This post is a bit of a cheat, because I indulged myself with a re-read this week, and so have nothing new to report. But the re-read was a really good one, standing up well to a second perusal, so I’m simply going to post the link here for my reaction to the last offering by Robert (J. K. Rowling) Galbraith in the Cormoran Strike murder mystery series; if you haven’t yet read this winner, please consider doing so! (But only as a part of the series, or you will be completely lost,
I hasten to add.)
It was such an interesting experience for me to pick up the book Snobs, by Julian Fellowes. I have to confess that I am one of the few people on the planet who has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey; a couple of weeks ago, however, I was scrolling around Amazon Prime looking to be entertained, and encountered a four-part miniseries based on a book by Anthony Trollope, from his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” popped up after I had watched a few other BBC productions, and although it is based on a Trollope book and set far earlier than the events of Fellowes’s book Snobs, there was an eerie similarity to the satirical tone set by Fellowes.
On the surface, this is a regular story about a woman who marries a man, regrets her choice, and looks around her for something else to alleviate the boredom. Edith Lavery, caught between eras, is the child of a socially ambitious middle class mother who hopes, through an advantageous marriage for Edith, to make it into the top echelon of British society. Edith, an attractive girl without any particular passions, life ambitions, or schooling, is drifting along, working in a low-paying clerical job and living in a frumpy apartment in the City. Despite being a young woman of 1980s and ’90s London, she wasn’t raised to believe she needed to be her own person or support herself indefinitely, and she cringes at the thought of a continued existence as a single woman of no means.
Then, a weekend stay in the country and a tourist’s visit to a “stately home” brings her to the attention of Charles, Earl Broughton, and suddenly she catches a whiff of what it would be like to step into the life of the future Marquess of Uckfield, with family estates in Sussex and Norfolk. To know all the “right” people and to be acknowledged by them, invited into their homes, accepted as one of them. Charles, while being a rather dull dog fixated on managing his estates and having his yearly shooting parties, is considered by society to be quite the eligible bachelor, and Edith carefully makes her play to ensnare this rather stodgy but not unappealing young aristocrat.
Four months later, having quickly exhausted all her inner resources (which were, admittedly, few) by playing Lady Bountiful to the surrounding tenants, running committees, and dutifully embracing the country life alongside her sharp-eyed mother-in-law, Lady Uckfield, and her kind but deeply stupid father-in-law, the Marquess, Edith’s eye is caught by a man completely different to her husband—handsome, flirtatious, sexually provocative, and flatteringly attentive—and she begins to consider whether she has made a disastrous mistake.
The thing is, though, this book is not entirely or even mostly about the surface story. Although the elements of a marriage made for all the wrong reasons are its ostensible reason for existing, the tale is a much more compelling one; the events of Edith’s and Charles’s lives are used as a primer for an explanation of the minute yet deadly intricacies of the upper echelons of English society. The narrator, an anomaly himself as an actor who has emerged from the aristocratic upper class and thus moves freely amongst multiple cliques, does a masterful job of seeing and explaining the nuances of each move made by the pertinent characters, from Edith and Charles to each of the true aristocrats and desperate social climbers involved in the story.
The one thing that irritated me about “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” when I watched it was the bracketing remarks made by Fellowes, which, although they followed in the footsteps of Masterpiece Theater’s introductions by the eminent Alastair Cooke, came across as pedantic rather than creating a pleasant framework for each episode. Surprisingly, however, although the unnamed narrator of Snobs serves much the same function in breaking down and analyzing the manners and motives of all its characters, I didn’t have the same reaction to him, and in fact enjoyed and looked forward to his digressions.
This book had much the same effect, although longer and far more complex, as did Alan Bennett’s commentary on the Queen’s new addiction in his novella, The Uncommon Reader. Fellowes’s witty, sometimes acerbic take on social protocols among the British elite was spot-on. Anyone who has rank has status, and with status comes singular mannerisms, language and social morés far too subtle for the commoner to comprehend. But as someone who springs from the bosom of this class, Fellowes (and his narrator) are completely capable of subtle but devastating mockery alongside good-natured kindness and empathy, and their revelations intrigued me.
I can’t believe I almost missed “Talk Like A Pirate” Day! Arrrgh! But a friend clued me in and, as it happens, I have the perfect book to feature…
As part of the requirement for my romance readers advisory course
I took during August, I had to choose a book from among award-winners to read as my final assignment. I browsed the ALA best genre fiction lists, and my eye was caught by the word “pirate.” I’ve always loved pirate tales (romance or not), and an additional incentive (since I forgot that the assignment was due the very next day!) was that this was a novella of 100 pages, so I jumped onto Amazon and purchased Seduced by a Pirate, by Eloisa James, for my Kindle.
