31 March 2022

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Sorry for the Dead, Nicola Upson
This eighth in the Josephine Tey mystery series was my first for Women's History month and tells a sad history indeed. Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh) is reimagined in Upson's mysteries as a playwright and later author who also solves mysteries. The book opens in 1948 basically with the conclusion of the story and then flashes back to 1938, where a nasty gossip-columnist type makes insinuations that Tey was involved in a murder in 1915. Then it further flashes back to 1915, when, during the first World War, Tey was sent to a horticultural college where young women are trying to make up for the absence of men on the homefront by becoming more self-sufficient in growing food for the British populace. However, one of the young women Tey is overseeing, a spoiled young rich girl, dies mysteriously in the greenhouse. Although the two women who own the college were cleared, there has always been resentment and hatred toward them because of suspicions they were lovers.

The 1938 portion of the novel takes place at the time the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour was raising eyebrows for its discussion of lesbianism, and the bulk of the novel is more a damning social commentary about how "deviant" behaviors were treated in 1915. The women running the college are continually harassed, even though there is no proof of their "behavior" except the accusation from the girl who died. There is a sequence where one of the women is treated shamefully and something horrible done to her personally. It's more a psychological study of hatred of those "different" than a murder mystery until the final few chapters.

Slow-moving but telling throughout, and we learn something of Josephine's early life and how she met her good friend Detective Inspector Archie Penrose.

book icon  Notes from the Underwire, Quinn Cummings
Remember cute little Lucy from The Good-bye Girl? And smart little Annie Cooper on Family? For a while you couldn't go anywhere in media without seeing cute little Quinn Cummings—and then she grew up, gave up acting, became a mom, and decided to write hilarious books.

Think of Erma Bombeck in Hollywood and you've got Cummings' funny journey through the absurdities of her life, including running into a door at her daughter's art class location, her inevitable duels with her smart-as-a-whip child Alice (who at one point asks her mother to get her a cow's heart to dissect), the time she house-sat for a woman and was rewarded with being invited to her birthday party (only to turn out to be the "child-star guest entertainment" at the party), her adventures being a talent agent (including with an actor who didn't seem to want to act), the cat who catches all manner of small creatures and brings them home and the dog who doesn't want to be touched, and more. I laughed aloud through most of this book, except for the one serious chapter called "Dog Days" where she talks about Ursula, a rescue dog.

You also learn a lot about life behind the scenes in crazy Hollywood. Tempted to buy her other two books!

book icon  The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, Mercedes Lackey
Well, now I'm disappointed again. First I got exasperated at Lackey's oh-so-obvious parody of Donald Trump in Eye Spy, and then the first of her "Founding of Valdemar" books was so good, and now this, the next in her Elemental Masters series, about Annie Oakley on tour in Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, showed such promise. It opens with a basis in truth: Annie Oakley, then Annie Moses, was farmed out as a servant to a couple who abused and starved her. In Lackey's version, the couple are actually werwolves and the Alpha Male has a sinister future planned for Annie, but with some magical help, she escapes.

Fast forward: Annie and her supportive husband, Frank Butler, are now the big stars of Buffalo Bill's show. In winter quarters in Germany, just before Christmas, Annie meets Frida, who is also a sharpshooter, but with a bow, and her American husband Jack. They are also Elemental Masters who tell Annie she has magic and so does Frank. During the course of the winter Annie and Frank begin learning magic under the tutelage of Frida and Jack, and even hunt with the supernatural Hunters on Christmas Eve. Finally, the wild west show is back on the road, but Annie must receive her final tutelage of being an Air Master to defend herself from the werwolves.

This story builds and builds with endless description of the clockwork precision of how the Wild West show travels, the beautiful castle and decor of Frida's friends Theo and Sofia (she likes Art Nouveau, which we are told endlessly), the wonderful Christmas market, etc. And there are a few exciting scenes of the Hunters hunting demons on the town streets at night. But there's finally a moment were Annie has to receive her final training and she can't get it, so she gets it in an alternative way. Then she gets kidnapped by the big bad.

