Friday, September 30, 2011

Traveling rough in 1873

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella Bird

Reading about the travels of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson in The Sisters of Sinai reminded me of Isabella Bird and her travels.  Many years ago a friend gave me a copy of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, saying, "Oh, you have to read this."  I never did get around to reading it, but I remembered the author's name when I came across it in a book I've mentioned before, Sue Shepherd's book on food history, Pickled, Potted and Canned.  That led me to read Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, and to dig out my copy of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Born in Yorkshire in 1831, Isabella Bird developed health problems early in her life, including a spinal tumor at age 18 that was successfully but painfully removed.  Her doctor advised her to travel for her health.  For many Victoria women, this meant a visit to a European spa town, or a winter in Italy.  Isabella Bird would travel the world for the next fifty years.  Her last trip, at age 70, was to Morocco.

Her first trip abroad was to Canada and the United States in 1854, an account of which was published two years later as The Englishwoman in America  (I posted about it back in February).  In 1872 she set off on an extended voyage that took her to Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands, and finally to the United States.  Landing in San Francisco in September of 1873, she immediately set off for Colorado. She spent  four months exploring the Rocky Mountains, primarily in Colorado, before heading east to sail home to England.  Like several of her other books, A Lady's Life is a collection of the letters she wrote home to her sister Henrietta.  I didn't realize that this book follows directly after the account of her Hawaiian adventure, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, which I have on the TBR pile.  If I had, I might have read it first, since Bird frequently referred to Hawaii.

I can't help but wonder if the title of this book was meant ironically, because Isabella Bird's life in those four months was anything but "ladylike" according to Victorian standards, even for a middle-aged woman of forty-two.  She spent those months riding around northern Colorado, covering more than 800 square miles.  She sometimes had guides, including an infamous one-eyed outlaw named "Mountain Jim," whom she discovered to be a man of education and culture, ruined by drink and the violence of the frontier, who became a good friend and traveling companion.  At other times Bird set off alone, riding astride in trousers under her long skirt, with only the vaguest of directions, trusting to find shelter in scattered settlers' cabins, often caught in the extremes of winter weather, including blizzards.  I'm not sure she realized how fortunate she was to come safely through all that she did.  Due to a wide-spread financial crisis, she was unable to cash her equivalent of traveler's checks, and when her money ran out she was forced to spend almost a month living in a snow-bound cabin in Estes Park, with two hunters wintering there, with whom she cheerfully shared cooking and cleaning duties, as well as minding the stock.

Bird was completely captivated by the gorgeous scenery of Colorado, devoting many pages of her letters to describing the majesty of the mountains.  "Jim" took her with two male tourists on an expedition to Long's Peak, and with the help of the men she climbed (and was dragged) to the top.  She was equally interested in the people that she met, though many of them were rough settlers, uncomfortable with tourists.  As in her 1854 trip, Bird still met hostility toward England, which I understand better after reading Amanda Foreman's book on Britain and the American Civil War.  It seems that wherever she went, Bird met friends and acquaintances, and she also made friends easily.  She was a good listener, and she took a share in whatever work there was to be done.  She went out of her way to help those in need, including nursing the sick and caring for children.  She seems to have taken everything in stride; the difficulties and privations she faced counted for nothing compared with the glorious mountains.

I found the Isabella Bird of 1873 much better company than the 1854 version, and now I'm greatly looking forward to Six Months in the Sandwich Islands.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An unusual mix of airplanes and religion

Round the Bend, Nevil Shute

This book wasn't part of the Nevil Shute library loot that I posted about last month; it has actually been sitting on the TBR pile for several years now.  But adding the new books to the TBR pile reminded me of this one, and when I was at something of a loose end after finishing The Sisters of Sinai, I picked it up.

Round the Bend was originally published in 1951, and the copy I have is a Heinemann reprint from 1969, a hardback.  I hadn't noticed that the dust jacket says nothing about the book; there is no blurb or synopsis, only four brief review quotes.  I can't think the last time I started a book knowing almost nothing about it.

As I read, though, I began to get the feeling that I had read this before.  Perhaps I did, in one of my previous Nevil Shute reading binges.  Or perhaps that feeling of déjà lu came from the book's subject matter, because this is one of Shute's mystical books, like In the Wet and An Old Captivity, stories of reincarnation.  Round the Bend is a story about religion, and the unlikely Teacher who proclaims it.

Because this is Nevil Shute, it's also a story about airplanes.  The narrator is Tom Cutter, who as a boy in Southampton in the 1930s falls in love with airplanes.  From a working-class background, he secures an apprenticeship in the industry, training first as an engineer and then as a pilot.  When the war comes, his firm sends him to Egypt to run their repair operations, and he spends several years traveling around the Middle East.  He returns there, to Bahrain, after the war and the disastrous end of his brief marriage.  With a single plane, he establishes an air transport company, serving the booming oil industry.

His company is unique in that he employs native pilots, engineers and ground crews.  This is in part because his years in the Middle East have taught him a tolerance unusual for a man of his time and background.  He can see beyond stereotypes, and while not entirely free of prejudice himself, he rejects the unthinking racism of his contemporaries.  But his inclusiveness has a practical aspect as well: employing Arabs and Asians makes good business sense for someone hoping to do business in the Middle East and Asia, and their salary scales are lower than he would have to pay European recruits.

On a layover in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), Tom meets an old friend from his early flying days, Constantine Shaklin, whom he recruits for his new company.  As a teenager, Connie was fascinated by religion, attending services in mosques, temples, and churches.  The son of a Chinese father and Russian mother, he has returned to the Far East and continued his study of religion, particularly Buddhism.  In Bahrain, Tom is somewhat startled to find Connie preaching in the airplane hangars, as the men work.  Many of the group are Muslim, and Connie's teachings are put in Muslim terms, but he is preaching a gospel of work and accountability, a religion of engineering and maintenance:
"With every piece of work you do, with every nut you tighten down, with every filter that you clean or every tappet that you set, pause at each stage and turn to Mecca, and fold your hands, and humbly ask the All-Seeing God to put into your heart the knowledge whether the work that you have done has been good or ill . . . So that if the work is good you may proceed in peace, and if it is ill you may do it over again, or come to me and I will help you to do well before God."
Connie's workplace homilies begin to draw large crowds, not just from the company, but men from the neighboring city, and even beyond.  When he travels with Tom in the course of business, he is met at the airports by large crowds, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, waiting to hear him speak.  While his Chief Engineer is becoming The Teacher, Tom is still trying to build his business, and the story is divided between the growth of this new faith and of the business.  In this second aspect, it reminded me of Ruined City and A Town Like Alice.  Nevil Shute started his own airplane firm in the 1930s, and he must have drawn on that experience in writing this book.  The details of the business, especially the different types of planes that Tom buys and the cargoes they carry, while typical of his books, can be a bit overwhelming.

