Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie

Title: A Bitter Feast
AuthorDeborah Crombie
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, October 2019
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Series
Plot: Melody Talbot’s parents are hosting a benefit at their home in the Cotswolds, and when Melody invites her boss, Detective Inspector Gemma James, Gemma’s husband Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, and their three children for the weekend, everyone expects a relaxing sojourn in a picturesque part of England.  Unfortunately, Duncan is involved in a fatal car crash on his way to Lower Slaughter, which turns out to be connected to the talented chef, Viv Holland, who is catering Lady Adelaide’s lunch.  The weekend turns into a busman’s holiday for Gemma and Duncan as they assist the local police in investigating several mysterious deaths, while Melody’s romance with Andy is suffering from prolonged separation while he is on tour, due to her insecurity about their relationship.   In the midst of all this angst, Duncan’s son Kit, now 15, shows real maturity by acting as sous-chef to Viv Holland and listening to Viv’s daughter who is confused and angry.
I enjoyed seeing children like Toby and Charlotte frolic at Bourton on the Water in 2017
My Impressions: I am a huge fan of this series and had eagerly awaited this18th book featuring Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid; all of which are delightful.  However, I do recommend starting at the beginning with A Share in Death.  Although Gemma and Duncan spend very little time together in this book, A Bitter Feast was enjoyable for several reasons: the Cotswold setting was very appealing because I was there myself not long ago, including to Bourton on the Water where Gemma and Lady Adelaide take the children; Melody’s parents are great characters, and it was fun to see them taking an interest in Gemma and Duncan (Sir Ivan dragging Duncan to the doctor which he desperately needed and even helping to replace the family car, which was totaled in the accident); the foodie aspects were interesting: both Viv Holland’s up and coming pub, the Lamb, and her restaurant experience back in London long ago.  I like Melody and am sorry her relationship with Andy is not progressing smoothly; I don’t think she and Doug are meant to be together.
The plot and actual mystery of this particular book are secondary to the setting and characters, always Crombie’s strength.  She deftly manages a large cast without losing track of the actual crime and how it is going to be solved.   I did think that there were two characters, Bea and Roz, who were too similar but that is a minor quibble.  Readers will appreciate a beautiful map of the Cotswolds which is almost as good as being there.
I yearned for a cottage in the Cotswolds!
Purchase Links: IndieBound * Barnes & Noble * Amazon * Book Depository * HarperCollins

Off the Blog: Winter approaches!  I kidnapped the nephews briefly this afternoon to help put away the hammock and the patio umbrella, and I broke down and turned on the heat yesterday.  Hardy New Englanders try to wait until November 1.
Source: I was eagerly awaiting this book and appreciate the copy from the publisher and TLC Book Tours, provided for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

October 10th: Literary Quicksand
October 11th: Instagram: @slreadsbooks
October 14th: PhDiva
October 14th: Bewitched Bookworms
October 15th: Write – Read – Life
October 16th: Jessicamap Reviews
October 17th: From the TBR Pile
October 22nd: Lesa’s Book Critiques
October 23rd: Jathan & Heather
October 24th: Amy’s Book-et List

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene #1930Club

The 1930 Club is a meme started by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Book Ramblings that explores a specific year of published books.

Title: The Secret of the Old Clock 
Author:  Carolyn Keene
Publication: Grosset and Dunlap, hardcover, 1930
Genre: Children’s mystery/series

Plot: When Nancy Drew, the attractive 18-year-old daughter of accomplished lawyer Carson Drew, starts investigating the estate of recently deceased Josiah Crowley, she learns she has the makings of a fine detective!   Nancy encounters several families who innocently thought they would inherit modest amounts of money from him; instead, Crowley seems to have left everything to the disagreeable Topham family.  Encouraged by her father, Nancy scrutinizes Crowley’s activities before he died in the hope of finding a more recent will.   Her curiosity leads her to new friends, old rivals, antique thieves, lunch with a prominent judge, being locked in a closet, the secret of the old clock, and a career as a dashing sleuth.