Griffin (Sir Griffin Barry) was wed to his bride, Phoebe, at the tender age of 17. Problem was, Phoebe was a beautiful and intimidating 20, and Griffin’s physical prowess didn’t live up to his titled consequence—he was a scrawny adolescent with no self confidence. So when it came to “doing the deed” on his wedding night, he cravenly jumped out the window and headed to the local pub with the objective of getting very drunk, rather than confronting his husbandly duties, which he doubted he could perform! The only problem with this scenario: As a highly intoxicated stripling, he presents the perfect temptation. Press-gangers kidnap him and put him on a ship to the West Indies, and no one knows what has happened to him. Eventually Sir Griffin comes into his own as a pirate, er, privateer on board the Flying Poppy, his own ship, which he thinks he named after his wife (having misunderstood her Christian name at the wedding ceremony). Along the way, he encounters his cousin James, a duke who has similarly fled an unfortunate marriage, and the two of them team up to rule the seas and rid them of “real” pirates for a decade, until both are wounded in a battle. So they solicit and receive pardons from the Crown for their piratical ways, and decide to go home and see how the land lies.
But what happens when a pirate finally comes home to his wife—if she is, still, his wife—and discovers that a lot of unexpected events have taken place during his absence? Will there be a reunion and a consummation? or will the pirate head back out to sea, solitary and cheesed off?
I won’t say that romance will ever become my favorite genre (or even place in the top three), but if it were going to, books like this would definitely aid that progression. James writes with the same kind of esprit as my beloved Georgette Heyer (and this is a monumental statement for me to make!). Her characters, dress, manners, scene-setting, and plot are definitely “up to snuff,” pardon the old-fashioned but entirely appropriate saying. I found this novella to be an unalloyed delight, and the addition of “sizzle” to the basic romantic formula was just explicit enough while still remaining tasteful—and not clichéd, which is the thing most difficult to do in romance.
The only fault I had to find was the abbreviation of the cat-and-mouse aspect of this story. Griffin should have been a lot more disturbed by the changes he came home to find had been introduced by his wife; and Phoebe should have taken a little more time and exerted a little more willpower to resist his wiles. I mean, he didn’t even remember her name right! But, how much can you draw it out in just 100 pages? Probably the fault of the novella oeuvre. I will definitely read another (full-length) of James’s books to find out.
Happy “Talk Like A Pirate” Day!
Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…
Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:
The Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.
The Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.
Tamora Pierce has begun a new miniseries within her larger panoply of books about the fantasy kingdom of Tortall. The three books will be based on the life of the great sorcerer Numair Salmalín, one of the most powerful mages in that world, and chronicle his beginnings as a young lad studying his craft at the University of Carthak.
Arram Draper, which was his given name, showed his gift early when he set a series of accidental fires in his family’s home in Tyra. Since his parents were cloth merchants, their wares were particularly vulnerable to conflagration, so they rapidly took counsel and sent him to the Imperial university, where he would study all aspects of magery, from animal husbandry to healing to water magic, as well as simply learning to control, channel, and use his formidable gift of power.
In the first of the expected trilogy, Tempests and Slaughter, Arram is the youngest student at the university, and comes in for a fair amount of hazing until he is taken up by his future two best friends, Ozorne (who is seventh in line to inherit the Emperor’s throne), and Varice, who struggles with her affinity for food magic and hedge witchery, since women who practice in these areas tend to be underestimated or even overlooked. The three are among the most advanced students at the university, and move up swiftly, independent of the regular students, which further bonds them together. Arram’s tendency to accidents while using his power, Ozorne’s proximity to the throne, and Varice’s magnetic personality draw attention both wanted and unwanted from professors, jealous fellow students, and more pernicious enemies. As they progress through their years of schooling, each of them draws fire, individually and as a group, adding to their chronicle of adventures.
I had looked forward to this trilogy, since I enjoyed the adult character of Numair as encountered in multiple volumes of the Tortall books, but I ended up giving this three stars out of five on Goodreads. I liked it, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a rave-type book.
While I appreciated the immediate and total immersion into the Pierce universe, this time in Carthak, and enjoyed the scene setting, the background, and the atmosphere, that was a large percentage of what this book had going for it. The characters were great—Arram, Varice, and Ozorne really stood out as individuals, as did most of the Masters (mage teachers); and even the incidental side characters like the gladiator Musenda, and the magical bird, Preet, were compelling and individual. I also enjoyed the depictions of the magic itself, the interaction with various gods, the animals, and the other students.
