Monday, November 06, 2017

Mailbox Monday: Birthday!


Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came in their mailbox during the last week. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.

It's been a long time since I did a Mailbox Monday, but I received a wonderful book for my birthday yesterday that I just had to share.



The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Marta McDowell, went to the top of my wish list as soon as I heard about it. It's a new book, published in September, and it will be a perfect addition to my LIW collection. 

Here's what Amazon had to say about it:
The universal appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books springs from a life lived in partnership with the land, on farms she and her family settled across the Northeast and Midwest. In this revealing exploration of Wilder’s deep connection with the natural world, Marta McDowell follows the wagon trail of the beloved Little House series. You’ll learn details about Wilder’s life and inspirations, pinpoint the Ingalls and Wilder homestead claims on authentic archival maps, and learn to grow the plants and vegetables featured in the series. Excerpts from Wilder’s books, letters, and diaries bring to light her profound appreciation for the landscapes at the heart of her world. Featuring the beloved illustrations by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams, plus hundreds of historic and contemporary photographs, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a treasure for anyone enchanted by Laura’s wild and beautiful life. 

Maps, inventories of flora and fauna of the prairies, illustrations, photos - what a treat I have in store this winter. I may just drop everything and read it next!

If you want to find out what others bloggers received last week, visit the Mailbox Monday site. Great source of new ideas for your reading lists.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of France


Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of  the French Countryside by Martin Walker is the last of my R.I.P. mysteries, bringing my total for the month to 5!

As expected, I really enjoyed this mystery and will be a devotee of Bruno from henceforth. Thank goodness there are a number of books in the series already, so I can read the next one whenever the mood strikes.

In a nutshell, Bruno is sweet single policeman taking care of a little rural town, St Denis, in the picturesque Dodorgne valley in southwest France. We are tentatively planning a trip to Paris next summer, and now I am finagling how to spend an extra week exploring this region, which btw is where the famous paleolithic cave paintings were discovered.

Bruno not only is the sole policeman for the town, but he also plays tennis and teaches kids at the tennis club, makes his own vin de noix (a walnut liqueur), cooks heavenly meals, and has a sad romantic backstory.

The story itself was well-crafted and interesting--involving racial tension, neo-Nazis, remnants of WWII and French colonialism, as well as hedonistic teens and indulgent parents.

But, you don't read Bruno for the mystery, you read these stories for the atmosphere, the ambiance, the recipes, French rural life and landscapes.

If this at appeals to you, you might want to check out Martin Walker's website on his beloved Bruno. Here's how Walker describes Bruno:

Who is Bruno Courreges?

Bruno cooks, he hunts, he builds his own house and grows his own food. He organizes the parades and festivities and fireworks displays and keeps order in his fictional home town of St Denis. A pillar of the local tennis and rugby clubs, he teaches sports to the local schoolchildren.

Bruno finds lost dogs, fights fires, registers births and deaths, and enforces the parking regulations. But he maintains a sophisticated intelligence network to outwit the interfering bureaucrats of the European Union in far-off Brussels. The country folk of the Perigord have been making their foie gras and their cheeses and sausages for centuries before the EU was ever heard of, and see no reason to bow to its rules and regulations now.

Bruno also catches criminals.

But Bruno applies his own sense of justice in doing so, which sometimes put him at odds with the local Gendarmes, with the professional detectives of the Police Nationale, and with the politicians in distant Paris.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Marked Man



A Marked Man is the second in a three-part series by Barbara Hamilton featuring the incomparable Abigail Adams as a detective in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

I am not usually a fan of real people showing up historical fiction, but Hamilton's Abigail is masterfully done. The entire time I am reading one of these books, I am seeing and hearing Laura Linney as she portrayed Abigail in the fabulous HBO series John Adams.



Anyway, I read book 1, The Ninth Daughter, a few years ago and liked it, and so put the next book, A Marked Man, on my October mystery reading list.

I absolutely loved it. The mystery itself was quite good. Basic idea is that an absolute rake of a man, Sir Jonathan Cottrell, has been found murdered, and one of the local Patriots, Harry Knox, is accused of his murder.

In solving the mystery of whodunit and how, we get to enjoy life with the young Adams family (John Quincy is a mere 6-year old, but already studying Greek and Latin),  experience the loving banter between Abigail and John, hobnob with the Sons of Liberty (cousin Sam Adams and friend Paul Revere), and sympathize with the British soldiers who are missing home in cold, hostile Boston town.