The whole climax that the story has been building toward is resolved basically in four pages. What? I expected her to meet this great enemy from her childhood which we've been told is terrifying and has some hold on Annie, and that she would have to fight the enemy off for five or six chapters. There might be some physical or psychological torture involved. Instead she does a basic bit of magic that was taught to her at the beginning of her training and...whap! story over! What happened? Did Lackey get bored and just decide to end it, or reach her page limit and decide she didn't want to get rid of the descriptions, so she got rid of Annie struggling against her enemy instead? I was waiting for a big payoff and instead it was pretty much solved by a finger snap. Really disappointed.

book icon  What Abigail Did That Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
This is technically a re-read because I first read it when I got my first or second COVID vaccine in 2020 as an e-book. But I don't remember e-book plots unless I review them immediately (like the book above); it's like e-book print slides by my eyes. This novella takes place in Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" universe at the same time as the novel Foxglove Summer. While apprentice wizard Peter Grant is in the country involved in a fey kidnapping, his neighbor Abigail Kamara meets an offbeat kid named Simon who lets her know that teenagers are disappearing in the area of Hampstead Heath and then returning with no memory of where they have been. It's here Abigail gets involved with the foxes Indigo and Sugar Niner (as part of her esoteric powers, she can speak to foxes), who help her with the mystery of the missing teens, which involves Simon's mum (a government type), the crazy Cat Lady on the Heath, and a house under renovation that happens to be a genius loci.

Abigail narrates in a lot of slang which is duly translated, and it's magic from a different perspective than Peter's, which I found interesting, but many people did not. She's a precocious kid with street smarts and a terminally ill brother, gutsy as all hell, and a level head. The problem with the house is intriguing, and I enjoyed this "side visit" to Peter's world.

book icon  Fatal Fried Rice, Vivien Chien
Lana Lee runs Ho-Lee Noodle House, the family business, in Cleveland's Asia Village, and, despite her earlier misgivings, does the job well. But the one thing she's never learned to do well is cook, so, on the sly, she decides to take an adult learning course in cooking Chinese food. The first night goes well, until Lana returns to the school for the grocery list she forgot and finds her cooking instructor, Margo Han, dead on the floor, stabbed in the back. She and the janitor call the police, and find themselves suspected of the crime by Detective Bishop.

Of course Lana, who's already faced murder mysteries in the previous six books in the series, feels she needs to look into the crime, if nothing else to clear herself, so with the help of her best friend and roommate Megan Riley, her childhood friend Kimmy Tran, and even a little assistance from her police officer boyfriend Adam Trudeau, Lana starts discreetly asking questions; in the meantime a fellow classmate, Bridget Hastings, is also interested in the crime. Can Lana get Detective Bishop off her back? And what's with the mysterious photographs sent to Margo Han? Could she have been having an affair with whomever killed her?

Still wondering why Adam has started calling Lana "dollface," which is very noir, and, even worse, "woman." I'm almost starting to hope Ian Feng makes a play for her, because I'm starting to find Adam a little annoying. About average for this series, although the ending felt a little rushed.

book icon  Re-read: The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger
If I say "home ec" (or as it was called when I was in junior high, "homemaking"), what do you think? Me, it brings back mostly unhappy memories of dull cooking classes when we made "surprise muffins" (with jelly fillings) and disgusting pea-ham-and-cheese casseroles, and sewing classes where we made a pillow with an embroidered cover and an A-line skirt. But in Dreilinger's fascinating study of home economics, what we find are women who used home ec to not only break into scientific fields at a time when a woman was expected to be a wife and baby tender, but to make solid contributions to American life (like devising healthy meals during the "wheatless, meatless days" during World War I and rationing during World War II).

