Books Completed Since January 1
Christmas Ideals (Worthy Publishing Group) and Christmas Bells (Jennifer Chiaverini
Re-read: The Country Diary Christmas Book, Sarah Hollis
A Tree for Peter, Kate Seredy
Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, Victoria Thompson
While Frank Malloy and his new bride Sarah Brandt are on their honeymoon, their governess and friend Maeve is quite happily taking care of Sarah's adopted daughter Catherine and Frank's son Brian and enjoying their new house when an old friend of Frank's mother comes visiting with a troubling story: her daughter Una has been accused of bludgeoning her husband to death. Although the elder Mrs. Malloy warns Maeve that Mrs. O'Neill and her daughter aren't always as helpless as they seem, Maeve can't help at least visiting "poor Una" in jail, where she slaps the stunned woman to her senses and immediately gets involved in her case, enlisting Malloy's former police partner Gino Donatelli as well as Sarah's wealthy parents the Deckers, who soon find out that Una's husband had been deceiving her.
Maeve and Gino and the Deckers are great supporting characters, and they comport themselves pretty well in this almost "amateur hour," but Frank and Sarah have better instincts and might have put the threads of the mystery together more quickly. Still, it's nice to see them step up and try to help a person in need, although they discover that sometimes the person they "rescue" doesn't always deserve the attention. I hope Frank and Sarah are amenable to starting an investigative agency when they arrive home, because they have one springing up under their noses.
Note: Although the murder takes place on "St. Nicholas Avenue" and before Christmas, the holiday is not a central theme in the book.
Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell
Go back and read my review for The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh (third review down).
That's it in spades for this book: a pocket biography of Potter followed by an exploration of the seasons at all her different farms and throughout the Lake Country: color illustrations of flowers, gardens, lawns, sheep, cattle, ducks, old photographs, and of course Beatrix's wonderful illustrations, whether they be cunning watercolor rabbits dressed in blue jackets or detailed botanical prints from her serious nature studies. The book is a sea of calm in a frantic world—find your poison (coffee, tea, or cocoa), add a homemade pastry or some garden snack, sit back, sip, nibble, and lose yourself in the poetry of the countryside and the art.
No Comfort for the Lost, Nancy Herriman
What spurred my read of the Winchester book reviewed below was this novel, a murder mystery set in 1860s San Francisco. Formerly a nurse in the Crimea like her Anne Perry contemporary Hester Latterley Monk, Celia Davies impulsively married an Irishman and followed him to the goldfields of California. Not having discovered gold, her husband found a job aboard ship and is now presumably lost at sea. Celia, with her limited funds and some donations, runs a clinic for the poor, including the "Celestials" that no one else will care for, the Chinese who are the recipients of the virulent racism from San Francisco's white residents. One of her former patients and now a friend, Li Sha, a woman who was living with Celia's brother in law, is fished out of the water, having been the victim of violence. The police think she'd either gone back to prostitution and a customer murdered her or that Tom Davies did so, but Celia stoutly insists to Union Army veteran and police detective Nicholas Greaves that neither could be true.
This novel brings dirty, rough, post-gold fever San Francisco and its simmering prejudices to life. You can smell the sea, the muck, the manure, and the unwashed bodies. Celia fights hard for the Chinese women in her care, but no one else gives a damn about them, including the wealthy women who are Celia's patrons and the operators of the Chinese brothels (one of Celia's patients dies a very agonizing death due to the neglect of her pimp). The mystery is reasonably complex, but I was turned off immediately by the romance novel aspects of the book: of course Celia is gorgeous and good and not prejudiced and Nick is rugged and handsome and tormented by a wound he received in the war. Celia is also the custodian of her teenage, half-Chinese niece Barbara (she refers to Barbara as a "teenager" at one point, a term which wouldn't be in common use for seventy more years), who has to be one of the most annoying supporting characters ever—while she is understandably frightened at the bigotry directed at Chinese people, she's also usually moping, crying, and generally unlikable. Plus there's the usual spunky housekeeper, Aggie. In short, I didn't find much difference in this and a half-dozen other historical mysteries now on the bookshelves, sort of a combination of Hester Monk's free clinic in the Perry books crossed with Sarah Brandt of the Gaslight mysteries with some lessons on Asian racism thrown in. If I had nothing else to read it wouldn't be the worst alternative, but there are so many other historical mysteries out there.
