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Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
essays about book series, memories of books,
quotations, and anything else with a literary bent.
 

31 March 2017

Books Completed Since March 1

I looked with dismay at my "to be read" piles (there are eight officially, most up past my waist) and realized I was once again getting behind in my series mysteries. So this edition should be "mystery March" (with nonfiction creeping in, as I do have an ARC of Apollo 8—at least that is another "M" as in "moon"). (What I finally did was read mysteries with female leads, in honor of International Women's Month.)

book icon  When the Devil Drives, Caro Peacock
I bought the first three Liberty Lane mysteries (A  Foreign Affair, A Dangerous Affair, A Family Affair) when they came out, and then they quite simply seemed to disappear, and gave up looking for them after about a year of searching Amazon.com, thinking the author went on to other things. Last month I was offered a new book in the series on NetGalley. Surprised at it turning up after all this time (since 2011), I did some research and found out there were four other books in the series that had never turned up at Barnes & Noble. To be fair, I'm not sure they were even published in the US.

To catch you up, Liberty Lane is a single young lady living in London at the beginning of the Victorian era (Victoria had just taken the throne in the first book). She has taught music to support herself, but more often earns her money as a private inquiry agent, rooms with a middle-aged woman for propriety's sake, is close friends with Amos Legge, a farmer knowledgeable of good horses, who takes care of Liberty's final gift from her father, a beautiful racing mare named Esperanza ("Rancie"), and is at present taking care of a teen street waif named Tabby. In this outing, Liberty's looking at her dwindling funds when two business opportunities come up: a young man asks her to find his missing fiance and a man who is a compatriot of Benjamin Disraeli (whom Liberty met in her earliest adventure) asks her to softpedal the actions of a beautiful countess who's pursing a royal lover. Soon Liberty and Tabby (and eventually Amos) will be involved in the machinations of whomever is behind a legendary "devil's chariot" that plucks young women off the street never to be seen again.

I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoyed these books. There's a certain amount of modern woman about Liberty, but Peacock spreads her knowledge of early Victorian London like oils in a talented painter's hand, making Liberty's world come to life: the courtship of Queen Victoria by Prince Albert dotting the newspapers, rebellious broadsheets, the working class world vs. the aristocratic one, curiosities of old London. Both streetwise Tabby and rough-hewn Amos are as intriguing as Liberty, and both play large roles in the story. As Liberty's two cases become blurred together, it's obvious neither is what it seems.

These are just delightful historical mysteries with a lively, forthright protagonist. Enjoyable.

book icon  Falcon Wild, Terry Lynn Johnson
As a bird lover and a budgie fancier, I was drawn to the beautiful hawk on the cover of this book, but the description alone sounded intriguing. I found I was not disappointed.

Thirteen-year-old Karma dreams of becoming a falconer like her father. She and her brother Gavin have been homeschooled at her father's bird education center, and while she is eager to enter high school and have real friends like the ones she has read about in books, she's also socially awkward (I know just how she feels). But she feels right at home training birds of prey and has fallen in love with the gyrfalcon she helped nurse back to health. Unfortunately the bird's original handler has tracked her down and has asked that she be returned. A grieving Karma and Gavin accompany their father in returning Stark—but soon after the three give a sullen boy named Cooper a ride, their car goes off the road and is badly damaged, and their father is trapped inside their vehicle. While Gavin stays with his father, Karma hikes off to the road the GPS said was only two miles ahead.

Instead Karma ends up lost in the woods after the road never materializes, her only help Stark, who was freed accidentally from her cage by Gavin, and Cooper, who turns up to rescue Karma from a dangerous situation. In time, the three become a team, and Karma is thrilled when Stark learns to hunt for them. But still she worries...where is the road that showed up on the GPS? What will happen to her father?

This is a super survival story featuring a teenage protagonist who isn't a superstar athlete or even very sure of herself. As she struggles to survive she keeps her head and uses her wits, yet her insecurities are something every young person can understand. The text keeps moving at a brisk pace, making the danger real and immediate, while the beauty and danger of the wilderness around the teens are beautifully described, as is the falconing lifestyle and the birds themselves. You cannot help envying Karma for working with beautiful, independent raptors. In short, I loved this book.

book icon  Apollo 8, Jeffrey Kluger
What Kluger did for the powerful story of Apollo 13, he does again for the groundbreaking flight of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to leave "the surly bonds of Earth" and travel to another celestial body.