Catharine Beecher is first noted as a prototype for the trailblazing home economists; the spinster sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and brother of the rock-star-like preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Catharine was as highly educated as her brother and became a teacher, writing the bestselling A Treatise on Domestic Economy, not just how to cook and clean house, but how keeping a good home led to a  successful life. Her two spiritual descendants were white Ellen H. Swallow Richards, an ambitious New England girl who could talk literature, milk cows, and keep house, and—well, talk about the people who get excised from history: I've heard from childhood about Booker T. Washington and his efforts to advance racial equality; I had never heard about his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, who was the first Black home economist, and all the effort she put into making life better for the African-American woman, despite barriers thrown at her left and right. I found myself inspired by this seemingly indomitable woman.

Sadly, Richards and her comrades never integrated to join forces with Washington and her followers; together they would have been an awesome organization. Others followed in their footsteps: Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer, soulmates from the beginning; Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who graduated college (gasp! and she was even pretty!) with a home ec degree and after her husband's death became a noted industrial advisor; Annie Dewey, whose husband was Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System; Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, who, as the only Spanish-speaking member of the organization was sent to the American southwest; and Mollie and Russell Smart, who enjoyed true professional and domestic equality in their marriage but still persisted in writing "the party line" about women as homemakers. These are only a few of the great people you'll meet in this narrative.

By the way, for God's sake don't think of this as a "woman's book." My husband is currently reading it and is enjoying it as much as I did, and I can almost hear him rolling his eyes at the old-fashioned sentiments quoted by the professionals of the times, like college professors saying women didn't have enough brain power to complete a typical college curriculum, or personnel departments not wanting to hire women because "they had no control of their emotions during their menstrual periods." An absolutely fabulous sociological read!

book icon  A Sunlit Weapon, Jacqueline Winspear
In the newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Jo Hardy, an ATA (women's air transport) who found a black American flyer tied up in a barn and is afraid the man will be blamed for the death of his white companion who disappeared is advised to consult with Maisie for his sake.

Happily married to American agent Mark Scott for a year, Maisie still runs her investigative agency as well as cares for her adopted daughter Anna, who lives near her grandparents in Kent. But the case with the black American soldier, who worked with the white flyer on a nearby Kent farm, coincides with Anna having troubles at school due to the color of her skin. Maisie soon becomes concerned for the soldier as well, knowing the conditions under which black Americans live. When she finds a message in the barn that looks like code, Mark is suddenly drawn into the mystery.

This newest Dobbs is a satisfying mixture of World War II domestic troubles, the usual complicated Maisie mystery, and several subjects that have been covered in one of the Maggie Hope mysteries, including the bigotry of the time, Eleanor Roosevelt's travels, and female air transport pilots.

book icon  The Royal Diaries: Victoria, May Blossom of Britannia, Anna Kirwan
In real life, Queen Victoria was an avid diarist who began writing journals at the age of thirteen; in this fictionalized diary, we see Victoria at ages ten through twelve, writing in a diary that is essentially an old account book of cows in the royal herd. From babyhood, Victoria has had no privacy—her mother sleeps with her, she is surrounded by servants—and the diary is the only place she can record her private thoughts, including the hatred she has for Sir John Conroy, who seems to have a hold on her widowed mother, the former wife of the deceased Duke of Kent, son of King George III.

The story has us see the frustration of young Victoria as she is put through a tiresome plan of education called "the Kensington System" to prepare her for possibly becoming the monarch someday, and how she misses her half-sister Feodora, who moved to Germany following her wedding, and of the pleasures of being a princess that are tempered much by rules, regulations, and her education. She can't even go barefoot or play with other children as she likes, and must put up with Toire, Sir John's stoolpigeon daughter, as her only playmate.

The story is very ambling as it attempts to tell of the strict education of a princess, even though some shocking things are revealed to her (her uncle's illegitimate children, Conroy's possible physical abuse of Victoria's mother). Enjoyable but not unforgettable.