The faith that Connie is preaching seems to echo the ancient Benedictine spirituality of "work is prayer, and prayer is work."  I found the spiritual part of the story less compelling than the business side, which takes Tom's company into Pakistan, India, Siam, Singapore, Indochina, and even to Australia, at a time of rising tension between European colonizers and native peoples seeking autonomy.  I was unreasonably irritated by the eventual fates of two major characters, and I found the ending of the story rather unsatisfying.  But on the whole this is an interesting and unusual book, reminding me again that there is a variety to Nevil Shute's books that defies easy classification.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the track of ancient manuscripts

The Sisters of Sinai, Janet Soskice

I learned about this book from a review by Teresa on Shelf Love, and I immediately went looking for a copy.  The subtitle is "How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels."  The "lady adventurers" were twin sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson.  The "hidden gospels" that Agnes Smith Lewis discovered in an Egyptian monastery in 1892 are among the earliest known copies in existence, dating from the second century.  But the "how" that connects the two is more than just an account of a trip to Egypt in 1892.

Janet Soskice has written a biography of these two women that places their extraordinary discovery in the context of their extraordinary lives, tracing the people and the events that prepared them for that trip.  And their story doesn't end with the trip.  In part because male scholars tried to downplay the sisters' role and exclude them from editing the manuscript, they immersed themselves in the study of ancient languages and biblical scholarship.  Though they lacked formal academic qualifications, Agnes and Margaret published the first edition of the manuscript in 1894, scooping the scholars.  As their studies progressed, they became acknowledged experts in ancient manuscripts and  "Oriental" studies (a term then encompassing ancient Egypt and Palestine).  They went on to track other manuscripts, some of which they edited and published through the Cambridge University press.  Among the most stunning finds was a trove of 40,000 documents retrieved from the 10th century Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, "the richest archive of medieval Jewish materials in existence."

Born in a small town in western Scotland in 1843, the sisters lost their mother when they were two weeks old.  They were raised by their father, who gave them an education and an independence that for the time was more suited to boys than girls.  They were also born into a Presbyterian faith that strongly influenced every aspect and action of their long lives, including their search for biblical truth in ancient manuscripts.  From their father they learned a love of languages and of travel; for each new language they learned, their reward was a trip to that country.  When their father died suddenly in 1866, leaving them the fortune he had inherited, the twins sought solace in travel.  Their trip would not be to familiar European countries, but to Egypt and Palestine.  Agnes and Margaret joined other notable Victorian women travelers like Amelia Edwards and their fellow Scot, Isabella Bird, and like them the sisters would publish accounts of their travels.

In between later trips, the sisters lived first in London and then in Cambridge.  Both married in their 40s, but both lost their husbands after only a few years of marriage.  As with their father's death, travel proved a distraction from grief.  It was after Agnes's husband died that the sisters set out on their momentous trip to the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai desert, whose famous library had already yielded a stunning 4th century Greek Bible, the oldest and most complete found to date.  Agnes and Margaret had become interested in questions of biblical scholarship, as new scientific discoveries led some scholars to question the Bible's authorship, provenance, and authority.  Though their Presbyterian faith was rooted in the Bible, unlike many of their contemporaries the sisters could explore these questions in the abstract, with their faith unshaken.

This book works on several different levels, all of them rewarding.  One level is the biography of the sisters, and Soskice makes them live for the reader.  They were women of such character, though not always easy to live with - or travel with, for that matter.  Another level is the scholarship.  Soskice places their discovery in the context of 19th century biblical and historical studies.  She carefully tracks the different manuscripts of the Scriptures that appeared, and she cogently explains the developments in biblical studies and the arguments that ensued.  I found this part of the story very informative and easy to follow.

The book can also be read as a history of travel in the 19th century.  I was reminded not just of Isabella Bird, but also of a favorite fictional traveler, Amelia Peabody Emerson, an Egyptologist modeled on the real Amelia Edwards.  The six visits the sisters made to the Monastery of St. Catherine also reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett.  The monastery plays an important role in The Unicorn Hunt, part of her House of Niccolo series.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Murder in medieval Japan

The Masuda Affair, I.J. Parker

I came across this in the "new book" bins at the library, and the cover caught my eye.  Standing there, I opened the book, and from the first paragraph I wanted to know what happened next:
"He was on his homeward journey when he found the boy. At the time, caught in the depth of hopelessness and grief, he did not understand the significance of their meeting.  Sugawara Akitada, a member of the privileged class and moderately successful in the service of the emperor, was barely in the middle of his life and already sick of it . . . when his young son died during that spring's smallpox epidemic, he found no solace . . . as if the man he once was had departed with the smoke from his son's funeral pyre . . ."
I learned from the jacket that the story is set in 11th century Japan, and that it is the seventh book in a series featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official in the Ministry of Justice in the capital of Heian-Kyo (modern Kyoto).  Normally I like to start a series in the beginning, but in this case I found the character of Akitada, and the setting, so intriguing, that I wanted to read it immediately.  After a week of Victorian England, I was also very much in the mood for something completely different.

Riding through a stretch of lonely forest at dusk, on the eve of the feast of O-bon, when the spirits of the dead return to their homes, Akitada hears a child weeping.  For a moment he thinks the small figure he sees could be his son Yori, but he soon realizes that it is no ghost but a child, lost, hungry, and in rags.  Akitada takes the child to a near-by town, feeds him, buys him new clothes and toys, and finds solace in feeling like a father again.  He is later devastated when two peasants appear out of nowhere and accuse him of kidnapping their son.  He cannot believe the child is really theirs, so in part to defend himself he begins to investigate the child's background.  He learns that there may be a connection through a famous courtesan, Peony, to the local lord's family, the Masudas.  According to the townsfolk, Peony drowned herself after the young Lord Masuda's death, though there are rumors that his death was not a natural one.  Returning to his home in the capital, Akitada discovers other connections to a powerful lord, Fujiwara Sadanori, who was also once Peony's patron. 