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Simon Winchester
I had skipped buying this book because I'd already read one in-depth book of the San Francisco earthquake and fire which was so comprehensive I didn't feel I needed to read another. Then I picked it up in a remainder store (where, yes, the inexpensive price was an inducement) and paging through it realized this wasn't just a book about the earthquake—indeed, it doesn't happen until page 243—it's a book about fault lines, plate tectonics, the makeup of the Earth, continental drift and all sorts of geologic goodness. Which I proceed to devour immediately. So if you are seeking a book about the earthquake, prepare for geologic digressions or go elsewhere.
You must also like Simon Winchester's writing style. I'm a verbophile and love vocabulary almost as much as chocolate. Winchester loves words, especially little-used ones, and his narrative in this volume is pretty typical: rivers of descriptive words that spill everywhere. I can enjoy this sort of thing, but his writing is not to all tastes. He wanders far afield in his geological story, both geographically and temporally, from Alaska to the New Madrid Fault, to Lisbon to discuss why earthquakes happen and where they happen. I found it all fascinating, but if you are just looking for a history of the 1906 event, it's best you look elsewhere.
A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson resents the fact he's been sent off to live in the States to attend a boarding school called Sherringford that's in need of a good rugby player. He suspects his father, who he resents for remarrying, has sent him there just to meet up with the person everyone assumes he should pair up with, Charlotte Holmes. As Jamie is a descendant of the famous Doctor John Watson, Charlotte is descended from Sherlock Holmes, and he wants to be a writer and is occasionally pugilistic. Like her famous ancestor, Charlotte is brilliant but has her demons (and addictions). When an disagreeable student is murdered, it soon becomes obvious that Charlotte and Jamie are being framed.
I started this with promise and then got kinda bored. There's so much manipulation going on in the background, a bunch of adolescent angst, and more complications than you can shake a stick at. Heaven knows I didn't want a squeaky clean Trixie Belden-like story, but the drugs and the date rape revelation and the constant cursing just wore me down after a while (and I am prone to salty language myself). Jamie having a crush on Charlotte just turned me off; we're going to do that one, too? Sigh. I liked some of the parallels: Charlotte's hidden laboratory, for instance, the murders taken from Holmes' stories, Sherringford as the school name (Sherringford was the name Conan Doyle was going to give Holmes before he decided on "Sherlock"). And I didn't expect the teen characters to be totally innocent, but even the kids seem to come out of a Jacqueline Susann novel.
Not sure I will chance the next one. Maybe as a library book.
Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters, Daniel Pool
Unlike Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is a great reference book, this is Pool's overview of the great popular Victorian novelists, whose lives were soap operas all on their own, no embellishing needed, and how the popular novel developed into a beloved tradition. (Early novels had a bad name; most of them were the Fifty Shades of Gray of their time with salacious plots and protagonists.) Dickens leads the forefront of the popular novelists—for all that his own life was quite irregular—and we also learn about the development of the publishing of the novel as well: before that time books were very expensive and only the very wealthy owned them. New processes and subscription libraries helped bring books to more people than ever, even after publishers decided to break novels into three parts so they could sell more copies.
Pool's book reads like a "National Enquirer" of what students today think of as tedious old people: Charlotte Brontë and her crush on her publisher while fending off rumors of being William Makepeace Thackeray's mistress (not to mention the sad deaths of her sisters Anne and Emily after they made their mark—under a male name, of course), George Eliot's brilliantly received books as she was simultaneously banned from society for "living in sin," plus Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, etc., all with their own quirks. If you ever thought Dickens and his compatriots were old bores, this will liven up your opinion.
Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Christopher Fowler
There is unrest in the streets of London as newly fashionable Hallowe'en celebrations combine with the traditional British Guy Fawkes holiday. Mobs are demonstrating and they're becoming unruly, especially after scandal erupts when a wealthy banker is caught mismanaging depositors' funds. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in after a homeless man is killed when someone tossed a Molotov cocktail in the doorway of the banker's establishment. It's passed off as an accidental killing as part of the protests—until a second wealthy man is killed with fire in a particularly horrifying way. It's only when a third man is targeted that the PCU realize them have a serial killer on their hands.
Fowler's PCU mysteries always involve some manner of British lore, and this one combines the modern protests of the "Occupy" movement with the customs of Bonfire Night, turning the city into a creepy setting with senior detectives Bryant and May, Janice Longbright, Dan Banbury, and the rest of the contingent trying feverishly to put the clues together. Dotty Arthur Bryant, however, is in more trouble than the rest. He fears his aging mind is finally giving in to dementia and as the PCU fights to find the killer, Arthur must battle his fears as well as he starts to get lost moving around the city he knew so well.
