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.