Saturday, May 25, 2019

An English Governess in the Great War, the diaries of Mary Thorp

I came across this book while looking for more accounts of nursing in the Great War. The subtitle caught my eye: "The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp." As the introduction explains, it was secret because anonymous, and because keeping a diary in occupied Belgium during the Great War was dangerous. In her first entry, in September 1916, Mary Thorp writes
Several times, in the beginning of the war, I wanted to start a diary, but was dissuaded from doing so, because it was considered dangerous; a Jesuit father was shot during the tragic Louvain days of August 1914, for having written a few impressions.
A footnote explains, "MT refers to the well-known fate of Eugène Dupiéreux, a young Jesuit student executed during the invasion of Louvain for keeping a diary of the 'atrocities.'"

What I have read on the Great War has focused mainly on the war itself, the experiences of soldiers and nurses. With the Second World War, I have read more about life on the home front, both in the United States and Britain, and under Nazi occupation in Europe. It was through Dorothy Canfield's short stories that I first saw the European home front in the Great War, written of course from an American perspective and focused on France and Belgium.

Mary Thorp lived most of her life in Belgium. Her parents moved there from England when she was nine, in part because of family conflict over their illegal marriage (her father married his deceased wife's sister, and only four months before Mary's birth at that). Mary took her first position as a governess in a Belgian family at age 24. The editors note that she was well-educated, speaking and writing French superbly. She had also converted to Catholicism at some point, which was an asset for an English governess. "By 1910, she was working for one of the wealthiest families in Belgium, the Wittoucks." Paul Wittouck owned one of the largest sugar refineries in Europe. Catherine de Medem Wittouck was a Russian aristocrat who "propelled the household to the center of Brussels social life..." Thorp had charge of their three sons, Pavel, Micha, and Serge. The family moved between their townhouse in Brussels and their summer residence, La Fougeraie, which Paul Wittouck had remodeled in the style of a Louis XIV chateau.

Mary Thorp's life with the Wittoucks was a comfortable one, and it certainly cushioned her against the worst effects of the German occupation of Belgium. She was very aware of her privilege. She volunteered with two organizations, the Assistance Discrète and the Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges, that provided food and other assistance to the needy. She visited clients, bringing them food and clothing, helping them with appeals to the German authorities, trying to find work for them. One 1917 diary entry records, "Mr. W. gave everyone in the house 5 kilos of delicious sugar," a very expensive gift at a time when sugar was heavily rationed. Thorp goes on to say "I have made 20 1/2 lb packets to give to the needy..." She could presumably do so because the Wittoucks' house was stocked with sugar, but I was still struck with her immediate generosity.

Mary Thorp kept her diaries in small notebooks. The editors, Sophie De Schaepdrijver and Tammy M. Proctor, have kept the divisions between the notebooks, with short introductions to each new volume that provide context both to Thorp's life at the time and the larger situation with the war. They also include a very helpful discussion at the start of the book on "Life in an Occupied City: Brussels," as well as many explanatory footnotes. I learned so much from this book, which gave me a completely new perspective on the war. It was sometimes difficult to read, as the war dragged endlessly on. The winter months were particularly hard, because the German authorities commandeered food to be shipped to back to Germany while also cutting fuel rations, to the point that civilians were dying of hunger and cold. There were also massive drafts of forced labor sent to Germany, devastating families. Again, Thorp was cushioned against these dangers, but she saw and recorded them among her friends and her voluntary work.

Mary Thorp remained with the Wittouck family after the war, eventually retiring with a pension to a home they provided. She lived through World War II in Belgium, dying in December of 1945. If she kept any diary of those years, it hasn't been found. I can only imagine what she felt in September of 1939.

The superb interlibrary loan services in our Harris County libraries found me a copy of this at Arkansas Tech University. However, they want it back, so I have found my own copy to add to my small but growing collection on the Great War.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have written before about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are deep in my literary DNA. I read others of her books as I came across them, never seeking them out or adding them to my shelves. I think I was comparing them all to Earthsea, and found them wanting.

As I've been reading more science fiction and fantasy, I've come to understand better Ursula Le Guin's place in the canon. I've also learned that some of the books I read along the way are part of her "Hainish Cycle." I decided that this was the year I would read the Cycle (it's not a series, as I understand it, more a loosely-connected cycle of stories). Her Hainish books have just been republished in two fat Library of America volumes. I was tempted by them, because they include stories and articles as well as introductory materials, but I find those kinds of heavy compendiums hard to read. That's true, but it was also an excuse to start collecting the individual books, which has substantially increased my TBR stacks and decimated my book buying budget.

I decided to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, purely because I came across it first in a bookstore. I read an article that Charlie Jane Anders wrote about it for the Paris Review, as well as a post she wrote about the Cycle on the Tor website. The articles convinced I'd made a good choice, but also suggested I'd been too quick to dismiss those other books of hers (and added more books to my shelves).

I have been slowly reading The Left Hand of Darkness over the past week, stretching it out, both because it is such an amazing book, and because I didn't want it to end. It is the story of two men. Genly Ai has been sent as the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen are something like Star Trek's Federation (and written years before the TV show) or the United Nations, a collection of planets bound together by treaty, to share knowledge. They seek other inhabited planets to join them, but again like Star Trek they only invite and offer - they have their own Prime Directive. Ai has spent two years in Karhide, one of Gethen's established countries, unable to make much progress despite the support of the prime minister Therem rem ir Estraven. Estraven has tried to help Ai understand both the local politics and the fraught situation with the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. It is collectively governed, unlike Karhide with its monarchy. If Karhide is not interested in an alliance with the Ekumen, perhaps Orgoreyn will be.

The narration of the story alternates between Ai and Estraven. There are also interspersed short chapters of Gethen stories, history, myths, even a section from the first Ekumen Observer to Gethen. This is to me one of Le Guin's greatest strengths as a storyteller: she creates worlds with the weight of history, tradition, language, which feel real and three-dimensional. They have a past as well as a present. She never overwhelms the reader with information, we discover it - and she trusts us enough not to explain everything. Here Ai is learning about Karhide, and then Orgoreyn. But he is human, he judges things and people through his own perceptions. I appreciated that Le Guin made him fallible, imperfect. There are fundamental misunderstandings, on both sides, which cause enormous problems for both Ai and Estaven. It takes Ai much longer to realize his own mistakes.

The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can absolutely see why. So did one of the later books in the series, The Dispossessed. I think there are some stories that return to Gethen, but I am looking forward to discovering the other worlds that Ursula Le Guin created for the Ekumen.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Nurse at the Front, The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton

August 13 [1915]

Last night was remarkable for two terrific explosions which woke us at 2 a.m. and frightened us out of our wits. People have various theories of what they were - Zep[pelin] bombs, mines being exploded or our own guns a field or two away. The whole building trembled and rattled with the vibration. Have been feeling thoroughly nervy all day, silly fool that I am.

