Thursday, December 27, 2018

"As everyone knows Northbridge High Street, there is no need to describe it..."

Karen of Books and Chocolate included Northbridge Rectory in a list of books that she received for Christmas. It's one of my favorite of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series, due in large part to the central character, Verena Villars, the Rector's wife. Since I'm in-between books, I pulled my old Carroll & Graf edition off the shelf. It has been a while since I re-read it, and I don't think I ever noticed before how strongly Thirkell evoked Anthony Trollope in the book's first pages. The opening line is pure Trollope: "As everyone knows Northbridge High Street there is no need to describe it," though he usually says "all the world" rather than "everyone." Having asserted there is no need for description, Thirkell continues, "so we will proceed to do so."
Northbridge, a famous centre for the wool trade of the South in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had gently declined ever since. It had indeed risen for a short period to eminence as a rotten borough, but now for more than a hundred years its calm had been unbroken. . . the High Street with its lovely curve is the whole town. At the upper end are the gentry houses, still in many cases inhabited by descendants of the woolstaplers or prosperous graziers who had built them three or four hundred years ago of honey-coloured stone that has weathered to soft greys and browns lightly stained with lichen here and there, the roofs made of thin stone slabs. Just where the street swings round the curve that is known to every tourist, stands the little Town Hall on its twelve stone legs . . . Beyond the Town Hall the houses are newer; late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, flat-fronted, with great sash windows on the ground and first floors . . . Here live the professional classes, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and so forth, most of whom have rooms in Barchester where they carry on the larger part of their business . . . And beyond them the street tails off into the picturesque and insanitary cottages of wood and clay, or lath and plaster, white-washed, with thatched roofs, descendants of the original mud huts of Barsetshire under the Kings of Wessex and not much changed in all those years. Bunces and Scatcherds had lived on the same spot and almost in the same house when Barsetshire was half forest . . . The church stands on a little eminence and behind it is the rectory, an ugly but commodious house whose long garden slopes to the river, while in the town itself are various chapels or conventicles patronised by the lesser tradespeople.
Then however Thirkell moves into her own style, and a very familiar setting in the Second World War. "In every war, however unpleasant, there are a certain number of people who with a shriek of joy take possession of a world made for them."
Mrs. Villars, the Rector's wife, who had come to Northbridge just before the war began, anxious to do her best with the parish work for which her husband's previous career as a schoolmaster had not prepared her, suddenly found herself, rather to her relief, quite o'ercrowded by a number of women who had during what is mistakenly called the Last War driven ambulances, run canteens, been heads of offices, of teams of land girls, of munition welfare, and had been pining in retirement on small incomes ever since. Under their ferocious, yet benignant reign, evacuee children were billeted, clothed and communally fed; visiting parents were provided with canteens; a cottage hospital was staffed and stocked; National Savings were collected; householders were bullied into Digging for Victory in unsuitable soil; other householders were forced to keep chickens which laid with reluctance and died with fervour of unknown diseases; stirrup-pumps were tested; blackmail in the shape of entertainments to provide comforts for every branch of the services at home and abroad was levied. In fact, as Miss Pemberton said, If the Government had shown the same Team Spirit as Northbridge the war would have been over long ago.
I think this is the only book where Mrs. Villars plays a major part, though she has a cameo in another of my favorites, Jutland Cottage. I think it's also this book that introduces us to the wonderful High Church priest "Tubby" Fewling, as well as Mrs. Turner and her nieces, who run the communal kitchen. And then there is probably the most obnoxious character Thirkell ever created, Mrs. Spender, whose husband the Major is billeted at the Rectory. (Of course the Bishop of Barchester and his wife might give Mrs. Spender a run for that title, if we ever met them in person.)

The problem for me is that I can never stop with just one of Thirkell's books, particularly those set in the war years.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cruising the Nile

    The drive ended up at a bookshop, where they were to lay in a sufficient store of literature to last, at any rate, as far as Luxor.
    "We want really serious books about Egypt," declared Eve.
    "Then you must begin with Breasted's History," said Jeremy, "and go on to Moret's 'Nile and Egyptian Civilsation.'"
    "Of course we must," agreed Eve, but Serena sighed a little when she saw the size of the volumes. While Jeremy added Weigall, Flinders Petrie, and several more to the growing pile, she wandered away to the other side of the shop, and came back with a couple of novels in her hand.
    "Let's have these, too," she pleaded. "I've always heard Robert Hichens writes so wonderfully about the desert."
    "He does," agreed Jeremy, "but the two you've chosen happen to be about Algeria."
    "Oh, well," said Serena placidly, "I expect the desert is much the same everywhere."

I love traveling with fellow readers! Eve is visiting Egypt for the first time, with her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh, and their friend Jeremy. They are in Cairo, preparing to set sail on a luxury houseboat, the dahabeyahs of so many stories. Cook's has it fully stocked with most of the necessities, but they can't set off without books. A walk through the city with Jeremy earlier that day left Eve eager to learn more about Egypt.
    By now Jeremy had forgotten all about Eve as an individuality, and was fairly launched on a subject near to his heart. Eve listened entranced, and it seemed to her that she was beginning, very incompletely and faintly, to grasp what Egypt had meant to the world by seeing what it meant to Jeremy. Touch by touch, as they strolled back to the hotel in the the freshness of the pearly morning, he built up for her the wonder of the most ancient of civilisations, its unsurpassed art and its strange religion, forerunner of all others. She had known in a vague sort of way that Egypt was called the "cradle of civilisation," but what before had been only a phrase to her, now became a real and intelligible fact.
    Back once more at the hotel, they stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps. Jeremy noticed what a glowing pink the keen air had brought to Eve's cheeks.
    "I say, I've talked an awful lot," he said apologetically.
    "Oh, I loved it!" Eve was enthusiastic. "I've always longed to come to Egypt, and now I'm actually here I'm going to learn all about it that I possibly can. There are lots of things I've always wanted to see, and I ought to find some of them here."

I couldn't help wondering though if the bookstore carried the monumental history of Egypt authored by the greatest Egyptologist of the modern era, Professor Radcliffe Emerson. Serena would more than sigh at the size of it.

 I can't remember whose blog first featured this book, and sent me rushing off to order my own copy, but I'm thankful she did. I do wish though that the photographs illustrating the book, taken by Stella Tennyson Jesse during her own voyage up the Nile in 1926-1927, were just a little clearer!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A book for Patricia Wentworth Day: The Blind Side

I was trying to decide what to read next when I realized that Patricia Wentworth's day was coming up on Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I have a couple of the Miss Silver books left, among the last published. But I chose this one instead, from 1939. The cover of my Dean Street Press edition labels it "An Ernest Lamb Mystery." Inspector Lamb of Scotland Yard features in many of the Miss Silver books, generally in need of her wisdom and insight to solve the case, no matter how much he resists. He is usually paired with Detective Sergent Frank Abbott, a former pupil of Miss Silver's who has no hesitation in asking for her help or following her direction. As Jane commented once, how can they solve crimes without her? As it turns out, in this book at least, while Scotland Yard investigates a crime, it's the other characters who actually solve it for them - so par for the course.

The story opens up on a Victorian note, with a large house in Chelsea (re-made into flats) and four generations of the Craddock family who give the house its name. I made a family tree to keep them straight, only to find one in the book itself, to clear up Inspector Lamb's confusion. The current owner of the house, Ross Craddock, is shown to be a villain from the start. He is in the process of evicting his elderly cousin Lucinda from her flat next to his, just weeks after her sister Maud's death. He is also pursuing a young cousin (and Lucy's niece), Mavis Grey, to Lucy's distress. Lucy is persuaded to go away on a cruise, to recover after caring for her sister, and yet another cousin, Lee Fenton, comes to stay in her flat. Still another cousin, Peter Renshaw, is staying in the late Maud's flat, on the other side of Ross's, to deal with her estate. Most of the other residents are off on holiday, but the house's porter Rush is in residence in the basement with his bed-ridden wife, and a Miss Bingham is at home in the flat above Maud's. The daily cleaner Mrs. Green also comes in and out, moaning about her bad turns and hinting that a bit of brandy is just the thing to set her up again.

One hot evening, Peter meets Ross and Mavis at a nightclub. Later that night, he hears a crash in Ross's flat and finds Mavis fleeing from him, her dress torn. She has clipped Ross over the head with a decanter to escape, leaving him covered in blood. Peter gallantly allows her to sleep in Maud's bed, while he takes the uncomfortable sofa. He wakes to find that she has slipped out, claiming it's to look for her bag. She is trying to distract him from the blood on her dress, which wasn't there before. Over in the night, Lee wakes up in Lucy's bed to find her feet and nightgown red with blood, and a trail of bloody footprints leading to Ross's door.She immediately washes away all traces of the blood that she can reach. But in the morning, when Ross's man arrives to find him dead, shot through the head, she realizes her prints lead right up to the body.