Though his investigation is completely unofficial, through it he begins to find his way back to life after his son's death.  It also helps him break down the barriers that loss has left between his wife Tamako and himself, and with the members of his household.  This being the seventh book, clearly there is a lot of history in these relationships, which gives the story an emotional depth. I want to know more about these people, especially Akitada and Tamako, and I'm looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

I know very little about the history of Japan in this period, though when I was a child, one of my favorite books was One Hundred Eight Bells, a story of a girl growing up in Toyko in the post-war period.  (I was thrilled to find my own copy a few years ago, though the internet.)  The author includes a "Historical Note" at the end, which gives some context and additional information.  Though this is a historical novel, the setting is only sketched in, as a framework for the strong characterizations and the twists of the plot.  This is not a "ye olde tymes" book, and because of my own lack of knowledge about Japan's past, I would not have known the time-frame of the story, if not for the jacket blurb.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I already have the first book in the series from the library.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mistress of Charlecote

Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Alice Fairfax-Lucy, ed.

I came across this the other night at Half Price Books  (I am constantly and happily surprised at the variety of books that turn up there).  The cover blurb sold me on this book:
"Mary Elizabeth Williams, an heiress from North Wales, was only twenty when in 1823 she reluctantly married George Lucy and became mistress of Charlecote Old Hall in Warwickshire.  Sixty years later she wrote this engaging account of her life for her grandchildren . . . [which] provides an authentic view of life in fashionable 19th-century society."
I had never heard of the Lucy family before, or of their home at Charlecote.  They came to England with William the Conqueror and acquired the Charlecote property, which is listed in the Domesday Book, in the early 1200s.  The great house was built in 1558, just in time to host Queen Elizabeth.  Now a National Trust property, it has a literary claim to fame in a legend that a boy from near-by Stratford, William Shakespeare, was caught poaching a deer in the Charlecote grounds.  Rather than face the local magistrate, Sir Thomas Lucy, he fled to London.  He later took his revenge on Sir Thomas by writing him into The Merry Wives of Windsor as "Justice Shallow."

Many years a widow, Mary Elizabeth Lucy began writing her memoirs while recovering from bronchitis, with the "fancy it will amuse me to write, and perhaps one day it will amuse my grandchildren to read, my reminiscences of when I was young."   In addition to her memories, she also includes entries from diaries she apparently kept at the time, and the last part of the book consists mostly of journal entries.  The memoirs were edited by  Alice Fairfax-Lucy, who married Mary Elizabeth Lucy's great-grandson and lived at Charlecote herself for many years.  Alice frequently interrupts the narrative with commentary or explanation, or worst of all foreshadowing, which I found distracting and sometimes annoying.  Yet there is no explanation of how the memoirs were edited.  I would like to know what if any cuts were made, and also what happened to the earlier diaries.  They may have been lost when Mary Elizabeth's daughter-in-law ordered the burning of the family archives, "inventories, letters, medieval charters, and title deeds spanning four hundred years."  The archival treasures that were lost!  Luckily the memoirs escaped the fire because they lay forgotten in Mary Elizabeth's old sitting room.

Despite the looming presence of the editor, Mary Elizabeth's personality comes through so clearly in this account of her life.  Reading it, I was reminded of Memoirs of a Highland Lady, by Elizabeth Grant, and also of The Autobiography of Margret Oliphant.  Born in 1803, Mary Elizabeth might have been a Jane Austen heroine.  She spent an idyllic childhood in Flintshire, in North Wales, with Hester Thrale Piozzi and the Ladies of Llangollen as neighbors.  Growing into the beauty of the family, she received offers of marriage before she was officially out, twice from men her older sisters had hoped to marry.  She herself fell in love with a younger son, whose father forbid the marriage.  Her own father forced her to accept an offer of marriage from George Lucy, fourteen years her senior, despite her tearful pleadings.  Overwhelmed by it all, she fainted at the altar after the exchange of vows.  But she came to love her husband, and their marriage was happy, despite the loss of two of their children in infancy.  Three more children would die as young adults, each loss devastating their mother.  Like Margaret Oliphant, she writes with great feeling about a mother's grief over her child's death. Perhaps because of her strong faith and trust in God, her grief feels less searing than Oliphant's, which almost takes your breath away even 150 years later.

Mixed in with the sadness in this story, though, is a great deal of fun.  The Lucys moved in high society, both in the country and in London, where they often stayed.  Mary Elizabeth describes lavish gowns and jewelry, balls and Drawing Rooms, country-house visits, and frequent encounters with Royalty.  She was especially taken with Princess Mary, the Duchess of Teck, who kindly introduced her to the Princess of Wales.  At the same time, Mary Elizabeth is often busy at Charlecote, which required a lot of upkeep and expensive renovations. Her biggest project was razing the old Saxon church in Charlecote Park to build a new one.  Though she cried over the loss of the church with
"that old family pew with its large oak desk around which we had all knelt together, then in the plain ancient Norman font all our children had been christened. Before that altar we had together received 'the bread of life,' and the old church bell had rung its remorseless toll four different times . . . for my beloved husband and three beloved sons,"
yet at her wish "it fell to the ground and there was not one stone left upon another."

Despite my quibbles with the editing, I did enjoy this book and the company of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, in part because she enjoyed her life so much.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Girl on the Boat

The Girl on the Boat, P.G. Wodehouse

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that as wonderful as P.G. Wodehouse is, not all his books are created equal.  For me, The Girl on the Boat isn't one of his best.  All the Wodehouse elements are there, but they don't quite come together.

The plot - well, it's tough to do justice to a Wodehouse plot!  This one revolves around two cousins, Eustace Hignett and Sam Marlowe. Eustace is the son of Mrs Horace Hignett, "the world-famous writer on Theosophy" who has come to America on a lecture tour. 
"About this time there was a good deal of suffering in the United States, for nearly every boat that arrived from England was bringing a fresh swarm of British lecturers to the country. Novelists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and plain, ordinary bores; some herd instinct seemed to affect them all simultaneously . . .  on this one point the intellectuals of Great Britain were single-minded, that there was ready money to be picked up on the lecture-platforms of America, and that they might just as well grab it as the next person  . . .  [Mrs Hignett] was halfway across the Atlantic with a complete itinerary booked, before ninety per cent of the poets and philosophers had finished sorting out their clean collars and getting their photographs taken for the passports."
After that marvelous introduction, I had high hopes of Mrs Hignett, but she soon disappears from the story.  In the first chapter, learning that Eustace is to be married that afternoon to a young woman of whom she does not approve, she takes steps to stop the wedding.  Eustace and Sam then sail for England.

