Sunday, August 6, 2017

Middle Sister's July Reads

July was spent trying to dig my way through an enormous pile of magazines that have been growing on my coffee table, and reading for my book club. This was my choice for us July and August, and while it was a bit of a stretch given the focus of my book group, I think it was a nice palette cleansing genre for us to try.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey There were several reasons I chose Riders of the Purple Sage for my book group this month: it was a western, a genre we had not read in the 7 or so years we've been together; Zane Grey lived in Arizona for a few years, and as I do, too, it seemed proper to give a local guy some attention; we recently moved our criteria to include books published one hundred years before the current calendar year, and this would move us into a more modern era. It was written in a surprisingly clear, modern, stripped down tone. Grey's descriptions of the southwest were perfect--evocative and moody, and my living in that same part of the world meant I could see the landscape he so lovingly and minutely described. The anti-Mormonism was a surprise, as was the over romanticism of the piece. The focus on two women as central characters was surprising, but they were the flat, two-dimensional characters I expected any woman in a western to be. I'd read a book by Zane Grey as a child when my English teacher said I was reading too many mysteries for my school book reports. It's not a genre I plan on revisiting often (so far, it's been one every 40 years or so), but with such a vivid description of the landscape outside my window, I enjoyed this brief foray.

An Unkindness of Ravens by Ruth Rendell I listened to this classic by Ruth Rendell, first published in 1985, while gardening and cleaning. Inspector Wexford is one of my fictional crushes--decent, hard working, trustworthy, but even he can be fooled sometimes, and that is the case in this novel. Wexford placates his wife by looking into the disappearance of a neighbor, whom he thinks is just a bored husband who ran away as part of a mid life crisis. Of course, it turns out to be much more sinister that that. Rendell parallels the investigation of the feminist group Arria with Wexford's assistant's personal crisis, and that's the part of the book I disliked intensely. Really, in 1985, in England, a British woman would be so adamantly against being pregnant with a girl and so misogynistic? Really?  What a distasteful and unpleasant subplot.

Cat Trick (A Magical Cats Mystery) by Sophie Kelly Another cosy listened to while gardening. Cat lover that I am, I decided to give paranormal, pet-centric sub-genre entries another try, mainly because Kathleen's cats are named Hercules and Owen, and I'm a fan of giving pets big, human names like these, and because Kathleen is a librarian. The mystery was so-so, I could have done without a cat with the magical ability to walk through walls (nope, not making that up), but the sweet, slow romance was nice, the reader was okay, and the supporting characters were people I liked and wanted to know better. I may listen or read to another, and just roll my eyes through the magical cat part.

I've also been reading a mystery that I've not been enjoying much, but I'm trying to slog through it. Stay tuned to see if I make it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Middle Sister's June Reads

My nineteenth century literature book group selection for May and June was a classic of Japanese literature, I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (1906; I read a 1961 translation by Katsue Shibata and Motonari Kai published by Kenkyusha Ltd, Tokyo). In the novel, a cat offers his interpretation of Japanese society, and his observations on humans, their mannerisms, and actions. The anthropologist in me hoped the book would be a solid depiction of Japanese society just before transportation innovations made travel to Japan easy, when traditional ways may still have held sway over western encroachment. The book was originally serialized, and published in three volumes, and this reader found that it suffered for that. The repetition of the same event over and over is not surprising given the cat's limited ability to move. However, the first half, which I confess is all I read, can be summarized thus: teacher and cat nap, teacher's friend (or sometimes 2 friends) visits and make(s) inane comment, teacher reacts or doesn't, occasionally teacher's wife makes a comment. This probably worked much better serialized, and with enough time between published pieces that the similarity of content was not so obvious. Although a few insights into Japanese domestic life at the time are present, it was not enough to keep my interest, and I was embarrassed tot ell the group I gave up June 30. It's not a difficult book to red, just tedious because of the repetition of theme and content.