It is chiefly the story of Frank Borman, who originally partnered with James Lovell of Apollo 13 in the two-week record-setting Gemini flight in 1965. Borman was a West Point graduate who later flew at Edwards Air Force Base, at that time one of the cutting edge locations for military pilots. He gave up that life for astronaut training and made the news during the Gemini 6/7 dual mission. After the tragic launchpad fire that destroyed Apollo 1 and killed three astronauts, he was on the team that investigated the fire. And when the lunar module wasn't ready for its debut flight, Borman was the man who said yes to a trip to the moon for Christmas at the end of eventful and tragic 1968.

I've been a spaceflight geek since I watched the Apollo missions on our 19 inch black and white Magnavox television, and this book was tailor-made for me. After nearly fifty years of reading books about spaceflight (my first two were John Noble Wilford's We Reach the Moon and Richard Lewis' Appointment on the Moon), all the names were familiar, like a family reunion. If anything had changed, it was because I had read Hidden Figures a month earlier and it was now odd to see a chapter about Hampton Roads and not read about Dorothy Vernon and the rest of the mathematical ladies who kept the program going.

Enjoyed reading more details about the Gemini missions, about Chris Kraft, and about Borman's flight crew Bill Anders and Jim Lovell. If you've seen HBO's super miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and the episode "1968," this book provides the perfect companion to that story.

book icon  As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley
In this seventh book in the Flavia de Luce series, Flavia enters terra incognita—for her at least. After the events of the previous novel when the body of  her deceased mother was found and brought home, the precocious 12-year-old chemical genius is bundled off to Canada by an unpleasant couple to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, her mother's old school, to be initiated into the same mysterious society as both her mother and Aunt Felicity. She's no sooner put into a room at her new school when a classmate enters accidentally, just as the headmistress is doing a bed check. The girl hides up the chimney, but loses her grip and falls out—followed by the skeletal remains of a woman. While the body is whisked away, Flavia won't let it go; who is the dead woman and who killed her? And do her classmates—especially the girl who witnessed the body fall—know who it is?

This entry is sort of Flavia crossed with a boarding school story (although with this cast of characters the school is akin to St. Trinian's). There's a chemistry teacher who was acquitted of murder, a doctor with a mysterious death in the past, and students who have disappeared. While it's a fresh setting for Flavia, the total result is less than satisfying: there are too many characters wandering through the plot, and in the end it seems she's in Canada for no purpose except to solve yet another murder in a different venue. And, frankly, it's just not as much fun with Flavia being out of her natural element, so the ending came as rather a relief.

It's not a bad adventure, but if you loved Flavia in Bishop's Lacey, this may not be your cup of tea. 

book icon  Grace Cries Uncle, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's elderly employer Bennett Marshfield, owner of Marshfield Manor and heir to the family fortune, has suspected for years that Grace's mother was the daughter of his father by a liaison with her grandmother, a servant at Marshfield. Grace, curator of the museum/events venue that Marshfield has become, has come to like Bennett as a close friend and fears any change in their blood relationship will ruin that comforting friendship. However, she has finally consented to a DNA test. Which is when Grace's disreputable sister Liza—the one who seduced Grace's fiance away from her while their mother was dying—returns to the Wheaton home in Emberstowne, just after two rather sinister people have come looking for her.

Wow. Liza is just as much of an undisciplined, manipulative brat as Grace has always described her, and even Grace's grudging policemen friends, her roommates Bruce and Scott, her "bodyguard" Ronny Tooney, Bennett, and even Grace's assistant Frances at the manor are on to her at once. Why did Liza leave Grace's former intended, Eric? Who was the pushy woman asking if Grace could put her up while an antiquities convention was in town? Who's the redheaded woman who seems to be waiting for Grace at her roommates' wine shop? Why is Bennett, the consummate antiquities lover, not attending the convention? And why did the FBI agent who came to Grace's door turn up murdered in her neighbor's backyard?

