’s book reads easily and she explains the legalities in terms that the casual reader can understand. It is accessible to the mass market, while also being historically accurate and making use of various primary sources. If you are interested in 18th century British history, this is a great read. It can be a little harder to find in the United States, but there are copies for sale on Amazon.  A 2015 movie based on the book, entitled The Scandalous Lady W, was made by the BBC, starring Natalie Dormer as Lady Worsley and Shaun Evans as Sir Richard. The book was redistributed to American audiences with a 2015 copyright and under that title as well.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did English laws regarding marriage and divorce contribute to the Worsley Criminal Conversation Case?  What about the laws of coverture (the laws which made a woman’s property her husband’s upon their marriage)?
  2. Why do you think Lady Worsley decided to runaway with Bisset?  Why not stay in her marriage where she had at least tacit permission to continue her extra-marital activities?
  3. In view of the options available to Seymour after her separation from Sir Richard, what do you think of her choices?  What about signing the separation agreement that included a four year banishment from England? How did that affect her later?
  4. What if Sir Richard had divorced Seymour–how would that have changed the outcomes for both of them?
  5. What is your biggest take-away from this book? Does it inspire you to learn more about the Worsleys or about other famous people mentioned?