My Impressions: Devouring Nancy Drew is or used to be a rite of passage for girls who read. The expectation is that you move on to less formulaic books and you forget about Nancy, Carson, housekeeper Hannah Gruen, Bess, George, and Ned Nickerson (well, Ned wasn’t very memorable in the first place).  So I was impressed several years ago when there was a flurry of articles which revealed several of our Supreme Court justices had been big Nancy Drew fans: Sandra Day O’Conner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.
I too read every Nancy Drew I could find after an aunt gave me a copy of The Clue in the Diary when I was in third grade.   

However, The Secret of the Old Clock is particularly significant because it is the first book in the famous series and because the actual mystery is fairly memorable.  Spoiled rich people inherited money they didn’t need while those left in the lurch were hard-working and deserving. Learning about wills and how   they had to be witnessed and produced when someone died was fascinating to me, as was Nancy’s compassion and her sense of justice. Neither the justices nor I knew back then that author Carolyn Keene didn’t exist, and that Nancy was the product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a New Jersey-based book packagers also responsible for the Rover Boys (I inherited these from my father), Hardy Boys, Happy Hollisters (these I ordered by mail because I wanted the secret decoder that came with the first book), and much more.

1930 was the launch of a dynasty as Nancy Drew would be hugely successful with more than 70 million copies sold, not to mention movie and TV spinoffs (including a new show on the CW just this month - I watched for 10 minutes - it was dreadful), merchandise, and more.  At 8 or 9, I didn't notice the formulaic plots librarians disliked.  I enjoyed the way Nancy dashed about in her shiny convertible, intrepid and confident, although I will admit I sometimes preferred the Dana Girls, also produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, about sisters at boarding school who solved mysteries.   But when I found a Dana Girls book at a Cape Cod rental and read it to my nieces a couple years ago, they laughed hysterically at nearly every sentence, so I have to admit it did not hold up well.  

Off the Blog: I am taking a History of Children’s Literature class and just got permission from my professor to write my term paper about Nancy Drew!  I need to fine-tune the topic first . . .  Let me know if you have any suggestions that haven’t been done to death.
Source: I gave all my Nancy Drews to my niece Katherine so got this from the library.  I love that it is the very edition I first read from the John Ward School library. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield #1930Club

The 1930 Club is a meme started by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Book Ramblings that explores a specific year of published books.  This inspired me to chose a book I had always meant to read, set in one of my favorite fictional places, a small English village.

Title: Diary of a Provincial Lady
Author: E.M. Delafield (1890–1943)
Publication: Academy Chicago Publishers, trade paperback, 2002 (1930)
Genre: Fiction
Plot: The book is a somewhat autobiographical diary of the life of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman living mostly in a Devon village in the 1930s, with a grumpy husband, two young children (one of whom attends boarding school), a large awkward house, a number of servants, and many acquaintances (although only one real friend).

My library edition
My Impressions: This was amusing but not nearly so charming as any D.E. Stevenson in which the heroine is trying to make ends meet. Stevenson takes seriously the agonizing economies one must sometimes undertake while imbuing them with an appealing lightheartedness. The Provincial Lady is so understated that only the reader gets her jokes. She can be very funny, less about her writing ambitions than about her interaction with neighbors and her endlessly demanding and annoying family and servants. Her observations of village life are full of witty observations, although occasionally she remembers she does not approve of gossip at all! In addition, like all of us, she rarely thinks of a good comeback until it is too late (or is too polite to utter it) (this phenomenon inspired the name of my blog).

Still, some of the aspects of her life are not altogether humorous. Why must she agonize about every penny, including pawning her great-aunt’s ring frequently, when her husband seems oblivious to their precarious financial situation? Couldn’t she economize by reducing her household staff? I know the answer is no, but for example, couldn’t she teach her child herself or send her to the local primary instead of having a live-in French governess for an (I think) six-year-old? Is she self-deprecating about her finances because she is amused by the situation or because it is so dire she can only cope by joking about it? Usually, I greatly enjoy the social satire of a book like this, set in a gossipy English country town, but the heroine’s wryness seemed more exhausting to maintain than it would have been to learn how to cook! Not to mention, how disappointing it would be to have multiple servants, yet for them to be as disobliging as those in this household! I want Carson and Anna or no one!

