Monday, April 25, 2016

Middle Sister's March and April Reads

Since I missed last month's deadline, I am going to get these reviews posted early for April. A couple of these were advanced reading copies from NetGalley, and as such may have had formatting issues that are not pertinent here.

The Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth This classic was read for my mystery book group. Published originally in 1928, The Grey Mask introduces us to Miss Silver, the other elderly female detective that few have heard of. I've read this and other Miss Silver mysteries in the past, but not with the critical eye of my mystery book group (which, the by way, is called Miss Marple's Mavens). This time around, I found it much more interesting that Miss Silver is a secondary character who appears very few times in the story, which is told from another character's point of view. Some of the physical descriptions of setting were fantastic (the blowing wind and scratching tree limb scene, for example), but other scenes were almost clinical and devoid of much detail. The repetitive description of one character was a deliberate and effective ploy to make us dislike her (and it certainly worked on me). The book left many unanswered questions about Miss Silver that I recall (possibly incorrectly) are never answered throughout the series, notably how did this former governess become a paid-for private detective so late in life? Quick and enjoyable read, definitely recommended for genre fans.

London's Glory by Christopher Fowler If you have never met Bryant and May, you do not know what you are missing. I have a fictional crush on John May and wish Arthur Bryant were my curmudgeonly uncle. This collection of short stories doesn't explain their past or that of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, but it does provide additional examples of their quirky detection, and also gives some secondary characters more prominent roles. I loved the introductions in which Mr. Fowler explained how or why each story came about. Definitely recommended for genre fans.

Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson I love travel memoirs, and I was all set to enjoy this one, because it fit in the mold of so many others I've enjoyed: young woman (here, immediately post graduate) goes to Italy and her life is changed. Okay, so unlike many other travel memoirs cum biographies, Ms. Wilson didn't travel abroad to undertake a college semester or just to travel, but because her parents felt everyone should live abroad for a few months after graduation just for the experience (read, wealthy family bankrolls extended vacation), and her enthusiasm was very lacking. Okay, so Ms. Wilson was oblivious as a child to her family's wealth (read, she thought everyone had Very Important People You Read About in the Newspaper over to breakfast and a swimming pool and trust funds); I can understand that. However, the book soured immediately upon her arrival in Italy: her employer sends her off to dinner with a family whom the employer knows, and Ms. Wilson immediately falls 'in love' with the son and pursues him shamelessly. I'm not a curmudgeon, and I believe in love at first sight, but that is not what I felt from reading this. What I read was a very lonely young woman, who had limited romantic experience, met, on her first, disoriented, jet-lagged night in another country halfway around the world, a disinterested young man with an accent whom she relentlessly pursued until she badgered him into a relationship. There were a few characters mentioned that had great potential, but their lives were never pursued. Ms. Wilson's writing lightens up when writing about food (she had severe food issues as a child, unsurprising since her mother reportedly told her she was fat even as a small girl), but not enough to save this book. Not interesting enough to overcome the negatives and not well written enough to overcome the lack of substance.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo I caved; I read a bestseller. Lent by my friend Debbie, whose book club read it. Full disclosure--Debbie hated it and didn't get past the first half. My sister also read it and loved it. So I began the book aware that it inspired vastly different opinions. The first half was a bit repetitive, and honestly, I can't imagine any child as fascinated by ordering and tidying as Ms. Kondo was, but then, I am a habitually messy person and know that. I did approve of her message, although I interpret 'things providing joy' as 'things that are very useful.' I definitely approved of the message to get rid of things you dislike or are holding onto for no reason. However, the author lost me when I was told to thank my things for doing their purpose (thank you, handbag) and to say hello to my house when I walk in (hello, house! Did you miss me?). The last straw, which was luckily near the end of the book otherwise I might have followed Debbie's lead, was being told to empty my purse every night so it can relax. Emptying my purse makes the counter messy, which is the opposite of being tidy. My purse doesn't need to relax. Debbie thought the cultural differences were too extreme to make this interesting or useful to her. It's not cultural differences for me (although I definitely get that Shinto Buddhism beliefs underlie much of the approach), it's a question of how one views inanimate objects. And while I agree you own your things and they should be useful and make you happy, I don't think they need to be thanked or welcomed aloud. Still, I plan on trying her method of folding to see if it makes my messy sock drawer neater. But I won't thank them.

The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri My continued vacation in Italy... Inspector Montalbano finds a very dead and very naked woman in a house that he has broken into (why tell you why the police inspector was breaking into a house? Read it to find out why.) and has to surreptitiously get the investigation started without revealing his connection to the discovery. Peppered with several good red herrings, a victim both likeable and elusive, and gorgeous descriptions of food, mystery lovers will enjoy this greatly. It helps if you read the series in order because there are recurring characters whose relationships with Montalbano change over time, but enough background information is provided that it is not necessary. If you are looking for a new series with an intelligent main character, crisp writing (well, the translation is great so presumably the original is as well), and a great setting, meet Inspector Montalbano.

Reward for Winter by Di Slaney Reward for Winter is a collection of poems written after the author left her urban life to live on a rural English farm (which in itself sounds like a interesting memoir I'd read). I particularly enjoyed the poems that stemmed from the lives of historical local figures and those that addressed nature and the changing seasons. I also enjoyed the glossary that defined terms like gular flutter (yes, that term appears in a poem). Enjoyable and a nice change of pace for one who often indulges much too often in genre literature.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman Superb nonfiction book about birds that should appeal to birders and science lovers alike. Ms. Ackerman's detailed summary of current theories on bird intelligence and abilities, their social structure, and morphology was riveting. The comparisons between the larynx of humans and the syrinx of birds was fascinating. Well written, meticulously researched, one of the best books read this year. Highly recommended.