August 14

Evacuated nearly all patients, so had half day off duty and spent it at Mont des Cats with Miss Congleton. Delightful sunny day with splendid views all over Pop[eringhe], Ypres, Vlamertinghe. A Roman Catholic padre left his binoculars us, so we had a wonderful clear view beyond La Bassée, and the colours of the sky at sunset were glorious. As it got dark we saw them sending up coloured rockets from the aerodrome. . . Shells were bursting over our trenches south of Ypres. The picture was vivid, and the huge volume of smoke and muck shot up into the air gave a suggestion of what was happening to our Tommies. All the time the khaki-coloured ambulances were creeping to and fro, bringing the wounded in. 

This was one of the books that Mary Robinette Kowal cited as background reading for Ghost Talkers, and I put it straight on to my reading list. I've read only one other diary from World War I (as opposed to memoirs), and it was also from a nurse, the American Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister." Like Boylston, Edith Appleton was a trained nurse, though she had years more experience before she joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service Reserve. A month later, she was at her first posting in France, and by February she had moved to the front. She served in hospitals and casualty stations across France and Belgium. After the Armistice, she remained to help with the transport of convalescent soldiers. The diary she kept was apparently sent home on a regular basis to her mother. In 2008, her family built a website to honor her memory, and the publication of her diaries followed.

It is clear from the entries just how hard Appleton and the other nurses worked, and how exhausted she often was. The exhaustion wasn't just physical either. Appleton took every chance she could to get away from the work, noting long walks and picnics, and writing about the "splendid views" and the scenery around her - as well as the contrast with the columns of "smoke and muck" and the long lines of wounded and dead. She appreciated simple comforts where she found them, sharing biscuits and chocolate with a friend on a walk, relaxing with a book for a few minutes. When she was assigned to a unit temporarily housed in a wing of a "lunatic asylum," the director offered the nurses the use of the patients' bathroom.
I don't fancy bathing in company, but since I have not sat in water deeper than an inch since last year, the temptation is great. . .Three of us went up to another part of the asylum at 7 a.m, and had a deep BATH! Up to our necks in water - glorious! A dear old nun came trotting in when I was in my bath and felt to see if the water was the right heat. She thought the bath was too full and pulled the plug by a patent in the floor. I was sitting on the hole where the water runs away and was sucked hard into it!
Even more than a century later, it is difficult to read about the suffering of Appleton's patients. She didn't go into gruesome detail, perhaps because she was writing for her mother, but she didn't gloss over things either. She recorded the first use of gas in the trenches, and its effects on the men coming in to her ward. She noteed the deaths of individual patients who somehow stood out amidst all the carnage. She tried to give them all a clean handkerchief, because that small thing brought them great comfort. This is not a comfortable book to read - and it shouldn't be - but it is a wonderful record of one part of the Great War by a brave, observant and compassionate woman.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Take Out, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced that she was retiring from writing, it finally motivated me to try her first series, police procedurals centered around Lt. Sigrid Harald of the New York Police Department. I have for many years been a big fan of the Deborah Knott series set in the fictional Colleton County, North Carolina. I re-read the books regularly, and I was sorry when Maron announced that the 20th, Long Upon the Land, would be the last. I've gotten very attached to Judge Deborah Knott and her extended family.

I had already read Maron's two stand-alone novels, Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer, both set in North Carolina as well. The events in Bloody Kin take place before the first Deborah story and though it doesn't feature the Knott family, it introduces people who play important parts in the series. I also tracked down two books of her short stories, the covers of which I find unsettling:

I remember picking up one of the Sigrid Harald books at the library at some point, but it was late in the series and concerned the death of a major character. That didn't seem a good place to start, but it also didn't inspire me to look for the earlier books. I finally "met" Sigrid in Three-Day Town, where Deborah and her husband Dwight spend a belated honeymoon in New York (and of course stumble into a murder case). Sigrid, whose grandmother lives in Colleton County, then comes to North Carolina in the following book, The Buzzard Table. When Margaret Maron wrote a final book for Sigrid's series, I decided it was time to complete my collection of her books and finally read those stories.

I enjoyed the series, if not quite as much as the Knott books. I appreciate a police series with a woman lead, and these also include minimal gore. However, Take Out is not the place to start the series, if anyone were inclined to start a nine-book series with the last book (I couldn't, myself). It begins with One Coffee With, where Sigrid and her team are called to investigate a murder in the art department of Vanderlyn College. They follow the familiar police procedural format, as different members of the team follow up leads under Sigrid's directions. There are personal asides as well, such as Sigrid's relationship with her mother, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist. Sigrid's father, also an NYPD detective, was killed in the line of duty when she was a child, and we gradually learn more about his death and her parents' lives.

I don't know if this counts as a spoiler, but I'll leave a couple of extra lines just in case.

We also see Sigrid's slowly-developing relationship with Oscar Nauman, whom she meets during the investigation at the college. He is the chair of the department and also one of the leading artists of the 20th century. Sigrid is a prickly loner who doesn't want to get involved with Nauman, but he gradually wins her over (and not in a creepy demanding way). But then, just as they settle into their relationship, he is killed in a car accident in California. Sigrid collapses into grief, and that book (Past Imperfect) was really hard to read. She also learns that Nauman has left his entire estate to her. With the paintings alone she is suddenly rich, yet also responsible for his legacy.

Take Out opens about a year after his death - though oddly before the events in Three-Day Town (and as a reference to "the Towers" makes clear, before 9/11). The case involves two men found dead on a bench, with containers of take-out food between them. The lasagna and fettuccine they shared turn out to be laced with coumadin, a blood thinner. One of the victims was a homeless man, Matty, a drug addict whose godmother (a Mafia widow) regularly sent boxes of take-out to the park bench. There seems to be no connection with the other man, Jack, a retired stagehand. The investigation plays out against a background of disturbing news for Sigrid: a young man has arrived from Germany, claiming to be Nauman's biological son and therefore entitled to his estate. There is also a neat little subplot linking back to Corpus Christmas, set in a not-very-exciting historic house museum. Maron writes in an "Author's Note" that "those pictures that had been left stashed in the basement of the Breul House...kept begging to be taken out of that trunk," and partly inspired this book.

Like the other books in the series, Take Out feels a bit old-fashioned to me, and not just because Maron deliberately set it in the 1990s. I think I will pick up these books when I am in the mood for a police procedural. I re-read the Knott books for the setting and the characters, as much as for the cases that Deborah and Dwight investigate. Actually, writing this makes me think it may be time for another visit back to Colleton County.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Death by Dumpling, by Vivien Chien

This mystery is set in an enclosed shopping area called Asia Village, in Cleveland, Ohio. It is narrated by 27-year-old Lana Lee, who impulsively quit her job one day. "You know in the movies where someone says, 'You can't fire me, I quit!' . . . maybe don't do that in real life. Unless you don't mind working a a server in your parents' Chinese restaurant for the rest of your life." Her parents are thrilled to have her back at the Ho-Lee Noodle House. Lana isn't, but she needs to pay rent on the apartment she shares with her best friend Megan and her other bills.

