Sunday, November 19, 2017

Re-reading in general, and Laurie R. King's books in particular

I've always been a re-reader - compulsively so as a child, with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nancy Drew. I think a lot of kids are, they like the familiarity of stories heard again and again. (I remember one Christmas when I must have read a particular Berenstain Bears book to my niece at least twenty times.) One of the criteria I use in deciding whether to keep a book is if I think I'll re-read it. There are books I've kept, only to realize that years have passed and I've never looked at them again. Then there are the books that I re-read every year (if not more frequently).

The other day I was in Murder by the Book, looking for a particular author. They didn't have what I wanted, but wandering around the store I saw Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense, by Laurie R. King. The biggest section of the book is from the title, a journal that Mary Russell began keeping in August 1914. It covers not just the outbreak of the Great War but her last months with her family in San Francisco, before their deaths in a car crash and her voyage to England - where she met Sherlock Holmes, as she describes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. I remember when the journal was appearing on Laurie King's website, but I didn't follow it at the time. Seeing this book reminded me of how long it's been since I've read any of the Russell and Holmes stories.

I enjoyed Russell's diary, learning more about her family and her background. Reading it made me think of Locked Rooms, one of my favorites in the Russell-Holmes series. In that book Russell returns ten years later to San Francisco, with Holmes, to finally face the loss of her family. Reading it again also reminded me of Laurie King's series set in San Francisco, police procedurals centered on Inspector Kate Martinelli. The last book in that series, The Art of Detection, has a link to Locked Rooms, and I wanted to read it again. But I couldn't just jump into the last of a five-book series, so I've been re-reading my way through that series as well. It's been about 10 years since I last read these books, and I only remembered some major plot points.

I also went back to Murder by the Book for the latest in the Russell-Holmes series, The Murder of Mary Russell, which I haven't yet read.

This meandering through Laurie King's books has gotten me thinking about why I re-read. With the Martinelli series, it's for the characters. Laurie King once said at a book signing that she thought Kate was a bit boring. That surprised me, because I like Kate a lot. I enjoy reading about her, her work, her life partner Lee and her work partner Al. I enjoy the cases she and Al solve, but for me they're secondary to the people. It's the same with Amelia and Emerson in Elizabeth Peters' long-running series. I enjoy the mysteries and the Egyptology, but I'm there for the Emersons and their extended clan (including the cats). It's also true of Deborah Crombie's police series with Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. I mean no disrespect to the stories themselves, but they're not the main reason I read and re-read them. I would also put Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey, Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman, Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott, and Patricia Briggs's wolf-packs on that list.

There are many factors that make a book worth re-reading, to my mind. Dorothy Dunnett's are so rich and complex (and occasionally confounding) that even after multiple re-readings I feel like I still see things I missed before. With Anthony Trollope, there is that wonderful authorial voice weaving his intricate stories together. With some authors, it's the story itself - Agatha Christie, and I think J.K. Rowling.

I know there are many people who don't re-read books. I remember my mom telling me me once that she didn't understand how I could read the same story more than once. With limited time and other resources, some people prefer new books, new stories, new people. Reading as I do largely by whim, I read both old and new. Sometimes though, like now, I am drawn back to old literary friends. And I'm thinking I might re-read Folly next - I think it's Laurie King's best book.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bookish conversations

Last Saturday I joined the celebrations of International Dorothy Dunnett Day. Around the world, people gathered at 1 PM (their local time) to celebrate Lady Dunnett, her books, and the unforgettable characters that she created. I had a celebratory lunch with two other Houston Dunnett readers, one of whom was the very first Dunnett reader I ever met, 20 years ago, when I had just discovered (and fallen into literary love with) Francis Crawford and the Lymond Chronicles. (The other was the generous friend who took me and my three cats in when we became Harvey refugees, also a fellow Janeite and Heyerite.)

It's been a good while since I had the chance to talk about Dorothy Dunnett - about her different series, the characters who feel so fully alive, about the friends I've made and the places I've visited because of her books, about meeting Dorothy Dunnett herself. I've missed that kind of immersive book talk. I've also missed the bookish conversations in blogging. Writing here can be a monologue, my chance to talk about what I'm reading, the books I'm discovering (or rediscovering), the ones I'm adding to the (still growing) TBR stacks. It's with the comments that it becomes a conversation, and I mean to get back to visiting and commenting. I've missed those discussions as well, and the suggestions that keep adding to the TBR shelves. I should check my blog roll as well, I think some people have moved house and I need to catch up with them.

I've missed this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Another Marvelous Thing, by Laurie Colwin

I am late to discovering Laurie Colwin's books, though I have seen references to them on many of my favorite blogs. I'd even read one of her essays in an anthology on cooking. But it was only last year that I finally read Home Cooking. About half-way through my library copy, I ordered my own copy, one of her novels, and this book of interconnected short stories.

