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

Thursday, September 07, 2017

R.I.P. Challenge Reading List

The R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge, affectionately known as the R.I.P. Challenge, is already underway, running from September 1 through October. I'm still in the middle of some pretty hefty books, so I won't be joining until October, but I had fun collecting 10 mysteries from my TBR shelf that are just "dying" to be read.

If you want to sign up or read reviews, visit Estella's Revenge.

Here's what I've read so far:

  1. Journey to Munich, which is #12 in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear.
  2. The Brimstone Wedding, by Barbara Vine - I read about this a few years ago and got a copy for specifically for R.I.P.
  3. The Bee Keeper's Apprentice, by Laurie King - with Sherlock Holmes, no less, I've been wanting to give this a whirl for years now.

And here's what I'm looking forward to:

Borderline, by Nevada Barr - I haven't read an Anna Pigeon mystery in a while, and this is the next one in the series for me.

The Falls, by Ian Ranking - another one that has been languishing on my shelf. Reading about Edinburgh in Diana Gabaldon's Voyager is just whetting my appetite for more Edinburgh scenes, albeit more modern than the 18th century.

Borrower of the Night, by Elizabeth Peters - I liked Peters' Amelia Peabody stories, so I'm looking forward to meeting art historian Vicky Bliss.

A Marked Man, by Barbara Hamilton - second in a mystery series starring one of my favorites Founding Mothers, Abigail Adams. The first, The Ninth Daughter, was very fun to read.

The Eagle Catcher, by Margaret Coel - set on a Wyoming Indian Reservation, I've been wanting to read more from this Colorado writer.

Lake of Fire, by Linda Jacobs - set in Yellowstone, this is a historical mystery/thriller. I love Westerns, I love National Parks especially Yellowsone, I love mysteries. Hope it's a winner.

Suffer the Little Children, by Donna Leon - another Guido Brunetti mystery, set in Venice, love this series. Should be a comfort read despite the inevitable murder.

Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker - first in a series set in rural France.

Such a wealth of choices--I'll be revisiting old friends and catching up on their doings, and meeting new, and hopefully interesting, characters. Bring on the Pumpkin Spice and let the leaves fall!

I know I won't get through all of these books in October, but it's nice to have them all at the ready.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Gift from the Sea

I love to read books about books and one of my favorite authors in this genre is Will Schwable. I read his Books for Living earlier this year and vowed to read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, which Schwable wrote about so beautifully.

This lovely, slender book was every bit as special as I had hoped. The basic premise is that Lindbergh spends a vacation on her own in a cottage by the sea, spending her time recharging and reflecting, away from home, husband, and children.  Each chapter is a meditation on a specific object, mostly shells, and she uses the shape and texture and function of the shell as a writing prompt to reflect on her life and what matters to her--home, husband, children, work.

Although the role of women in American society has changed profoundly since Lindbergh wrote this book, the struggles she faces as a working mother, trying to balance her creative impulses with her desire to create a calm and nurturing home, are timeless.

I loved Lindbergh's quiet prose and her voice is strong and sure, even when her words talk about her ambiguity, restlessness, and desire for escape.

I agree with Schwable--this is definitely a book for living. It's a book to keep near at hand and dive into from time to time. I do wish I had read it as a young woman because it would've been interesting to see how my thoughts about it would have changed as I faced my own struggles with work/life balance, but even so, I look forward to rereading it a few more times in the years to come.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


What did I think of Celine, by Peter Heller? It's a 2017 release by a Colorado author.

In a word, ARRGGHHH!

It was so frustrating because the premise was fabulous, the setting sublime, some of the writing pretty good, but there were so many problems with this book that I ended up giving it only 2 stars on GoodReads.

Here's the Amazon blurb:
Working out of her jewel box of an apartment at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, Celine has made a career of tracking down missing persons, and she has a better record at it than the FBI. But when a young woman, Gabriela, asks for her help, a world of mystery and sorrow opens up. Gabriela's father was a photographer who went missing on the border of Montana and Wyoming. He was assumed to have died from a grizzly mauling, but his body was never found. Now, as Celine and her partner head to Yellowstone National Park, investigating a trail gone cold, it becomes clear that they are being followed--that this is a case someone desperately wants to keep closed. Inspired by the life of Heller’s own remarkable mother, a chic and iconoclastic private eye, Celine is a deeply personal novel, a wildly engrossing story of family, privilege, and childhood loss. Combining the exquisite plotting and gorgeous evocation of nature that have become his hallmarks, Peter Heller gives us his finest work to date.
Great premise, right? Great setting, right? I love both Yellowstone and NYC. And a non-traditional private eye is always good, right?

My biggest problem with the novel is that I really didn't like Celine very much. I didn't believe in her as a character--way too perfect.  Celine is basically Nancy Reagan turned Nancy Drew.

In addition to having nerves of steel, a gut she can rely on to steer her towards the right answer, and a brilliant mind, she is successful artist (marrying "beauty with death") and a strong swimmer and sailor. She is also elegant, petite, beautifully mannered, poised. Even when Heller tried to give her some faults, he managed to make them annoyingly perfect. She's not just an alcoholic--she's the one in AA who everyone wants to be their sponsor.  Yes, she has emphysema from smoking, but her lungs clear when she is focused on solving a case.