I liked Lana's voice from the start. "Things to know about me: I'm half English, half Taiwanese, and no, I don't know karate. I'm definitely not good at math and I don't know how to spell your name in Chinese. . . Oh, and I have a problem with doughnuts."

On the day the story opens, Lana takes a lunch-time delivery to Asia Village's owner, Mr. Feng, in his office. As she arrives, another tenant named Kimmy Tran storms out and informs Lana that he is raising rents on the stores by 15%. Her parents won't be able to afford that. Lana takes the bag of food in to Mr. Feng and chats with him for a few moments, then returns to the restaurant. A couple of hours later, her mother's best friend Esther Chin rushes into the restaurant to find Mrs. Lee. She brings the shocking news that Mr. Feng was found dead in his office. Even worse, he died from an allergic reaction to the shrimp dumplings that Lana delivered to him. But everyone in the Village knew of his deadly allergy. Peter, the cook at the Noodle House, was always very careful in preparing and cooking his food. Lana took Mr. Feng his usual order of pork dumplings, so where did the shrimp dumplings come from? When the police arrive, Peter is taken into custody. But Lana finds that fingers are also pointing her way, since she delivered the food to Mr. Feng. She and her roommate Megan decide that the police are on the wrong track, especially in suspecting Peter, so they decide to do some investigating on their own. Megan even buys Lana a book about how to become a private detective. The actual detective in charge of the case, the dark and brooding Lt. Adam Trudeau, takes a very dim view of this.

I enjoyed this story very much. It was interesting to explore the Village, with its community of owners running a variety of stores, and some of their loyal customers. As in any community, there are alliances and sometimes hostilities. There is also history between the members, which plays a big part in the story. It was fun too following Lana and Megan's detective work. At one point, Lana starts the kind of "motive, means and opportunity" list that comes up so often in Golden Age mysteries. However, she and Megan quickly lose control of it, with additions and deletions scribbled all over the place. Mine would look the same, I'm sure. And I enjoyed the family dynamics between Lana and her parents, and her over-achieving older sister Anna May as well (a law student).

This was a very satisfying mystery, with a vivid sense of place. Despite the restaurant setting, there is no food porn here, but people are always eating, and I did find myself thinking of noodles more than once. I am pleased that there are two more books in the series, Dim Sum of All Fears and Murder Lo Mein (that one published just last week).

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I loved the cover of this book, and the story caught me from the first page:
16 July 1916

    "The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died."
    Ginger Stuyvesant had a dim awareness of her body repeating the solder's words to the team's stenographer. She tried to hold that awareness at bay, along with the dozens of other spirit circles working for the British Army. Even with a full circle supporting her, she ached with fatigue, and if she weren't careful that would pull her back into her body. It wouldn't be fair to force Helen to assume control of the circle early. The other medium was just as exhausted. Around them, the currents of the spirit world swirled in slow spirals. Past events brushed her in eddies of remembrance. Caught in those memories, scent and colour floated with thick emotion. The fighting at the Somme had kept the entire Spirit Corps working extra shifts trying to take reports from the dead, and the air was frigid with souls.
In this Great War, the British Army has a secret weapon. Mediums have worked out a way to route the souls of the soldiers who die on the battlefield away from The Light long enough to report what they saw just before their death. "Spirit circles" linked through the mediums help them take these real-time reports while anchoring them firmly in this world. The information collected by the reports shapes British tactics and strategy. The crucial work of the Spirit Corps is camouflaged by the Women's Auxiliary Committee and its hospitality centers. Ginger's aunt, Lady Penfold, is the head of the Spirit Corps, reporting to the Army - though she usually skips all meetings, leaving Ginger to make the actual reports to the sometimes difficult Brigadier-General Davies.

On the same day that Ginger is taking reports from Delville Wood, she has a visit from her fiancé, Captain Benjamin Hartford, an intelligence officer. He brings bad news: "We've received reports that the Spirit Corps is being targeted by the Central Powers. . . The last thing [one dying soldier] heard was, Noch ein gespenstiger Spion . . . Another ghost spy."

I enjoyed this story on several levels. The work of the Spirit Corps is fascinating, with its circles of mediums and "mundanes," and the sensitives in between, each with her or his part to play in the work. Ginger's circle includes a soldier who lost a leg on the battlefield but chose to stay to work with the Corps rather than being invalided out. I enjoyed the interviews with the soldiers reporting in, as sad or difficult as they sometimes were. After drawing out the military information, the mediums encourage them to leave messages for family or friends. The magic of the story is grounded in the realities of the First World War. It was clear to me that Ms. Kowal had done her research, even before I read the "Historical Note" at the end of the book.

This being a story of the Great War, I was braced for a lot of deaths. I began to suspect early on that one character was doomed, and I decided to skip to the last chapter to check. Sure enough, this person was dead. I was a little put out by that, since I liked them. When I went back to my place in the story, I turned the very next page and read about their murder - which surprised me. So the story shifted to become a murder mystery, alongside the intelligence work both through the Corps and the officers like Captain Hartford, assessing in particular the risks to the Corps. But here those investigating the murder have the assistance of the victim, though their memories may be fragmentary and incomplete. And the recently-deceased become difficult to work with over time, even for experienced mediums.

I would happily read more stories of the Spirit Corps. In the meantime, I went looking for some of the books Ms. Kowal cited in the "Historical Note," starting with A Nurse at the Front: The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton. I'm also hoping interlibrary loan can find me a copy of Kate Adie's Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Bringing Down the Colonel, by Patricia Miller

When I saw this on the new book shelves at the library, I assumed from "A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age" in the subtitle that it was about the Woodhull sisters, whom I do find fascinating. I had never heard of Madeline Pollard, the "powerless" woman on the cover, but I found her story equally fascinating. It is one that played out in the newspapers across the country in 1893 and 1894, but has since been forgotten. Patricia Miller, a journalist, spent more than a decade researching and writing it. It has a particular resonance in 2019, particularly with the "MeToo" movement.

In June of 1893, Madeline Pollard took the unusual step of announcing her engagement to Col. Willie Breckinridge, a Confederate veteran and member of Congress whose wife had died the previous year. A month later Breckinridge, part of a powerful Kentucky political dynasty, married another woman in Louisville. In August, he was served with papers for a breach of promise suit that Pollard had filed. It wasn't just the suit, though, it was the explosive details that made the story front-page news. Pollard claimed that Breckinridge seduced her when she was a seventeen-year-old school girl, that she had been his mistress for more than ten years, that she had borne him two children, and that he had frequently promised to marry her when his wife died. He had even introduced her to a prominent Washington hostess, asking her to chaperone Pollard as his fiancée. Her suit demanded $50,000 in damages (well over a million dollars in today's rates - a fabulous amount in 1893).