This entry in the series has something going every minute, and Liza is as hissable as we've been led to believe. As in the previous book there is a suspenseful sequence in the final chapters of the book. Fans of Grace Wheaton will not be disappointed.

book icon  Murder on the Serpentine, Anne Perry
Thomas Pitt, head of Special Branch, is startled when summoned by Queen Victoria. He has met the monarch previously, but never been specifically called by her. He finds her worried about a man her son (the future king) is associating with on a matter of horses. One of her most trusted aides, Sir John Halberd, was investigating this man, but just recently he was found drowned in the Serpentine, the pond within Hyde Park, supposedly after falling out of a rowboat in the middle of the night. Most assume he died accidentally during an assignation. But he was supposed to speak with the Queen the next day about his suspicions.

With his most knowledgeable ally, Victor Narraway, away, Pitt must rely on his own instincts, with some help from radical M.P. Somerset Carslisle and his associate Stoker, and finally once again his wife Charlotte and her sister Emily are able to assist by tapping into women's gossip during afternoon calls, finding themselves among ladies who have secret fears and not-so-secret liaisons, including two women who were once associated with the Prince of Wales. This is a nice turn back to the type of investigations Pitt did when the series first started, among the wealthy, rather than the rather dull Special Branch investigations he was promoted into. Yet the newer novels do not quite have the magic than the original books did; the cases are not as urgent, the womens' contributions less, and while it was wonderful that Gracie Phipps and Sergeant Tellman found each other, the stories lost something without Gracie and Charlotte to team up.

The story is also more of a "how will they trip him up" than a whodunit, which becomes evident early on, so if you are expecting a mystery the latter, you may be disappointed. It is, however, interesting to see how Pitt finally manages the trap.

The biggest surprise is a development at the end of the book that marks a milestone in the lives of the Pitt family, and according to a note in the book, a new beginning to the story.

book icon  Marmee & Louisa, Eve LaPlante
I no sooner read something like Eden's Outcasts, which presents the mercurial Bronson Alcott in a slightly more favorable light than usual, than along comes a book like this one which reminds me what a total berk he was. True, Bronson had ideas ahead of his time about education, but he was also narcissistic, self-absorbed, and basically left the donkey work to his wife Abba May and his daughters, since he didn't want to take jobs that didn't allow him to use his "Gifts." Talk about special snowflakes! LaPlante's book takes a new look at Abigail May Alcott, early suffragist, abolitionist, and role model for Louisa, from her early days growing up with her beloved brother, who helped provide her with an education more fitted to a boy in those days. In fact, much of the early chapters of the book are devoted to Abba and her brother.

In these pages, Abba comes out of the shadow of her avatar, Little Women's Marmee, into her own. She was a proud, intelligent woman who was forced to work until her health almost broke, often needing to go begging to her family so that her children could eat, supporting a husband who was too good to work except at what he thought was "uplifting," like gardening. At one time they almost separated due to Bronson's friendship with a man who thought sexual relations between men and women "spoiled" men, forcing them to give up their ideals. Bronson even thought fair-haired people like himself were the chosen ones, and although he once admitted a child with "black blood" in one of his schools, he didn't believe in the abolitionist movement. (Not to mention that after Little Women met with success, Bronson used to mooch money from his daughter's publisher.)

You may think this book is mere Bronson-bashing, but personally I've wanted to bash him for years, long before Ms. LaPlante's excellent book. Very glad to read something positive about Abigail instead—and yes, she was not Miss Perfect, either—and learn about both factors that contributed to making Louisa May Alcott the woman she became.

book icon  The Adventuress, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Hargreaves' friend Jeremy Sheffield, the Duke of Bainbridge, the man everyone expected her to marry at one time, is engaged to be married to wealthy American heiress Amity Wells, and all of the bride's and groom's family and close friends have been invited to the wedding on the French Riviera, including Emily's close friends Margaret Michaels and Cécile du Lac, and two friends of Jeremy's, Chauncey Neville and Victor Fairchild. As the book opens, Emily is presented with the horrifying news that her old friend is dead! Instead it is Mr. Neville who has been found dead in Jeremy's bedroom. But who would kill such an unassuming man and why was he in Jeremy's room? In the meantime, Lady Emily is initially delighted at the sweet couple that Amity and Jeremy make; but soon someone seems to be going out of their way to play tricks that make it seem that she is jealous of the match instead.