Sailing on the same ship is Eustace's jilted fiancée, Billie.  Despite the presence of her second string suitor, Bream Mortimer, she and Sam fall in love.  They quickly become engaged, but she dumps Sam after he and Eustace muff an appearance at the ship's concert, because she can only love the strong, noble type, a Lancelot or Galahad.  Meanwhile her friend Jane Hubbard, "a splendid specimen of bronzed, strapping womanhood . . . a thoroughly wholesome, manly girl," retiring from life as a big-game hunter, has fallen in love with Eustace.  She wants to settle down with "some gentle clinging man who would put his hand in mine and tell me all his poor little troubles and let me pet and comfort him and bring the smiles back to his face." 

After the ship docks in England, the story follows Sam as he attempts to win Billie back by various complicated stratagems and ruses, all of which fall apart in typical Wodehouse ways.  The story moves between London and the Hignetts' country home, Windles. Eustace has rented the home to Billie's father, with the proviso that he will remain in residence, so that he can be close to Jane.  Adding to the crowd, and the complications, Mortimer and his father are also staying there, in hopes of winning Billie back himself.

This book definitely has its moments of Wodehouse joy, and I'm glad to have read it, but to my mind it can't compare with Uncle Dynamite or Big Money or Leave It To Psmith.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A final volume of royal letters

Beloved Mama: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the German Crown Princess, 1878-1885, Roger Fulford, ed.

This completes my self-imposed challenge of reading through the five volumes of published letters between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter.  I am wondering now, though, why this is the last volume of letters published, when both women lived until 1901, presumably writing to the end.  Beloved Mama was published in 1981, and Roger Fulford, the editor, died in 1983.  Perhaps no one else wanted to take on the tremendous effort of deciphering and transcribing the letters?  Apparently Queen Victoria's handwriting was a particular challenge, as was her habit of slipping in German words.  I do see, though, that the Folio Society has a new one-volume compilation of this correspondence, including letters up to 1901.  I may look for a copy of their book at some point, because I feel like I've been left hanging in 1885.

I said in my post about the fourth volume (covering 1871-1878) that I thought it was a very sad book, with many disagreements between mother and daughter, leading to snappy responses and hurt silences.  This final volume feels much less sad, though it chronicles many tragic events, including the deaths of two of the Queen's children.  Her second daughter Alice died in 1878, on the anniversary of Prince Albert's death and shortly after the death of her own daughter Marie.  The Queen's youngest son Leopold died in in 1884, leaving an infant daughter and an expectant wife.  At the time of his death, the Queen was still mourning the loss of her beloved servant John Brown in 1883, and though her children sympathized, they did not share or even understand her devotion to him. The younger Victoria lost her favorite son, Waldemar, in 1879, and she found herself increasingly alienated from her oldest son, Prince William (the future Kaiser Wilhelm), and from her other children.  It is difficult to understand why from these letters, which are in many cases only excerpts and of course present her side of the story, but the Crown Princess freely expresses her hurt and confusion to her mother.  At the same time she remains alienated from the Prussian court, with strongly liberal ideas that are unwelcome in Berlin.  I feel that I need a biography of the Crown Princess to fully understand her life, especially in the years after 1885.

After spending so much time reading these very frank letters, written over so many years, I do feel that in a small way I have gotten to know these two women, behind the public facades of Queen and Princess, as well as having an eye-witness view of some of the major events of English and Prussian history in the 1800s.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A soldier's last request

A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd

I have never read anything by this author before, or I should say authors, since "Charles Todd" is a mother & son writing team, Caroline and Charles Todd.  I was at a "Mystery Author Luncheon" the other day, naturally hosted by Murder by the Book.  I didn't know anyone else at the table where I was seated, but we all fell into an easy conversation about books that lasted through the luncheon, an exchange of reviews and recommendations, and a constant refrain of "Have you read this?"  It was such a treat for me, because I rarely get to talk books with such enthusiastic readers.

Charles Todd was one of the names that came highly recommended.  I found out later that they have written a series of twelve books featuring a Great War veteran who resumes his career at Scotland Yard after demobilisation.  They have a second series whose main character, Bess Crawford, is a nurse in the war.  I've become interested in reading about World War I from fictional accounts of the war's effects like Laurie R. King's Folly and Justice Hall, and particularly after reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Since I'd recently read Helen Dore Boylston's account of war nursing in France, "Sister", I decided to try the first Bess Crawford mystery, A Duty to the Dead.

The story opens in November of 1916, with Bess traveling on a hospital ship to collect wounded soldiers.  The ship is the Britannic, which strikes a mine and sinks in the seas off Greece.  Despite a badly-broken arm, Bess makes it into a lifeboat, is rescued, and returns to England to recuperate.  There she finally faces a promise she made to a dying soldier, Arthur Graham, to give his brother an intriguing message: "Tell my brother Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother's sake. But it has to be set right."  When Bess travels to Kent to meet the Graham family and fulfill her duty to the dead, she stumbles into family secrets, including an older brother confined in an asylum for murder.  She is compelled to learn more about the family, and to try to unravel Arthur's last words.

Every character in the book is touched by the war, but the story has less to do with the war itself than I expected.  The mystery kept me guessing (wrongly, as usual) and turning the pages to find out what happened next.  Though her background is only sketched in, Bess is an interesting character and good company.  I'll be interested to see where the next book in the series takes her (a third has just been published).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Death on the river

No Mark Upon Her, Deborah Crombie

It has been a long wait for this book, the 14th in her series featuring police detectives Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James.  The last book, Necessary as Blood, was published in September 2009.  It will be an even longer wait for the American edition of this new book, which won't be released until February 2012.  I was going to be good and wait for it, until I saw an email from Murder by the Book announcing that they had the U.K. edition for sale.  I was therefore able to buy local, support my favorite indie bookstore, and still get to read the book six months earlier than expected - a winning situation all around.  From the comments I've seen on Deborah Crombie's blog, quite a few U.S. readers already have the book.  I hope that her American publishers take note of this.

I found this series a few years ago at the library.  I was wandering through the mystery section, and the cover of Now May You Weep caught my eye.  I took it home and started reading it straight off.  Almost immediately I knew I wanted to read the earlier books (it is 9th in the series), which were luckily all in paperback by that point.  So I had the excitement of reading through the series, and then the impatience of waiting for the next book.