I knew that they were about a couple having an affair. The back cover blurb told me that the two are "a tough-minded and tenderhearted woman and an urbane, old-fashioned older man [who] fall in love despite their differences, get married, and give birth to a child." This is just not true. I don't think whoever wrote this blurb actually read the stories - or maybe just read the first story and made an assumption about what happened next. Not knowing that it wasn't true, I read the stories with certain expectations and assumptions of my own - so I was a bit puzzled by where they were actually going, and the last two took me completely by surprise. It was the oddest reading experience I've had a long time.

There will be spoilers - actually accurate ones - below.

The first story, narrated by Frank, is an account of his affair with Billy, whom he refers to as "my mistress." (Billy occasionally refers to him as "my mistress" as well.) I've only just realized that this first story is the only one told in the first person. While we get other stories and sections of stories from Billy's point of view, it is always in the third person. So it is Frank's voice, Frank's account, which we hear first, and (more than I realized at the time) I measured the stories that followed against his point of view. It's clearer to me now, thinking back, that Billy is unhappy in the affair, though she is strongly drawn to Frank. Since from the false blurb I was expecting a happy ending, I thought that her scruples, her real love for her husband Grey, her sadness and weariness, were merely obstacles along the way to a truer love. Billy tries to break things off with Frank several times. When she does so again, in the fifth story, "Swan Song," I figured as Frank does that they "would part and rejoin, over and over, into the future." So (with that false blurb in mind), it was quite a surprise two stories later to find Billy in the hospital, about to give birth to her child with Grey. I knew at that point that Billy wouldn't leave her husband. I had to check the back cover again, because I thought maybe I had mis-read the blurb.

Truly, I feel like I need to read the whole book again, now that I understand what really happens.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it - I did, very much, even in my confusion. Laurie Colwin has such an elegant but easy narrative voice, and a wry sense of humor. I found Billy a very appealing character, one I appreciated more as my understanding of her changed, from seeing her through Frank's eyes to seeing her in herself. I took to Frank at once, seduced by that first story. But by the end of the book, I was glad to see the back of him.

I still have Happy All the Time on the TBR shelves, as well as More Home Cooking. I'm sure I'll be adding more of Laurie Colwin's books. I still have a Barnes & Noble gift card tucked away somewhere.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz

I knew Anthony Horowitz through his TV series long before I discovered he writes books as well. I fell in love with "Foyle's War" (and Michael Kitchen) at the very first episode. And I was a fan of "Midsomer Murders" without realizing he created that series as well. I began noticing references to his children's books, and then his mysteries, but it was Jane's review of this book over on Beyond Eden Rock that really caught my attention. I just had to wait for the US edition, which finally came out this month.

This fat satisfying book is actually two in one cover (and over 450pp long). It begins with an unnamed woman sitting down to read a manuscript, "number nine in the much-loved and world-bestselling Atticus Pünd series." She is the editor for its author, Alex Conway. We learn a little about this woman's life, about her boyfriend, where she lives, what books she likes, that she smokes. Then suddenly her narrative takes a dramatic turn:
     This book changed my life. . .
     But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live in Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I've managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I'd never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard Alan Conway. I hadn't liked him from the day I'd met him although the strange thing is that I've always loved his books. As far as I'm concerned, you can't beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn't seen it from the start.
     That was what I was expecting when I began. But Magpie Murders wasn't like that. It wasn't like that at all.
     I hope I don't need to spell it out any more. Unlike me, you have been warned.
Well, that certainly got my attention. I immediately agreed with our narrator about the joys of reading mysteries. And I couldn't resist that last sentence: I wanted to know what happened next.

The story then shifts to the manuscript she is reading. Magpie Murders is a mystery in the classic Golden Age style. Set in a small village, it opens with a funeral. The deceased seems to have died an in an accident, but then another death follows that is clearly murder, and a particularly gruesome one. The famous private detective Atticus Pünd comes down to assist the police with their inquiries.