As in two previous books, Emily and husband Colin's investigation into Neville's death is interspersed with narration from another, in this case the story of how Amity met Jeremy through his brother Jack while her family was in India. The big problem with this is that the alternating narratives give away the ending to the mystery much too early. It's pretty obvious who in the large party is the culprit by the time the book is halfway through. There's also an "action sequence" that makes Emily out to be quite a superwoman. A pity, because there are good clues as well, and a nice sense of place as the party tours the French countryside and flashbacks take us to India.

book icon  My Small Country Living, Jeanine McMullen
As I was about to leave the semi-annual library book sale, I wandered by the "Nature" section for one final look and came upon this volume. For some reason, lazy me, who is afraid of worms and has a bad back, loves to read stories about people who quit the big city and move out to backbreaking labor on a farm, and this was yet another one: an expatriot Australian who freelances for the BBC in London who falls in love with and buys a smallholding in Wales. I went to lunch after buying the books, and took this one into Panera with me to read. I was smitten from the first page in which she and her current boyfriend ("the Artist") go to interview a war veteran in Wales, and she describes how she found and bought her whippet.

This is not a sunny book about the beautiful countryside; disasters happen and her growing menagerie suffers losses. However, it's often hilarious, as when she talks about her finicky livestock, including a couple of crazy goats, a big draught horse, supercilious geese, and her beloved whippet Merlin. The prose ranges from poetical, as she describes the lush Welsh countryside, which sounds like a beautiful dream, to base, as she recounts the mess the farm was in when she bought it. We are introduced to some slightly daft and other more sensible neighbors, from an offbeat veterinarian to several helpful neighbors who take her under their wing, especially after the Artist decamps after another ladylove.

book icon  Malice at the Palace, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgina Rannoch is thirty-fifth in line for the British throne, more good than that does her: she has no money of her own and her own brother and sister-in-law can't afford to take her in. As the book opens, Georgie is taking refuge at her friend Belinda's flat when Belinda returns home unexpectedly. Her only alternative is going back to live with her brother—until she is summoned by her cousin Queen Mary. Would she like to live at Kensington Palace until the wedding of Prince George, showing his intended Princess Marina the city and taking her shopping? Georgie accepts at once, and is pretty much enjoying the task, until a young woman known in "fast" social circles for drug use and partying is found dead at one of the palace doors. Is someone trying to discredit the royal family

Bowen builds a story around the real-life antics of Prince George, who was known to party and like both sexes, and Princess Marina, who was brought forward to tame the frisky royal, and works other members of the royal family, like Queen Victoria's youngest daughter Beatrice and her sister Louise, into the story quite well. The setting is Kensington Palace, where Queen Victoria grew up, a location supposedly haunted by a ghost.

book icon  The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, Elaine Showalter
This book had such a good review in our local newspaper that I decided to pick it up although I wasn't particularly interested in Ms. Howe's life. I knew she had been married to Samuel Gridley Howe, who ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The book was quite revealing.

Julia was the pampered daughter of a banker who was treated as a princess until her mother died and her father began to eschew a wealthy lifestyle. Still, she was well-educated and in some cases learned subjects that were considered unsuitable for women, like chemistry. She fell in love at first sight with Howe, who was a handsome dashing man who rode fine horses who in his youth had fought for Greek independence, and became administrator of Perkins by the whim of another doctor. However, while her marriage to him brought her a loving family, he expected her to be a dutiful, obedient wife when she longed to see the world and write novels and poetry. Howe, whom she called "Chev" (for Chevalier), also was overly absorbed by his prize pupil Laura Bridgman (who in return was quite jealous of Julia monopolizing "the Doctor") and his good friend Charles Sumner (their relationship had homoerotic overtones).

19th Century observers saw them as a "golden couple," but the reality was much sadder: Julia's relationship with her husband was troubled and restrictive. When she publishes a book of poetry that is startlingly emotional rather than the flowery poetry usually written by women at that time, "Chev" assumes the relationship troubles are about him and it strains their relationship; his spending of her considerable fortune on wild schemes doesn't help. He turns one of her daughters against her, and, after his death, when Julia finally gets to spread her wings as a suffragist (something even her daughters found abhorrent), she was criticized by her own family. It's, sadly, a very typical portrait of how a bright, curious 19th century woman would be treated (although Julia herself was far from perfect).

book icon  The Wolfe Widow, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham has a good reason to give thanks this year: she has a solid job helping recluse book collector Vera Van Alst collect her rare volumes.