There's also a missing slave woman, cross dressing, and poison. A connection to Barbados and a troupe of actors. The Boston Tea Party was only a few months earlier and Boston is about to erupt.

A Marked Man is my 4th book in the R.I.P. reading challenge.







Monday, October 23, 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult



I knew as soon as I saw this title that I had to read this book. I think the books we love as a child become hardwired into our developing brains and help make us who we become. I regularly reread books I loved when young, and I loved sharing those books with my children--sometimes they fell in love too, sometimes not, but revisiting them regularly is an important part of my reading life.

Maybe this love for kids books is genetic. Towards the end of my father's life, as his eyesight started fading and he felt dementia on the horizon, he bought himself beautiful new editions of all his favorite books and reread them one last time--these included Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Stories of Uncle Remus, and all of Beatrix Potter.

Bruce Handy, author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult, did a wonderful job balancing his personal nostalgia for specific books with providing context for the books/authors he profiled, the impact they and their beloved characters had on children and the development of children's lit, and short bios of some of the major authors.

Here's the table of contents, which I found to be a good a way of structuring discussion on the topic:

New Eyes, New Ears: Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon - loved, loved, loved this chapter and I have a whole new appreciation for Goodnight Moon, which I always liked to read to my kids, but now I know why! Mini bio on Brown was excellent--she was an original, took her craft seriously, and worked hard. Also great info on The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Snowy Day--btw, did you know there are winter stamps from the USPS that feature The Snowy Day.  They're going on this year's Xmas cards, for sure!



Runaways: Family Drama in Picture Books--and Well Beyond - Handy compares The Runaway Bunny with Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The Runaway Bunny was never one of my favorites, but the chapter was interesting nonetheless, especially when Handy brought The Giving Tree into the discussion and especially the Frances series, featuring Frances the badger. I have always loved the Frances books--partly because my older sister Frances got them for me, with Bread and Jam for Frances, which Handy didn't include, being my personal favorite.


Once upon a Time and In and Out of Weeks: Fairy Tales and Maurice Sendak - yep, this is all about Where the Wild Things Are and how Sendak is the modern Brother Grimm. There's also a good bit on the Grimm brothers themselves, and the role and history of fairy tales throughout the ages. Handy also brings in the Disney versions of the classic fairy tales, and has some refreshingly positive things to say about them.


Why a Duck? The Uses of Talking Animals from Aesop to Beatrix Potter to Olivia the Pig - definitely one of the best chapters, especially mini bio on Potter. It was interesting to read about how frank Potter was about life and death--not sugar coating anything for the little tykes. Handy also talks a good deal about Reynard the Fox and Uncle Remus stories, which I heard a lot as a kid. This particular chapter inspired me to dig out my Potter books and reread a bunch of the stories. I still think the illustrations are the best part of the books. I have to say, I think I could write an essay comparing The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck with Tess of the D'urbervilles.


You Have to Know How: Dr. Seuss vs. Dick and Jane - I learned to read with Dick and Jane, and believe me, I wish our school had had more Dr. Seuss on hand instead. Handy dives into The Cat in the Hat in a big way--I was one of the those goody-two-shoes kids who were always very uncomfortable with the Cat in the Hat.  I much preferred Horton Hatches a Who and Green Eggs and Ham, but the bio on Suess (i.e., Ted Geisel) was very interesting.


Kids Being Kids: Ramona Quimby, American Pest - not having encountered Ramona Quimby or even her author, Beverly Cleary, as a child, I didn't have the emotional response to this chapter, but it was interesting nonetheless, especially with regards to the mythos of American suburbia.

God and Man in Narnia - wonderful chapter on C.S. Lewis's Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I'm not a big Narnia fan, but the storytelling and merging of so many cultural mythological strands make Narnia an important piece of kid lit.


One Nation: Washington's Cherry Tree, Rosa Parks's Bus, and Oz - despite the chapter title, this one is really all about Oz and Frank L. Baum. One of the best chapters in the book, it gave me a much better appreciation for Baum and his never-ending series of Oz books.  I only read the first in the series, but I read it many times as a child. I still remember the look and feel of the blue cover of the copy I had.
One of the best quotes from the book comes from this chapter:
"Lewis never led me toward Christianity, but Baum, for me, was a gateway drug to Mad."