I was quite caught up in that story, and like our narrator I was taken aback when it came to an abrupt end. She realizes that part of the manuscript is missing. While she is mulling over that, and over the story, she hears on the news that Alan Conway has died. At this point she introduces herself as Susan Ryeland. She then begins to try and track down the missing chapters. Along the way, she begins to wonder about the author's death, which has been classified a suicide.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I am amazed at Anthony Horowitz's cleverness. He must love mystery stories as much as Susan does. There are references and citations from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and more modern authors as well (not to mention Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders). I was tickled to see that Ian Rankin blurbed Alan Conway's books! Actually, I found the Atticus Pünd story even more interesting that Susan's investigations. It felt like a real book, not just something cobbled together to hang the larger story on. And there are references to, and even quotations from, the earlier books in the series, which really piqued my interest. If Mr. Horowitz ever wanted to write a Pünd story, I would certainly read it. In the meantime, I will be looking for his other books.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Thunder at the Gates, by Douglas R. Egerton

Several years ago, I read One Gallant Rush, the book that inspired the film "Glory." It is an account of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African American soldiers organized in the North to fight in the Civil War. Written in 1965, it focused primarily on the regiment's first commander, Robert Gould Shaw, a "Boston Brahmin"; and on the regiment's doomed attack on Fort Wagner, outside Charleston Harbor, which left Shaw and 34 of his men dead. There was little information on the soldiers themselves, even their names. This book, subtitled "The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America," gives them their due and more.

It is actually the story of three black regiments raised in Massachusetts: the 54th and 55th Infantry, and the 5th Calvary. There is still some debate about which exactly was the first regiment of infantry, but the war-time governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, was determined the first cavalry regiment would be from his state. African Americans had tried to enlist from the very beginning of the war, but Abraham Lincoln's army wouldn't accept them (though the navy did). Union General Benjamin Butler began recruiting blacks as laborers in the areas he commanded. Many of them were slaves escaping to Union lines, and he declared them "contraband of war." Federal commanders in the South, occupying the Confederate states, followed suit. Eventually some began arming these groups of men. John Andrew lobbied the administration for months to allow him to raise a regiment of "persons of African descent, organized into special corps." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the administration finally agreed. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry would be the first. Other black regiments followed, organized into the "United States Colored Troops," under white officers for most of the war. Only after intense lobbying by the soldiers, their officers, and allies across the North were African Americans commissioned as regular officers. The first came from the Massachusetts regiments.

In this account, Douglas Egerton writes the history of these regiments through its soldiers and officers. He focuses on fourteen individuals, black and white. In the first chapter, "The Travelers," he introduces the soldiers, detailing their varied backgrounds. The 54h was made up primarily of men from the North, while the 55th and 5th Cavalry included more from the South, including escaped slaves. Among the enlisted men were two sons of Frederick Douglass. The second chapter, "The Brahmins," introduces the white officers. These included Charles Francis Adams, who commanded the 5th Cavalry; two Quaker brothers from Pennsylvania, Pen and Ned Hallowell, who would command the 54th and 55th; and two sons of William Lloyd Garrison.

Professor Egerton recounts the work organizing and training the troops. Many in the North doubted that African Americans could make good soldiers, and the soldiers faced racism in the Army itself. The Confederate government announced that all black soldiers captured would be "returned to slavery," regardless of their actual status. The officers leading the black regiments, if captured, faced execution for inciting "servile rebellion," or more accurately for the crime of leading black soldiers against the white south. Both the soldiers and the officers of the regiments knew that they were facing more than the usual hazards of war, and they took those risks willingly. There was no draft for the African American regiments, as there was for white soldiers. Every one of the more than 170,000 who served enlisted voluntarily. In the end they made up more than 10% of the total Union forces, a crucial boost to the manpower needed to win the long and brutal war.

I learned a lot from this book, which I found very moving as well as very informative. It places the story of these regiments in the larger context of the war, while still focusing on the individuals who fought. It takes their stories beyond the war, as the soldiers returned to civilian life. Many of them struggled, not just with the effects of the war, but also with the racism that still shaped (shapes) the United States. Professor Egerton also discusses the work of preserving the history of the regiments, which began soon after the war ended. At the same time, a movement to commemorate Robert Shaw, the 54th's original commander, led eventually to a bronze marker, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It shows Shaw on horseback among his men, and the back of the monument lists those who fell in battle with him. I've visited that monument in Boston several times (you can see it here). Reading this book has made me want to go back, and also to visit the site of Fort Wagner outside Charleston.

Reading this has also added to my TBR lists. Among the sources cited is the diary of Esther Hill Hawks, "a physician, a Northerner, a teacher, a school administrator, a suffragist, and an abolitionist . . . [who] went south to minister to black Union troops and newly freed slaves as both a teacher and a doctor" with her husband, also a physician. I don't know why I've never come across this amazing woman before. I'm fascinated by Victorian women who overcame all the obstacles to become doctors. I'm really looking forward to reading her diary.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A belated but very welcome arrival

Last year, a very generous friend gave me a Persephone book token for my birthday. I didn't redeem it right away, I wanted to gloat over it for a while, and to plan very carefully which books I would order. My mother used to say that money burned a hole in my pockets, and usually book gift cards do as well. But I hoarded this one for ages. Then suddenly, a couple of months ago, I decided it was time. After paging through The Persephone Biannually for two days, and changing my mind several times, I put my order in by email and settled down to wait. I waited and waited and waited. Every day (except Sunday) I came home thinking this would be the day that I'd find a package in my mail box, or outside my front door. But nothing. Finally, after about six weeks, I sent another email, asking if by chance my package had been returned. I heard nothing back - and still no package. I was just resigning myself to the loss of my books, when I opened the mailbox today to find three packages (and a pouch - more about that in a minute). There is no date on the packages, so I can't tell if they have just been lost somewhere in the British or United States mail systems. I am so very happy that they finally arrived safely.