Until a stranger named Muriel Delgado barges into the house. Suddenly Jordan is dismissed and the locks are changed. Her Uncle Kevin and Vera's housekeeper Signora Panetone are allowed to stay to keep the house running, but soon Jordan gets word that Vera is being bullied by the Delgado woman and she is selling Vera's prized books from under her nose. Vera won't allow her into the house or even talk to her. She's not the easiest woman to work with, but suddenly Jordan is afraid for her. Her natural instinct would be to go to her best friends or her boyfriend the policeman for help, but since they're all away, she's just going to have to save Vera on her own, using the sneaky tactics learned from her slightly-less-than-honest uncles.

Enjoyed Jordan's investigation, although some of her antics were a bit over the top; she's learned to bluff from the best and gotten away with it. Uncle Kevin, who was a delight in the last book, seems to have regressed to total childhood in this one, and it's a bit unbelievable when he makes a friend who has talents that will aid Jordan (and that the friend is such a good sport). We do see a surprising revelation from Vera's past and find out she wasn't always the imperious martinet she is at present. Indeed, the reality of her relationship with Muriel is quite sad.

book icon  Rosemary & Thyme: And No Birds Sing, Brian Eastman (Rebecca Tope)
This is a novelization of the first episode of the three-series British mystery program about two middle-aged women, one a recently fired university professor and the other the now ex-wife of a police officer (a former policewoman herself), who have formed a gardening/landscaping business and restore old gardens. The story introduces how Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme meet after Laura's friend Sam dies while working for Rosemary's old student Daniel, who is now suffering from a painful skin condition.

In the best of novelizations, the author adds more situations that fit seamlessly into the original story, and this one is no exception. We see Nick Thyme give Laura the bad news and leave home, with Laura remaining stunned. Rosemary has a meeting with co-workers about their overbearing boss (who later fires them all) and then visits her mother, also an avid gardener, and we get to know her, and we see more of Laura's son Matthew and also meet her daughter Helena at Sam's funeral, and there's an additional subplot involving Daniel's gardening centers.

The author is stated as Rosemary & Thyme creator Brian Eastman, but the book was ghostwritten by author Rebecca Tope, who tossed an amusing in-joke into the early Rosemary scenes: one of her co-workers is named Tom and her mother is named Barbara, evidently Tope's tip of the hat to actress Felicity Kendal and her role in the classic Britcom The Good Life.

I'm a fan of the Rosemary & Thyme series and really wish they had done more, so it was a great delight to find a novelization that at least some more scenes in the lives of Ms. Boxer and Mrs. Thyme. Must hunt up the other two.

book icon  Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante, Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, former mathematician and very recently spy for the British government, accompanies her co-workers John Sterling and David Greene, traveling with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Washington, DC, after the horrifying bombing of the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor. They are looking forward to non-rationed food and water as much as sobered by the sight of Washington preparing for war. Soon after they arrive one of Eleanor Roosevelt's secretaries doesn't show up for work and Maggie accompanies the First Lady to the woman's apartment, only to find she has committed suicide—after having written a note that makes a shocking accusation about Mrs. Roosevelt.

In the meantime, the First Lady and an unconventional "colored" attorney are trying to save the life of Wendell Cotton, a black man accused of murder after defending himself from a white farmer, Maggie's German spy mother and her two fellow German prisoners of war are locked up in a British castle, and John Sterling gets an interesting job offer from the west coast of the US.

This story has as many arms as an octopus. MacNeal does a great job describing 1941 Washington and the White House and the injustices of Jim Crow, and by the end of the story you are hoping against hope that Wendell Cotton gets off. But it makes a mixed bag as a narrative as we go from jazz clubs to clandestine meetings of bigots to a stately home in Britain holding German prisoners to Maggie's father to a Hollywood movie studio. I am puzzled why MacNeal stole wholesale from Roald Dahl the story of the Gremlins; anyone who's read anything about Dahl, Disney, animation, etc. knows Dahl's Gremlin characters were almost brought to life by Disney. Why didn't she create a unique cartoon character for John to draw and present in Hollywood rather than handing over to him a real event that happened to someone else? And even though she gives us a sizable list of reference books she consulted, she still states that Missy LeHand (Roosevelt's secretary) was no longer in the role because she had a heart attack? All these reference books and she didn't know Missy had a stroke?