Going on Seventeen (Or Not): Little Women, Little Houses, and Peter Pans - superb chapter. Handy never read Little Women or the Little House series as boy, so he took care of that as a man. He had mixed feelings about Little Women, which I totally get. I only read it myself a few years ago and so could only like it and appreciate it but not love it as happens when you read it as a child, especially a girl-child who wants to be a writer. I loved the fact that Handy loved and appreciated the Little House books, which stand up well for first-time adult readers. Yes, they have their issues, mostly with regards to Native Americans, but Laura as a character is in a class by herself. I loved Handy's summation of Pa Ingalls as the single most competent character in children's literature. I can forgive Handy for finding Anne of Green Gables unreadable--its tone and heroine, much as I love them, are not for everyone, and I find that Anne is another character you have to fall in love with as a child to love as an adult.


The End: Dead Pets, Dead Grandparents, and the Glory of Everything - the chapter is ostensibly about death in children's lit, but it is really a paean to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. This part of the book was a joy to read because Charlotte's Web is a masterpiece, an American treasure and I agreed with every word of praise that Handy sang about it.


As you can see, I enjoyed picking illustrations for this post as much as I did writing it, and the book gave full credit to the illustrators whose artistry helped to hardwire those stories into our collective unconscious.

An enthusiastic thumbs up for this marvelous, insightful, book. Handy makes a convincing case that the best children's books are as important, meaningful, creative, and inspired as the best non-children's books...and always worth rereading.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Black Moon



I've been reading Graham Winston's Poldark series pretty much in tandem with the PBS broadcast of the new series. Season 3 started at the beginning of October, and so I read book 5, The Black Moon, which provides the basis for the first half of this season, in September/October.

I have been completely absorbed by baseball playoffs this year, and so have only watched episode 1 of season 3, so I don't know how much they actually include from the book. I do know that I was gnashing my teeth during the first half of episode 1, but settled down and liked it again during the second half.

On to The Black Moon--I think it's the best of the series so far. It was written 20 years after book 4, Warleggan, but it picks up the story shortly after book 4 ended, with the birth of Elizabeth and George Warleggan's son, Valentine, during a total eclipse of the moon. This was a nice literary touch to the story, giving Aunt Agatha lots of fodder for her cursing of the child and George, tagging the eclipse as an omen.

I loved the new characters, Demelza's brothers, Sam (the missionary) and Drake (the charmer) Carne, as well as Elizabeth's cousin, Morwenna Chenoweth.  They provide much needed new story threads, and gave the author the opportunity to educate us on the growth of Methodism in Cornwall.



I also enjoyed learning about the English/French military encounters during the late 1790s, as the English tried to help the displaced French aristocrats battle the Republicans who took over their country in 1789.



A ghost from Ross's past, Tholly Tregirls, also surfaces and plays a major role in the latter half of the book. Tholly is the most definitive pirate since Long John Silver, and promises to be a nice counterpoint to the domesticating influence of Demelza.

I thought Graham was wise to send Ross and his mates off to France to break nice Dr. Enys out of a French prison. It turned the book into a good, old-fashioned adventure story, and it was a relief from the monotony of George's machinations.

Caroline Penvenen and Verity Blamey also have key roles in the story, both of whom are wonderful characters and I so enjoy spending time with them, as different as they are.

I have high hopes for sweet Geoffrey Charles Poldark, son of the late Francis Poldark and Elizabeth. He's bright and I love that he has the mind and interests of an engineer. I predict that he and his friend Drake will team up to do good things in Cornwall in the future. I hope so, at least.



The book ends on a couple of grim notes, which means that book 6 will have a fair amount of sturm und drang, but I love that it is titled The Four Swans, and will focus on the four major women in Ross's life: Demelza, Elizabeth, Morwenna, and Caroline. After book 5 being a boy's adventure story, the women of Cornwall get their book in which to hold center stage.

Now, on to book 6 and resuming season 3 of Poldark...that is once the World Series is over!


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Beekeeper's Apprentice



I had heard good things about The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King, but had a few reservations--the combination of which meant I got a copy for my TBR pile but kept finding other books that I wanted to read more.  Thank goodness for the R.I.P. reading challenge and my decision to read a bunch of mysteries from my pile, because it was great and I'm eager to read more in the series.

The basic idea is that Sherlock Holmes has retired to a quiet country life in Sussex, keeping bees, and we find him in 1915 in his early 60's pottering around the countryside.  Enter Mary Russell, age 15, who is basically a younger, female version of the great detective. They strike up a friendship and he takes her under his wing, teaching her to use her logical brain, acute powers of observation, etc.

Holmes is the beekeeper, Mary (aka Russell) is the apprentice.

Mary grows up, attends Oxford, and the pair team up to solve a wonderful mystery--someone keeps on trying to blow up Holmes, Mrs. Hudson, Watson (aka "Uncle John" to Mary), and, of course, Mary herself.