Murder at Rough Point by Alyssa Maxwell was the beginning of my summer light reading. A historical mystery set in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1896, the time of the Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age. The author uses historical figures, or, at least one, to add color (in this case, Edith Wharton is a character), and while I've never read a biography of Wharton, I know enough about her to accept this characterization of her. The description of the house, grounds, and weather were well done. The characters were suitably fleshed out, even minor ones. But I still wasn't swept away, they way I'd hoped, to another time and place. The main character, Emma Cross, is a relation of the Vanderbilts, but has a very modern job as a reporter. While I didn't find that part of her life at all convincing, at least her relationship with her parents seemed realistic, and her reaction to their reappearance in her life after many years abroad suitably angst-ridden. I always hate when historical authors try to inject modern elements into their stories (I sincerely doubt that even a distant relation of the Vanderbilts would have known her Uncle Vanderbilt's servants, probably not even their names beyond the butler's and housekeeper's); the term proactive was not coined until 1930, and while I didn't know that when I read it, it sounded far too modern and caused me to look it up (easily done even in the old days with a dictionary); ditto the phrase "hard news," another creation of the 1930s. So while the atmosphere is pretty good, the inclusion of modern terms and behavior were jarring, and creating a blatantly unrealistic event just to put Emma in danger was weak. Also there were too many allusions to previous entries in the series without explanation, which left this reader, who often jumps into a series mid-stream, disgruntled. I am of the firm opinion that any reader should be able to pick up any book, even one in the middle of a long series, and not be confused by or annoyed by mentions of previous actions or incidents that aren't explained.

1896 Newport seemed far more foreign to me than 1906 Japan.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Middle Sister's Spring Reads

Yikes, I have gotten so lazy about updating monthly. Perhaps because my reading has slowed down a little. But here are my reviews of what I've read this spring:

Victoria by Julia Baird A new biography of Queen Victoria, meticulously footnoted and referenced. I actually read the NetGalley ARC, which didn't have illustrations, so I hope the final print has a few photos and drawings of places and people. Victoria as a child and an elderly lady was very well conceptualized, but the largest part of her life, after the death of her husband, less so. However, Ms. Baird included some new (to me, at least) information about the death and burial of Queen Victoria that made the last chapter especially poignant and allowed me to feel some pity for a woman for whom, frankly, I hadn't felt that much sympathy for, other than normal sympathy at the loss of her family members. Recommended (NetGalley)

The Copenhagen Collection by Barbara Michaels One of my favorite authors, and the only one I wish I had met. This is an older title which I read many years ago, but an audio version was new to my library, so what better to listen to while gardening and cleaning and cooking? Like all good books, it didn't sound dated at all, despite the lack of cell phones, the internet, and other technologies that modern authors rely on to get their characters out of fixes that their writing has gotten them into but can't get them out. And how prescient--one of the main characters, Margaret, is an older woman who dyed her hair green, and later, purple. Very 2017!

Die, Die, Birdie by J. R. Ripley  I wanted to like this book, I really did. I'm the world's worst birder, but I like birds. I worked retail for years, and love it, and totally sympathize with the small business owner. And I empathize with a self-deprecating character. But one repeated refrain that main character, Amy, said over and over, was my opinion of the book--"so high school." The characters acted immaturely, the situations were immature (I don't think you can buy a house without an inspection, legally, can you?), and how the heck did she get the rolling pin to defend herself at the end of the book? She leaves her bedroom to explore the attic and never is it mentioned that she sped to the kitchen to get herself a weapon. And what murderer hauls a body to the attic to hide it rather than in the basement for easier disposal, especially in a building that has two inhabitants and a store on the first floor, so  lots of potential witnesses, which would make body hauling loud and difficult? Not an awful way to spend a spring afternoon, but not really worth the effort. (NetGalley)

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood I've actually had time to read two of my book club's selections--yea, they won't kick me out. This was a fantastic selection of short stories that were spine-tingling and riveting. Except for some anti-Semitism in one short story, and it was difficult to tell if that was the character's failing or a failing espoused by the author, I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for a good, old-fashioned, creepy, late night read. A great book for Halloween.

Maria Edgworth by Helen Zimmern Last year I suggested my book club read Helen by Edgworth--and then I myself never read it because it was our November/December book, and I was just starting my new job, and life was hectic, and I felt guilty. Se when we decided that 2017 would start with a biography of the reader's choice, I read this biography, along with several other book group members. Surprisingly critical (one thinks all biographers from one hundred years ago were all completely noncritical of their subjects), but Helen was written very late in Edgworth's life and so was mentioned only in passing. I still have Helen on my Kindle and will read it one day. Really.

The Book Club Murders by Leslie Nagel Fairly good mystery that revolves around a book club and utilizes actual titles. Moves at a pretty good pace, and most of the character were likable. I'd give this a solid B. (NetGalley)

A Right to Die by Rex Stout It's Nero Wolfe, so there's not much to object to. In this outing, an interracial couple is at the heart of the mystery. I really would like to read all the Rex Stouts in chronological order, but hopscotching through the series is just fine. And I recently started growing y first orchid.