The series centers, in every way, on Duncan and Gemma.  They originally worked together at Scotland Yard, where Duncan is a Detective Superintendent and Gemma was his sergeant.  As their working relationship developed it became personal and complicated, in part because of the need to keep it secret.  Only when Gemma was promoted to inspector and moved to another assignment were they able to make the relationship public. Though they are now in different divisions, cases frequently bring them together professionally.  They both have sons from previous marriages, and in the last book they took in a foster child, part of the case they were working involving immigrants in London's East End.  Their personal life remains complicated, by past history and by their demanding jobs, but they have built a true partnership and a family.  They are both appealing, interesting characters, who feel very true to life.

No Mark Upon Her takes place in and around Henley, where rowers are training for the Olympic trials.  Among them is Becca Meredith, who goes out alone one evening in her scull and does not return.  It is only after her body is discovered and he has been assigned to the case that Duncan learns that she was also a fellow police officer.  Is her death related to her rowing, to her police work, or to her personal life?  When Duncan discovers that Becca had accused a senior officer of sexual assault, that the case was hushed up, but that there might be other victims, Gemma is drawn to investigate that angle, though unofficially since she is on family leave to care for their new daughter.  This is a complex story, with a large cast of characters and several red herrings, which builds to an explosive conclusion.  The ending of the book is a bit ambiguous, though, as Duncan prepares to take his turn on family leave, while Gemma is offered a promotion.  The next book should be an interesting one, and I'm already looking forward to it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Georgette Heyer's Regency World

Georgette Heyer's Regency World, Jennifer Kloester

Jennifer Kloester is a member of the Georgette Heyer listserv that I help manage, and we are eagerly awaiting the publication of her biography of Heyer later this year.  In researching it, she discovered new collections of Heyer's correspondence, and she was also given unparalleled access to the family's papers, including Heyer's famous research notebooks.  Georgette Heyer's Regency World, based on her doctoral dissertation, was originally published in Britain in 2005.  I was surprised and pleased to find a copy recently on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  After reading Lady of Quality with the listserv, I was in the mood for more Heyer, but rather than re-reading one of the novels, I sat down with this book.

As the author explains in her introduction,
"The aim of [this book] is to expand on Heyer's history and to provide for the modern reader an explanation of the people, places and events that made her Regency world so unforgettable . . . Everything in this book is inspired by a reference in at least one of Heyer's twenty-six Regency novels . . ."
The material is presented thematically, in chapters such as "At Home in Town and Country," "A Man's World," and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry."  There are frequent examples drawn from Heyer's books, and I found myself thinking of similar examples in Jane Austen's books.  The citations often reminded me of favorite parts of the different novels, or made me curious about the context of the citation.  So I kept setting the book down to pull one of the novels off the shelf, just to check something, but then of course I ended up drawn into the story again and reading much further than I intended. That slowed down my reading of Dr. Kloester's book, but it enriched my reading both of it and Heyer's books.

Also in the introduction, Dr. Kloester writes,
"For many years these books have beguiled my leisure hours, affording me enormous pleasure, but also giving me a great deal of useful information about the English Regency period.  I hadn't known just how much accurate and factual information there was in the novels until I came to research and write this book, and, although I had always been under the impression that Heyer was meticulous in her communication of the period, I hadn't appreciated the scope of her research, nor the degree to which she immersed herself in the Regency era."
Heyer was not of course writing history.  Her Regency world is her own.  As others have pointed out, for example, it is a world where religion plays a very small part.  But in creating her fictional world, Heyer still managed to ground it in reality.  Thanks to Dr. Kloester, I have an even deeper appreciation of Heyer's research and of her books, and I realize that I have learned more than I knew from her books.  This book will be an invaluable resource as I continue to enjoy her wonderful Regency world.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The enchanted garden

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim earlier this year, when I read The Enchanted April almost in one sitting.  As often happens with a new-to-me author, I then had a long list of her books to look forward to.  I've since gone on to read Christopher and Columbus and The Caravaners.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden is of course the first book that von Arnim published, in 1898, and it was a runaway best-seller, going through eleven printings that first year and ten more in 1899.  It is a diary of her life over the course of a year, living on her husband's estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania.  After some Google and Wikipedia research, I learned that Nassenheide is now called Rzędziny and sits on the border between Gernany and Poland (and that unfortunately nothing remains of the famous gardens).  After reading so much about Prussia in the letters of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess, it seemed a good time to read this.  Like the younger Victoria, Elizabeth left her home in England when she married an older man, moving with him to his Prussian home.  Like the Crown Princess, she was homesick for her family and England, she found Prussian society somewhat stifling, and she disliked living in Berlin.  On a visit to Nassenheide, she fell instantly in love with its 17th century schloss and its derelict gardens, and she persuaded her husband to live there at least part of the year.

When the book opens, Elizabeth is living there alone, supposedly supervising the renovations to the house, but actually spending her time in the garden, luxuriating not just in the beauties of nature but in her solitude, away from the cares of husband and children.  Thirty years before A Room of One's Own, I am sure many women reading her book envied her that time above everything.  I found myself wondering if the Crown Princess (by then the Dowager Empress) had ever read it and what she might have thought of it.

The book includes detailed descriptions of the gardens, what is planted, how it grows (or doesn't), what she would like to do, and the frustrations of directing the work, rather than getting her own hands in the dirt.  Only once does she manage it:
"If I could only dig and plant myself!  How much easier, besides being so fascinating . . . I did one warm Sunday in last year's April during the servants' dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea and run back very hot and guilty into the house and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation.  And why not?  It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business with the apple."
The diary entries also show us Elizabeth's husband, the famous "Man of Wrath" (who reminds me not a little of Baron von Ottringel of The Caravaners), her three charming daughters, "the babies,"  as well as neighbors, estate workers, and visitors.  Two visitors make an extended and not completely welcome stay over the Christmas holidays, and Elizabeth takes them on a winter picnic to the shores of the Baltic, a fourteen-mile drive in the snow and cold.  Though it is difficult to picnic under those conditions, the beauty of the scene makes up for all:
"For a long way out the sea was frozen, and then there was a deep blue line, and a cluster of motionless orange sails; at our feet a narrow strip of pale yellow sand; right and left the line of sparkling forest; and we ourselves standing in a world of white and diamond traceries.  The stillness of an eternal Sunday lay on the place like a benediction."
Like The Enchanted April, this is a book to treasure and to re-read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A fourth volume of royal letters

Darling Child: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia, 1871-1878,  Roger Fulford, ed.