Off the Blog: I have been laboring all day on a take-home cataloging midterm – torture!

Source: Library copy.  There have obviously been a lot of attractively packaged editions over the years.  My library copy included the original illustrations by Arthur Watts, an artist whose work also appeared in Punch.  He was known for his gently satirical observations of class distinctions and his black and white drawings add greatly to the book.
She is often writing letters

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Goldsmith’s Treasure by August Šenoa

Title: The Goldsmith’s Treasure
Author: August Šenoa (1838 – 1881)
Translator: Neven Divjakinja
Publication: Spiritoso (Zagreb), hardcover, English edition 2015 (1871)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Zagreb, 1574-79
August Šenoa
Plot: This is a story of forbidden love between Dora Krupiceva, the Goldsmith’s daughter, a beautiful and devout young woman, and Pavao Gregorijanec, willful son of Lord Stjephko. Grga Cokolin is a drunken barber (rumored to dabble in the dark arts) who yearns for Dora but her father does not approve of him and diplomatically says Dora is too young to marry. Rejected, Grga plans revenge on Dora, her father, and kind Magda who raised Dora after her mother died. At a public gathering to burn a Turkish priest, Dora is nearly trampled by the crowd but Pavao rescues her and immediately falls in love. His father is furious at a romantic entanglement with a commoner and sends Pavao to visit a rich widow he considers a more suitable match. Unfortunately, this means Dora is vulnerable and alone when the jealous barber spreads rumors about her. Her father is shamed, believes the calumny, and exiles her to Lomnica to work as a servant.

Jerko, an unfortunately named mute, follows Pavao to Samobor where the lovely widow Klara is trying to seduce him, and somehow manages to gasp out that Dora is in danger. He explains to Pavao that the barber is conspiring with Pavao’s father to kidnap and dishonor Dora on her way to Lomnica. Jerko also reveals that he is Pavao’s half-brother: he is the son of a serf who was raped by Lord Stjephko and was brought up pretending to be mute to protect himself from his vengeful father. Jerko was under an oath not to utter a human sound unless he found himself in mortal danger but he also loves Dora so is determined to help Pavao rescue her. Pavao is able to thwart the kidnapping and hangs the perpetrators although Grga escapes. Pavao confronts his father for plotting to abduct and rape Dora; his wretched mother Marta dies during the encounter.

The politics were hard to follow. Croatia in the 16th century is part of the Habsburg empire and are governed from Prague. The Croatian nobles dislike their overlords and hate the Turks, who, just as now, are menacing everyone in sight, especially my Hungarian ancestors. Lord Stjephko is made Vice Ban (Assistant Viceroy) of Croatia and uses his position to abuse Dora’s father. Grga appears in time to make trouble, helped by the rich widow Klara who marries the Ban, Baron Ungnad, but is so infatuated with Pavao that she vows to destroy Dora.

My Impressions: When my classmate Lidija told us that The Goldsmith’s Treasure was legendary as the first historical novel published in Croatia and only recently translated into English, our book group was intrigued. The editor explains that Šenoa was extremely influenced by Dickens. The translation is poor and very melodramatic, but the reader is still able to appreciate the (albeit over-the-top) characters and appeal.  The descriptions of Zagreb are vivid and perhaps the best part: "By telling a story about its citizens, Šenoa also told a story about Zagreb itself (10)."  Several of the key landmarks in the story are still there and just waiting for a visit.

Favorite Quotes:  There have always been forbidden loves, but there has never been one that could be stopped (9).

It is well known that all women who are neighbors share a sincere affection toward one another. That is, if they do not gouge each other’s eyes out over the years (99).

"My heart got the better of me. My heart, Dora dearest – which holds a precious treasure inside – your name (114)."

"You’ve already saved my only daughter twice . . . [c]ome as you please, enjoy Dora’s company, but only in my presence, because, as you, noble gentleman, protect your lineage like a precious flower, so must we townspeople protect the health trees of our families from burrowing worms (205)."

The empire is in a terrible state! Rivers of Christian blood flow throughout Hungary; a crescent moon flies over Budapest. Bosnia suffocates under Turkish rule. Eastern Slavonija slaves away, torn away from its motherland (235).