All of this takes place in the first 50 pages - quite an elaborate set-up for the murder. When Inspector Lamb and DS Abbott arrive, the various members of the family do everything they can to confuse the case by concealing evidence and making ambiguous statements. Peter is trying to protect Lee, who has confessed her bloody state to him, and Mavis is out for herself. It turns out that Miss Bingham was creeping around the house in the middle of the night, and she has important information for the police. And then Mrs. Green calls in to say that she too has something vital to tell. (In Patricia Wentworth's stories, a character who hints that she knows something is usually doomed to be murdered before she can Reveal All.)

This story is packed with red herrings and blind alleys. The Scotland Yard detectives are headed in completely the wrong direction (as usual) when Peter finds the crucial evidence to solve the crime. I had an inkling of who the murderer might be, but I couldn't figure out how it was carried out. Everything is explained in detail in a death-bed confession (one I found a bit unlikely in the circumstances). I did enjoy this book, and I have another of the "Ernest Lamb" books on the TBR stacks, Pursuit of a Parcel from 1942 (war-time espionage, according to the cover blurb). Frank Abbott was rather subdued in this one, perhaps missing Miss Silver.

When I first discovered Patricia Wentworth, her books were hard to find, at least in the U.S. Now many have been re-issued, both the Miss Silver and the stand-alone books. I'm so glad that her books are more easily available, and I hope that more people come to appreciate her classic Golden Age stories. Thanks to Jane for celebrating her! Now I'm off to see what other people have been reading.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Blood on the Tracks, edited by Martin Edwards

This British Library Crime Classics volume of "Railway Mysteries" went on my list as soon as I saw the cover (on Twitter, as I remember). There was a delay before the North American edition came out, but it was well worth the wait. This may be my favorite of all the collections that I have read (even if it lacked a story by H.C. Bailey).

As usual, it presents an interesting variety of stories, arranged generally chronologically by publication date, with an informative preface by Martin Edwards and brief introductions of each author. Most of the collections that I've read open with a Sherlock Holmes story, as this one does, "The Man with the Watches." I was familiar with some of the authors that followed, from meeting them in the other collections. Some were new to me. I was particularly taken with Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, "who proceeded to create a whole family of detectives. He began with Paul Beck," who later married "Dora Myrl, Lady Detective," and their son Paul Junior went into the family business. Bodkin's story in this collection, "How He Cut His Stick," features Dora Myrl in her spinster detective days. She sounds like quite a character:
The daughter of a professor, Dora studied medicine at Cambridge, drifting from job to job (as a telegraph girl, a telephone girl, and a journalist) before turning to crime-solving while acting as a companion to an elderly woman who falls victim to a blackmailer. Dora's intelligence and flair for disguising herself make her an effective detective when she sets up her own agency. In this story, her ability as a cyclist also comes in handy.
I was reminded of Grant Allen's Miss Cayley, another cyclist who falls into a detective adventure.

This collection introduced me to another woman detective, F. Tennyson Jesse's Solange Fontaine. The story here, "The Railway Carriage," gave me chills, and sent me looking for more of her stories. I also learned that Jesse's best-known novel, A Pin to See the Peep-Show, is based on a notorious murder in 1922, and I have added that to my reading list.

One of Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey stories is included here, "The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face." I have the Lord Peter collection, but I don't read the short stories very often, and I had no memory of this one at all. It ends on an odd note, one that seems to me very out of character for Lord Peter.

The worst of these collections is that they always tempt me to look for more by the authors. In addition to F. Tennyson Jesse's Solange stories, I also found collections of the stories of Max Carrados (the blind detective created by Ernest Bramah) and Dr. Thorndyke (the scientific detective of R. Austin Freeman). I still have a couple of the Crime Classics collections on the TBR shelves as it is, and I'm hoping there are more to come. I'm eagerly awaiting the Golden Age of Detection Puzzle Book, which should be out next month in another gorgeous cover.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

I enjoyed Seanan McGuire's ghost stories so much that I couldn't wait to see what else she has written. This series caught my eye. The main character, October "Toby" Daye, is a changeling. From her faerie mother she has inherited certain skills that help her run her own detective agency, where she works with both humans and fae to pay the bills. (I'm not sure what if anything she carries from her human father.) This story opens on a stakeout: she is following someone who could lead her to the kidnapped wife and daughter of a high-ranking fae, one to whom Toby is pledged as her liege lord. A mother herself, Toby is all the more anxious to find the missing mother and daughter.

But then, just a few pages into the first chapter, the tables are turned. The man Toby is tracking leads her into a park and attacks her - turning her into a fish and trapping her in a pond. The story then jumps fourteen years and six months ahead. Toby has lost everything in those years, starting with her human family, who gave her up for dead. She is working any job she can find, just trying to find her way again after all those years. She wants nothing to do with the faerie world. But then an old friend binds a duty on her, one that Toby must complete or she will die. Recognizing that she can't do this on her own, she reluctantly turns back to the fae community for help.

I came late to the urban fantasy genre, through Patricia Briggs's books. Though I've tried quite a few authors since, I haven't found other series that work for me. This book certainly did, and I'm looking forward to the next. Toby is an interesting and sympathetic character, who doesn't fit fully into either the human or fae worlds. One of the things that sets her apart is that she is a knight of her liege's court, a rank she earned by service but one rarely granted to changelings. We learn a little of her backstory, and I'm guessing that we will meet her fae mother Amandine at some point. She sounds like a formidable character herself.

Seanan McGuire has created a complex faerie world around Toby, one which exists alongside (outside) San Francisco. I like those kinds of stories, where other worlds overlap with a recognizably human one. While the fae world is complex, with different types of creatures and various communities (courts), as well as Toby's allies and enemies, I had no trouble keeping them straight. It was interesting meeting fae and learning about their abilities and habits. I recognized some of the types from folklore. I think Ms. McGuire draws mainly on Celtic myths and lore. Thankfully, she doesn't overwhelm with details. Toby's task makes for quite a story, one that turns dark and violent at times (though not in gruesome detail). This is "fae noir," if there is such a category. Looking at the other books in the series (now up to twelve), I see they feature more cases and quests for Toby. I like detective stories almost as much as police procedurals.This is just the first I've read that includes faeries.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that going to a book signing always results in the purchase of more books. At least that is my experience at Murder by the Book. I get there well ahead of time, and then I wander through the shelves. Each visit, I check for new releases in the British Library Crime Classics series. I also check for Patricia Wentworth's books. There are some lovely new re-issues of the Miss Silver books, which I've managed to resist while I have my battered reading copies. The Dean Street Press re-issues of the stand-alone books, the ones without Miss Silver, are a different matter. Here, though, I have become selective. I've found that the earlier books, from the 1920s, are entertaining enough but sometimes a little thin for my tastes, sometimes verging on the silly. I think the books from the later 1930s and the 1940s are the best. This week I found two from 1938, Mr. Zero and Run! - the exclamation point in the title gives that one some urgency.

When I felt like a break from my recent science fiction diet, I chose Mr. Zero, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As much as I enjoy the period illustrations on the DSP editions, though, they don't usually relate to the book itself. The cover for this one is particularly misleading:

At no point does a character lounge around provocatively en deshabille, and to my mind that image looks more like the 1920s than a woman in 1938.

The "Mr. Zero" of the title is a blackmailer. His victim Sylvia Colesborough has lost £500 at cards and cannot confess the loss to her husband, who has forbidden her to play for money. Mr. Zero offers to make good her loss, on the condition that she steal a document from the Home Secretary during a weekend house party. Sylvia complies, but she is then met with a second demand, to extract more documents - from her own husband. At this point she panics, and with her sister enlists the reluctant help of their old school friend Gay Hardwicke. When Gay tries to confront the blackmailer, she walks instead on Sylvia holding a gun next to a dead body. But it is her escort Algy Sommers, a secretary to the Home Secretary, who becomes the prime suspect.

This is quite an exciting story, with a neat twist at the end. I guessed the identity of one of the villains, mainly because there was such a small cast to choose from, but I didn't expect the second to pop up. I must say that I have rarely met a stupider character than Sylvia Colesborough. Though fun to read about, she infuriated most of the others in the book. At one point the Chief Constable "Colonel Anstruther was given up to whole-hearted wonder as to why, if murder was the order of the day, Lady Colesborough had escaped."