Not to mention that if David said "Jumping Jupiter" or "Heroic Hera" or "whatever Minerva" one more time I was going to slap him. Seriously? Maggie gave him Little Women for Christmas? Could one think of a more cliché gift for a gay man?

book icon  Death Comes to London, Catherine Lloyd
Lucy Harrington, the elder spinster daughter of the rector of Kurland St. Mary, is escorting her younger sister Anna to London for the social season, which means she will be leaving her job as secretary to Major Robert Kurland, whose life she saved in Lloyd's debut novel. Unfortunately an error Lucy has made has brought Kurland to the attention of King George IV, who wishes to make him a baronet. Kurland doesn't want the title, but one doesn't turn down the king, so he too journeys to London. Thus Kurland and Lucy are both at a party where a harpy dowager duchess collapses, and it is discovered she has been poisoned with arsenic, and first Kurland's ex-fiance and then Lucy's sister is implicated in her death. It seems neither Lucy nor Kurland can keep from being drawn into the investigation. But why was her older nephew also poisoned, and where is the younger brother?

Lloyd deftly crosses a Regency-type tale of the Season with a murder mystery in this next Kurland St. Mary offering, with what turns out to be a truly creepy storyline which includes a feud about jewels, a stillroom of herbs, and Kurland's old Army companion's scientific studies. Along the way, Lucy and the Major try to fight their growing attachment to each other, which is delightfully portrayed, two proud people not wanting to appear weak in front of each other (not to mention Kurland's unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing).

I literally did not want to put this book down; unfortunately I had to sleep!

book icon  The 13th Gift, Joanne Huist Smith

book icon  Keeping Bad Company, Caro Peacock
Mr. Benjamin Disraeli often asks Miss Liberty Lane, private inquiry agent, to help him expose miscreants in the government. She is about to expose a spy at a dinner party when a young man comes up to "rescue her." It turns out to be her brother Tom, back in England from his position working for the East India Company. A co-worker of his, a Mr. Griffiths, a man who "went native" in India and was criticized for it, is now being accused of stealing jewels that did not belong to him; he will be brought up on charges in London. Tom believes he is innocent, but Griffiths is stirring the waters by planning the publication of a pamphlet that shows how the British have abused the Indian people. Things look bad—and then get worse: Griffiths is murdered.

Liberty is also distracted by the fact that her young assistant Tabby has disappeared, and asked a friend to supply her with a sharp knife. She wonders if it is due to a case the two of them worked where a man was trying to poison his wife.

Despite the fact that Liberty seems to live very freely for a single woman of the time, I love these mysteries. Early Victorian London is very evocatively portrayed and I love Liberty's friendship with street urchin Tabby and groom Amos Legge, who takes care of Liberty's only inheritance from her late father, a beautiful racing mare. Much is going on in the novel besides the mystery of Griffiths' murder: there's a little bit of history about British/Indian relations, a subplot in which Tom intends to take his sister back to India and find her a husband, and even a slightly amusing bit where Liberty's friend Beattie plans an Indian dinner and makes all sorts of foreign dishes with no idea of how they are supposed to taste.

In the interim when I thought they weren't being written, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Liberty's world. Glad to be catching up!

book icon  A Woman Unknown, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton's partner John Sykes has brought her a new case: a man named Fitzpatrick seeking to know where his wife disappears to. She says she is visiting her sick mother, but he feels there is something wrong. In the meantime, Deirdre Fitzpatrick is earning money as a "woman unknown" in divorce cases: she pretends to be a man's mistress in order that his wife can sue him for adultery. But Deirdre is in for a shock when her next "client," Everett Runcie, the younger son of a minor peer, is dead in their shared bed the next morning.

As in all the Kate Shackleton mysteries, two different cases slowly become one as the clues are revealed. This one has a large cast of characters, including a famous singer, Runcie's American heiress wife and his cool blonde mistress, a noted sculptor, a talented photographer, a washed-up boxer, an efficient assistant with a troubled past, Deirdre's American-gangster brother. Brody manages to thread each one of these into a page-turner of a mystery where the clues build up to reveal more perplexities until the final conclusion. As always, Brody makes postwar (the Great War) England come alive: the small villages, the cities still a combination of motorcars and horse-drawn vehicles, past prejudices. I became interested enough in Kate's rare Jowett automobile to look it up and see what it might look like.