The story has everything--a bit of London, a bit of English countryside, a side trip to Palestine, Oxford, Moriarty (dead though he is), baffling clues, an endearing child, clueless Americans, lots of tea and sandwiches and pipe smoking, a touch of opium, chess, a good intriguing backstory for Mary.

The premise has plenty of room for a good series, and the chemistry between Holmes and Russell is strong, believable, and complex.

A thoroughly enjoyable romp with a pair of enjoyable, interesting characters.

There's some fun fan art out there featuring Holmes and Russell. Here are a couple of my favorites.




That's number three in the R.I.P. reading challenge for me so far!


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Brimstone Wedding



I had heard great things about Barbara Vine's mystery/thriller The Brimstone Wedding, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint.

Creepy without being nightmare-inducing, it was a perfect mix of psycho drama, folk magic and superstition, and whodunit.

Here's the Library Journal blurb that I got from Amazon:
...a compelling tale of ordinary people facing extraordinary pressures. Two women, divided by age and class, share their deepest secrets in an English nursing home in which one cares for the other. There is a sense of secrecy from the start, as Jenny Warner tells dying Stella Newland about her love affair and Stella shares with Jenny the location of her secret house. Secrecy gives way to foreboding, and tension builds as details are masterfully revealed. Vine is an extraordinary storyteller, able to enthrall a reader right from the start, as she does here. Additionally, she provides a satisfying symmetry in the construction of this book, with the two women's alternating voices and the inextricable linking of their lives, as Stella dies and Jenny is virtually reborn. 
I couldn't have said it better myself!

I almost stopped reading early on because the story revolves around adultery--Jenny is in a loveless marriage and is having an affair with a married man, and Stella tells Jenny the story of her own extra-marital affair, and that of her husband, Rex. It seemed like it was going to be one of those maddening stories where you end up hating all the characters for being blind, stupid, spineless, or selfish.

Well, it worked out much differently. Although this is my first Barbara Vine (penname of Ruth Rendell), I put her in the same category as Daphne du Maurier--she can take seriously flawed individuals and tell you their story in such a way that you want them to get away with murder...not that that is a spoiler! :)

In addition to not figuring out how the murder worked until all was revealed at the end, I absolutely loved the village that Jenny and Stella live in and Jenny's witchy family. She grew up knowing not to wear green, to throw salt over your shoulder if you spill it, to touch wood; she knows how to make a love potion and which days are bad days for big events. And then she learns how to release herself from the straitjacket that these superstitions created.

Brimstone Wedding was a fun read--well-written, insightful, and the structure of the story was taut and balanced.  An absolutely great candidate for October reading, and my second book in the R.I.P. reading challenge.



Monday, October 02, 2017

The Brontes: Wild Genius of the Moors



After giving a copy of The Brontes: Wild Genius of the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, by Juliet Barker, twice to my brother--once for Christmas and once for his birthday, because I had forgotten that I already gave it to him--I was thrilled that it was selected by the GoodReads Tuesday Read-Along group for September.

It's a long book--979 pages, not counting footnotes--but extremely readable. Barker did a bio of the entire family--patriarch Patrick, wife Maria Branwell, and all six children, five daughters and one son.

It was fascinating. I know the story of the Brontes well, having read a couple of bios, visited Haworth, and gone to the exhibit last year at the Morgan Library in NYC. Nevertheless, it was interesting to get a take on the story from someone who was curator and librarian at the Bronte Parsonage Museum for six years in the 1980s.

Barker did much to soften the image of Patrick Bronte from crusty, eccentric firebrand to crusty, but well-meaning father, and to mostly exonerate Branwell Bronte. She couldn't change the fact that he completely fell apart at the end of his life, but she did much to prove that he wasn't the spendthrift, thieving talentless wastrel that has been his role in the family for 150 years.

My only real gripe, but it was a doozy, was that Barker seemed bent on discounting and discrediting Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. I found Barker's condescending tone with regards to Gaskell very annoying, especially since Barker bragged on the fact that she had access to documents no other biographer had and so was able to refute much of the myths surrounding the Brontes. It hardly seems fair to sneer at someone for getting the facts wrong when they had no access to the facts, and were reporting first-person remembrances. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I admire Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist and the woman, so I did have a hard time understanding why Barker felt she had to prove that she was a superior biographer to Gaskell.

I don't want to end on a sour note--I did end up enjoying the bio immensely, tweaked my own view of the family as a whole, and am eager to read Villette, Shirley, and Agnes Grey, all of which have been on my TBR shelf for far too long.

