Modern Lit: The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bald Slope, North Carolina, was just another backwater until Marco Cirrini founded a ski resort and a family that would become local royalty. Josey, his only child, is 27 now, but her widowed mother’s a master at using guilt and disparagement to keep her under her thumb. Josey is attracted to the local mail carrier, Adam, but her  private life consists solely of gorging on sweets and romance novels, which she keeps well hidden in her closet. Until the day she opens the door to discover that Della Lee Baker, on the run from an abusive boyfriend, is hiding out in there. And Josey’s life will never be the same, for, little by little, Della pushes her out of her shell. And her mamma isn’t happy.

The Sugar Queen is a captivating confection of a novel. Bald Slope is populated by engaging characters whose quirks are attributable less to eccentricity than to a sort of everyday magic. It’s a place where books choose their readers, promises  cannot be broken, and the color red carries its own special power. That doesn’t mean that Josey can come of age without experiencing the pain of relinquishing her illusions. But this novel at heart is joyful, brimming with humor, warmth, and southern charm even when something bitter must be faced.  I enjoyed reading Sarah Addison Allen’s first two novels, Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper, and The Sugar Queen is the best yet.  5 stars.

 

 

It’s a Mystery: Arson and Old Lace, by Patricia Harwin

my rating: 2 of 5 stars

Catherine Penny has fled New York City for an idyllic English village, struggling to come to terms with her failed marriage. She and her husband had visited Far Wychwood in happier times, and Catherine is dismayed as those bittersweet memories mar her pleasure in her new home. Still, living near her daughter’s family provides some compensation, and Catherine is determined to fit in with her neighbors and make a new life for herself. But she has a disconcerting way of stumbling into trouble. She begins by offering assistance to the elderly man across the lane, unperturbed when he rebuffs her, and alienates his arrogant son.  She agrees to babysit for her two year old grandson, only to find herself exhausted by his boundless energy. Though some of the local ladies accept her with kindness, it isn’t long before Catherine is known as a pushy busybody. Then the old man’s house burns down, and she strongly suspects arson.

Catherine is an interesting protagonist, and the question of arson is an intriguing one. But in truth, she IS a pushy busybody. At her age (60-ish), she should have learned to control her impulsiveness, but Catherine repeatedly throws herself into one iffy situation after another. Some are mildly comical, but the way that she ignores her daughter’s wishes about the care of the little boy is deplorable. It’s true that she comes to reveal one of the town’s dirty little secrets, but in the process, manages to muck up several lives in which she had no business meddling. Look out, Far Wychwood, you’ll never be the same.

I plan to read the second in this series, to discover whether Catherine develops a modicum of wisdom. For a more appealing lady sleuth, read the Dorothy Martin series by Jeanne M. Dams.

It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.

 

Monday Morning Poem: March

By Celia Thaxter

 

THE keen north wind pipes loud;

Swift scuds the flying cloud; 
Light lies the new fallen snow;
The ice-clad eaves drip slow,
For glad Spring has begun,
And to the ardent sun
The earth, long times so bleak,
Turns a frost-bitten cheek.
Through the clear sky of March,
Blue to the topmost arch,
Swept by the New Year’s gales,
The crow, harsh-clamoring, sails.
By the swift river’s flood
The willow’s golden blood
Mounts to the highest spray,
More vivid day by day;
And fast the maples now
Crimson through every bough,
And from the alder’s crown
Swing the long catkins brown.
Gone is the winter’s pain;
Though sorrow still remain,
Though eyes with tears be wet,
The voice of our regret
We hush, to hear the sweet
Far fall of summer’s feet.
The Heavenly Father wise
Looks in the saddened eyes
Of our unworthiness,
Yet doth He cheer and bless.
Doubt and Despair are dead;
Hope dares to raise her head,
And whispers of delight
Fill the earth day and night.
The snowdrops by the door
Lift upward, sweet and pure,
Their delicate bells; and soon,
In the calm blaze of noon,
By lowly window-sills
Will laugh the daffodils!

Kid-Lit: Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years,  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough  that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”.   When their umpteenth nanny quits,  Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.

Monday Morning Poem: Dear March — Come in

by Emily Dickinson

Dear March — Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, Come right up the stairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

I got your Letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming — till I called
I declare — how Red their Faces grew –
But March, forgive me — and
All those Hills you left for me to Hue –
There was no Purple suitable –
You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April.
Lock the Door –
I will not be pursued –
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied –
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That Blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame –

It’s a Mystery: More Than Meets the Eye, By J.M. Gregson

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My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Sissinghurst,  one of the greatest of English gardens,  is the inspiration for Westbourne, the very interesting setting of  More Than Meets the Eye. Westbourne’s director, Dennis Cooper, loves his job, but possesses many irritating habits, such as collecting dirt on his employees,  that make him less than a favorite among the staff. When Cooper’s lifeless body is found on the grounds, Inspectors Lambert and Hook encounter many likely suspects. Author Gregson provides each of them with chapters of their own, and the mystery unfolds as the chapters alternate.  Rather than planting red herrings, he provides each character with very good reasons for wanting Cooper dead.  The reader never becomes certain about who really did it. So, More Than Meets the Eye works well  as a bona fide whodunnit, but, in this episode at least, the investigators, DSI Lambert and DI Hook, come across as rather flat. I found myself rooting more for the suspects than for the cops, and, no doubt as the author intended, felt considerable sympathy for the murderer. Let’s hope he/she is only charged with manslaughter!

History News: Two New Portraits of Shakespeare

Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50,  relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.

 

Ghost Story: The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from  the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father.  When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter.  From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……

The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses  categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar.  Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction?  Grace is soon to know the whole truth.

This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation.  And possibly a sequel?

Monday Morning Poem: The Snow Storm

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.image
The wing adroiter than a sail
Must lean away from such a gale,
Abandoning its straight intent,
Or else expose tough ligament
And tender flesh to what before
Meant dampened feathers, nothing more.
Forceless upon our backs there fall
Infrequent flakes hexagonal,
Devised in many a curious style
To charm our safety for a while,
Where close to earth like mice we go
Under the horizontal snow.