Death of a Chimney Sweep by M. C. Beaton Not, in my opinion, the best Hamish MacBeth story in the series, but it's always fun to visit the Scottish highlands for a little while. Too many coincidences, but I loved how every single one of the evil perpetrators got their comeuppance in this book. A much-needed reminder that those who play dirty will pay dearly for it.

And one Avoid:
Cat Got Your Diamonds: A Kitty Couture Mystery by Julie Chase I expected silly; I was in the mood for silly. And another small business retail setting, so I thought I'd enjoy it. Reader--beware! Bad! Stay away! I barely made it into Chapter 3 and already had at least 12 notes objecting to various passages on my Kindle: word choices were poor or didn't make sense in the context of the sentences, situations were just too outlandish, and they seemed to live way beyond a vet's salary. The last straw was Imogene, who had been the nanny and surrogate mother, missing out on a family dinner to--clean dishes? What? Veiled racism is how I read this. And you know, gentle readers, how much I hate when the amateur detective disparages the police officer and acts superior. But I tried, until the third chapter, when someone asked what kind of party needs a pet caterer, and she responded " 'All kinds, really. Birthdays, weddings, holidays, Bar Mitzvahs. Any event where your pet is the star or where your loved ones will have their pets with them.' He shook his head. 'That's crazy.' " And I agreed and left.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Middle Sister's Autumn Reads

It's been a long while since I posted my book reviews, but there have been some upheavals in my life that precluded both posting and, sadly, reading. But I did get a few books read.

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson Originally published in 2001 in Sweden, this book was just translated and published here in the US, riding the wave of the popularity of Swedish noir. The enjoyed the book. The descriptions of Sweden were very realistic. Ann Lindell, the protagonist, is at a crossroads in her life in this title int he series, and while I generally am impatient with verbal introspection that lasts as entire book, the fast pace of the novel kept the moody inner torture to a minimum. While Ann was not my favorite character, perhaps because of her circumstances, I did like the other police officers and many of the secondary characters. These are good, honest people caught up in circumstances out of their control, and underscore that as different as we may think we are, based on language, or religion, or location, or whatever, we are all the same. Not as noir as other, currently more popular, Swedish authors, so a good avenue for a mystery reader to explore to expand their reading list.

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katherine Green My suggestion for my mystery book group, which focuses on female detectives and a particular era. This is the first of a short series starring Amelia Butterworth, a spinster of a certain age living in late nineteenth century New York City, who observes rather mysterious events at the house next door. Assuming that the police are incompetent, she sets out to investigate, and does uncover some information that Ebenezer Gryce, Green's series protagonist, doesn't. The general consensus of my mystery book group was that Amelia Butterworth was haughty and irritating, but we were impressed that an author would even entertain the idea of a female 'detective' at this date, and the freedoms and opinions of her character made us re-examine our own preconceptions of what late Victorian life was like for a middle class spinster in a large city in America.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham This book was quite popular in 1985 when I worked in a bookstore and it was re-published by, I think, Macmillan/Scribners, after the success of the movie based on Isak Dineson's  Out of Africa. I wanted to read it then, and didn't, but did finally get around to listening to the recorded version. I've not read Dineson although I have seen the movie, and I did find Markham's impression of Baron Blixen very interesting when compared to Dineson's and the movie's portrayal of him. While most of the book was enjoyable, Markham did lose me when she wrote an anthropomorphized horse's view of his new life, which was so at odds with her style in the rest of the book. An interesting, first-hand account of what life was like for a privileged set of white Europeans in Africa at the early decades of the twentieth century, parts can be uncomfortable for an urban, 21st century reader.

The Torso in the Town by Simon Brett One of the early Carole Seddon mysteries, originally published in 2002. A dinner party is interrupted by the discovery of a headless, limb less torso in the basement. Brett provides the slightly askew version of the English country town murder: people live in picturesque, hundreds of years old houses that suffer the pangs of age; everyone in the small village knows each others' secrets, or thinks they do, and are delighted to gossip about them; the vicar is not the pillar of society but a weak, doubtful milksop; the rough publican has a heart of gold and a sensitive side, etc. Carole is not my favorite character: she's too rigid, too judgmental, and thus too fallible perhaps. Rather, I like her ostensibly carefree friend Jude, open, tolerant, curious, and pushes Carole to be a more open and better version of herself. I may be seeing too much of myself and my female friends in Carole and Jude. Regardless, a visit to Fethering and its environs is always pleasant.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Middle Sister's September Reads

September is still summer out here in the desert, so instead, I indulged in a little autumnal reading and dreaming.