So…why did I give it three stars? Because it’s a background book. It’s true that it’s all about how Arram Draper became Numair, but there’s no real story arc. It’s an accounting of his days in school, of what he learned and how he learned it. (It’s actually quite Harry Potterish, now that I think about it.) It is occasionally enlivened by isolated incidents that show he is growing older and more skilled, that he is expanding his horizons and his knowledge of the world and the magic in it, but there is no beginning, middle or end. It’s a narrative, a record. And honestly, that was mostly fine with me. I enjoy pretty much everything about Pierce’s storytelling, because she is so surefooted in this world she has created and so able to convey its every nuance to the reader…but because there is no arc, there are no big feelings to go with this book. It’s back story. It allows the reader to develop a fondness for the characters, to wonder what will happen next, but there are only the hints of trajectories in their future. As I read through it, I kept wondering why this book merited such a dramatic title (tempests and slaughter?) and while there are storms and deaths aplenty, they come across as an almost ordinary part of the chronicling of Arram’s life.
I definitely plan to read the other two books when they come out, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this one, because it does set things up nicely for a book with some action in it…I would merely caution those who have embraced her other stories from this universe not to have big expectations beyond the familiarity of being at home again in Tortall.
Continuing this occasional feature…
Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:
Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.
The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.
I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.
No, that wasn’t a misspell. Although…anything with ganache would go well with Gamache. I am referring to the latest book in the detective series by Louise Penny. As is usual every August, I anticipate the arrival of Gamache, and then spend two days reading it and I’m done for the year. I try to draw it out, but it’s simply not possible.
In A Better Man, the newest book featuring the Chief Inspector, catastrophic things arrive in the typical three: The spring floods in Québec are threatening to overwhelm the riverbanks and possibly the dams of the entire province; there is a vicious twitter campaign villifying Armand as he returns to the Sûreté du Québec as Chief Inspector; and in the middle of all this, Gamache’s protegé, Lysette Cloutier, implores the Sûreté’s help to locate a friend’s daughter, who’s gone missing.
This one is good…but not as good as some. The mystery—the missing woman, Vivienne—was a little overwrought, with some characters in hysterics for most of the book; while Penny throws in various red herrings to prolong the suspense, I had gotten an inkling early on of the possible solution, which was in fact true (though not for the reasons I had surmised), and I kept waiting for the characters to figure it out as well. I have great respect for both the intelligence and instincts of Gamache, his son-in-law and cohort, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and his colleague, Isabelle Lacoste; but in this case they personalized their feelings by picturing Gamache’s daughter and Jean-Guy’s wife, Annie, as the woman in peril, and missed key clues while obsessing on bringing someone to justice.
One part that I love about the Gamache novels—the eccentric community of Three Pines, where the Gamaches now reside—seemed subdued in this book. Apart from the disastrous reviews of Clara’s new art form (landscape miniatures), the references to the other residents were incidental, brief, and not particularly memorable, and I felt like the book suffered a little accordingly. Not much…but a little.
Equally bothersome is my observation that Penny’s prose has devolved in the course of this series. I remember a couple of books, towards the middle of the pack, over which I waxed lyrical about the poetic language, but that’s no longer the case. I find the short, partial, strung-together sentences with which she now expresses herself to be jarring. I’m not sure what happened, but once I noticed this, I went back to examine those previous works and recognized the differences. It’s sad to me, because the overwhelming mood of these books is determined by the subtlety, humor, pathos, and grace of the character of Armand Gamache, and yet those things are no longer expressed in the kind of language which one would expect Gamache himself to use. I am surprised no editor has brought this up to the author; or, if the editor has done so, that Penny has not taken note. Perhaps she prefers this newer, choppy, abrupt style. I do not.
So, while I enjoyed my annual visit to Three Pines, the Sûreté, and the world of Gamache, it wasn’t an unalloyed pleasure.
This is a series I frequently recommend to those looking for a combination of police procedural and character-driven complexity—somewhat akin to the Dublin Murder Squad novels of Tana French. I usually tell people that if they don’t thoroughly enjoy the first book, they should try one or two more, because the series improves exponentially with every volume. Although I no longer feel I can say that, exactly, it’s still true that it’s a strong series with a lot to offer. Don’t let my remarks about this latest volume deter you from checking out the others. There are 15 books so far in the series, and all but four have received five-star ratings from me!
And just for fun, here is a chocolate raspberry ganache cake worthy of being served up by the bistro in Three Pines. If you’re a “foodie,” be prepared to be constantly craving exotic hot drinks and French treats throughout the reading of this series.