Drawn into the case is the local doctor and coroner, Dr. Hammond. He is at home with his wife Judith, asleep next to him, when he recollects a vital clue. He wakes Judith from a dream about a child to tell her. "'What fellow?' said Judith, half cross and half forlorn. Perhaps she and Jim would never have a child. Perhaps -" I ended the book wondering if we might meet the Hammonds again, and if Judith ever had her baby. Miss Silver is always relaying news of marriages and births in her books, not to mention knitting for the babies. I don't remember any characters crossing over in the stand-alone books, though.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I was looking to add more science fiction to my reading, Mary Robinette Kowal's books came highly recommended. The Calculating Stars was the first that I found in the bookstore, and its back cover blurb sold me on the spot:
     Pilot, Physicist, Wife
    On a cold spring day in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to Earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
    Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a computer. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved in the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too.
    Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This is such a great story. I am not usually a fan of dystopian fiction, but there was a terrible fascination in reading about this cataclysm and watching its effects spread around the world. Elma and her husband Nathaniel, who were working together at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before the Meteor, quickly realize that this could be an extinction event for the Earth. However, they have a hard time convincing people that something even worse than the Meteor is coming. Luckily, the highest-ranking Cabinet member to survive, now the President, is the former Secretary of Agriculture. He knows enough about weather patterns to understand and accept their arguments.

Elma and Nathaniel, who lost almost all of their family in the catastrophe, throw themselves into their work. I loved their strong, supportive marriage. They are true partners, both in work and in their relationship. Elma needs Nathaniel's support, as they struggle against the conventional sexism of the International Aerospace Coalition, and she has it every step of the way. Her experience as a pilot in World War II, her work as a "computer" solving the complex equations that underlie their work, her advanced degrees - all are discounted because of her gender. And she is instantly dismissed when she raises the question of sending women into space, despite her argument that if the IAC intends to establish colonies and communities, women will have to be present. I shared Elma's frustration as she is dismissed and belittled, as men mock the very idea of "astronettes." That part of the story felt so very timely.

At the same time, Elma comes up against her own assumptions and prejudices when they are billeted with an African American couple (housing in the nation's new capitol is scarce). Raised in Charleston, she realizes that she has never been in a black person's home. She also comes to see that black men are excluded from the astronaut project. Trying to argue the case for women astronauts, she is introduced to a group of African American women pilots, who educate her on the discrimination they have faced. It was interesting watching Elma struggle with these new ideas, and work out relationships with potential allies, bonding in part over a shared love of flying. Ms. Kowal has talked about the push-back she has gotten from people for including one black character as a computer working with Elma's group. These people apparently missed Hidden Figures completely. Both the book and the film are included in a "Historical Note" at the end of this book. That and the bibliography that follows are adding to my reading list.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Robinette Kowal speak at Murder by the Book this week, at a shared event with Martha Wells. I was thrilled to get my "Lady Astronaut Club" membership card, though I can't bring myself to write my name on it yet.

Isn't that a gorgeous cover?

I already have the sequel, The Fated Sky, on the TBR stacks, and I was happy to hear there will be a third book. I also found a novella, "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," which if I understood correctly was written first. But even worse for my TBR stacks, I also found the Ms. Kowal has written a series set in the Regency, "in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality." John at Murder by the Book said they're Jane Austen with magic, and I was powerless to resist.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

This book set off my inner book evangelist. I had somehow gotten the impression that it was set in Edwardian England, but it is actually fantasy. It opens in a hospital, where Dr. Miles Singer has just gotten a memo ordering him to release sixteen of his patients by the end of the week, to make room for new admissions. Soldiers from his home country of Aeland will be returning victorious from the recently-ended war with Laneer, and many will need care. Miles, himself a veteran of the war, is concerned that the vets already under his care are experiencing fits of homicidal rage.

Then an emergency case arrives at the hospital's doors: a dying man who says his name is Nick Elliot. He tells Miles, "Help me, Starred One. I am murdered." Calling Miles "Sir Christopher," Elliot says that he was poisoned, he asks him to find his murderer, and he tells him "The soldiers . . .they deserve the truth." Miles, who has magical powers that can aid healing, sees that the man has a magical aura, a witch's aura, and before Elliot dies on the examining table, he passes power on to Miles. Watching everything from a corner of the room is the man who carried him into the hospital, who introduces himself as Tristan Hunter. When Miles realizes what Hunter has seen and heard, he panics. Accusations of witchcraft will get Miles sent to an asylum. But if he is outed as Christopher Hensley, his family will reclaim him. In the upper levels of society to which his family belongs, those with magic aren't sent to asylums, they are bound to another, who draws off the power to fuel their own. It was to escape life as a bound Secondary that Miles fled his family and changed his name, to study medicine and then join the army.

Tristan Hunter doesn't want to out Miles. He wants his help, to find out who murdered Nick Elliot and why. As a gesture of good faith, he shows Miles that he too has power, and Miles agrees to help him. Meanwhile, Miles is also trying to figure out why his veterans talk of someone inside their heads, inciting them to rage and violence. He can use his power to help them, but always at the risk of revealing himself. As the two investigations proceed, we learn more about Aeland, about Miles' world, about the war with Laneer, and about Tristan, who carries some deep secrets of his own. He and Miles form a partnership and a cautious friendship. And then Miles, forced to attend a hospital function, meets his sister Grace again. He fled his family to avoid being bound as her Secondary. Grace promises that she won't bind him against his will, but their father will not let him escape again.

I enjoyed this book so much. Miles is a very sympathetic character and also a complex one, carrying his multiple identities. He is fighting to care for his soldier patients, but he also wants the murderer of Nick Elliot brought to justice. He has spent years hiding, both his identity and his magic. He too is dealing with the effects of the war, on himself as well as his patients. It was lovely to see him slowly learn to trust Tristan, whom he finds devastatingly attractive. Their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, linked to the highest levels of the government as well as the asylums where suspected witches are confined. It's a very timely book, concerned with the use and abuse of power. Soldiers used by the government in its war, people with magic exploited by those who with greater power - and that exploitation runs deeper than Miles can imagine. It all builds to a shattering conclusion, one that seems to beg for a sequel. I hope C.L. Polk is writing one! I would love to meet Miles and Tristan again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

I have been collecting recommendations for science fiction and fantasy authors lately, beyond the favorites that I read and re-read. Martha Wells' "Murderbot Diaries" have come strongly recommended, and she will be signing in a couple of weeks at my beloved Murder by the Book. She will be there with Mary Robinette Kowal, whose "Lady Astronaut" books are already on the TBR stacks.

When I checked into Martha Wells' books, I saw that she has also written other series, and one about shifters immediately caught my eye. The Cloud Roads is the first. It is the story of Moon, who as the first chapter opens "had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans." He can pass as a "groundling," one of the many human types who inhabit the planet, and who come in a variety of forms and skin colors. But Moon has a second form that he can shift into at will, with scales, claws, a tail, and wide wings. He has to hide this form from the groundlings he lives among, because it resembles the Fell, a race of beings that attacks groundling settlements and kills all the inhabitants. Moon is himself that only survivor of an attack that killed his mother and siblings, when he was an adolescent. He has survived since by hiding his true self, earning a place among groundling groups by hard work (and sometimes a bit of trickery). But eventually something always goes wrong, someone decides he is too different, a threat, and he is driven out.

When it plays out yet again, among the Cordans, Moon is unexpectedly rescued by a being like himself, though much larger and older. From his rescuer, called Stone, he learns that he is a Raksura. Moon knows nothing about his people. They come in two types, the winged variety like Moon and Stone, also called Aeriat, and the Arbora, without wings. The Raksura live in communities called courts. Solitaries like Moon are rare, and Stone invites him to his home court, Indigo Cloud. They arrive only to discover that the court is under threat of attack from the Fell. Moon also learns to his shock that he has a special role to play in the court, one Stone recognized but chose not to tell him about.

I was drawn into this story from the first page. Moon is a very sympathetic character, an outsider in both the groundling and Raksuran worlds, simply trying to survive. We see the Raksura through his eyes, as he tries to find a place in yet another alien community, an outsider facing the same hostility he has met his whole life. At least he has Stone to support him, and he does form some alliances. But the threat of the Fell hangs over everything, threatening to bring down the court before Moon can even find his place in it.

I suppose that this series qualifies as fantasy, more than science fiction. I'm not always clear on the divide. I know it's too simplistic to say that "science fiction involves spaceships," but that's always in the back of my mind. Whichever category it falls into, I am enjoying this series very much. I already have the next books from the library, and I look forward to learning more about the Raksura and Moon's adventures with them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ghost stories

Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire

Let's see if I remember how to do this.

I didn't sign up for the R.I.P. reading event this year, but these books would have been perfect for it. They are the stories of Rose Marshall, who died in a car accident on the night of her prom, on Sparrow Hill Road, in Buckley Township, Michigan, back in 1952. Over the decades that followed, Rose became a famous ghost, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, The Girl in the Diner. Always looking like the teenager she was when she died, she is a "hitcher," a ghost looking for rides. And sometimes the people who give her rides end up dying on the road too.