I haven't signed on for any reading challenges yet (though RIP VI looks like fun), but I have set myself the goal of reading all five books in this series, which together span the years 1858-1885.  I posted about the third volume, covering the years 1865-1871, a week or so ago.

Of the four volumes I have read so far, I found this one the saddest.  As in previous years, the Crown Princess has an uncomfortable relationship with her husband's family, and she writes constantly of interference from her father-in-law, the Emperor, particularly with her sons.  The Crown Princess wants them brought up in English ways, and she resents and resists the traditions of Prussian society.  This naturally makes her no friends at court.  There are also conflicts with her mother-in-law the Empress, with Queen Victoria trying to act as peace-maker. The Crown Prince in these years is in much the same position as his brother-in-law, the Prince of Wales, standing for decades in the shadow of the throne, with no power and little influence. 

At the same time, the letters chronicle frequent disagreements between mother and daughter, in words that must have been difficult to read.  Where they used to discuss, now they seem quick to take offense.  Both complain constantly of being misunderstood and misinterpreted by the other.  Both express hurt feelings, and the Crown Princess in particular often retreats into silence.  They disagree over religion, books, and art.  They take different sides on the major political event of these years, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, and over Prussia and England's roles in peace negotiations.  The Queen accuses the Crown Princess of interfering in the marriages of her sons Alfred and Arthur, and her daughter Louise.  But a simple passing reference to a future marriage of her youngest daughter Beatrice enrages the Queen, who is determined to keep "Baby" single and at home. 

Discussions of the marriages among Europe's royal families lead to one of the Queen's favorite themes, a mother's sufferings when her daughter marries.  The Crown Princess takes up the same theme at the marriage of her oldest daughter Charlotte in 1878, the first of the Queen's grandchildren to marry: "with an aching heart [I] left her, no more mine now - to care for and watch and take care of but another's and this a hard wrench for a mother."

The letters are full of details about their health.  Queen Victoria frequently cites her illness, weakness, and exhaustion to explain why she must spend so much time in seclusion, especially at Balmoral, and why she cannot receive visits from the Crown Princess and her family (another source of hurt feelings for her daughter).  The Queen also reports regularly on the health of Prince Leopold, her youngest son, who suffered from hemophilia.  Her grandson Fritz of Hesse, the child of her daughter Alice, was also a hemophiliac, and he would die from internal bleeding after a fall in 1873. Yet Queen Victoria insists "This peculiarity of poor little Fritz, like Leopold's which is such a rare thing and not in the family . . ."  Of course it was in the family, and Fritz's sister Alix would later bring it to the Russian royal family.

In one exchange from 1874, the Crown Princess writes about the letters she has been collecting and keeping, and their eventual fate:
"I want your authorisation to burn all I have except dear Papa's letters! Every scrap that you have ever written - I have hoarded up, but the idea is dreadful to me that anyone else should read them or meddle with them in the event of my death.  Will you not burn all mine?  I should feel so much relieved."  (Feb. 28, 1874)
The Queen responds,
"I am not for burning them except any of a nature which affect any of the family painfully and which were of no real importance, and they should be destroyed at once. But all the papers and letters I have, are secured even as to my successor (excepting political ones). . . I am very much against destroying important letters, and I everyday see the necessity of reference."  (March 1874)

As both a reader and an archivist, I am glad that the Queen won that debate.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My introduction to George Eliot

Silas Marner, George Eliot

I have never read George Eliot before.  I am not sure how that happened, since my reading tends toward British literature.  We didn't read her in school, and I can't remember anyone ever recommending one of her novels to me.  At some point I bought a copy of Middlemarch, probably because I saw it on one of those "100 Classics Everyone Should Read" lists, but it has sat unread on the TBR shelves for many years now.  Somewhere I learned the names of some of her novels, and some vague ideas about the plots.

Then several things happened over the past few months to make me more aware of George Eliot, which also taught me more about her.  The first was reading Anthony Trollope's Autobiography.  In one chapter, "On English Novelists of the Present Day," he rates Eliot very highly, second only to William Thackery, though he writes frankly of what he sees as the faults in her books (which he does with Thackery and other novelists as well).  He also writes that "this gifted woman was among my dearest and most intimate friends."  Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography of Trollope gave me more information about the warm friendship between Trollope, Eliot, and George Henry Lewes.  Next came an essay by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker, "Middlemarch and Me," in which she makes a case for Eliot as a greater writer than Jane Austen.  My Janeite hackles rose in defense of Austen, but I realized I couldn't debate Mead's arguments if I'd never read Eliot.  Finally, I have seen posts about Eliot on various blogs, and in May I received a copy of The Mill on the Floss from a Shelf Love giveaway.

So with so many signs pointing to George Eliot, I at last took Middlemarch off the shelf, with some pretty high expectations.  From what I understood, it is considered her masterpiece, and one of the greatest 19th century novels.  I made it through three chapters before giving up.  It was partly the writing that defeated me.  Anthony Trollope had the same problem:
"It is, I think, the defect of George Eliot that she struggles too hard to do work that shall be excellent. She lacks ease. Latterly the signs of this have become conspicuous in her style, which has always been and is singularly correct, but which has become occasionally obscure from her too great desire to be pungent.  It is impossible not to feel the struggle, and that feeling begets a flavour of affectation. In Daniel Deronda . . . there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended."
What draws me to Trollope, and to my other favorite Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant, is partly the clarity of their language.  I have also found that in Charlotte M. Yonge, whom I read for the first time this year.

But I couldn't just dismiss Eliot, not after three chapters of a single book.  So I put Middlemarch back on the shelf to try again later, and I decided that I wanted to try Silas Marner instead, for the possibly frivolous reason that it is about an orphan and her devoted foster father. As I've mentioned before, I'm rather partial to orphan's stories, especially those that remind me of Rose and Uncle Alec in Eight Cousins, or Heidi and Uncle Alp  (yes, technically the old Uncle is her grandfather).

I found Silas Marner a compelling, suspenseful book, and I now appreciate why George Eliot is considered so great a writer.  Silas's story starts with his exile from his home after a false accusation of theft, continues through his many lonely years on the edges of the Raveloe community, to the loss of his hoarded earnings through thievery, and the arrival one snowy night of a tiny child, whose mother died of exposure not far from the door of his cottage.  The loss of the gold and the gain of his daughter change his life, save his life.  This is a resurrection story.  It has a parallel, or perhaps more correctly a mirror image, in the story of Godfrey Cass, the son of the village's Squire, with secrets he keeps buried deep.  There are many vividly-drawn characters in the village, such as my favorite Dolly Winthrop, always ready to help her neighbors, to nurse the sick and comfort the bereaved.  The scenes where she tries to instruct the old bachelor Silas in the care of his new daughter are both funny and touching, as is his distant memory of caring for his own baby sister.