NEW FEATURE: I have so many years of eclectic reading in my past that several friends have suggested I go back and dredge up the memory of books that bowled me over when I read them first, and briefly share them here. I agreed that the chance to revisit some old favorites would be a pleasure. Also, in the context of giving good readers’ advisory services in the library, the truth is that the new books at the top of the bestseller list are checked out, with multiple (or hundreds of) holds, so it’s good to have backup in an old book that might fulfill the same desires as the new one. So here goes…
M. M. Kaye wrote a series of murder mystery/romances called Death in [fill in the blank], from Berlin to Zanzibar, as well as some straight-up romances set in exotic locales and involving typical male leads such as pirates and slave traders. But one of her books stands out far above the rest: The Far Pavilions. Even though she wrote some of them before and some of them after, I feel like all her other books were rehearsals so she could get everything right in this one.
It’s a long and complicated epic with lots of historical context, and it paints such a vivid picture of India under the British Raj and Britain’s incursions into Afghanistan that you can almost smell the dust and hear the bullets whistling past your ears. The hero and heroine are the products of two separate cultures, and their status as misfits in both societies draws them together as children and reunites them as adults in a poignant love story that plays out against a volatile background of war and empire-building. The book is 958 pages long, and I have read it three times; I’m sure I’ll read it again someday! If you are a fan of historical fiction but are looking for something with a different setting to the ordinary, this book will fulfill those desires.
Some of the symbolic meanings of peacock feathers are “awakening,” “vision,” and “protection.” When I finished The Peacock Emporium, by JoJo Moyes, I wondered if she had specifically chosen that as a surname for the main protagonist (even though a married name) to foreshadow the action.
The story revolves around Suzanna Peacock, a woman of 34, who returns, with her husband, Neil, to live in a house provided by her landowner family, near the small town of Dere. They are there because of financial troubles—Neil lost his job, and Suzanna ran up credit card debt—and Suzanna greatly resents the need to be obligated to her parents for providing them with shelter, when what she wants is to be as far from her troubled background as possible, preferably in London. Restless and at loose ends in the country but not willing to consider Neil’s solution of having a baby, Suzanna decides to open a small gift shop and coffee house on the main street of town. She calls it The Peacock Emporium, and Suzanna soon loses herself in collecting all the unique and wonderful items she wishes to sell in her hybrid shop.
Suzanna has never come to terms with her background. Her mother, Athene Forster, first wife of her father, Douglas Fairly-Hulme, died in childbirth, and Douglas’s second wife, Vivi, is the only mother Suzanna has ever known; but the difficult relationship between Douglas and Athene, a self-absorbed, reckless glamor girl, has always overshadowed Suzanna’s complicated relationship with her parents, and has caused her to be withdrawn from the family dynamic. She can’t help but feel that everyone in her family views her through the lens of her mother’s doubtful character.
Putting together the Emporium is the first real accomplishment of Suzanna’s life, but although she takes great pride in the exacting way she has set up the shop, her introverted affect makes her less than ideal as a shopkeeper. What luck, then, when the irrepressibly upbeat Jessie shows up at her door, determined to befriend Suzanna despite herself, and equally committed to turning Suzanna’s showpiece into a neighborhood haunt. As the shop begins to take on the personality of both women, the community embraces it, and Suzanna’s perspectives slowly and subtly begin to change, until a disaster shows up all the cracks in her life that need mending—or rending.
I had a hard time getting into this book initially; the first 80 pages consist of three disparate timelines in different locations, and the story jumps from one to the next with no apparent connection. I hung in there because I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but if things hadn’t started making sense soon after that, I might have put the book down. Fortunately they did; we arrived at the present day with Suzanna and the shop, and subsequent events revealed the necessity for all the previously gleaned information.
This is a book with Moyes’s usual compelling cast of characters who engage you with their issues and quirks, although in this book there are a few that you positively dislike, or at least for whom you lack empathy. It’s also a book containing strong messages, including generational differences, changing cultures, and moral dilemmas. There is an underlying lack of trust amongst many of the characters, primarily due to a dearth of honest communication, but with all of that there are also moments of extraordinary generosity and love. It’s an odd, sometimes depressing, sometimes poignant, and ultimately joyful story that’s not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it.
There are three covers for this book, and none of them gets it right. The hardcover features a woman in a dress from no known era that is associated with this story; the paperback at least has women dressed as Debs from the 1960s (the era of Athene Forster’s debut); but the more recently released paperback features a girl on a bicycle, even though no character in this book ever rides one. I say again, as I have lamented before: Doesn’t anyone in the art department ever read the book? Or at least look at a synopsis? Ask for advice? Care about being true to the story? C’mon.