I appreciate the fact that Brody does not attempt to make her characters too "ahead of their time" and perfectly politically correct. Sykes is openly distrustful of the Fitzpatricks' Catholicism and even Kate herself is at a loss to deal with some Catholic customs. (They react less typically to a person revealed to be homosexual.) It also portrays the convoluted methods once necessary for a couple to obtain a divorce. And the mystery of Kate's husband's disappearance in the war is addressed near the conclusion. If there's anything irritating in this book, it's Kate's ex-beau the police officer. He's still clueless.

book icon  Listen, Slowly, Thanhhà Lại
When I was a kid, "Vietnam" was a bad word. It was a place where fathers, brothers, and cousins died. The experience was far worse for the native Vietnamese, driven from their homeland by war. Mai Le's grandmother and her children were some of those who fled to the United States, and Mai—Mia to her schoolfriends—has grown up only peripherally understanding the hardships they endured, having been protected by her physician father and attorney mother. She's looking forward to a summer vacation on the beach with her best friend until her parents guilt/force her into accompanying her grandmother back to Vietnam, where a detective has possibly discovered the last person to talk to her grandfather, a political prisoner. Mai is by turns resentful, depressed, and bored in a place she has no emotional ties to—or so she thinks.

This is a wonderful book, as we discover Mai's heritage by her side, eating some of her Vietnamese favorites and discovering new treats, enduring the steamy countryside, learning new customs and how to get along with her odd cousin Út, who buzz-cut her hair and has a pet frog. At first she is the typical self-absorbed pre-teen, in a hurry to get home to her friend and the boy she has a crush on, but as the mystery surrounding her grandfather deepens, she realizes her own concerns are trivial next to the drama in her past. Lại, a Vietnamese native, brings her homeland to vivid life; Vietnam is practically another character in the story as she describes the humid climate, the countryside where Mai is living and the frantic rush of life in the city with scooters and motorcycles zipping around crossing paths with old motorcars and even animal-drawn carts. At times humorous, and at other times sad, with a lump-in-the-throat conclusion, this is a book that shouldn't be missed.

book icon  Borrowing Death, Cathy Pegau
Charlotte Brody has settled into her job of writing stories and editorials for the Cordova, Alaska, newspaper and is spending her first winter in America's "Last Frontier." One evening as she is working late, she and the town deputy notice that the local hardware store is on fire. If this isn't disaster enough, the owner of the hardware store is later found inside the burned building—and he was dead before the fire started. It's soon after that Charlotte finds that an important black box is missing from the store—and that, yet again, more of her neighbors are not what they seem.

Again, I'm on the fence about this series. I like having a determined suffragette in a post-World War I Alaska, and I enjoy certain relationships, especially the one between Charlotte and Brigit, the madam of the local brothel. I like the growing romantic relationship between Charlotte and deputy James, but I felt the romance started too early as much as I like the fact that it's not adversarial as is so cliché. But, damn, she has no finesse; she's a terrible interviewer and asks too many blunt questions. How the heck did she ever manage in New York? Not to mention she thinks it's okay to break into someone's home in pursuit of a story! And the modernisms that burst into the text are maddening. Someone said "It's not my thing" and I flinched.

The worst parts of these books are when Charlotte preaches. Yes, we know she's for votes for women, birth control, girls continuing her education, and women having careers, and doesn't believe in Prohibition, but she seems to make speeches (or think thoughts) about them ad infinitum. Sometimes it's like one big lecture. Show, don't preach. The mystery is middling, and I thought the perpetrator perpetuated a stereotype.

book icon  Death Takes Priority, Jean Flowers
In this first "postmistress" mystery, we meet Cassie Miller, who's moved back to her old home town of North Ashcot, in western Massachusetts near the New York State line, having worked for the Post Office in Boston for many years. Now she is taking over the job of postmaster from retiring Ben Gentry. At the same time that she discovers that the town's phone books (remember them?) have been stolen, she's invited to lunch by the handsome new owner of the town's antique store, only to have him arrested as they're eating. Apparently his name was written on a note found on the body of a dead man.