Like Anthony Trollope with Daniel Deronda, I too found sentences that I had to read three times, sometimes out loud, in an attempt to understand them.  Sentences like
"The prevarication and white lies which a mind that keeps itself ambitiously pure is as uneasy under as a great artist under the false touches that no eye detects but his own, are worn as lightly as mere trimmings when once the actions have become a lie."
Unlike Trollope, though, I'm doubtful that "I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended."

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I read, David Carroll talks about Silas Marner as an experiment in legend or myth.  (I found his thesis a little hard to follow, partly because I was reading it late at night).  Whatever its origins, I enjoyed Silas Marner as a good story, and I am encouraged to try Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss - and maybe even Middlemarch again someday.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Georgette Heyer's last book

Lady of Quality, Georgette Heyer

The Georgette Heyer listserv I belong to is coming to the end of a multi-year chronological read-through of her published works, and for September we're reading Lady of Quality, the last novel that she published  (next month's My Lord John was published after her death).  This year I also read A Civil Contract and False Colours with the list.  As I mentioned before, it has been an enlightening project, to read the books in order of publication, and to see each book in its context. 

I haven't read each month's book with the list (and I won't be reading My Lord John).  While Lady of Quality is one of my favorite Heyers, it has been several years since I last re-read it, and it seems right to read the last Regency novel with the list.  I also got a nudge to re-read it from something Audrey posted about it over on books as food.

Lady of Quality is often compared to Black Sheep.  Both are set in Bath, with heroines who have set up their own households, though neither is completely independent.  In Black Sheep, Abby Wendover lives with her sister Selina, and in Lady of Quality Annis Wynchwood is saddled with Heyer's most infuriating character, her distant cousin and companion Maria Farlow.  Both heroines' lives are complicated first by a girl for whom they are responsible, and then by a black sheep gentleman who upsets both their families and their well-ordered lives.

Despite the similarities, these are not carbon copies.  One of Heyer's gifts as a writer was to use similar settings and characters to create very different stories, as with The Foundling, Sprig Muslin, and Charity GirlLady of Quality has a slower pace than Black Sheep, with less focus on the escapades of Annis's young protegée Lucilla Carelton.  The worst than happens to her is a walk, properly chaperoned, with a notorious fortune-hunter.  Though Lucilla comes to no harm, her uncle and guardian Oliver Carleton picks a quarrel with Annis over it, one of the many scenes between the two. Like Faro's Daughter and Bath Tangle, this is a book full of arguments.  Generally I don't enjoy what I call the "angry" books, but here both are quick to apologize, and the attraction between them shines through their quarrels.  It is also full of scenes, generally involving Maria Farlow, who in the end may have to give up her comfortable life in Bath, but who wins the completely undeserved reward of her own sitting room at Twynham Park instead.

If this is one of Heyer's less action-driven books, it is more romantic, with its focus mainly on their courtship.  Though Heyer's books are often marketed as romances, some readers complain that there isn't all that much romance in them.  In many cases, the hero's declaration comes only in the last pages, to relieve the heroine's (and the reader's) suspense, as with my own favorite Heyer novel, The Quiet Gentleman.  But in the meantime, there is wit and character and plot and setting, all of which keep us reading these wonderful books.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rebuilding ruined lives

Ruined City, Nevil Shute

This book was part of the Nevil Shute library loot that I posted about a couple of weeks ago.  I don't remember ever coming across Ruined City before, and I had no idea what it was about.  I had mentally classified Nevil Shute as "light reading," but What Happened to the Corbetts and now this book reminded me that he writes about serious political, economic and social issues, in books set first in England and then in Australia, his home for the last ten years of his life.  I didn't know what to expect from this book, and up to the last page I wasn't sure how the story would end.  Nevil Shute kept me turning the pages to find out.

Ruined City is the story of Henry Warren, who runs a London merchant bank.  Published in 1938, it is set in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, but in some ways it could be set in 2011.  As the book opens we see Warren putting complicated financial deals together, involving both loans and stock offerings.  One proposal that he refuses involves funding for an industrial site that would create much-needed jobs.  As he explains,
"This is a bank. I think I may say, a bank of good repute . . . We take in money on deposit, and it is my business to keep that money safe . . .  It is no part of our business to take risks, or to make speculations with the money deposited with us.  That is not our understanding with our depositors, and that is not our policy."

The first chapter was a bit of a slog, and I thought about setting the book aside, but I kept reading.  The financial deals Warren makes are complicated, something of a Shute hallmark, though usually the detailed discussions in his books revolve around airplane.  At least initially, Warren is not a sympathetic character.  A workaholic, he rarely sees his wife Elise, who has her own money, an active social life, and a lover, an Arab Prince.  The affair is food for gossip now just in their home but in both the social and financial worlds in which the Warrens live.  Much of the gossip is centered in prejudice against Prince Ali Said's ethnicity, a prejudice Warren shares.

On a business trip to Paris, he unexpectedly meets Elise and the Prince, which is the proverbial last straw.  He asks Elise for a divorce, and she agrees.  When he returns to London, exhausted and feeling ill, on a sudden whim he has his chauffeur drive him to the North of England, where he sets off on a walking tour.  Falling gravely ill, Warren is taken to hospital in a town called Sharples.  He arrives without luggage or even his wallet, and the staff take him to be unemployed and down on his luck, admitting him as a charity case.  As he recovers, he learns that Sharples was once a ship-building town, busy and prosperous, proud of the work of the Barlows shipyard.  (He is told innumerable times that "There were seven Barlows destroyers at the Battle of Jutland!")  Now the town is dying, and due to the depressed conditions, particularly poor nutrition, so are many of its people.

