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.

 

 

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.

Historical Fiction: The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiaverini

my rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Van Lew was born to a prominent family in Richmond, Virginia. Unusual for the time and place, they manumitted their slaves a decade before the Civil War, and regarded all African-Americans as equals. The Van Lews, though devoted to their state, are appalled and dismayed when it secedes, and they decide not to support the Confederacy in any way. It isn’t long before their neighbors notice, especially when Lizzie, by this time a spinster, demands permission to nurse Union POWs held in Richmond’s Libby Prison, a converted factory. From that point forward, the Van Lews are ostracized by all but the few like minded families that remain in the city. Lizzie comes to realize that, as her patients come to trust her, she’s ideally positioned to act as a spy for the Union. The Spymistress dramatizes her story, one that deserves wider recognition than it currently holds.

Although at times the novel dips into the melodramatic,  it does a creditable job of demonstrating the  sacrifices made by Lizzie and her fellow Unionists, black or white. To say that they  risked their lives to undermine the Confederate cause is an understatement; it’s believed that one of the former Van Lew slaves, Mary Bowser, collaborated with Lizzie by hiring herself out as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s executive mansion. While reading about their espionage activities is intriguing, the last section of the book, following the surrender of Richmond, is eye-opening.  Ulysses S. Grant told Lizzie that she provided the most valuable information to come out of Richmond during the War Between the States, and The Spymistress illuminates the courage and heroism of Lizzie Van Lew and her compatriots. Well worth reading.

History is Mystery: The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

imageMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lincoln Letter is the tenth and latest  William Martin’s series of historical novels, several of which feature antiquarian book dealer  Peter Fallon. Now Fallon is back and hot on the trail of a heretofore unknown letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life.  The letter is brief, addressed to  former War Department decoder Hawley Hutchinson , and seems to refer to a diary that Lincoln lost earlier in the Civil War. Fallon heads to Washington DC, only to discover that he  is not the only hunter in this increasingly dangerous quest. While Fallon is feverishly searching and defending his life, a series of flashbacks, narrated from the point of view of Hutchinson, illustrate how and why this mystery came to pass.  The plot is enriched by the actions of colorful characters in both time periods, and I found the Civil War story the more compelling. Martin adroitly handles the moral issues  of slavery and political machination without becoming preachy, and the African American characters are among the best developed.  Why were people so determined to find Lincoln’s diary in the 1860′s? For its value to anti-Lincoln factions for use as a weapon. Why are they so determined in the early 2000′s? For the diary’s value, to history, yes, but more importantly, for the fortune it would bring.

A fast paced, engrossing tale, thoughtful and well presented.

Modern Lit: The Gravity of Birds, by Tracy Guzeman

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Seventeen year old Natalie Kessler is beautiful, sullen, and determined to have things her own way. Her brainy younger sister,  Alice, plans to become an ornithologist.  While on vacation with their parents, they each develop crushes on the moody artist in the neighboring cabin, Thomas Bayber, who does some sketches of the family. Ten years later, Alice is forced to give up her graduate studies by the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Wanting to be alone to come to terms with the death of her dream, Alice retreats to the same lakeside cabin, not knowing that Thomas, now well on his way to fame, will also be there.  An intense but brief liaison ensues, after which they go their separate ways.

The second half of  the novel takes place decades later.  The Kessler sisters are now living secluded lives in Tennessee, and Alice is completely dependent upon Natalie and their housekeeper. Thomas has succumbed to alcoholism, squandered his fortune,  and become a recluse. He has long since been supported by Dennis Finch, the art historian who wrote the catalog on Bayber’s work. Now he summons Finch and disgraced authenticator Stephen  Jameson to locate a heretofore unseen triptych that he painted from the Kessler sketches.

The Gravity of Birds has a complicated plot, told in a series of  alternating flashbacks and present-day scenarios. There are two mysteries to unravel: why did the sisters leave New England so precipitously, and why did Thomas send Finch and Jameson on this close to impossible quest?  There are poetic and fairy tale elements in the narrative that create an almost gothic,  other worldly atmosphere.  It is easy to empathize with each character, so much so that the  revelation of the novel’s central mystery comes as a blow.  If the novel has faults, they lie in the resolution, which relies too heavily on serendipity to be entirely credible.  Nevertheless, it’s an impressive debut by an accomplished writer. I finished it last week, and it’s been staying with me;  I look forward to Ms. Guzeman’s  future work.