Sparrow Hill Road introduces Rose and her world of the twilight, including the different types of ghosts who share it with her, and the humans who enter into it. The author calls it "a 'fix-up,' a collection of short stories strung together by a thin narrative thread." It didn't feel thin to me. I loved exploring Rose's world, learning her story, meeting the friends she has made on the road - and the enemies - and finding out why she is compelled to hitch those rides. I've heard those kind of stories before, told around a campfire or whispered in the dark. Rose's story felt so familiar, it was hard sometimes to remember that she never really lived and died.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is a novel, building off the stories in the first book. It is about an attempt to capture Rose, to finish off something that began back in 1952, when she was driven off the road to her death. It takes Rose out of her place in the twilight, leaving her lost and alone - and alive again. She must make her way back to death, but it's not as simple as contriving an accident. It is a bigger, more complicated story, with a twist at the end that I never saw coming. Though the ending is neat, it doesn't feel like the end of Rose's story. I hope there may be more to come.

I discovered Seanan McGuire through Twitter, but I hadn't read any of her books before I found The Girl in the Green Silk Gown on the library's new book shelves. Once I realized Sparrow Hill Road came first, I of course had to read it first. I'm looking forward to exploring her other series. Tor has a handy "where to start" page here.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Immersed in the "Golden Age of Crime"

It has been six weeks since the accident, and I am doing better but not fully recovered. My leg seems to be healing well, but I have lost hearing in one ear, on the side where I had the head injury. I went through some very strange tests, involving warm and cold air blown into my ears while I was wearing a mask - at one point I started to wonder if it was all actually some sort of elaborate prank! This week I'll hear the results of what I decided must be actual tests, and hopefully get some kind of prognosis and possibly a treatment plan.

On the positive side, I was able to go back to work. While this cut seriously into my reading time, and the first week was rough, it has been very good to get back into a routine, and also to get out of the house.

Over the past weeks, I have been immersed in the "Golden Age" of crime. Immediately after the accident, I found myself unable to read, or watch, anything with violence. The murder of a child and a cat in Elly Griffiths' The Crossing Places really upset me. After that, I turned to Miss Silver, and then to Albert Campion. I re-read two of Margery Allingham's books, Police at the Funeral and More Work for the Undertaker. Then I picked up Julia Jones' biography, The Adventures of Margery Allingham. From it I learned that Allingham wrote a novel based on her family, The Galantrys (the UK title is Dance of the Years). I immediately added that to my reading list, though Jones describes it as "uneven." But then I lost interest in the biography, and went back to the mysteries.

Next I picked up The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, a history of "the writers who invented the modern detective story." He profiles the authors who founded the Detection Club, including of course Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. I recognize many of the other names from the compilations of mysteries that he has edited for the British Library Crime Classics series. I cannot resist them or their beautiful covers. (The most recent, Blood on the Tracks, a collection of railway stories, comes out in the US in August.) The Golden Age of Murder is packed full of fascinating stories, about the authors, their books, and real-life crimes that sometimes inspired them. But it's also inspiring me to set it down in favor of the books he writes about. I checked a couple of Miss Marple books out from the library today. I was surprised to read that Georgette Heyer declined an invitation to join the Detection Club. Martin Edwards suggests it was because her husband (a barrister) supplied the plots for her mysteries. I'm currently reading her Behold, Here's Poison, and I remember how the murder was done, but not who done it. I may return to Josephine Tey next. She never joined the Club, perhaps because she was rarely in London. And I was sorry to read that Patricia Wentworth was never even invited to join. I also have The Floating Admiral on the TBR shelves, the first book written collaboratively by Detection Club members. I didn't realize that they went on to write several others, which may or may not end up on the shelves as well. Martin Edwards points out that there were just as many men publishing in the "Golden Age," even though the "Queens of Crime" are better-known today. I have enjoyed some of their short stories, but except for H.C. Bailey, I haven't been inspired to read more of their work.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Life interrupted

Eleven days ago, I got hit by a car - an SUV actually. I was walking across the street from my office to go retrieve a file. Because I cross this intersection multiple times a week, and because I pay attention to traffic, I was as always careful. I waited for the walk sign, and waited to be sure no one was turning without looking, but it didn't save me that day. I don't remember getting hit, I just woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Because I had bleeding in my brain, I was kept in ICU for three days. Thankfully, that cleared up. Unlike Jenny at Reading the End, I didn't break my neck. But I have a fractured leg, with a large brace, a walker AND crutches. Also, an amazingly-painful cracked rib. I had no idea how bad that could be. And a head wound. I was awake when they put staples in it, but taking the staples out was exponentially worse. At least my spectacular black eye is fading. At a store the other day, an older white man gave me a Scripture citation and then asked, "Who hit you?" When I answered "an SUV," it literally rocked him back a step.

Of course, it all could have been so much worse (and still could be, I suppose, since I am still seeing doctors and haven't been medically cleared). But I have survived, and my brain has cleared enough that I can read again. Those few days, without the comfort of books, and the constant thought that, what if my mind doesn't clear - those were bleak days.

Family members rushed to Houston, and I have been so blessed with friends taking care of me, and the cats as well. Yesterday someone sent me a small box of warm cookies and a bottle of chocolate milk, and I was caught between laughter and tears (and instant greed).

I am not able to manage much right now, but I can read. I am finding Donna Leon and Elly Griffiths, new authors to me, very welcome distractions. I will probably be reading much more in e-books, since I can't get to the library on my own. Or anywhere else - the sudden dependence is sobering, despite my wonderful friends offering to chauffeur me. I don't know how much writing I will be able to do, since it's difficult to sit comfortably with the brace. But then it would probably be a good thing to keep the little grey cells moving.

Truly, life can change in an instant. I never fully understood that before.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Celebrating Dorothy Canfield Fisher with her short stories

Today, Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors celebrates one of my favorites, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I don't think I am the only reader who met her through the Persephone edition of her 1924 novel The Home-Maker. I'm not sure whose review I read first, but it may have been Claire's at The Captive Reader. That was back in 2012, and I have been collecting her books ever since. I was lucky enough to find some on bookstore shelves, even in the original editions, and others on-line.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher published several books of short stories, and I have read all of them except Basque People (from 1931). I have found something to enjoy in each of them, many with familiar settings in Vermont or France (particularly in the Basque region). I can see connections to her novels, common themes that run through her fiction and non-fiction. Though I have read the books of short stories, I still wanted to read A Harvest of Stories, an anthology collected by DCF herself and published in 1956. I wanted to see which ones she chose, as the subtitle says, "From a Half Century of Writing." I hoped that she might have something to say about the stories or about the writing of them.

There are twenty-seven stories included, divided into three sections: "Vermont Memories," "Men, Women - and Children," and "War." DCF introduces them with a Prologue, "What My Mother Taught Me." In it, she explains the part her mother played in making her a teller of stories, one who has "to try with all one's might to understand that part of human life which does not lie visibly on the surface. And then to try to depict the people involved, and their actions, so that they may be recognizable men, women - and children." I love that in her stories, that she wants us to understand her people, to see not just what they do, but why - their motives, which they themselves don't always recognize or understand. And she has such compassion, such empathy for people. She sees them clearly, and she doesn't gloss over or whitewash, but she does understand, and she wants her readers to as well.

This collection includes some of my favorites. "Uncle Giles" is about a relative who considered himself a gentleman, someone who "should not be forced to the menial task of earning a living."
The tales of how Uncle Giles blandly outwitted [his able-bodied and energetic kinspeople's] stub-fingered attacks on his liberty and succeeded to the end of a very long life in living without work are part of our inheritance. For three generations now they have wrought the members of our family to wrath and laughter. He was incredible. You can't imagine anything like him. Unless you have had him in your family too.
"The Bedquilt," on the other hand, is the story of Aunt Mehetable, "of all the Elwell family...certainly the most unimportant," until she has an idea for a bold new quilt design. "A Family Alliance" is about the parents of a young engaged couple, meeting for the first time, trying to live up to the expectations that their children have created. It's very funny, and very sweet. And "As Ye Sow," the story of a busy mother whose young son and his friends are excluded from their class's Christmas entertainment, because (as she discovers) they are terrible singers. "Through Pity and Terror..." and "In the Eye of the Storm" describe life in France, under German occupation in the Great War. They are difficult to read even now.

I am so happy that Jane included Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her celebration. And if anyone would like a copy of The Home-Maker, I have one to share. I don't want to give it to the library sale, I want to give it to a fellow reader, to someone who I hope will enjoy her books as much as I do.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Gemini and the House of Niccolò, by Dorothy Dunnett

Gemini is the eighth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett's second series, "The House of Niccolò." When it was published in 2000, I read the Michael Joseph UK edition, specially ordered from an Edinburgh bookseller, because like a lot of us in the US I didn't want to wait for the North American edition.

I'm not sure I've read it again since then.