Great suspenseful build up to the end (although Janice having prophetic dreams seems a bit trite for the usual offbeat PCU plot) with misdirection getting the upper hand. Relationships change, new enemies are made (go, Raymond!)—but will things ever be the same again? Brilliant as always.
A Very Vintage Christmas, Bob Richter
Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine "Max" Maxwell has led a troubled childhood saved only by a caring teacher who turned her on to history. Much education and a doctorate later Max is contacted by the same teacher and asked if she'd be interested in a job at the St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research. When she arrives, she realizes early she isn't being interviewed for a garden-variety research job. You see the St. Mary's people really know their history, because they've found a way to travel in time. And Max definitely wants into that briar patch, B'rer Fox!
With some strong parallels to Connie Willis' Oxford time traveling stories (The Doomsday Book, etc.), Max joins other trainees eager to make a jump to the past. But as she's learning the ropes, she's also discovering that an unsettling undercurrent exists at St. Mary's, and that all the employees aren't who they seem. When visits to the past turn deadly for most of her classmates, Max and her partner play it as safe as possible when they're sent back to survey a highly-desirable timeline, but find that trouble has preceded them--and that indeed some of it does come from within.
Max is a much tougher heroine than Willis' almost ethereal Kivrin, and St. Mary's rife with internal conflict. There is some graphic violence and a few dollops of sexual antics, but on a whole I enjoyed the entire adventure, feeling a little kinship with Max, who's been a misfit all her life. The threat posed to the institute seems to be a standard cocky villain from a dozen other adventures, but in combination with the St. Mary's folks it all works and provides a fast-moving adventure with several twists. Good enough to make me want to go on to the next volume in the series.
The Residence, Kate Anderson Brower
This is the story of the permanent residents of the White House: the butlers, maids, valets, cooks, and other service people who work behind the scenes to make everything work right and take everyday burdens off the President's and First Lady's backs. Staff explain how they serve hundreds at parties, cope with Presidential quirks, move the new President and family in and out during the inauguration, supply flowers and cake and cheese sandwiches and gingerbread houses, and cope with disasters like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11.
I might have liked this book more had I not read all the preceding books about the White House, including J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House, Lillian Rogers Parks' Backstairs at the White House, Traphes Bryant's Dog Days at the White House, and the recent book about the 1948 White House gut after Margaret Truman's piano leg came through the floor. Brower borrows liberally from all, interspersing interviews with current employees, and although she emphasizes that the White House staff does not gossip about their families, they certainly talked enough that you learn a lot about recent problems, like Bill and Hilary Clinton's arguments during the Lewinsky affair (I would have thrown more than a lamp at him, thank you) and early signs of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. There are fun stories, too, like Barbara Bush teasing her staff.
It's an easy read, and you may enjoy the behind-the-scenes look if you haven't read any other books about the White House. I really didn't learn anything I didn't know before about the Presidents and their spouses: Nancy Reagan was controlling, Lady Bird couldn't make Lyndon mind and he wasn't adverse to meeting people while sitting on the toilet, Kennedy and Clinton had affairs, etc.
Listening, Kate Seredy
I first knew Seredy in elementary school with her classic books about a Hungarian childhood, The Good Master and The Singing Tree. Over the years I have also fallen in love with her brilliant Chestry Oak and adore The Open Gate. I had long seen this book in her bibliography and when an affordable copy turned up, I picked it up.
It's a darling story, but I wonder who it was meant to appeal to. I'm not seeing children really enjoying this, even 1930s children. It's the story of Gail, a little girl visiting her New Jersey relatives for a week; while she discovers the joy of canoeing with her boy cousins and helps them fix up an old mill, her uncle, an artist, tells her the story of the old rambling house the family lives in, the oldest part which goes back to the Dutch settlers in the 1600s and includes an encounter with George Washington. Plus there are the animals: a mischievous dog, three cats, and the woods animals she discovers with the family. But the book really has no plot and no suspense except for Gail's discoveries while she's visiting. There's a funny sequence when the book opens where the town is thrown into a tizzy when Gail arrives on the bus (the place is so small the bus never stops there), but you never see the townspeople again, except one by reference at the end.
The drawings, as always, are wonderful, but none of the characters is really memorable. Seredy touches on themes she introduced in The Good Master and which re-occur in her books: the nobility of farmers, the beauty of animals, families and children working hard but having fun and receiving rewards doing so. I'm glad I bought it for my collection, but you could easily just borrow from a library.