I picked this up because it takes place in New England and wasn't sure if I initially liked Cassie, but when she admitted she couldn't balance an equation in chemistry class, I knew we were kindred spirits. 😉 It's a quick read, and I suspected some things way before Cassie did (why Wanda was bothering her, for instance, because there's a big fat clue several pages before the reveal), but Flowers hasn't populated her little Massachusetts town with quaint Yankees or been drawn into the cozy mystery clichè of the gorgeous protagonist or, even more tiresome, the plain-Jane protagonist with the drop-drop gorgeous best friend who works nearby as the owner of her own business with a cutesy-poo name, so I just enjoyed the characters and went with the flow and the neat trivia about working for the post office. Nothing extraordinary about the writing or the story, but a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Oh, and apparently it is now the custom to put a cat (or occasionally a small cute dog) on the cover of modern-day cozy mysteries. There's a cat on this one, but there's no cat in the story.

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10 March 2017

"You'll Come a Book-saling, Matilda, With Me..."

Yeah, it's that time of year again. Showed up at 8:45 to join the line, behind a white-haired woman and a family group: grandma, son and daughter (one of them the in-law), and a cute three-year-old boy. Chatted with them until the doors opened.

(When I was in the children's book area, I was delighted to see one little boy so absolutely excited about the books. He looked about six or seven, but he could rattle off all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books he had read and the ones they needed!)

Now, I'd put my foot down with myself last night. No books I don't need. No oversize books.

Which I guess might have been all right had the Book Gods not thrown this big beautiful coffee table book about Colonial Williamsburg in front of me. After that, I was gone.

I was specifically looking for some things today, like copies of books in my series that I can't afford in hardback and that usually come out in trade paperback. I really wanted to find a copy of the new Molly Murphy mystery at the sale, since neither Amazon or Barnes & Noble has it discounted in paperback (probably quarreling with the publisher). I can get it from either Hamilton Books or Amazon Marketplace much cheaper (in hardback), but what a coup if I could find it for $1.50.

No such luck. Nor with the newest Tasha Alexander, although all the previous books were there, if I keep reading them after the newest in paperback, which is not taking my fancy at all, even if she put in a reference to Amelia Peabody. Or Mercedes Lackey's A Study in Sable. I did find the newest Victoria Thompson book, Murder in Morningside Heights, however, brand new, and can cross that off my "buy when it comes in paperback" list.

The rest of the loot:

book icon  Colonial Williamsburg, Philip Kopper with photography by Langdon Clay (this book is so big I can barely heft it; and it's not just a picture book, either, but has substantial text)

book icon  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett (another huge one with color illustrations)

book icon  After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century, Barbara Clark Smith (follows four families including an African-American one)

book icon  The First Year of Reminisce (yeah, before "Reader's Digest" got ahold of it and turned it into all white space and ads)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover (modern homesteaders in Minnesota)

book icon  Janie's Freedom, Callie Smith Grant (a "sisters at heart" book about an African-American girl after the end of slavery)

book icon  The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson (that's WWI; it's fiction)

book icon  Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976, E.B. White (been hoping to find this at the book sale, because it's overpriced for just excerpts of White's essays)

book icon  Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber (this is one of her fiction books; not sure I'll like it because it's chick lit, which is not usually my thing, but wanted to try one—I always wish for more Stillmeadow, but I have all she wrote)

And a few things for the Christmas collection:

book icon  Once Upon a Christmas, a collection of short stories by Pearl S. Buck

book icon  Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck (a collection of vintage 19th-early 20th century ornaments like Dresdens and kugels and cotton batting figures, and figural lights)

book icon  Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday, edited by Philip Reed Rulon (collection of Christmas stories)

book icon  The Book of Festival Holidays, Marguerite Ickis (which covers the whole year, from the 1960s)

I also seem to have bought a Happy Hollisters book that I already had, but I didn't have my list with me, and this one does, miracle of miracles, have a cover.

Plus I bought a book I hope to give as a gift, to turn someone into a raging fan like I am. ☺

Incidentally, the next sale is not only not on Columbus Day week as always, but will not be at Jim Miller Park. Instead it will be at the remodeled Civic Center. We haven't been there for years. Still miss the computer sales, although the last couple of years of them it was mostly junk.

[Went back 3/11: got Sue Townsend's last Adrian Mole book, a book for James about World War II aviators called Dauntless Helldivers, a book I was pretty sure I already had but was afraid I didn't (I did, it goes into the box for McKay's), the first book in the "Tuckers" series because the copy I had was scribbled all over by the previous owner, and a book I found just as I was leaving, A Small Country Living, about a transplanted Australian living in London who buys a smallholding in Wales. I started it at lunch because I had nothing else to read, and have been enthralled all day.]

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