It’s a Mystery: A Sunless Sea, by Anne Perry

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Anne Perry’s books about William Monk always have a moral theme, and with A Sunless Sea, the Commander takes on the opium trade.  Early one morning,  when on routine business,  Monk discovers the horribly mutilated body of a middle aged woman, lying in the open on Limehouse Pier. As his investigation commences, the victim appears to be a prostitute with a single client, who stopped visiting her about two months before her death. With considerable difficulty, Monk tracks him down, only to find that he too is dead, apparently from suicide.  The authorities providing him with the details strike him as suspiciously evasive, persuading Monk that all is not what it seems. This man was a well regarded researcher who was trying to convince Parliament to regulate the labeling, dosages, and sale of heroin. A few days after his report was publicly debunked, he killed himself in humiliation, according to the inquest results. But the doctor’s widow, Dinah, immersed in grief,  adamantly refuses to believe that he’d do such a thing. Soon she finds herself arrested for the prostitute’s murder. But Monk’s instincts tell him that something’s not right,  and as he delves ever deeper, he finds himself embroiled in a governmental cover up of  astounding proportions.

Although it drags in places, particularly at the start, once the pace picks up the plot becomes compelling. It seems certain that Dinah will be convicted and executed. As always, Monk’s success depends upon the help he is given by his wife and close associates, and as they team up to ferret out the facts, the reader is taken into dark scenes and settings that illustrate well Opium Wars and the development of  the opium addiction that continues to plague society to this day. The courtroom scenes are equally effective, and culminate in the need of the defense counsel to make a gut wrenching moral choice of his own.  No traditional happy endings, here, but this is a book that drives its point home.

Folklore: Lions, Lambs, and March

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is probably the most famous and popular saying about this transitional month. But why those particular animals? Some authorities believe that the lion and lamb saying has a heavenly connection. The constellation Leo, the lion, is rising in the east at the beginning of March, hence the “comes in like a lion,” while Aries, the ram, sets in the west at the end of March, and so “will go out like a lamb.”

Perhaps the strongest literary and historical association of this month is not with the weather, but with the “ides”, or middle day of the month, in the ancient Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play unwisely ignores the soothsayer’s warning, “Beware the Ides of March!”, was murdered on the Ides (15th) of March in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius.

imageThe proverbial phrase “mad as a March hare” has a similar origin: a “March hare” is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for its leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles in its mating ritual.

The best known of March holidays, if Easter falls in April, is St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Saint Patrick used the

three-leafed clover (or shamrock) to explain the holy Trinity and cleansed Ireland of snakes by driving them into the sea with his staff (or shillelagh). To this day, shamrocks and shillelaghs are well known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, and, there are no snakes in Ireland. St Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. No wonder he changed it.

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.

 

It’s a Mystery: Where Death Delights, by Bernard Knight

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where Death Delights is a new mystery about a pathologist written by a pathologist, set in 1955 in the west country of  England. Following his recent divorce, Richard Pryor has left government service in Singapore to set up a private practice in the newly emerging field of forensics.  Pryor and his new partner partner, biologist Angela Bray, also on the rebound, set up their labs in the rambling house that he has inherited from an aunt. Neither is certain of the success of their new and risky venture, so both are relieved when cases begin to come their way. Most are fairly routine,  but one, the discovery of a skeleton, which two women are claiming as relatives, is interesting and challenging. Within a few days, they are also contacted by a prominent London QC who suspects that the death of his daughter, ruled a suicide by the coroner, is actually a cleverly planned murder executed by his philandering son-in-law.

Don’t expect the caustic scenarios of a Patricia Cornwell from this novel. Rather, it is a sort of  medical procedural that just misses classification in the cozy mystery genre. That does not mean the book is not worth reading. On the contrary, despite the absence of violence and gore, it’s fun to follow Pryor as he applies the new forensic techniques (deriving blood type from bones, for instance) to his first puzzling cases. There are a few confusing moments trying to keep the bits of evidence separate from each other, and, while one of the puzzles is brought to a satisfying solution, the other is not. There are also hints that Pryor is developing romantic feelings for his partner and also his attractive, widowed housekeeper, but those have yet to blossom.

A promising beginning to a new series, hopefully one in which these characters have a chance to grow.