“Oh Pavao, why were we born as we were? You a lord and I a common girl. Why was I not born a lady and you a pauper? Why did we ever meet? . . . I would not give you up for all the gold in the world.”

“Enough, my lady!” The young man got to his feet, his face red with anger. “You are not quite well. You seem feverish. But to break your fever, I shall tell you this: Pavao Gregorijanec is a noble, a soldier, and is betrothed to another! . . . These three things prevent me, my lady, to fall victim to your lust.”

Source:   Lidija brought six copies of this book from Croatia on her last visit for our book group to read, and has promised traditional food when we meet at her home to discuss it next month. I hope she produces some paprenjaci, the traditional Croatian cookies made by Dora’s godmother!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation - from The Women in the Castle to Shadow Castle

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo was Kate’s starting book this month.  Unusually, I hadn’t heard of it and when I took a look it was definitely not my thing.   However, it made me think of my first book, which is about three women living in close quarters after WWII:
 
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck was published in 2017.   This is a historical novel written by a Boston-based author, set primarily in post-World War II Germany.   Heroine (albeit flawed) Marianne takes in widowed survivors of resistors and their children, trying to preserve a new generation for the country in a castle that is barely functional.  I think I liked this because it showed a very different perspective on WWII historical fiction I have long enjoyed (I tend to read books set in England or France).   I realized I could have a castle theme, and that brought me to my second book with another falling-apart castle full of women:
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).   Aspiring writer Cassandra and her family live in a dilapidated castle and are living in genteel poverty because their father cannot write a successor to his long-ago bestseller and obviously can’t do anything as plebeian as get a job.  But everything changes for Cassandra and her sister Rose when two attractive young men come to town.    Somehow I missed this coming of age story when I was growing up and although I enjoyed it as an adult, I think I would have liked it more as a teen.   I do enjoy the famous first line and I really enjoyed the movie.   Did you see it?   Here is a link to the trailer.   My third book involves a castle that is not falling down but is constantly moving:
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1996).  A mysterious castle appears in town, which belongs to the Wizard Howl, who is rumored to suck the souls of young girls. Surprise! He is actually young and handsome, although very annoying.  Sophie Hatter, the intrepid oldest sister, is under a spell for most of the book, but that barely slows her down, even though believes.  A real gem!  The movie is a 2004 Japanese animated, fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman (1983).  Gilman, known for her teen novels before she reinvented herself as the author of the Mrs. Pollifax (1966 and on), middle-aged housewife turned CIA agent, and other mysteries, first mentioned this book in an adult standalone, The Tightrope Walker, a really unusual and appealing novel.  Clearly, she fell in love with the description of Maze and then wrote it! It works by itself but I highly recommend The Tightrope Walker too, in which shy heroine Amelia Jones searches her past for clues to a mystery that terrifies her . . . The Maze in the Heart of the Castle is a middle school fantasy about an orphan on a quest to understand the loss of his parents.   This is a sad castle so I picked a more humorous one for my fifth book:

Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager (1956), Illustrated by a favorite, N. M. Bodecker.  This follows Magic by the Lake and is about the offspring of the children in Half Magic.   Roger and Ann, visiting their cousins in Baltimore, are taken to see the Elizabeth Taylor movie of Ivanhoe and are enthralled.   They start playing with the castle Aunt Katharine gives Roger and new soldiers from their Uncle Mark, and then the soldiers come to life and they find themselves back in the days of Ivanhoe and Bad King John . . . English friends: this is better than The Return of the Twelves.  Knight's Castle led me to my sixth book, another favorite:

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell (1945). In the middle of a deep forest is an enchanted valley and a castle where only shadows live, shadows of kings and queens who have waited for hundreds of years for the spell cast upon them to be broken.   One day, a girl named Lucy follows a little dog through a tunnel into the valley and meets the mysterious red-haired Michael, who takes her into the shadow world to meet Prince Mika and his mortal wife Gloria, their children and their children's children, and learn the magic that will lift the spell.   I return often to this gem of a book, and cherish my mother’s copy, which was published during WWII on very-thin paper.   Happily, an expanded version was made available not long ago by the author’s daughter, also a writer.
So we started off *in* WWII and concluded with a book written *during* WWII.  Next month, Kate says the launch book will be Alice in Wonderland.  I have very pleasant memories, not only of reading it but my grandmother gave me LP versions of Alice and Through the Looking Glass I listened to often as a child.