With the break-up of his marriage, Warren finds himself at something of a cross-roads.  He is looking for a new challenge, a new purpose for his life.  He finds that in a decision, taken almost impulsively, to buy the Barlows shipyard, which will put life back into Sharples, and rebuild that ruined city.  To do that, in the midst of the Depression, when orders for new ships are hard to come by for prosperous shipyards, let alone one that has been shut down for years, will take all of Warren's considerable resources, and the strength of his reputation in the City.  It will also involve shady dealings with the (fictional) country of Laevatia, described as a Balkan backwater, rich in oil and natural resources, governed by unscrupulous men out to enrich themselves.  Despite an uncomfortably stereotypical description of the country and its people, it is interesting to see what the formerly staid London banker will do, how far he will go, to accomplish his goal - and not for himself, but for this ruined city on the northeast coast of England.  Hovering over the story is the threat of war in Europe.  As Warren recognizes, if Sharples is to benefit from rearmament, and also to contribute to the war effort, the shipyard has to be operational, which gives an added urgency to his work.  At the same time, the work brings Warren personal satisfaction, helping to rebuild his own ruined life and eventually to find happiness, even in the most unlikely place.

A review I came across compared this book to A Town Like Alice, which is also about the rebuilding of a community, in that case a small dusty town in Australia's outback.  Jean Paget is probably Nevil Shute's most appealing character, and A Town Like Alice his most popular book.  If Henry Warren has greater resources, he faces much more complicated problems in Sharples.  In the end, he proves as heroic a character as Jean Paget and Joe Harman.  That seems to be one of Nevil Shute's hallmarks: stories of the heroism of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The art of murder

A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny

One of my first posts, back in February, was about Louise Penny's Bury Your Dead - not just about that book, but how I had found her first book and then let it languish too long on the TBR pile.  Once I did read Still Life, I fell in love with the characters, especially Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté de Québec, and with the small village of Three Pines, in the Eastern Townships, where many of the stories are set.

Earlier this year, I found Penny's blog, which I now follow (it's on the blog roll over on the right).  She posts about writing and editing and publicity, the world of publishing today  (I just read a more dated picture of this world in Elizabeth Peters' Naked Once More).  I've been to many book signings and heard authors talk about this world, about their own processes and experiences, but I've never followed an author before and watched how it all unfolds day by day.  At first I was concerned that this would affect reading the actual book.  I can't watch "the making of" features about TV shows or films that I like, because once I know how something is done, particularly special effects, it spoils my willing suspension of disbelief and takes me out of the story.

That wasn't a problem with A Trick of the Light, where I was quickly caught up in the story.  While Bury Your Dead was set largely in Québec City, this book takes us back to Three Pines, and to the familiar community.  This small village doesn't even appear on maps of the province, giving it something of a Brigadoon air, despite its high murder rate.  Unlike Susan Hill's Lafferton series, though, there is not one serial killer (let alone five). The crimes in Louise Penny's books are personal, rooted in people's relationships to each other, both past and present.

A Trick of the Light opens in Montréal, at the vernissage for Clara Morrow's solo show at the Musée d'Art Contemporain.  Clara is the center of life in Three Pines, as Armand Gamache is the center of his homicide team (and in some ways the moral center of the entire police force); the two balance the stories.  The show is a great success, and at long last Clara is winning recognition as the amazing artist that she is.  But then someone is murdered at the after-party, back in Three Pines, in the Morrows' garden.  The victim was a former art critic, and the suspects fellow artists and dealers, including Clara and her husband Peter, who has had greater success than Clara but with less talent.  This book shows us the world of contemporary art from the inside, and behind the scenes it is of course messy and ugly.

In the previous book, Bury Your Dead, Gamache and his team were recovering from a police action that left four officers dead and the survivors physically and emotionally wounded.  The recovery is by no means complete, particularly for Gamche's second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, who is also dealing with complications in his private life, including a divorce.

As usual, the solution of the case came as a surprise to me, but especially with Louise Penny's books I am reading more for the characters, their rich relationships, the wonderfully detailed setting, and the humor, which rises from the characters and their relationships.  She is currently on tour for A Trick of the Light, and she will be in Houston this next Tuesday.  I am so looking forward to meeting her, to thank her for her marvelous books.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sequels can be murder

Naked Once More, Elizabeth Peters

I was introduced to Elizabeth Peters' books more than 20 years ago, by my college roommate and fellow history major.  I started with the Amelia Peabody series, which I re-read every couple of years (except for the early lisping Ramses books).  From there I branched out to the other series, the Vicky Bliss and the Jacqueline Kirby books, and also to the books she wrote as Barbara Michaels.  Some of the Michaels books still give me the cold grues, all these years later.  The first time I read Ammie, Come Home I had to sleep with the light on, and I still don't read it or House of Many Shadows after dark.

The Elizabeth Peters listserv I belong to is discussing Naked Once More this month, and that led me to read it again for the first time in years.  It's the fourth and last of the Jacqueline Kirby books, which have never been as popular as the Amelia or Vicky books.  I'm not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the character of Jacqueline.  She is imperious, stubborn, self-dramatizing, sarcastic, and often impatient - much like Amelia and Emerson, actually.  On the other hand, she has a wicked sense of humor, she is a reader (and a librarian), she is a loyal friend, and she believes in justice and fair play, which is what gets her involved in solving crimes. 

In the third book of the series, Die for Love, Jacqueline abandons her career as a librarian to become a writer of bodice-ripping historical fiction.  In Naked Once More, she is offered the chance to write a sequel to a blockbuster novel, whose author Kathleen Darcy disappeared seven years ago under mysterious circumstances.  The book, Naked in the Ice, was "a unique blend of fantasy and fact, an adult Lord of the Rings, a literary Clan of the Cave Bear, a Pleistocene Gone With the Wind."  That description makes me want to read it! though I quibble with the idea that The Lord of the Rings isn't "adult" literature.  Once Jacqueline wins the commission, she travels to Kathleen Darcy's home, the small town of Pine Grove in western Pennsylvania.  There she meets Kathleen's family and friends. Diving into her papers and her past, Jacqueline discovers that Kathleen's life was in danger, and she begins investigating who might have wanted her dead or disappeared.  And then she finds herself becoming a target.

Both this book and Die For Love are as much about writing and publishing as they are about solving mysteries, in the same way that we learn about Egyptology in the Amelia books. Naked Once More was published in 1989, and of course the book business has changed quite a bit since then.  Though it may seem a bit dated (people still watch Donahue, and no one has a cell phone), it's still a great read, a twisty mystery with a varied cast of characters and Peters' trademark humor.  There seems to be a consensus among Peters' fans that because the Amelia books were so successful, her publishers only wanted more books in that series, rather than her other series or stand-alone books.  I do enjoy the Amelias, but I'd sure have liked another Jacqueline.