If you can't tell from the picture, the books are first, Hostages to Fortune, by Elizabeth Cambridge, which I've been most anxious to read. Second is Because of the Lockwoods, by Dorothy Whipple. I had an awful time deciding between that one and the two volumes of her short stories, or They Knew Mr Knight. The third is A Lady and Her Husband, by Amber Reeves. That one went on my list as soon as I read about in the Biannually, because I collect stories about tea shops (the kind that serve tea).

I was so sad over the non-appearance of these books that I haven't had the heart to look at the most recent Biannually. Now I can sit down with it and start thinking about my next order.

As if the Persephones weren't enough riches for today, I also received another addition to my Patricia Wentworth addiction collection.



ABE Books managed to find me a fairly reasonable copy of this rare title. Ever since I read Jane's review on Beyond Eden Rock, I've been hoping to get my hands on a copy.

I just read one of the non-Silver books, Nothing Venture from 1932. (I have to trust Dean Street Press that it isn't really supposed to be Nothing Ventured.) The very masterful hero is named Jervis, and the whole time I was reading it I kept thinking of "Master Jervie," the very masterful hero of Jean Webster's classic Daddy-Long-Legs. I haven't read it in years, and after I finished it I went on to the sequel, Dear Enemy. It's been even longer since I read that one, and I had forgotten the frequent and approving references to eugenics.

I'm finding older books a welcome distraction these days. Last week I got a copy of Denis Mackail's Tales from Greenery Street through inter-library loan. Even ABE hasn't been able to find me a copy of that book, though they did find Ian and Felicity. All his stories of young married couples and their cooks-general made me think of Monica Dickens. I ended up re-reading One Pair of Hands, and then I went on to read The Winds of Heaven off the TBR shelves. It's been an interesting week of reading by association. Now though I think I'm going to sit down with Hostages to Fortune. And for the moment I can stop envying all the travelers back from London with their stacks of books, like Jenny of Reading the End and Jennifer from Holds Upon Happiness.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Touch and Go, by Patricia Wentworth

When I first came across the recent Dean Street Press reprints of Patricia Wentworth's books, I had no idea where to start. I have been collecting and enjoying her "Miss Silver" books for a couple of years now, without realizing that she wrote so many others without Miss Silver. From the helpful list in the front of the DSP books, I discovered there are three mini-series with different detectives, and a raft of standalone books. I'd hoped to collect the three featuring Miss Silver's frequent collaborators from Scotland Yard, her favorite Frank Abbott and his boss Ernest Lamb. But Murder by Book doesn't have those yet. So I decided to look at the books were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, since so many of my favorite Miss Silvers fall in those years. The DSP books helpfully include the publication date on the back cover.

Touch and Go was published in 1934, in the UK as Devil in the Dark. It isn't a mystery so much as a novel of suspense. Sarah Trent, a young woman of good family and no money, gets a place as companion to 17-year-old Lucilla Hildred, who has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash. Lucilla's father died in the Great War, as did his younger brother. The recent death of another uncle has left her the heiress to the Hildred property. Lucilla's guardians are worried about her, not least because she had to be taken away from her school, after mysteries fires kept breaking out in her room. Sarah meets her young charge when Lucilla falls down nearly under the wheels of Sarah's car. There have been other incidents - is Lucilla causing them? And why is a man named John Brown wandering around the grounds, supposedly painting the scenery - but what's his excuse in the middle of the night?

Sarah is one of Patricia Wentworth's independent and sassy heroines, and Lucilla is more than a match for her. I enjoyed watching them run rings around Lucilla's elderly guardian Aunt Marina Hildred - actually a cousin, as she will explain in great detail to anyone she can catch (I deal with enthusiastic family historians on a regular basis). And I knew that Patricia Wentworth is a fan of Charlotte M. Yonge's books, but I was still happily surprised when Lucilla of all people quoted from The Pillars of the House.

I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but I still peeked ahead to see if I was right. I was in the essentials but not in the details, which had a couple of nice twists I didn't see coming. I toss the term "favorite" around a lot with Patricia Wentworth's books, but this one went straight to the top of my list.