To my surprise, I read today that Jojo Moyes is in the middle of Three Women, so *someone* is reading it!  I was also startled to read her new book is set in Depression-era Kentucky, which seems a very odd setting for her to choose.

Happy Birthday to my dear friend, KDC!
Knight's Castle images copyright to HBJ Publishers

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Dog is Love by Clive Wynne

I have not read this new book about dogs, “Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” which argues that they are special because of their ability to form affectionate relationships with other species (as seems obvious), but I really enjoyed the Washington Post review.
I am currently studying Aesop’s Fables and anthropomorphism in a History of Children’s Literature class so it caught my eye that the author emphasized evidence that dogs can form loving relationships, rejecting feel good anthropomorphism about one’s pet.   After all, I love my brother’s dog Chloe and I know she is always pleased to see me, but surely it is because she recognizes I will feed or walk or make a fuss over her?   Author Clive Wynne states:
I’m not saying human and dog love are identical. I’m just saying there’s enough similarity between how dogs form strong emotional bonds and how people form strong emotional bonds that it’s fair enough to use the love word.
Wynne describes an awesome experiment intended to gauge dogs’ active affection for their people.   They put the pets’ people into a box and had them call out in distress.   All the dogs seemed upset about this but only 1/3 could figure out how to open the box to rescue her owner.    But then they fine-tuned the experiment by starting with the same box but putting food in it and training the dogs to open the box to get the food out.   Subsequently, nearly every dog was able to use its skills to open the box to free its person.   Not sure that is love but it certainly intelligence!
My furry niece Chloe
Not every dog is Lassie or Timmy, capable of daring rescues, but we sure want them to be!   Do you love your dog?  Does your dog love you?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Murder at Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

Title: Murder at Brightwell
Author: Ashley Weaver
Publication: St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books, Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Historical mystery/series
Setting: 1932 England
Plot: Amory Ames is a confident member of society who is unhappy in her marriage, although she doesn’t know what changed after she fell in love with dashing Milo.   When her former fiancé Gilmore Trent asks her help to prevent his sister from marrying a similar marriage to a charming but unreliable man, Amory feels it is her duty to help Gil discourage Emmeline’s relationship with Rupert Howe.   Amory does not realize that joining a group at the Brightwell Hotel on England’s south coast without her husband may damage her reputation.  Even worse, when Howe is murdered, Gil is suspected, Milo appears, Emmeline is devastated, and Amory feels she must help the police find the killer.

My Impressions: This is an entertaining mystery set in a seaside hotel, a variation of the English manor house where everyone is a suspect after a mysterious death and forbidden to leave.  If the reader initially roots for Gil to rescue Amory from her lonely marriage, it is soon clear that Milo is hiding some secret that has forced him to keep Amory at distance.  The murder itself was less interesting than the cause of their estrangement, which has not been revealed.  It is painful to see their flawed relationship but author Weaver does a great job keeping their interaction sparkling and unpredictable.  They aren’t as charming as Tommy and Tuppence but it will be interesting to how Amory and Milo develop in the series.   Amory also develops an odd rapport with the detective investigating the murder, although her investigative efforts often go awry:
In the novels, it always seemed best to keep the suspect talking.  Inevitably, help would arrive.  I really held out no hope for such an opportune occurrence, but it seemed the best course of action would be to distract [] until I could determine what to do. 
Loreen and I explored Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla
Off the Blog: Just returned from a fun weekend in San Diego, to visit my college roommate and to cheer on Harvard Football in its first game of the season (we lost).   On Friday, I asked to visit Warwick's, the oldest family-owned bookstore in the country.  I could have spent hours there!

Source: Library.  There are now five books in the series so I had to read this before I got gammoned!  One quibble: Amory’s name bothered me as it did not seem authentic for the era but I can’t believe an author who is also a librarian would not have researched usage.