Pumpkin Picking with Murder by Auralee Wallace I read the first in this series a few months ago and enjoyed it, so what better way to dream of fall than with a book with pumpkin picking in the title? As so often happens, the second in the series does not quite live up to the first. The 'madcap' adventures are there, but instead of reading as completely random and therefore funny, they read as forced and deliberate. Erica is again visiting her mother at Otter Lake, and while her mother utters only 3 or 4 words throughout most of the book, hers is a funnier and more engaging presence than the voluble Erica. Freddie is a caricature of the Freddie that was funny the first time around. The story centers around the twins, and their characters have not developed at all, despite the murder mystery centering around them and glimpses into their past. The motivation for the murders was believable; the involvement of the twins in the murders, less so.The evolution of secondary character Rhonda Cooke was the highlight. I'd give this one a C--everything seems more forced, and that's never fun to read.

George Washington's Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Popular version based on an older, thoroughly researched book written by a historian that traces the development and activities of a New York City and Long Island-based spy ring that assisted George Washington during the Revolution War (in other words, this is not the product of original research). This little known aspect of Revolutionary War history was important to local NYC-focused military activities, and it was only recently that, by happenstance, the leader of the spy ring was identified. I love that a secret could have been kept that long, and that the spies themselves did not try to profit from their activities after the War ended. What I found most intriguing was Agent 355, a woman, presumably in NYC and presumably of high social rank (as the information she passed on was obtained from officers and probably during parties), whose identity remains a secret. In a brief paragraph, the authors conclude that she probably died on a prison ship that sat in New York Harbor. I disagree. We have enough diaries and memoirs and information from that time that if a socially prominent woman had been arrested and imprisoned on a ship, someone would have recorded it. I think it far more likely that she ceased operations when the situation was too dangerous, and then the usefulness of the spy ring ended, and she went on to live her life quietly, as most 18th century women did, or that she may have died of typhoid or childbirth. Anonymous women like prostitutes and washerwomen may have been able to die on the prison ship without anyone knowing or recording their loss; but a woman prominent enough to obtain this kind of information? Nope. History light and definitely geared to public consumption, but a good bibliography is included.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review: Thrive

I admit to having become increasingly interested in health books as I advance through middle age. I definitely want to age well and soundly.

Thrive by Kamea Chayne

Thrive is an all-over guide for those seeking to improve their lives wholesale. Sections address sleep, exercise, and food, but also includes sections on how to improve your personal shopping to improve our communities and our world. Big kudos to this book for having an exhaustive list of footnotes to support all the health and other facts and information included. Too many health and how-to guides just say things, for wild example: 'eating x has been shown to be good for you,' without telling us who found this, how, and exactly what did x improve. The scientist in me loved that these were legitimate sources, too, including professional nutrition journals. I appreciated the individual, and often small, actions that were proposed that can help the reader to improve their lives, to enjoy more, to thrive, and how these were connected to the local and wider community.

There were only a few tables towards the end of the book, and these didn't translate well in the ebook version (hopefully this was improved in the final version). However, tables and charts could have enhanced earlier sections of the book as well. The only real objection I have to the book were the chapter-ending summaries: virtually word for word what had been said in the preceding chapter pages, this was a big waste of space and time. Bulleted high points or better yet, an elegant summary or personal reflection would have been better. If you are not a devotee of magazines like Prevention and Health (which I admit I am), there will be a lot of new, easily digestible information in here for use to improve your overall health and well being, as well as that of the community in which we live.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Middle Sister's August Books

Just days ago, one of my online book forums gleefully poked at the hackneyed bullet list of plot points that a subset of the cosy mystery genre always exhibits: main character suffers some kind of emotional setback--loses job or fiance or both, has unexpected turn of good luck by inheriting business-house-pet, mystery follows, amateur detective figures out the whodunnit way ahead of the professionals, her love interest/child/self is almost killed, murder is solved, rainbows erupt all over as flowers burst forth and birds sing and her life turns from an bottomless pit of one bad thing after another into a sweeping tide of good fortune and sunny skies. However, there's no reason a book that follows these hackneyed bullet points can't be fun to read, especially in the dog days of summer.