Pollard was far from the first to make such claims. But she was the first to publish the details, and to appear publicly as a "Fallen Woman" who had broken the strict code of purity that late 19th century women were held to (white women at least, as Miller acknowledges). "I'll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his," Pollard said. That was a revolutionary statement: as Miller explains, the prevailing double-standard meant that women in cases like this bore all the blame, and they never prevailed in legal cases. In fact, women weren't allowed to even attend the trials, nor were the cases discussed in detail in news reports, to protect their delicacy and their purity. I had no idea that the future president Grover Cleveland was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Maria Halpin, who then became pregnant. He was also accused to taking the child from her and having her committed to an asylum, while refusing her any other support or assistance. His supporters painted her as a wanton woman, blaming her pregnancy on other men. Miller also instances the senator and former member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Simon Cameron, who was sued for breach of promise by Mary Oliver. Because Oliver had had other lovers, and was therefore a "bad woman," Cameron was under no obligation to marry her and her suit was dismissed.

Breckinridge and his supporters expected that Pollard's suit would be dealt with as easily. However, as Miller writes,
the emergence of Madeline Pollard "startled the whole country." This seemingly powerless woman from a backwater in Kentucky took on one of the nation's most powerful men - and by extension much of Washington - and won. By having the nerve to tell her story in public, she broke the conspiracy of silence that allowed powerful men like Breckinridge to prey on younger and less powerful women. She led Victorian America on a front-row tour of the various subterfuges - the lying-in homes, the orphan asylums, the homes for fallen women - that men used to maintain an underclass of "ruined" women. She showed how men like Breckinridge manipulated their power and social conventions to ensure that it was women, and their unwanted children, who took the fall for men's behavior. In doing so, Madeline inspired a generation of women to demand change and presaged conversations about powerful men and sexual privilege that resonate into the twenty-first century.
According to Miller, Pollard's case had a major impact on women in the South, where white men had been exploiting black women for centuries. White women had chosen to ignore it in their own families, as the diarist Mary Chestnut and others pointed out. This case broke that silence. It also started a conversation about women's rights that finally moved southern women to the suffragist cause.

Miller's account is filled with fascinating women: journalists, activists, society leaders, doctors, servants, nuns, and women running "assignation houses." The testimony of Sarah Guess, a former slave who kept one in Lexington that Breckinridge and Pollard used, was particularly damaging to his case. I was especially interested in Breckinridge's daughter Nisba, who managed a college degree but couldn't study law as she wanted. For white women of her class, who didn't marry, the only acceptable jobs were teaching and working in the new department stores. She wanted more, and it took her years to break free from family obligations. Towards the end of her long life, she began making notes for an autobiography that she never completed. That's too bad, I'd be interested to read more about her.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

One less book

I threw a book away today. A new hardcover. Normally, I would donate a book I didn't want to keep to the library sales, but this book had some pages where the print was faded and there were odd splotches of color obscuring what little text could be read. If I had wanted to keep the book, I might have tried to return it for a clean copy. I didn't feel I could donate it in the shape it was.

On some level it feels wrong to throw a book away, particularly a new one in such outwardly good shape. But I didn't want this book in my house. I was enjoying it until it turned very violent at the end, in a way that I found deeply disturbing. The backstory of one of the main women characters was gradually revealed over the course of the story, with an episode of psychological abuse that involved a severed body part (someone else's). A minor female character was tortured and sexually assaulted for hours, and then left to die alone. This is presented from her point of view, though at least not in extreme detail. Forty people, whom we are told are bad though we never see them in action, are burned alive.

The book is Wild Country by Anne Bishop. It is the latest in her series of books about the Others, powerful predators who in an alternate reality control the world and allow humans only so much space in it. I really liked the previous books in the series, though I don't seem to have written about them before. If there are any further books in the series, I won't rush to read them.

Now I feel like something soothing and comforting, where absolutely no one dies, not even a mouse.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Old Gentleman (The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer)

   When the black page announced my Lord Barham next morning, both Mr and Miss Merriot were with my lady in the morning room. My lord was ushered in, very point-de-vice, with laced gloves, and a muff of miniver, and a long beribboned cane. The muff and the cane were given into the page's charge; the door closed behind this diminutive person, and my lord spread wide his arms. 'My children!' he exclaimed. 'Behold me returned to you.'
    His children maintained an admirable composure. 'Like Jonah cast up out of the whale's belly,' said Robin.
    My lord was not in the least put out of countenance by this coolness. 'My son!' He swooped upon Robin. 'Perfect! To the last detail! My Prudence!'
    Prudence submitted to a fervent embrace. 'Well, sir, how do you do?' she said, smiling. 'We perceive you are returned to us, but we do not understand the manner of it.'
    He struck an attitude. 'But do you not know? I am Tremaine. Tremaine of Barham!'
    'Lud!' said Robin. 'You don't say so, sir!'
    He was hurt. 'Ah, you do not believe in me! You doubt me, in effect!'
    'Well, sir' - Prudence sat on the arm of Robin's chair, and gently swung one booted leg to and fro - 'We've seen you as Mr Colney; we've seen you as Mr Daughtry; we've even seen you as the Prince Vanilov. You cannot altogether blame us.'
    My lord abandoned his attitude and took snuff. 'I shall show you," he promised. 'Do not doubt that this time I shall surpass myself.'
    'We don't doubt that, sir.'
    My lady said on a gurgling laugh, 'But what will you be at, mon cher? What madness?'
    'I am Tremaine of Barham,' reiterated his lordship with dignity. 'Almost I had forgot it, but I come now into my own. You must have known' - he addressed the room at large - 'you who have watched me, that there was more to me than a mere wandering gamester!'
    'Faith, we thought it was just deviltry, sir,' Prudence chuckled.
    'You do not appreciate me,' said my lord sadly, and sat him down by the table. 'You lack soul, my children. Yes, you lack soul.'
The children who lack soul are, like himself, fugitives from the losing side of the Jacobite rebellion. They are in disguise, Prudence as "Peter Merriot" and Robin as his sister Kate, staying with Lady Lowestoft, who knows the whole story and their many years ranging across Europe in their tempestuous father's wake. Now he has appeared in London, claiming to be the lost Viscount Barham.

I know this isn't a favorite with some Heyer readers, who find the Old Gentleman as irritating as his children sometimes do. I think he is one of her most entertaining characters, and I love watching him stir up trouble. The reactions of his more conventional children - even in their cross-dressing disguises - always make me laugh. Prudence is also a favorite character, one of Heyer's calm, sensible women, with the saving grace of humor. She actually deals better with their wayward father than her brother does, as she navigates through male society. At least growing up with a "wandering gamester" has taught her to play cards, and to best cardsharps out to fleece the young man she appears to be. And she gains the support and friendship of another lovely character, "the mountain" Sir Anthony Fanshawe, whose keen grey eyes watch not just the outrageous Lord Barham, but also the Merriots, Peter in particular.

Published in 1928, this is one of Heyer's earlier books. The language is ornate, rather self-consciously "period," but it still fizzes with humor. And it's quite an exciting story, between the disguises and the lost heir - not to mention a runaway bride, and a compromising document that may undo them all.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sir Roderick Glossop

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, and I've been looking forward to this second. It starts off in the wake of the Abdication, with a high-profile wedding in Singapore between an American widow and her upper-class English fiancé. Chief Inspector Le Froy, Su Lin's boss at the new Detective and Intelligence Unit, has been asked to provide security for the Glossop-Covington wedding. That's in part because he is an old friend of the groom's father, Sir Roderick Glossop. I almost dropped the book when I read that.