The Nicholas books were my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett. Almost 30 years ago, I came across the first book, Niccolò Rising, in the library. The cover images from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry caught my eye, because I had studied and fallen in love with medieval art in college. I was fascinated with the story inside, of the young apprentice Claes, who takes his mistress's dye-yard business into a much larger world of trade and finance - and espionage. I loved the setting of 15th-century Bruges, like seeing a Van Eyck painting come to life. I enjoyed the journeys that take Claes (later Nicholas) beyond Flanders, to Geneva and Florence and Lorraine. And then there are the family complications. Claes, raised in the Charetty family, is known to be the son of the late Sophie de Fleury, but her husband's family, the St Pols of Scotland and France, have always rejected Claes as a bastard, not the son of her husband Simon. His position, as a bastard, an apprentice stinking of the dye-yard, makes his rise in this story all the more compelling.

I think Niccolò Rising is one of Dorothy Dunnett's best books, with King Hereafter, her novel of Macbeth. I've read it countless times, as well as the second in the series, The Spring of the Ram, which follows Nicholas to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Trebizond. There is a tragedy at the end of the second book, though, that shook me when I first read it, and I did not then continue with the series. It was only after I was introduced to (and became obsessed with) Francis Crawford of Lymond and his story that I came back to the Nicholas books (set earlier but published later).

A main focus of this second series is the international business that Nicholas builds, on finance and trade and an excellent mercenary company. He gathers a company of men and women, drawn to him by his personality, his gifts, his genius (for trade, for sailing, for music). There are others, rivals in business, and the competition between them is intense, sometimes violent. His encounters with the St Pol family are always fraught, to say the least.

There is so much packed into these stories, as they move between trade and war, across Europe, to Africa and Egypt. They are full of the politics of the different countries where Nicholas's company trades, into which he is sometimes drawn. The complicated stories, the masses of detail, can be overwhelming at times. But where I struggle with some of the later books is with the personal. The men and women around Nicholas, who form a kind of surrogate family, have high expectations of him, and they make demands on him. Nicholas often thinks of them as his nurses, or his keepers. They constrain him, and all too often they misjudge him. They see part of his complicated family history, they see his actions, they make assumptions, and they get angry with him. We the readers know the truth, know more of the story than they do, and it's clear to us where they are wrong, unfair, misguided. Nicholas often takes the blame for things that are not his fault, with punishing consequences. It is true that he doesn't always explain himself, though we see much more of his mind and heart that we do of Lymond. And he does make mistakes, he does things wrong, often with great deliberation. But unlike his companions I can't fault him for guarding his privacy, and their self-righteous judgements grate on me. There is also one particular feud, a war carried out over more than eight years, based on a completely wrong premise. I realize this may sound ridiculous, but I get so irritated on Nicholas's behalf that I have trouble with the later books.

Which is why I may have only read Gemini one time. I clearly remember, the last time I read the series, holding out to the seventh book, Caprice and Rondo, and then giving up.

The other day, I was thinking of an incident in Caprice and Rondo ("Date stones, sweetheart!"),  which happens toward the end of the book. When I went to check it, I ended up reading the last chapters, and then I picked up Gemini, to look at the first chapter. And then there I was, reading Gemini again. It felt wrong, on one level, because I am normally a strict series-order reader. But how quickly I fell back under Dorothy Dunnett's spell. And how lovely it was to see the end of Nicholas's story. I know its beginnings so well, from umpteen readings of the first two books. Here she brings it to a very satisfying conclusion, answering questions and tying loose ends together, and ending feuds. One character in particular is completely redeemed, in my mind. Of course, being Dorothy Dunnett, she puts her people through hell in the process.

About half-way through the book (which is more than 600 pages), I had the heretical (to me) idea of reading the series in reverse. One of the great pleasures in the series in seeing Nicholas grow and develop and expand. It's a crucial difference between this series and the Lymond Chronicles. There we meet Francis Crawford, only a few years older than the Claes of the first book, but fully developed, fully mature. Nicholas we see becoming. His story is also more complicated, and for me, it's a challenge to keep all of the plot lines (even the personal ones) straight, much more so than with Lymond. I think reading backward might help with that.

And besides, I've fallen again under that familiar spell. When in its grip, no other stories will satisfy. So here I am, surrounded by expiring library books and tottering TBR piles, deep in 15th-century Poland with Nicholas.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Spring Fever, by P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse loved imposters in his stately homes the way Patricia Wentworth loved people suffering from amnesia in her mysteries. In PGW's stories, Person A is prevented or refuses, for a good reason, to make a visit to a stately home. Person B volunteers for his own reasons to go in his place (it's usually a him). Though there are usually at least two people in on the secret, Person B generally carries off the masquerade - until Person A shows up, under false pretenses and pretending to be someone else entirely (let's call him Person C).

In Spring Fever, published in 1948, Person A is Stanwood Cobbold. His father has sent him over to England to get him away from Eileen Stoker, a Hollywood star with whom he has fallen in love. Discovering that Miss Stoker has just arrived in London, for a two-picture contract, Cobbold Senior orders Stanwood off on a visit to Beevor Castle. The Castle is the Kentish home of the fifth Earl of Shortlands, the head of Cobbold family. The American Mr. Cobbold has discovered that his family is a colonial branch of this noble family, and he has developed (from afar) a great reverence for and devotion to the Earl. Lord Shortlands has no idea who this American person is, and certainly didn't invite his son for a visit. But then his masterful daughter Adela, whose husband's money keeps the Castle running, learns that Stanwood is the heir to a fortune. She immediately plans to marry him to her youngest sister Theresa.

Stanwood, however, has no intention of leaving London while Eileen Stoker is there. So his friend Mike Cardinal, a Hollywood agent, volunteers to go in his place. His motive: he is in love with Theresa (Terry), who is steadfastly refusing to marry him. When Lord Shortlands comes up to London, with Terry, to collect Stanwood, he hits it off with Mike and agrees to the impersonation. The Earl has troubles of his own. He needs £200, to win the hand of his cook Mrs. Punter, who wants to retire from service and open a pub in London. Lord Shortlands has a rival in his handsome butler Melvin Spink. His only consolation is that Spink regularly loses all his money on the ponies.

At first all goes well, except that Terry continues to refuse Mike's proposals and won't tell him why. But then Stanwood appears, pretending to be a Mr. Rossiter, an expert in rare stamps (about which he really knows nothing). An expert is needed because a rare Spanish stamp turned up in an old album, which both Lord Shortlands and his butler claim belongs to them. The stamp may be worth as much as £1500, which is more than enough to win Mrs. Punter's hand.

This book was such fun, with a capital "F". Lord Shortlands is one of those persecuted fathers, but he and Terry have a close and loving alliance. She is just a good egg, and I was curious to find out why she kept turning Mike Cardinal down when she's clearly not immune to his charm and beauty. Maybe it's the influence of his Hollywood career, but their flirtatious conversations flow like the best screwball comedy. At one point, he woos her by reading selections from "Percy's Promise, by Marcia Huddlestone (Popgood and Grooly, 1869)" - which is how it's referred to in the text every time, and that made me giggle.

And then there's Augustus Robb, Stanwood Cobbold's personal attendant. He is a massive man, an ex-burglar who has found religion, quotes constantly from the Scriptures, calls Stanwood "cocky" - and wears horn-rimmed glasses. I thought immediately of Magersfontein Lugg, Albert Campion's man, though it's Campion who wears the glasses. Did PGW ever read Margery Allingham's books, I wonder? And that reminded me of Peter Wimsey telling Bunter in Strong Poison, "Well, then, don't talk like Jeeves. It irritates me."

Monday, January 29, 2018

Outrageous Fortune, by Patricia Wentworth

This 1933 book is one of Patricia Wentworth's "stand-alone" stories, and it is quite a wild ride. It begins with a young man lying in a cottage hospital, unconscious but occasionally muttering about Jimmy Riddell. He was found lying on a ledge of rock, above a treacherous bay where a ship was recently lost. A woman named Nesta Riddell arrives in response to a radio appeal, announces that he is her husband, and whisks him away. A short time later, another woman shows up, also in search of this young man. But she is looking for Jim Randall, the cousin she hasn't seen in seven years. It was clear from her first appearance that this young woman would be our heroine:
    "Miss Leigh?" said the day sister.
    "Oh yes," said Caroline Leigh in that warm dark voice of hers.
    Someone once said that Caroline's voice was like damask roses. He was an infatuated young man who wrote poetry. Caroline laughed at him kindly but firmly, and all her friends chaffed her about her crimson voice. All the same there was something in it.
Hearing that the unknown Jim has been taken away, Caroline resolves to track him down, just confirm that he isn't her Jim. Meanwhile, he wakes up in a small house in a small town. He has no idea who or where he is, but he has a nagging memory of a string of emeralds, shining in lamplight. Informed that he is Jim Riddell, husband of Nesta, he finds that hard to accept. And then Nesta tells him that he has stolen a string of emeralds, and she wants her share. Jim also learns that the owner of the emeralds, an American named Elmer Von Berg, has been shot, presumably during the robbery, and is at the point of death.

