Monday, November 1, 2010

Middle Sister's October Reads

The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davies      First in the Domestic Divas mystery series, starring Sophie Winston, forty-something divorcee living in a fabulous old house in Georgetown, who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation when she finds a dead man in a dumpster at the grocery store. A dead man who turns out to have been a private investigator who was following her. Enjoyable mystery, with amusing ending with overtones of slapstick comedy. I was particularly enjoying this mystery because Sophie and her sidekick do what is rare in amateur detective novels--they tell the police what they've found, or at least try to. I found it refreshing that Sophie didn't think she was smarter than the detective (to whom, of course, she's very attracted; ditto him to her). Until Sophie found the poison vial and instead of calling the police, decided--stupidly--to try to catch the killer (of several people) herself. Very out of character with a woman who, up til this point in the story, was acting like a normal person. Disappointed this reader. I know, you'll say the author needed this to resolve the mystery. Well, I liked Sophie a lot up til then, and I instantly lost respect for her acting stupid. Which made me forget forgiving her being wishy-washy and unable to tell Humphrey that no, they were not on a date, and no, they were not involved romantically (this relationship was too junior high to be believed) and get annoyed by that whole subplot. Enjoyable enough I'll give Sophie another try, but if this smart amateur detective suddenly has another stupid moment, I'll be mightily disappointed. Lots of food talk in this mystery, and it made me eager for Thanksgiving dinner.

Lark Rise by Flore Thompson   Novelization of the author's childhood growing up in a very small, poor, rural community during the Victorian era in England. I had heard good things about this (and the two subsequent novels) online, and my local PBS station started showing the serialization made in England several years ago. I decided to read the first before watching the show (which is actually based on all three fictionalized memoirs by Thompson). While it's a very fast read, this first book has very little dialogue and is almost completely descriptive. While the people of Lark Rise seem resigned enough with their lot in life (they're not really happy, because they really have no experience of how things can be or were different elsewhere), I came away from it very happy that I live today. These people were extremely poor, and reading about their diet (or lack of much of one), the difficulty of just scraping by, and the general hard times of everyone in the village, I wondered how so many viewers of the television show could find it a wonderful escape and wistfully say they'd love to live then. I haven't watched the show yet, so maybe when you don't read about the one meal a day they ate, with just a tidbit of old bacon fat to flavor it and provide some protein, or the threadbare clothes, lack of daily comforts including sanitation, and all the other things we take for granted, it may seem an idealized way of life. Not to me.

Till Death Us Do Bark (43 Old Cemetery Road, No. 3) by Kate Klise and Sarah Klise   Very enjoyable children's book about a boy who lives with an adoptive father and adoptive ghost-mother, and his adventures when he takes in the dog belonging to the town's wealthy benefactor after that man's death. The clues to solve the mystery of the bequest of the fortune were interesting and well done. I was delighted to look some of the coins up to discover that they are real, and as rare as the author says. Delightful drawings with somewhat Addams-family-esque light decay and spookiness to them to provide atmosphere. Besides, I was getting to play with three real live Irish wolfhound puppies while reading this book with an Irish wolfhound--who wouldn't have fun? Definitely worth the read.

Emma Darwin: A Victorian Life by James D. Loy and Kent M. Loy  Biography of Mrs. Charles Darwin that ultimately fails to make the reader feel they know Emma. A great deal of time was clearly spent in reading archived family letters, tracking the many and evolving family relations (yes, I had to slip that word in here somewhere), and the authors do a good job of recreating the social, financial, and political world the Darwins and their family and friends inhabited. But Emma did not leave a diary, and did not confide her inner thoughts in her letters, so the reader ends the biography with no greater insight than that Emma was a wealthy woman who loved her children and her husband, liked music and spent her widowhood reading. The closest to a meaty issue covered in the book is that Emma and Charles held very different views on religion at the start of their marriage, but by the end, Emma had somehow changed her beliefs to mirror her husband's a bit more. But that change isn't well charted. Nor is how she contributed, by editing, to her husband's scientific writing. I'd have loved to see facsimilies of his writings, with her editorial comments or marks, to see how she contributed to his famous books. Her impressions of great scientists who were friends of her husbands, people like Charles Lyall, the father of geology; Huxley; and others are amusing, but superficial. Way too much of the book is spent discussing daily gastrointestinal information that Emma recorded for her children and Charles. A section discussing how Emma was very concerned with her family's health, with some examples, would have sufficed. Page after page and year after year, and chapter after chapter, of reading "C poorly" was a great waste of paper. The photos were nice, and the brief summary of the childrens' lives after their parents deaths was good, but the authors left out some of the other important people, like the Darwin's grandson who lived with them for many  years, and just disappears from the story after he attains his adulthood. And how many descendants do Charles and Emma have? The authors thank one for his help, but it might have been nice to say "At the time of printing, Charles and Emma were survived by XX descendants." Some interesting insights onto  Charles Darwin are provided, and anyone researching his life would find this an interesting addition to flesh out his character (especially his thoughts on marriage). What I remember several weeks later is that the Darwins were very affluent, which I hadn't known. Otherwise, Emma remains just another Victorian wife and mother, and I don't feel I know anything about her at all.

Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry   Completely charming story by acclaimed author Lowry about mice who live in a church and the trials they undergo when the Great X comes. Lowry skillfully weaves in life lessons a child may not recognize, about fortitude, and being kind even to others who aren't kind to you, and courage. The pen and ink drawings are delightful and charming. I absolutely loved this book. I'm only sad I don't know any children to buy it for when it's published.

The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell  Murder mystery about modern English police trying to solve some gruesome murders that are connected, somehow, to a series of murders that took place over one hundred years ago. I enjoyed the use of genealogical research to investigate the historical murders, but some sections were way too long (the trial transcription, for example) and would have benefited from some judicious editing. Heather Jenkins, a secondary character, was the one I liked the most. Detective Foster and Nigel, the genealogist, were a little too angst-ridden for my liking. C'mon, Nigel, your 'scandal' turned out to not be scandalous at all, and Foster, it's been 8 years since your father died. Eat some vegetables and talk to a counselor if you still haven't resolved that. The murders were too gruesome for my taste, but I wanted to step out of my usual cosy mystery genre to try something new. The final twist that the entire story comes down to was just too coincidental for me, and I found the reason for the string of murders less than convincing. I might screw up my courage (when my stomach stops churning over the ick factor) to read another, but probably not for a good while. But well written, with attention to enough British police procedural detail to create a real atmosphere without overwhelming an American reader.

Guy Mannering  by Sir Walter Scott    I read Ivanhoe (gulp) thirty years ago and enjoyed it, so when my 19th century literature reading group selected this for our fall book, I was excited. When the story finally picks up steam, it's very good, but the first one-third is very slow, with almost no dialogue. Make sure you read an edition that has a glossary in the back for the many, many Scottish dialectical phrases (not Gaelic) used by most characters. But if you're looking for a story with smugglers, hidden identities, a little romance, but not much swashbuckling, this is the story for you.

Dixie Divas by Virginia Brown   I'm going to read a galley of the next in this series, and as I happened to have had the first on my Kindle for months now, I decided to, for once, read a series in order. Dixie Divas is a lighthearted mystery with a 51-year-old divorced, likable main character named Trinket who has returned to her childhood home because she believes (mistakenly, it turns out) that her aging parents need her care. Reunited with her cousin and close friend Bitty, the two become involved in the murder of Bitty's ex-husband, the Senator, when they find him bludgeoned in a historic house they have to gone to visit to try to persuade the owner to allow the house on the local historical society's tour of historic homes fundraiser event. Trinket and Bitty are likable, as are their children and Trinket's parents (who never act like they need help, so Trinket's obsession at the beginning of the book that they are senile is obviously very wrong). The Dixie Divas, a group of hard-drinking, funny women who meet monthly as some strange twist on the Red Hat Society, are difficult at times to tell apart, and I think 1 or 2 fewer Divas would have helped me to keep them straight during the book. The mystery isn't very hard to figure out, but it's not supposed to be. We're just supposed to enjoy swilling mint juleps and seeing some Southern mayhem, and we do. But as for the disappearing body of the Senator: amusing, but if you really want to read how this can be handled superbly, read Edmund Crispin. The disappearing and reappearing decapitated head in one of his mysteries is hysterically funny.

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