Sir Roderick Glossop is of course a recurring character - and frequent antagonist - in some of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse novels, including Uncle Fred in the Springtime. He has two children in those books, neither of whom apparently went out to Singapore.

Now in addition to watching the mystery play out, I'll be on the loookout for more PGW connections. And I see there is a third book coming out in June, at least in the UK, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire

This is the sixth book in Seanan McGuire's "October Daye" urban fantasy series, set in and around San Francisco, and the series just keeps getting better with each book. The main character, October (or Toby), was introduced in the first book (Rosemary and Rue) as a changeling, born to a fae mother from whom she inherited certain abilities that help her work as a private detective in the fae communities. In this book, she is hired by a fae father, who has just learned about his own changeling child, Chelsea, a daughter who inherited his powers of teleportation. Her human mother thinks the fae have kidnapped her child, and she is threatening to reveal their existence to the human world, which will threaten the survival of all the fae. Chelsea doesn't know how to control her powers, and she is breaking through barriers between fae worlds, opening doors that must be closed. Toby has to track her down before she weakens those barriers to the point that worlds begin to collapse. She must also offer Chelsea what all changelings face as children or adolescents: the Choice between the human world and the fae. If she chooses the fae world, she will be separated forever from her human parent. This was the Choice that Toby made, and her fae mother has never forgiven the loss of her husband, Toby's father.

As a changeling herself, Toby understands Chelsea in a way that the pureblood fae never can. Not only did she face the Choice, but so did her own daughter Gillian, who chose the human world of her father. Toby's experiences with lost children and changelings often draw her to these kinds of cases.

This is a series that really needs to be read in order. There is a deep backstory to Toby, one that she is still figuring out. Ms. McGuire is good however at brief reminders of things that happened in previous books, without letting them distract from the current action. The stories are interesting in and of themselves, as Toby works out the different cases. Beyond that, there are three things that captivate me in the stories. The first is Toby herself. She is smart and snarky, but also scarred by her past, by the loss of her child and partner, and by the very complicated relationship with her mother Amadine, one of the most powerful of the fae but one of the least stable. We have gradually learned more about Amadine, but I get the feeling there are more secrets to be revealed.

The second is the family that Toby has built, starting with her liege lord and father figure Sylvester, Duke of Shadowed Hills. (The first book opens with Toby trying to find his wife and daughter, who have been kidnapped.) Then there is May, once the Fetch sent to foretell her upcoming death, now her sister and roommate. They share a house with Quentin, a fosterling at Sylvester's court who is Toby's squire. Toby doesn't know who his parents are, but they don't seem to mind that working with her has already gotten Quentin shot, or that he has had to break her out of (fae) prison. Sylvester assures her that they think her training will best prepare him for the modern worlds. Quentin's best friend Raj hangs around with them a lot. He is a Cait Sidhe, heir to the throne of the local Court of Cats. The king, his uncle Tybalt, has rescued Toby more than once, for reasons that she can't quite understand. (Ms. McGuire is also good at explaining the different races of fae, and keeping them clear in my mind at least, again without overwhelming). One of my favorite characters is The Luidaeg, an immensely powerful fae known and feared as "the sea witch." She and Toby have become friends over the course of the stories, as she has helped with Toby's cases, though her assistance comes at a high price - and not in money.

The third is the politics of a fae world where the Elders - Oberon, Titiania, and Maeve - have withdrawn, leaving their children vulnerable among the humans, but sometimes unable to live in peace among themselves. Fae society is organized along feudal lines. Duke Sylvester is Toby's liege, but they are both subjects of the Queen of Mists, who dislikes them both. At one point Toby herself inherited a territory and became a Countess in her own right, which infuriated the Queen. She later gave up the title (with relief) in part to prevent a war. There are alliances between different groups of the fae, and conflicts of course as well, which Toby must deal with as she works through the different cases she takes on.

I find these books so rich and satisfying that I have been taking a break between them, rather than rushing through the series as I often do. However, Ashes of Honor brought some very interesting developments, and left a couple of questions open, so I have moved straight on to the next, Chimes at Midnight.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A new series from Ovidia Yu, finally available in the U.S.

I was thinking the other day that I haven't seen a new book from Ovidia Yu in a while. When I checked her website, I found a new "Aunty Lee" story, Meddling and Murder. But I also learned that she has a new series, the first two books of which are finally available in the U.S. The summary of the first, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, sent me immediately in search of a copy:
    1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly and mysteriously, mission school-educated local girl Su Lin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.
    But then another murder occurs at the residence and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all Su Lin's skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy solve the murders - and escape with her own life.
Su Lin narrates most of the story, with occasional comments that show she is looking back at the events. "I was to come to know the bungalow on Frangipani Hill very well, but on that long-ago first day I was young and awestruck..." Brief sections also follow Chief Inspector Le Froy, told in the third person, presenting events and conversations that Su Lin learns about later.

I found Su Lin an interesting and sympathetic character straight from the first page, where she is caught between her formidable English mentor (who wants her to take a job with Le Froy) and her very traditional uncle (who has arranged three possible marriages for her).
Knowing Miss Nessa had a soft spot for me, I had asked her to help me find a job. I could not tell her that I longed to be independent like her, and see the world beyond Singapore, so I might have exaggerated my fear of being married off now my schooldays were over. In truth, [my grandmother] Ah Ma might have kept me at home with her to recoup the investment she had made in sending me to learn English reading and writing at the Mission School. I had been considered 'bad luck' since my parents had died from typhoid, and childhood polio had left me with a limp. It had seemed unlikely my family would ever be able to marry me off, but since I was the only child of Ah Ma's favourite son, she had decided to educate rather than sell me. My grandmother's moneylending and black-market businesses had made her rich in the continuing Depression, and she could afford to keep me at home to translate for her, run errands and monitor the household accounts. But grateful though I was to her, the school run by the Mission Centre had opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. I wanted more than a lifetime of toil under my grandmother or a mother-in-law. If I was to escape domestic captivity, I would need my own money, which was why I had to find a paying job. (It would have been easier if I had been an English woman rather than a Chinese girl, but I didn't worry about what I couldn't change.)
Su Lin's goal is a career in journalism, inspired by the character Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, "whom I had found far more interesting than the book's heroine." She takes the position with the Palins in part out of compassion for their daughter Deborah, at seventeen only a year older than Su Lin, but due to brain damage from an illness mentally a child of seven or so. But Su Lin is also motivated by curiosity, to know what happened to the dead woman, Charity Byrne, an orphan like Su Lin but with no other family. Inspector Le Froy, "known for his willingness to work with - and against - men of any race, language or religion," does discriminate against women. "In the newspapers he had been quoted as saying that the police force would never employ female officers because it was impossible to work with irrational persons." It's lovely to see his prejudices breaking down in the face of Su Lin's intelligence, competence, and compassion. "It was his first inkling of how tough a practical female can be."