The story alternates between Jim and Caroline, as he tries to figure out who he is and what is happening, and she tries to find out where and who he is. There is considerable tension in those sections. In between her sleuthing, Caroline goes home, to the house that she shares with her older cousin Pansy Ann. Pansy (christened plain Ann) "sketched a little, and gardened a little, and painted a little on china. She also wrote minor verse..." Perhaps Patricia Wentworth meant her to add some humor to the story, to lighten the tension from time to time, but I feel like those sections interrupted a much more interesting story, and put it rather out of balance.

This was a fun read, even without Miss Silver. I still have a few of the non-series books to read, as well as two Miss Silvers, and two others featuring her frequent collaborators Ernest Lamb and Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard. I can't imagine how those two will manage to solve any crimes without her! I'm sure I'll still have something of Patricia Wentworth's on the TBR shelves when her turn comes in Jane's reading celebration (on November 10th). But if not, I've already discovered the joys of re-reading her books.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Romance of a Shop, by Amy Levy

This is the story of four sisters in London, left orphaned at the death of their father. With an inheritance of only £600 between them, they decide to open a photography studio to support themselves. Two of the four, Gertrude and Lucy Lorrimer, are already skilled amateurs, having turned the house's conservatory into a studio. The oldest sister, Fanny, is really a half-sister to the other three. Much more conventional, she agrees to the plan only reluctantly, though she does pledge her own independent income of £50 to their support. The youngest sister, Phyllis, has been rather spoiled by the others, who want to spare her any heavy work.

I learned about this 1888 novel from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock (actually from a review on her old blog, Fleur in Her World). Several elements of the story put this onto my reading list. I am partial to stories about orphans having to make their way in the world. I love those about women opening their own businesses, particularly with Victorian women stepping out of traditional roles. And I am fascinated with the history of photography, and with old photos (it's one of the things I love about working in archives). I immediately thought of the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Broadview edition of the novel that I read mentions her in the supplemental material.

All of these elements come to play in the novel, which I found fascinating. I liked the sisters, and I wanted them to succeed. Amy Levy goes into detail about how they find a location for their work, as well as a place to live, and about how they organize their business. They have to contend with some opposition from an aunt, as well as Fanny's concerns about propriety. They struggle at first, and they lose some old friends, though their dear friend Constance Devonshire stays true. I was reminded here of Louisa May Alcott's stories, particularly An Old-Fashioned Girl, where Polly finds a supportive community of young women, working like herself. Levy also shows how the Lorrimers' business grows through different types of commissions, including photos for artists to work from, and pictures of the dead. As the notes explain, this was a regular event in Victorian life. I have seen photos of the dead, in coffins and out, in archives where I've worked, as well as in books. I find them disturbing, but I can understand how they must have brought comfort, in an age before the plethora of photos that we have today to document a loved one's life.

With these commissions, the sisters are introduced to London's art scene. The beautiful Phyllis makes quite an impression, and the well-known painter Sidney Darrell asks her to pose for him. (Fanny goes along as chaperone.) Meanwhile, they have also met Frank Jermyn, an illustrator for the London papers, and Lord Watergate, a respected amateur scientist (who wants Gertrude to make some slides for his lectures, another commission). Unfortunately Phyllis has developed bright eyes, high color, and a bad cough - and we all know what that means in a Victorian novel. She is also bored, with too much time on her hands, only helping occasionally in the studio, and therefore too susceptible to Sidney Darrell.

Amy Levy brings the sisters through their adventures to a neat and fairly happy ending (well, three-quarters of a happy ending). I was shocked to read in the introduction that she herself committed suicide (in her family home) at age 27, just a year after this novel was published. For me, that cast a shadow over the story that she told here. I learned that she published only two other novels, both in the year of her death. I'm interested to read more of her work, particularly her last novel, Miss Meredith. My Broadview edition includes some of her journalism, including a very interesting article on women's clubs; selections of her poetry; and a (very) short story. I appreciated the supplemental information, such as contemporary reviews of the novel, and excerpts from an 1857 article on photography. I was also interested to learn from the introduction that Amy Levy was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham College; a photograph of her with her fellow women students is included.

Several people, Claire, Simon, and Barb among them, have started another Century of Books reading project this year. Meanwhile, my own Mid-Century of Books has sadly languished - I stopped even noting the years of the books I was reading. Now, however, I can add another year! Maybe I'll manage to finish a decade or two this year.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Innocents, for Margery Sharp Day

Happy Birthday, Margery Sharp! Once again Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a celebration in her honor. In fact, she has expanded her birthday calendar to include sixteen women authors. I'm looking forward to a year of reading and celebrating, especially with Dorothy Canfield Fisher up next in February.

For this month's author, I chose The Innocents, her last novel, which I first read about on Jane's blog.

I was just getting ready to write a brief summary of the novel, which is told in the first person, but I couldn't remember the narrator's name. It is only now, after paging through the book again for 10 minutes or so, that I realized she never names herself or is given a name. No one passing her on the street in her small East Anglia village even says, "Good morning, Miss X." I didn't notice this, reading her story. I remember that she is the daughter of the former vicar, that she is past middle age, that she never learned to swim, that she loves watching the artichokes in her garden grow. But I have no idea of her name, and that feels wrong now.

The story that she is telling begins with an Outdoor Fête, where a beautiful young woman from the village meets a visitor from America. Robert Guthrie, staying with his cousin Tom, is immediately taken with Cecilia, who runs a small dress-shop out of her cottage. He takes her back to the States with him. Six years later, in June of 1939, they return for Tom's funeral, on their way to a European holiday. They have brought with them their three-year-old daughter Antoinette. Both parents now have qualms about taking the child on their travels, and our narrator agrees to keep the little girl with her while they're gone. The outbreak of the war catches the Guthries in Austria. They manage to get back to New York, but without their daughter. Antoinette spends the war years with our narrator, developing a close bond and a regular routine with her.

Our narrator has never married, never spent much time with children, though she has watched the village's parents and children with an observant eye. She quickly realizes that Antoinette is not a normal child: "during those very first days of our life together it became clear to me that Cecilia's daughter was what in earlier times would have been called an innocent." She later uses the word "retarded" in passing, a standard term when this book was written in 1972 (and afterward for that matter). Our narrator accepts this, accepts Antoinette very much as she is, and sets out to make a happy and fulfilling life for her, within the boundaries of what she can do and be.

The war had little impact on their quiet village. But with peace comes Cecilia's determination to bring her daughter back to New York. When she arrives, however, it is clear that she has no understanding of Antoinette's situation, and in fact is in complete denial about it, though it must have been apparent even before their separation. Under her brisk treatment, Antoinette starts to regress, to shut down. Our narrator can only stand and watch. Nothing she says to Cecilia, no appeal for the child's sake, makes any difference.

I enjoyed this book very much. I was sometimes reminded of The Flowering Thorn, another of Margery Sharp's books about a woman taking on a child to raise. Both women lack experience with children, both learn as they go. But our narrator here has a bigger challenge, in dealing with a special-needs child, without the resources that a foster parent today would have. I liked our narrator very much. On the surface, she might have passed for one of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, but as she says herself, "I am not in the least sweet-natured."
I am highly critical, and easily displeased by circumstances which I unfortunately cannot control. It would accord better with my temperament, I often think, had I been born a fishwife, licensed to strong language and even physical belligerence; or else a tycoon with a retinue of understrappers, who when I said "come" or "go" came and went unquestioningly as helots. Being instead an elderly single woman of no position and small means, I do the best I can for myself by appearing sweet. . . Of course to preserve this fictitious character I need to do more than my share of disagreeables, such as watching by sickbeds till the doctor comes, at a pinch watching by corpses after he has left, breaking news of bereavements, and in general continuing to act as I'd acted all through my girlhood and then young-womanhood as an unpaid auxiliary curate. Early training stands me in good stead! I am nevertheless by nature far more fishwife or tycoon - who in the way of lack of inhibitions must have much in common - and have never doubted that in any real crisis I would react as ruthlessly as either, only so far there had been no occasion.
Margery Sharp dropped one or two large hints about how the situation with Antoinette might be resolved, so I wasn't surprised by the ending, though I was a bit taken aback. As I said, I did enjoy this book, in large part because of our narrator.

Thank you to Jane for hosting this celebration of Margery Sharp, and for inspiring me to read her books. I still have Lise Lillywhite and The Gipsy in the Parlour on the TBR shelves, but I've just been reading a review of In Pious Memory that greatly intrigues me.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

This is the story of two women, who live in neighboring houses in an exclusive enclave in Cape Town called Katterijn. We meet Hortensia James first, as she walks toward a wooded rise, a place of refuge from the home where her husband of sixty years is dying. When she and Peter bought that home, No. 10, she became the first black person to own a house in the development. In the thirty years that she has lived there, she has carried on a feud with the owner of No. 12, Marion Agostino. Marion, whose own husband has recently died, heads up a community association that keeps a close eye on the neighborhood. Hortensia found out about the association by accident, Marion having neglected to invite her. She began attending to make a point, even though the trivialities discussed often bore her, but there is always the chance of scoring a point off Marion, or getting under her skin.