From the BBC film, To Walk Invisible

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Journey to Munich (Maisie Dobbs #12)



I absolutely love the Maisie Dobbs series, and the latest, Journey to Munich,  that I listened to (the reader, Orlagh Cassidy, is superb) takes Maisie to Nazi Germany in 1938 on the eve of WWII, working undercover for the British government.

Maisie has grown and changed and experienced so much of life since the series began, but at her core she is someone I can relate to and admire and sympathize with. Despite her changing fortunes, she keeps her feet on the ground and tries to do what she thinks is right.

I always love her encounters with Robbie MacFarlane, and he was, of  course, one of the movers and shakers getting her to take the assignment in the first place and I can't help feeling that he holds a torch for Maisie, despite the big brother role he tends to take with her. The story has a bit of Sandra and Billy, a bit of Priscilla Partridge, a bit of Frankie and Brenda, but it's mostly Maisie on her own, solving a case and putting to rest another set of personal demons.

I really loved the story line involving society girl, Elaine Otterburn, whom Maisie meets up with in Munich. The theme of this novel is really "people are not what they seem." Perfect for a plot line involving undercover work.

Maisie's visit to Dachau, which I actually visited about 30 years ago, was fascinating, as was her observations of the tensions that gripped Munich and Germany on the eve of the coming war.  I think historical novels are a wonderful way to get inside a time period, if the author has done her homework and the history is solid.

I have only one more book in the series, In This Grave Hour, before I am caught up with author Jacqueline Winspear--I do hope she's working on #14. I know that she will have plenty of plot possibilities as WWII progresses.

This is my first mystery in the R.I.P. Challenge! #RIPXII



Sunday, September 17, 2017

Elizabeth Gaskell - a compendium of posts



Back in the early days of my blog, I did a lot of reading around Elizabeth Gaskell and so did a lot of posts about what I was reading. Here is a organized list of most of the posts.

Can you tell she's one of my favorite authors?

Reading Gaskell for the First Time?
Top Ten Things to Know About Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell: 20 Questions Quiz
Gaskell 20 Questions...19 Answers
A Philatelic Look at Bronte, Gaskell, Eliot

The Life of Charlotte Bronte Posts
The Life of Charlotte Bronte
Bronte Humor, Gaskell Bio, and Plath's poem
Gaskell's Life of Charlott Bronte
Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte: the French, Branwell, and Ruth
Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte: The Professor and "Mode of Composition"
Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte: In the Hill-Country Silence

Ruth Posts
Gaskell's Ruth

Wives and Daughters Posts
Ironic reversal...comedy, tragedy, and Austen
Wives and Daughters...the beginning of the end
Fate is a cunning hussy... more W&D
Wives and Daughters: P&P - the Gibsons and the Bennets
Wives and Daughters - Remembrance of things past
Gaskell and Mr. Gibson: Feet of Clay
Wives and Daughters: thoughts on earmarked pages
Moorland Cottage: precursor to Wives and Daughters
Mr. Harrison's Confessions - Paper on General Practitioners in  Victorian England
Mr. Harrison's Confessions

North and South Posts
Gaskell vs. Nightingale, North & South
Hard Times by Charles Dickens (comparison to North and South)
Graham Greene on North and South
Hard Times by Charles Dickens (comparison to North and South)
Austen's Influence on Gaskell: N&S parallels to P&P
Austen's Influence on Gaskell: Background Thoughts
North and South vs. Pride and Prejudice - Part III
Pride and Prejudice vs. North and South: Why the Similarities
Final Thoughts on Austen's Influence on Gaskell's North and South

Short Stories and Novellas
The Old Nurse's Story - Gaskell's Finest Ghost Story
Gaskell's The Half-brothers
Curious, If True
Moorland Cottage
Men and Their Houses - discussion of The Grey Woman, Sylvia's Lovers, et al

Cousin Phillis Posts
Cousin Phillis - Geeks and Freaks...the other Side of Sylvia
Cousin Phillis - Tragedy Averted
Cousin Phillis - a fragment? Say what?

Sylvia's Lovers Posts
Gaskell's Sylvia's Lovers
Sylvia's Lovers - Paragraph on Prayer and Narrator's Preaching
Sylvia's Lovers - Farmer, Sailor, Tradesman
Sylvia's Lovers - Dialect and Extras

My Lady Ludlow Posts
Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow
Framed stories in Gaskell's Lady Ludlow
Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow: Final thoughts