There is so much to enjoy in this story, both the setting and the fascinating mix of peoples. Su Lin's best friend from school is Parshanti, whose British mother and Indian father put the family in a complicated, uneasy place in the community. Like Su Lin, Parshanti's options are limited now that her schooling is ended. Her father, a doctor, has trouble finding patients so he works with the police on forensics. Perhaps she will end up helping Su Lin in the cases to come!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Black God's Drums, by P. Djèjí Clark

This novella, the story of a 13-year-old orphan named Creeper living on the streets of New Orleans, just blew me away. To start with, it's 1884, and the American Civil War has paused (after eight years) with an armistice that divided the country and left slavery in the South. I do love alternate-world history, though I prefer ones where the Confederacy died the death it deserved. However New Orleans, as Creeper tells us,
"been free now going on more than two decades - ever since the slave uprising in that first year of the war. Caught the Confederates by surprise. They got so scared, they let the Free Coloured militias join up to help put it down. Only the militias switched over to the slaves and both of them took the city."
And in this world, airships have been developed, for which New Orleans has become a major port, a neutral and open one. When we first meet Creeper, she is settled in the hideaway she has established at the airship docks, where she can scout out "folks too careless with their purses, luggage, and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can't survive on just dreams."

Creeper also prefers to be high up over the city. Her mother, who died from yellow fever, told her that she "was Oya's child - the goddess of storms, life, death and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik..." Creeper, named Jacqueline at birth, can feel Oya in her mind, hear her voice, sometimes warning of dangers or calling her to some action.

When Creeper overhears a group of men plotting to kidnap a Haitian scientist due to arrive on an airship, who will be bringing "the Black God's Drums," she knows she has found something "Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight . . .that's gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who'll pay the highest price." What Creeper wants, more than money, is a place on an airship, to join a crew - and she has her heart set on a particular ship, the successful smuggler Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine's Midnight Robber. What she doesn't know until she meets the Captain is that the woman also carries a goddess's touch, Oshun, "The Bright Lady! Mistress of Rivers! Oya's sister-wife!" Creeper tells us "The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land."

P. Djèjí Clark packs so much action and excitement into his story, which takes place in the days before Mardi Gras (called "Maddi grà" here). I was particularly tickled by Creeper and Captain's visit to the convent of the Sacred Family, a gloss on the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded by Henriette de Lille in New Orleans as the first congregation for African American women in the United States (barred by racism from entering white orders). Sisters Eunice and Agnès who agree to help them are hilarious, but they are much more than comic relief, with more than one trick up the sleeves of their habits. As Creeper says, "Everyone knows the sisters help smuggle in runaways from the Confederacy." Those still enslaved are kept docile and helpless with chemical warfare, a gas called drapeto - a particularly chilling touch in the story.

I enjoyed this story so much. I loved the magic, and the technology, and the triumph of freedom in New Orleans (and Haiti). I hope there will be more of Creeper's adventures to come, especially if she talks her way on to that airship.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

    For one of us, it was the first book a librarian gave to her when she finally summoned up the courage to ask for a book recommendation - The Pink Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang. For the other, it was the one book she ever stole from her elementary school library - a book on mythology. (Not that it was okay to steal the book, but she will finally admit to it now, more than thirty years later, with the school shut down for good, and said thief living on the other side of the world from her hometown.)
    We both went on to devour other mythologies: Greek and Norse, from Ares to Danae to Thor to Odin. We fell in love with all those myths about powerful gods being vulnerable, about humans becoming heroes. Such stories taught us about mythology, about the beauty of folktales and legends, and about how stories of gods and goddesses are also stories about the human heart.
    But we never found similar compilations that were distinctly Asian. And so many times when we found Asian stories, they were ones retold by non-Asians that never felt quite right. They were always missing something. The stories felt superficial at best and at worst, quite hurtful. We longed for nuance and subtlety and layers, the embedded truths about culture that - more often than not - can only come from within.
    That's why this anthology is important to us. Here, diasporic Asians reimagine their favorite Asian myths and legends from their own viewpoints. We would have been overjoyed to have found this anthology, filled with characters with skin and hair and names like ours, in our beloved libraries. It's the book that was missing in our lives for far too long. ("From the Editors")
I loved mythology and folktales as a child. Looking back, I read mostly Greek and Roman mythology, and European-centered folktales. It is only recently that I have begun to diversify my own reading in those areas. When I saw this book listed in a Book Riot post, I was happy to find that my library had a copy.

Most of the authors in the collection are new to me, except for Aliette de Bodard (I have collected a couple of her ebooks but not yet read them). Some of their stories bring myths or folk tales into a modern setting, like E.C. Myers "The Land of Morning Calm," which translates the epic Korean myth the Chasa Bonpuli into an on-line gaming world; or Alyssa Wong's "Olivia's Tables," which brings the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival to a small town in Arizona (including the ghosts of Chinese immigrants brought in for mining work). Others take place in the mythical past, such as Rahul Kanakia's "Spear Carrier," where a young person is transported back to the epic battle that ends India's classic the Mahabharata (without ever quite understanding what they are doing there). Each story includes a note from the author, explaining the context and the background for the story she has chosen.

Some of the stories feel complete in themselves. With others, I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. "Olivia's Tables" is one of those, and also my favorite story, "Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers," by Preeti Chhibber. It's set at a community celebration of Navratri, a Hindu holiday that I hadn't learned about before, one the author explains "represents a few different myths in Hinduism," but "at its core, Navratri is always about good defeating evil."

The stories were as new to me as the authors, though I have recently learned about kitsune, the Japanese fox ghosts. The collection included the first story I have read by a Filipino author, Melissa de la Cruz. There is a handy "Author Biographies" section at the end of the book, which lists their other books.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