The story moves back and forth between the two women, both in their 80s, telling us the stories of their lives, how they came to Katterijn. Marion was an architect with her own firm, until she gave up her career to stay home with her four children. In one of her first commissions, she designed the house where Hortensia now lives, and she has always wanted that house for herself. A lot of her antagonism toward Hortensia is rooted in that envy. Hortensia, born in Barbados, studied art in England. After graduating, she opened a design firm that produces award-winning textiles. When she and Peter (who is white) moved to Nigeria for his work, she opened a studio there, and carried it on to South Africa with their last move. Both women are intensely proud of their own work, their careers, but see the other's as a trade, nothing to brag about. I was pleasantly surprised to find two career women at the center of this story, one still actively working in her 80s. (The author has her own architectural practice, in Johannesburg, according to her author bio.)

One day an accident occurs at Hortensia's house, the effects of which boomerang to Marion's. In the aftermath, the two women slowly begin to talk, rather than just arguing or shutting down. Each has secrets, problems, anxieties she has been carrying alone. Each has been very much alone. But there is so much between them, not just the years of dislike, but the vast differences of race, of background, of experience. Marion, the child of Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe in the 1930s, grew up wrapped in white privilege. Throughout her life, she has closed her eyes to apartheid, to her own racism, to the way she treats her black housekeeper (who must eat from separate dishes, segregated between meals in plastic containers).

Hortensia, a black woman from the Caribbean, who has lived in England and in Nigeria, moved to South Africa after apartheid. As a black woman, she is very much aware of its history and its lasting effects, of the racism like Marion's that still lives. She experienced that racism herself, as a student in England, in marrying a white man, living in Nigeria. Yet she is also on some level an outsider in South Africa, an immigrant herself, which gives her a unique perspective. That's part of the complexity of this story. There are so many layers to their women, their histories, their lives. They are both so strong, have survived so much, but they are also both deeply flawed, as we come to understand.

This is the first of Yewande Omotoso's books to be published in the United States. I am so glad that I came across it on the "New Books" shelves in the library, and I've added her to my "author track" list there, so I'll get an alert about any new books (or if her previous book Bom Boy is released in the US).

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King

I bought a copy of this book when it first came out in 2015, Laurie R. King being one of the authors whose books I usually buy in hardback (on publication day, if possible). But when I sat down to read it, I found it hard going. Less than half-way through I put it down, never picked it up again, and eventually, during one of my culls, passed it along to the library sale. This time, I sailed through it, and it has already become one of my favorites in the series.

There are three sections to the story. It opens in England in March of 1925. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have just returned to their Sussex home after their adventures in Portugal (Pirate King) and North Africa (Garment of Shadows). They discover that a familiar-looking Japanese rock sculpture has been placed in their garden. Then when Russell returns to her own house in Oxford, she finds a young Japanese woman, bleeding in her kitchen.

The story then shifts back a year. Russell and Holmes are preparing to sail from Bombay (after the events of The Game), en route eventually to San Francisco (where the action of Locked Rooms takes place). Boarding the ship at the last moment is the Earl of Darley, with his recent bride (a second wife) and his son. Holmes believes the earl to be a blackmailer and suspects he may have a victim on the ship or in one of the ports they will visit. A young Japanese woman slips aboard the ship in the Darleys' wake. Russell, who later meets her on deck, learns that she is Haruki Sato, returning to Japan after studies in the United States. Miss Sato agrees to tutor Holmes and Russell in Japanese, and she ends up giving a series of lectures on different aspects of Japanese life to the other passengers.

[It was at this point in my first read that I lost interest. I remember that the voyage seemed to be taking forever, days of sailing with lectures and lessons and nothing much else. I had a very different reaction this time, so perhaps I was just having a bad reading day or two back then.]

On their arrival in Japan, Russell and Holmes are offered a commission, to retrieve a particular item, the loss of which would have the gravest political implications. Before they are accepted as consultants, however, they are put to the test: first, to make their way across Japan not as wealthy visitors, but using their skills and as much of the language as they were able to acquire. This was my favorite part of the book, watching them work out ways and means, ingenious as always, but also seeing Japan through their eyes - their open, curious, and accepting eyes.

I won't say too much about their work in Japan, to avoid spoilers, nor about its sequel in Oxford, except that it involves the Bodleian Library. I half-expected Mary to come across Harriet Vane, settled in the reading room, but then Gaudy Night is set a few years later.

I really enjoyed this book. I still have the next, The Murder of Mary Russell, on the TBR shelves, and then a new Russell and Holmes coming out later this year.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Library Thing

I joined Library Thing in November 2013, and while I add new books as I acquire them, I still don't have every book I own entered. Today I discovered that more than half of my sizable Wodehouse section wasn't catalogued there. I spent a happy hour of my holiday figuring out which ones weren't and adding them. With Wodehouse, as with Patricia Wentworth, this will help me avoid duplicates, since I can't keep all the titles straight, between say Big Money, Uneasy Money, Money in the Bank and Money for Nothing, not to mention all the titles with "Jeeves" in them.

I currently have 1386 books listed in "Your Books." I think there are somewhere around 150 more to add, not counting a few duplicates (mostly Jane Austen and Dorothy Dunnett).

I use LT mainly to catalogue my books. I haven't really explored the other features, though I do have a few "friends." One of my favorite sections is "Members with your books," and my favorite part of that is where LT suggests what books I should borrow from them. I trust the warning that comes with those lists is tongue-in-cheek: "Obviously that does not necessarily mean you can borrow the books."

Usually when I click on that link, the first name on my "to borrow" list is Ngaio Marsh, with ten or more titles. The thing is, I've read Ngaio Marsh. I used to own some of her books. But something - what's the opposite of clicked? I came to realize that I don't care for her books. I've looked, but I can't figure out how to tell LT to please stop recommending Ngaio Marsh, or other authors I don't want to read.

I've just discovered the section where I can record how many times I read a particular title, which I'm always interested to know. I think of myself as a re-reader, and looking over my reading logs (and this blog) bears that out. I like knowing what I've been re-reading and when. With some books, it's almost every year. This weekend it was some Terry Pratchett books last read in 2007 (though I could have sworn more recently).

If there are any particularly useful or fun features of Library Thing, I'd love to know about them. And I should really figure out the groups, since I technically but passively belong to the Virago and Persephone group.

Edited to add: I've spent two "ice days" at home, checking my books against Library Thing. I quickly realized that 1) I have a lot more books than I realized and 2) I am a serious book squirrel, piling up TBR books. It's time to dig them out. I'm filling a bag for the library sale as well.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Anticipation, mysterious edition

I absolutely stole borrowed this heading from Audrey.

When I opened Laurie R. King's newsletter yesterday, I did a double-take when I read that she is "going to revisit Kate Martinelli for a story of some kind..." I'd heard somewhere that Kate has a voice-over cameo in LRK's latest novel Lockdown, but otherwise she hasn't been seen since The Art of Detection in 2006. I've never given up hope for more stories with Kate (and Lee, Nora and Al), just like I keep hoping for another book set in the world of Califia's Daughters.

Now, I know "going to revisit" doesn't mean "publishing any time soon," so I won't be holding the proverbial breath. But I will be on the look-out for updates. In the meantime, there will be a new Mary Russell book out this year. And that means I need to catch up, since I'm two behind on that series.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Keep Going and Like It, by Marjorie Hillis Roulston

Reading Jane's review of Marjorie Hillis's Live Alone and Like It reminded me that there were other books by Hillis to read - and now a book about her, The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts. I was happy to find two of her books available through inter-library loan. The first to arrive was this one, subtitled "A Guide to the Sixties and Onward and Upward With Some Irreverent Rhymes."

Chapter One, "The Young Sixties and Seventies," begins,
This little book is written in the belief that you can have as interesting, useful, and even gay life in the sixties and seventies and often the eighties as at any other time in your life. You can also be miserable. The latter is equally true at twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty.
Chapters on the active life, travel, clothes and make-up, illness, housing, dating, and food follow, much as in her earlier books. There is also a chapter on grandchildren, which is more about how to be a good grandmother. A central theme of this book, as in her earlier ones, is that life take planning and purpose, and some effort, if you want to get the most out of it.

Despite the similarities to Hillis's earlier books, I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much. It was written thirty years later, in 1967, yet paradoxically it feels more dated to me. And while Hillis was careful to include advice for those on limited budgets, the book seems aimed more at the well-off. She takes it for granted that her readers will have a maid at least. (If moving, they might want to find a home with easy access to a movie theater, to please the help.)  I felt her photo on the back cover suggested the type of woman she was writing for here, fur cuffs and all.