And she is in love with guns. I could forgive her for everything else but I cannot forgive her for lusting, literally lusting, after everything from an antique Colt to semi-automatic weapons. Heller teases the reader by withholding the part of her backstory that explains why she is such a crack shot--I smell a series in the making--but I found her fondling of firearms to be nauseating. And she's a PI who specializes in reuniting birth parents/children--not exactly the type of work that requires the guns that she and her husband tote all over the country.

The narrator insists on how smart and saavy Celine is, but by my reckoning her husband, Pete (aka Pa) actually figured out most of the case and left out-shooting a former Navy SEAL (give me a break!) to his wife. Apparently, Celine has a better track record than the FBI, but based on the actual detective work on evidence in Celine, I don't buy it.

Oh, and there's a particularly ridiculous scene in which Celine confronts a group of Sons of Silence bikers in a bar and makes them whimper out the door. It truly reminded me of the movie Every Which Way But Loose and the scene with the Black Widow gang.

The Black Widows - Every Which Way But Loose

The best thing about Celine is Heller's description of Yellowstone as Celine and Pete drive around while they try to figure out how to find out if Gabriela's father is actually dead or not.  This made me really want to go back up to Yellowstone, one of my favorite places on Earth!

Apparently, Heller has been enormously successful with his two previous novels,  The Dog Stars and The Painter.  For me, I think Celine would have benefited enormously from severe editing. The problem with being a best-selling author is that I think that success makes them eschew a good editing.

It's really a shame because this could've been such a great book....ARRGGHH!

Monday, August 14, 2017

To Be Read

I have multiple ways of finding out about books I think I would like. Obviously, as a book blogger, I read other book blogs and get loads of ideas that way. I also pick up Book Notes from my library each month and go through it, reading about all sorts of new books in various genres. And then there's chatting with friends and scanning the feed on GoodReads. I rarely browse bookstores as there aren't any near me, but that's still fun when I travel.

Here's my list of the 12 most recent additions I've made to my GoodReads To Read shelf. No telling if or when I will get to these. Their order is simply most recently added to my potential reading list.

  1. The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein - btw, the year was 1922. Source - Book Notes
  2. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult, Bruce Handy - I like to read books I think I should've gotten around to writing. I love rereading children's books and I love talking about children's books that impacted me personally. Source - Book Notes
  3. A Very French Christmas: The Great French Holiday Stories of All Time - my friend Lucy at Fictional 100 reviewed this and I put it on my December reading list. With stories by Guy de Maupassant, George Sand, Victor Hugo, et al, how could I not love this? Source - book blog
  4. Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin - I loved her Home Cooking and part of it was her excellent writing, so I thought I would give one of her novels a try. Source - book blog (Lakeside Musing for Home Cooking) and then GoodReads for which novel of Colwin's to try.
  5. The Wayfarer's Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler, by Evan S. Rice - I love to travel...on my own terms. This book appeals to the wanderlust I harbor. Source - Facebook ad.
  6. London Belongs to Me, by Norman Collins - Karen at Books and Chocolate reviewed this and it appealed to me at the time but I'm not entirely sure I'll ever actually get to it. Source - book blog.
  7. Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker - first in a series set in the French countryside with a policeman as the detective. Seems a bit like the Donna Leon Guido Brunetti novels. I love the premise and good series are great fun and always good when you don't know what to read next. Source - I can't remember!
  8. The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison - everyone seems to be reading and reviewing this lately, and I like to read newly released books as well as the tried and true.  Historical fiction - Europe, New York, Africa, Montana - perfect! Source - many blogs.
  9. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan - another 2017 book and this one by a Colorado author (I think it's set in Denver but not 100% sure on that). I can't resist bookstore books. Source - Book Notes.
  10. Vindolanda, by Adrian Goldsworthy - yep, it's another Hadrian's Wall (Reading Northumberland) book, but brand new and set in the time period just before the wall was started. I first learned about it from Margaret at Books Please, and then saw it in a few museum shops during our walk last month. I plan to read it very soon--just need to finish up a couple of other books first. Source - book blog.
  11. Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, by Diana Gabaldon - a collection of short stories, probably to tide us fans over while she works on her next Jamie/Claire tome. I'm reading Voyager right now, but these short stories will be fun as filler. Source - GoodReads newsletter.
  12. A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline - a novel inspired by the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina's World. I have always loved this painting and I like the subgenre of telling a story about how a particular painting came to be. This is another that appealed enough that I wanted to remember it, but not sure I will ever actually get to it. Source - can't remember.

Let me know if I should push any of these to the top of the TBR pile, and how do you find out about good books?

Happy reading.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, is another WWII novel but what sets this one apart is that the women are all German instead of part of the Allied effort. The main woman character is Marianne von Lingenfels, a strong, aristocratic matriarch whose castle, by marriage, features in the story itself and becomes home for all three after the war and symbolizes the struggles they endure to face the reality of their situation, loss, and sense of identify.

The other women are Benita, an ingenue Aryan prototype who marries Marianne's childhood friend, a Nazi resistor, and Ania, the purported wife of another Nazi resistor.

Shattuck does an excellent job of telling the stories and back stories of all three women, weaving in their children's lives and experiences. I felt both sympathy and frustration with all three, and really appreciated getting a look at the German experience during and after WWII.

I particularly admired Marianne's leadership, even when those around her resented her for it. She is the reason any of the extended circle survived, and while her tactics and forcefulness may have caused their own wounds, she truly did what needed to be done.

I thought the ending was particularly satisfying and realistic.