When it comes to tides, I'm all at sea

Inspired by Gladys Mitchell, I picked up The Floating Admiral from the TBR shelves. This is the first collaboration by members of the Detection Club, published in 1931. I had expected it to be a spoof, but it's a serious work, and one I'm enjoying very much. There are twelve chapters, each written by a different author, many of whom I've met in Martin Edwards' short story compilations. Dorothy L. Sayers explained how the idea of the collaborative story came to be in an Introduction, and she also explained how it was written.
Except in the case of Mr. Chesterton's picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. Two rules only were imposed. Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view - that is, he must not introduce new complications merely "to make it more difficult." He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution to the mystery. These solutions are printed at the end of the book for the benefit of the curious reader.
In her Introduction Sayers also gives some of the oath that members of the club take at their initiation, regarding their work. I think their rules are good ones!
The author pledges himself to play the game with the public and with his fellow-authors. His detectives must detect by their wits, without the help of accident or coincidence; he must not invent impossible death-rays and poisons to produce solutions which no living person could expect; he must write as good English as he can. . . If here is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club, it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standard that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, clap-trap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.
Considering the round-robin way this book was written, I find it a very cohesive story. Without the authors' names at the head of each chapter, I would never have guessed there were twelve writers. There are no real shifts in tone, and I couldn't have picked out the chapters written by Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie from the rest. The Floating Admiral of the title, Admiral Penistone, is found dead and drifting in a boat on the River Whyn, early one morning. He was stabbed to death sometime the previous night, after dining with his niece at a local vicar's home. Inspector Rudge from Whynmouth is called to take the case. I was happily following his investigation, until the question of the River came up. It's a tidal river, which may be a factor in when and where the Admiral's body was discovered. But I was reminded again how little I understand tides, and how little the explanations in books help, even when made to people as confused as I am. (And there's a whole chapter titled "Bright Thoughts on Tides.")
    "You want to know about the tides in the river?" [Neddy Ware, who found the body] replied, in answer to the Inspector's explanation of the cause of his visit. "Why, they're simple enough, so long as you remember that it's high water, Full and Change, at Whynmouth at seven o'clock."
    Rudge laughed. "I haven't a doubt it's simple enough to you," he said. "Personally, I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about. What on earth do you mean by high water, Full and Change?"
    "Why, merely that it's high water at Whynmouth at seven o'clock nearabouts, on the days when the moon is full or new," replied Ware. "Now, take this morning's tide, for instance. To-day's Wednesday, the 10th. It was new moon on Monday, that's to say it was high water at Whynmouth at seven on Monday evening. It would be about eight yesterday evening and half-past this morning. You can allow about six hours between high and low water, making it low water at half-past two this morning. The tide up here begins to flow half to three-quarters of an hour after low water at Whynmouth, or say soon after three. And that's when I went out fishing."
Maybe it's the math involved that throws me, as much as the science. As soon as I see "neeps" or "springs," I know I'm lost, even when (as here) the timetable is crucial to the mystery.

I'm glad to find this book so enjoyable, since last year I read about three more collaborations in Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder, and rushed to order them. They're still on the TBR stacks. Ask a Policeman has the authors swapping characters, writing each other's detectives. In The Anatomy of Murder, the fiction writers take on real-life cases. And in Six Against the Yard, the authors match wits against an actual policeman, a Superintendent from Scotland Yard. Dorothy L. Sayers joined in each of these, but the last is the only one to include Margery Allingham.

Edited to add: I should have noted that Orientalism that runs through the book, starting with G.K. Chesterton's Prologue, set in Hong Kong. It unfortunately includes derogatory references to the Chinese, as well as the usual casual use of the N-word.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamour" series. Murder by the Book sold the series to me as "Jane Austen with magic." I'm usually a little leery of Austen pastiche, but after reading The Calculating Stars I was very ready to try her other books.

The first in the series, Shades of Milk and Honey, hits all the right Austen notes. It is the story of Jane Ellsworth, as the back cover blurb says,
a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester's society are not that different. The lives of Jane and her sister Melody still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
(Melody does not feel like a Regency-era name to me. I didn't find it listed in Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Names.)

Jane and Melody live with their parents, a couple who reminded me more than a little of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Melody is the beauty of the family, while Jane is the more skilled at glamour, which (as Ms. Kowal explains in a helpful Glossary) "is a magic that can be worked by either men or women. It allows them to create illusions of light, scent and sound." It usually has to be tied to something in the physical world, which limits its applications. It also takes a toll on the person casting the glamour.

I think I was expecting a more active and more exciting magic in the story. I found the first book a bit slow, though it came to an exciting conclusion. I enjoyed this second book more. Jane is married to a fellow glamourist, and after completing a commission for the Prince Regent, they travel to a village in Belgium, where Jane's husband Vincent once studied. He is working on a particular type of glamour, the sphere obscurie, "a bubble of magic to make the person inside invisible." He hopes to find a way to make the glamour portable, tied to a physical object that a person can carry around. Jane, who worked with him on the Prince Regent's commission in London, wants to make their marriage a partnership in work and in love. As they adjust to their marriage and their shared interest in glamour, she realizes that Vincent is hiding something from her, locked away in his traveling desk. When she becomes pregnant and is forced to stop working with the glamour, the distance between them grows. Meanwhile, signs of support for the exiled Napoleon are popping up. As an Englishwoman abroad, Jane meets hostility, adding to her sense of isolation. But when Vincent suggests she return to England, she refuses, even as rumors of Napoleon's return begin to spread.

At one point, I had to Google the timeline of the Napoleonic Wars, to see where Jane and Vincent's adventures fit in. (Ms. Kowal explains in an afterword where she altered the timeline to fit her story.) I found that part of the story exciting and interesting, and Jane proved to be quite the heroine. But I also enjoyed the quieter parts of the story, as their relationship deepens and they work together on glamour. I admired Jane's determination to be a partner, to use and strengthen her talents, not to be constrained by the expected roles of women of her class. There are three more books in the series, and I'm looking forward to more adventures with Jane.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"A Very British Murder" and Gladys Mitchell

Last night I watched all three episodes of Lucy Worsley's "A Very British Murder" - a decision I started to regret all alone in a quiet dark house, with three cats staring off in the direction of the hallway.

The first episode looked at how, beginning in the Regency period, the British public became fascinated with accounts of murder, starting with the "Ratcliffe Highway Murders" in 1811. I was familiar with that case from P.D. James's The Maul and the Pear Tree, written with T.A. Critchley. Dr. Worsley argues that the proliferation of inexpensive publications including newspapers, combined with rising literacy rates, created an audience for stories particularly of murder. She talks about the rise of "murder tourism" and the collection of souvenirs. I was tickled to see a china keepsake replica of one murder site, the "Red Barn" case in 1827. A similar china memento plays an important part in Margery Allingham's The China Governess.

The second episode focused on Victorian crimes and the rise of both fictional and real-life detectives. I am most familiar with the Constance Kent case, through reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Dr. Worsley interviewed Kate Summerscale about the case, and also included a picture of Mr. Whicher. I thought she focused a bit too much on Charles Dickens and his interest in detective work, even if it meant interviewing Simon Callow.

In the third episode, Dr. Worsley turned to fictional detectives and the crimes they investigate, particularly in the "Golden Age" of crime between the wars. I expected that Agatha Christie would have a prominent place, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Dr. Worsley prefers Dorothy L. Sayers' books and thinks Harriet Vane an amazing character (as she is). I particularly enjoyed the segment where she met Simon Brett to discuss the Detection Club that Sayers and Christie founded with other authors. It even included "Eric," the skull on which new members have taken their oaths back to Sayers' day. But the episode ended with Graham Greene, ignoring all the other wonderful authors of the Golden Age.