Engaged in Death by Stephanie Blackmoore  Hackneyed props: woman dumps two-timing fiance, only to have his grandmother leave the grandmother's house to her upon her death. Woman and sister move in, murder follows. While this follows the typical genre format, I did enjoy Engaged in Death overall: I liked the fact the sisters were so very different; I liked the grandmother; I liked the old house. I didn't particularly like how Mallory gave Summer a kitten even after Summer told her her father wouldn't let her get one. Great way to get the kid in trouble and annoy the neighbors (of course, it had a happy ending, but in real life, these kittens get tossed in the trash or worse). I didn't like the way Rachel just ignored her sister's misgivings and started the wedding business. I also didn't like how the wedding business venture was undertaken: no business would let the menu and so many other things be changed literally days before the wedding, at least, not without charging an arm and a leg for it. The food has already been ordered and probably delivered, same for flowers, etc. And I also was irritated by Mallory's exchange with Bev's son--she set out to find out if he was involved in the murder, so why feel mortified? And the reader is told repeatedly how big the mansion is (even though it only has one bathroom), but then Mallory thinks she can get it ready to sell in two weeks (see location 2960); please. My house is 1200 sq ft and I couldn't get it ready to sell in two weeks, and I only have one bathroom, too. All in all, the book was pleasant. I wasn't sure Mallory was a very good lawyer, since the words "small business loan" "illegal hacking into computer files" were lost on her, plus there was no addressing the question of whether the muffins and cake Rachel cooked and sold in their kitchen were a health department violation, and let's be serious, no probate would have allowed the money to be released that quickly that one month later, renovations were underway. Still, if you can overlook being annoyed by little discrepancies at a regular rate, you will enjoy this as a quick summer read. I'd give this one a grade of B.

Death at the Day Lily Cafe by Wendy Sand Eckel The east coast of Maryland--one of my favorite places; I'd love to live there so I was immediately interested in the book.  Follows hackneyed plotline--after divorce, woman retreats to inherited farm and opens cafe. I was ambivalent about the main character, Rosalie. I found her interactions with Tyler and reactions to Bini a little immature. But I really liked Glenn, the main secondary character, and some of the other locals. Some editing would have helped passages like this: "Crows will keep the hawk away," Bini said, followed two lines later by Rosalie asking "Are they at least keeping the hawk away?" Some of the supposed banter fell flat (a navigation system to clear a path through a bunch of dogs? No, maybe a broom to clear a path, not a GPS.), and would a woman who owns a farm and lectures the reader about organic food really have no idea what a CSA is? That question should have been asked by one of the locals, not Rosalie. But then, this is a woman who lectured a gay man about knowing what it felt like to be a social pariah after her divorce (as if that is even remotely similar to the experiences of a gay person in our culture). I also had another problem with timelines in this book, too: it takes months to get a liquor license, sometimes, and yet Rosalie gets hers in a matter of days. And what mother just barges into her daughter's bedroom when the latch is on, which she acknowledges is unusual for the daughter, and then is horrified by what she sees (or thinks she sees)? And what woman who is so enamored of her chickens that she names them doesn't ask which one was eaten by the hawk? This many seem like a litany of nitpicking, but these are just a few instances of little annoyances that started to mass and detract from any enjoyment of the book. I'll probably give this author another chance because of the location and Glen, but if I had to grade this, I'd give it an A for location and a C for everything else.

Show Time by Suzanne Trauth This, too, manages to incorporate some of the required hackneyed bullet points: Dodie lost her home and her job to Hurricane Sandy, moves to north New Jersey and gets a job with a cousin of her former employer. See, that's how you spin the hackneyed bullet points in your favor. Full disclosure--I really wanted to like this book because it takes place in my old home state, New Jersey, and there is a real love of everything Jersey in this book. And overall, i did like the book. I liked Dodie, her friends, the fact that she recognizes her job is pretty much a dead end job but she likes her life (for the most part) and is content. I didn't like her willfully ignoring passing on information to the cops she knew she should because otherwise the author might have had to work a little harder to make her central to solving the mystery. What cop worth his badge doesn't investigate the entire building where a dead body is found? I'm supposed to believe no police officer went to the third floor of the theater, where the murder actually took place? And do not get me started on the whole getting Pauli (a minor!) to hack into Jerome's email and Dodie not understanding or appreciating why Bill the Handsome Cop was so pissed off (even though he spells it out for with the words "inadmissible evidence."). But I loved the wonderful way my NJ was depicted, and so I will give this one an A for location and overall a B+.

Big Foot Stole My Wife by Joan Hess A collection of short stories by one of the funniest mystery authors writing today. Hess departs from her laugh-out-loud style for some of these short stories, but I was delighted to see Arly and Ruby Bee make an appearance and they did not disappoint. This one gets an A, as all Hess books do.

A new Donna Andrews and a new Joan Hess--August was a good month for a mystery lover.