I also missed the (probably fictional) "Case studies" that Hillis used to underline her points in the early books. I don't think that her "irreverent rhymes" added much to this book. She wrote another book, Work Ends at Nightfall, entirely in verse. I haven't looked for a copy of it yet. On the other hand, she includes more examples and anecdotes from her own life, and those I did enjoy. And it was a pleasant surprise to come across two references to Houston. She commended the excellent opera company here (still going strong), and she included it on a list of cities worth visiting for their "art, culture, shopping, and night life..." (recommending travel in the U.S. and Canada, and not just for those who can't afford to travel abroad).

In the end, this was a couple of hours' pleasant reading, but not a patch on Live Alone and Like It. The other book I have requested is You Can Start All Over, is a guide for widows and divorcées - the latter still slightly scandalous, I would think, when it was published in 1951.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Stanton, by Walter Stahr

The cover of this book caught my eye in Barnes and Noble. Any cover with Lincoln on it will get my attention.

Then I realized the book was by Walter Stahr, who wrote an outstanding biography of Lincoln's Secretary of State William Henry Seward. And just like that, I had found another Christmas present for myself!

Edwin Stanton was like Lincoln himself a lawyer. He was a much more prominent and better-paid lawyer, in fact. He was also a Democrat, but he strongly supported the Union, particularly after Lincoln's election brought Southern states to secession. In December of 1860, Stanton accepted the office of Attorney General in the cabinet of outgoing president James Buchanan. In those last months of his administration, Buchanan waffled over how to respond to secession, allowing Southern states to take over government property, including arsenals and weapons. (Until this year, Buchanan was often rated the worst president in American history.) In the cabinet, Stanton was among those pushing the president to protect and preserve the Union. One year later, when Lincoln's Secretary of War had proven himself incompetent and (some said) corrupt, he offered the position to Stanton. Stanton had no military experience, but he was hard-working, a very skilled organizer and executive, and incorruptible. He was committed to Lincoln, to preserving the Union, to winning the war. He became equally committed to the African American soldiers that he welcomed to the army, and to the former slaves emancipated by Lincoln's proclamation and Union victory. Stahr argues that "Lincoln deserves his reputation as the 'Great Emancipator,' but Stanton should perhaps be known as the 'Implementer of Emancipation.'" It was his commitment to the freed people that led him into conflict with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson wanted political and social control of the Southern states returned to whites. Johnson's attempts to remove Stanton from his cabinet led to his impeachment, the first in U.S. history.

Walter Stahr has written another excellent biography. I knew something of Stanton from all that I have read about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. They had a close partnership in the war, and they genuinely loved and respected each other. I did not know much about Stanton's early life, which was not an easy one. After his father's death left the family in poverty, he was apprenticed at age 13 to a bookseller. "A friend remembered that Edwin was 'just high enough to get his chin above the counter...'" I was fascinated by his later work for the government, investigating land claims in California. Stanton traveled out to California and spent months in archival research, collecting boxes of documents that eventually helped prove the deeds presented in court were forgeries. It was also fascinating to see the Civil War from a different perspective, through the work of the War Department. Stahr highlights the ways that Stanton used the power of his office to silence dissent, through arrests and trials before military commissions, which denied the accused their rights. He also used that power to help Republicans win elections, playing a key role in Lincoln's 1864 re-election. And he took control of the investigation into Lincoln's assassination and the trial of the accused conspirators.

Stahr recognizes and pays tribute to Stanton's gifts, to the immense contributions that he made to winning the Civil War and to helping the freed people. But he doesn't gloss over his many faults. He quotes frequently from my favorite diary-keeper of the period, George Templeton Strong.  As an officer of the Sanitary Commission, helping to care for Union soldiers in the field and hospital,  Strong had to work with Stanton. He wrote of Stanton after his death,
Good and evil were strangely blended in the character of this great War Minister. He was honest, patriotic, able, indefatigable, warm-hearted, unselfish, incorruptible, arbitrary, capricious, tyrannical, vindictive, hateful, and cruel. Robespierre had certain traits in common with Stanton. I mean no disrespect to Stanton, who was infinitely bigger and better than that miserable Frenchman - but their several failings were not unlike.
In the end, Stahr argues that "Stanton was not a good man, but he was a great man."
He played a central role in winning the central war in American history. He lived and worked with great men, Lincoln and Grant and Sherman. He was one of them. For all his faults, he deserves our praise.
I agree, and I think this biography does him full justice.

I don't know what Walter Stahr will write next, but I will read it. I'd love to see him tackle the other members of Lincoln's cabinet. I nominate the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, who was a difficult character in his own right. He left behind a wonderfully snarky diary covering the war years (Stahr quotes his unkind comments on Stanton). It was recently published in a new edition that I have so far resisted buying.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Finding a book again

Last night at Half Price Books I came across one that I've been trying to find for years, An American Primer, edited by Daniel J. Boorstin. It's a collection of foundational documents in United States history, starting with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Lyndon Johnson's 1965 "Address on Voting Rights." I had a copy of this in college, and somewhere along the way I got rid of it. The problem in trying to find it again was that I couldn't remember the title or the author/editor. Describing it as "a book of historical documents" didn't get me anywhere. These days I keep track of the books I dispose of, as well as books I read but don't own, because I'm constantly forgetting titles and authors.

Looking at this again after thirty years, I was surprised at what isn't included, until I realized it was published in 1966. A modern edition would hopefully be more inclusive. There is nothing from Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, Jr. There is only one document from a Native American, and that in 1774. It does have the 1848 "Seneca Falls Declaration" on women's rights, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Address on the Divorce Bill" from 1861. Still, with its limitations, I think it's worth having. I can and have looked up some of these documents on-line, like the Constitution, but it's nice having so many in one place. I've just realized though that this edition doesn't include the 25th amendment, passed in 1967, so I shall print out a copy to add in. We're certainly hearing a lot about that particular amendment these days.

I was also looking last night in the British history section. I was sick over Christmas and New Year's. I didn't get a lot of reading done, but I did watch some TV and movies. I happened on "The Young Victoria" on Netflix, the film with Emily Blunt. I'd seen it before, and I was drawn in again by the gorgeous costumes and settings. I was struck though by the scenes of the coronation, with Prince Albert supporting the new Queen from the audience. That didn't seem right to me, so I went to check. I could have sworn that I had a biography or two of Queen Victoria on the shelves, but I don't. (I have Gillian Gill's We Two, which confirmed that Albert was not at the coronation.) I don't know what happened to my copy of Christopher Hibbert's biography. I see I gave Elizabeth Longford's to the library sale several years ago. Now, I guess if I haven't even needed to consult them in that time, I haven't really needed them on my shelves, and I didn't buy a replacement last night. But it has made me wonder if maybe I have been a bit too quick to discard books, to make shelf space or to cull the TBR stacks, especially when faced with packing books to move. I'm trying to be more deliberate about acquiring books, and now I'm thinking about that when it comes to getting rid of books as well.

I also found a few Patricia Wentworth books on the shelves. I was dithering over Pilgrim's Rest, before I remembered to check Library Thing and confirm I already have that one. I've sent more than one duplicate copy to the library sale, but those at least I'm not likely to regret.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Pack of Cards, by Penelope Lively

This is a collection of short stories, some of which were originally published in an earlier book called Nothing Missing But the Samovar (the title of the first story). This collection, with additional stories, came out eight years later, in 1986.

I've read, I think, all but one of Penelope Lively's adult books, as well as two other collections of her stories. I had an idea of what to expect with these stories, and as I read them, I found familiar Lively scenes and settings. "Interpreting the Past" is set amid an archaeological dig in an English cathedral city, with a mixed staff of amateurs and professionals. "A Clean Death" features Carol, a girl like Lively herself sent home to war-time England and a girls' school where she is very much the square peg. Two of the stories involve time-crossing, and I'm still not sure what exactly is going on in the last story, "Black Dog," but it may be a haunting.

What really surprised me is how funny some of them are. I can't remember ever laughing out loud over her stories before. "Servants Talk About People: Gentlefolk Discuss Things" has a nephew lunching with a most unobservant and self-satisfied uncle and aunt. "Customers" features a jolly couple brazenly shoplifting. "A Long Night at Abu Simbel" leaves me disinclined to ever sign up for a package tour of Egypt. "Bus-Stop" takes you on a ride through London with a brisk conductor, until a passenger boards who is horrified to find him working such a menial job. And "The Emasculation of Ted Roper" - well, that's a masterpiece of misdirection.

I really enjoyed this collection. It has everything I love in Penelope Lively's books, in a wonderful variety. Next to Nature, Art is the last book of hers that I haven't read. I still have some of her children's books to find as well, and I'm looking forward to her new book, on gardens.