The British Library reprints and Martin Edwards' books have introduced me to so many of those authors. After I finished watching, I went browsing through the TBR shelves to find one of them. I settled on When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell. I came across this on the library sale shelves a couple of months ago, in a Hogarth Press edition. Mitchell, a member of the Detection Club, taught English and history while also producing over 70 crime novels. The central character in most of them is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a psychologist. In When Last I Died, from 1941, she has been called in as a consultant as a boys' reform school. Two of the boys have run away.
    Her own methods with the boys were characteristic. She thought they needed stimulating, and applied psychological treatment, to their astonishment and her own amusement. She discovered very soon that they were afraid of her. One even went so far as to ask whether she was there to pick out the "mentals."
    "We are all 'mentals,' my poor child," she remarked.
    Nevertheless, at the end of two days she could tell the Warden where to lay hands upon his missing boys, for it was common knowledge where and how they had gone, and this common knowledge she soon shared.
The Warden, while grateful, informs her that two other boys had previously disappeared and never been found. I expected Mrs. Bradley to start looking into that. Instead, she asks the Warden if she can rent a house and have boys to stay with her, as a break from the school (and for the staff). He refuses. She takes a house by the sea anyway, and invites her seven-year-old grandson Derek to stay with her. Mrs. Bradley knows that there have been some recent deaths in the house, but she is unprepared for Derek's question one night: "Gran, what lady was murdered in this house?" Derek also tells her that the house is haunted by the victim's ghost. He has been talking to the postmistress, Peggy Peeples. Mrs. Bradley asks her about it the next day. Peggy's response is a perfect tangle:
"It was never brought in as murder, that wasn't. Oh, no! It's only people's wickedness to talk the way they do, but of course she did come in for the money, Miss Bella did, and then she was tried for murdering her cousin, and that set people off again. But the poor thing committed suicide in the end - drowned herself, so I heard - and some thought it was remorse that made her do it. But all that talk about her aunt, there was nothing so far as we knew, though they do say no smoke without fire."
Now we'll see if Mrs. Bradley is drawn into investigating the murder of Miss Bella's Aunt Flora, or the earlier disappearance of the two boys - or maybe both. I am quite taken with her already, both as a psychologist and a grandmother. I think Gladys Mitchell could be very bad for my TBR resolution, even if all 70 of her books are no longer in print.

(I've already started my 2019 TBR list. Yesterday I found a pristine Penguin edition of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case on the library sale shelves. This 1878 novel is considered "the mother of the detective novel," as the back cover puts it. I have an ebook version but was happy to find such a good copy for only $1.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My favorite books of 2018, and reading in the new year

Happy New Year! I love the end-of-the-year book posts, which always add to my reading lists. Last night I was switching back and forth between blogs and my library's site. I was also looking back over my book log, to choose my own favorite books. Here is my list for 2018:

Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie. After my accident, I turned to e-books, convenient to borrow from the library when I couldn't easily get there. Remembering Jennifer Crusie's name from Claire at The Captive Reader,  I was happy to find a long list of her books available, and I tore through most of them. Fast Women is one I added to my shelves. It's the story of three friends, starting with Nell Dysart, beginning a new job at McKenna Investigations after losing her husband and her business in a divorce. I'd love more stories both about the women and the work at the detective agency.

The Magpie Lord, by KJ Charles. Jenny at Reading the End introduced me to KJ Charles. I started with her series about magical practitioners in Victorian London, and then went on to read pretty much everything else she has written, except her contemporary mysteries (the first of which is on my Nook). I'm following Ms. Charles on Twitter now not just for news of upcoming books but for her book recommendations.

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk  I see this book turning up on other "favorite" lists.

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister, by Sheila Johnson Kindred. The book reviews in the newsletter from the Jane Austen Society of North America tempt me every time. That's where I found this biography of Jane Austen's sister-in-law, Frances Palmer Austen, married to Jane's younger brother Charles. It is a fascinating exploration of life in the Royal Navy, for a woman who (Prof. Kindred argues) might have served as a model for Mrs. Croft in Persuasion.

Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire. I am now reading her October Daye series, set in a Fairie world that co-exists in contemporary San Francisco.

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells. I read more fantasy and science fiction this year than I have in a long time. Martha Wells writes both, this being the first in a fantasy series about a community of shape-shifters facing the loss of their home. I still have her "Murderbot" books on the TBR stacks.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I had a list of people to give this book to for Christmas. I wish I could have shared it with my aunt, who died in July. She loved visiting the Johnson Space Center here in Houston, and she would have enjoyed this alternative history of the space program. I have the sequel, The Fated Sky, still on the TBR stacks as well.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. I see this on a lot of "best-of" lists as well. A colleague at work lent it to me, over my polite attempts at resistance. When I finally did sit down with it, months later, I was expecting to read a few pages and then return it with apologies for keeping it so long. Instead, I was immediately caught up in the story. I had to buy my own copy before giving his back (which he admitted having forgotten about).

Blood on the Tracks, by Martin Edwards. I cannot resist these British Library crime compilations, and this is probably my favorite (at least so far).

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole. I don't read much fiction set in the American Civil War, probably because I read so much of its history. But this is an extraordinary story, about a former slave working for the Union cause in the Loyal League. Her current assignment: posing as a slave, to gather intelligence in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. There is a second book in the series, A Hope Divided, as well as a third coming out in the spring.

Eve in Egypt, by Stella Tennyson Jesse. I enjoyed this fictional travelogue so much, and I was sorry to learn it was her only book published. I do have two of her sister F. Tennyson Jesse's books on the TBR stacks.

There are several references in that list to books already on my TBR stacks. I failed miserably at last year's resolution, to add only 12 books to the TBR stacks. Nevertheless, I am going to try that again, with the idea of acquiring books more mindfully - at least unread books. I also have to face the fact that I have run out of shelf space again. Rather than buying another book case, I think it is time to prune the shelves, both of TBRs that I probably won't read, and books already read that I can pass along.

It is clear from my reading over the past year that this was the year I finally became an ebook reader. I resisted for a long time, because I found it harder to concentrate on ebooks. I'm really frustrated by the inability to flip easily back and forth in an ebook, which I do all the time reading physical books. It didn't help that the early Nook I bought made the pages look grey, fuzzy, and generally unappealing. It was Lois McMaster Bujold who first lured me to ebooks, because she is publishing now only in that format (most recently in the Five Gods world, but a novella in the Sharing Knife world is coming this spring). KJ Charles was another, since her books are not available in print in the U.S. But it was mainly convenience, in the wake of the accident. My library has a wealth of ebooks available through Overdrive. I started buying through the Nook app as well, and the books look so much better on my phone or tablet. But it was when I found a previously-unavailable book through Kindle Unlimited that I really disappeared down the rabbit hole. I read so many books through their subscription service, so many that I stopped counting. Many of them were what I think of as "potato chip" books, quick but ultimately unsatisfying reads. I don't keep potato chips in the house, because I can't stop after a single serving, and I couldn't with these books either. This year, I want to step back, not completely from ebooks, but from that kind of binge reading. I want to focus on my TBR stacks, I want to read more non-fiction this year, and I want to continue to seek out diverse voices. I also want to read the books that I check out from the library. Far too many went back unread this year.

On the other hand, I know I'll be tempted by fellow bloggers, book reviews, the JASNA newsletter, and visits "just to browse" in my favorite bookstores. I stopped by Barnes & Noble on Sunday, to buy a half-price calendar, and came home with three books as well. I can't wait to see what books the new year brings.