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.

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!

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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It’s a Mystery: Cemetery Girl, by David J. Bell

Cemetery Girl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four years ago, Tom and Abby lost their only child, a daughter who disappeared one day while walking her dog. Abby has given up hope, but Tom clings to the slim chance that Caitlin is still alive. Similarly, Abby has given up on the marriage, but Tom clings to what little they have left. The first part of Cemetery Girl paints a somber, realistic, and compassionate picture of the terrible trauma these events have visited upon both parents, but especially Tom.
Then, out of the blue, Tom is contacted by a young exotic dancer who claims to have seen Caitlin. Tom is overjoyed, almost maniacally thrilled, but Abby is frightened and uncertain. The remainder of the novel follows Tom as he attempts to cope with possibilities and untenable realities. As the plot unfolds, his memories of his own childhood and his abusive stepfather resurface, and Tom loses all ability to think and act rationally. Those to whom he turns for advice and support have little to offer him, and it is only circumstance that will determine what becomes of him.

This story is a dark, distressing one, in which all of the characters struggle with deep psychological disturbance. Some of them are coldly detached, while the others wallow in an emotional morass. Oddly, not one entertains the idea that some competent psychotherapy and judicious use of medication could help them make better decisions. Cemetery Girl is a tragedy in the truest, classical sense of the word.

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Historical Fiction: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

P.D. James, declared by no less a source than the NY Times to be England’s “most talented practitioner” of British Crime Fiction, makes a departure from her contemporary work to visit the world of Jane Austen. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have been Happily Married for several years and are the Parents of two Young Sons (and Heirs). Elizabeth’s impetuous sister, fans will recall, is married to the roguish and ever unfaithful George Wickham, who is Decidedly Not Welcome at Pemberley. In the course of arriving as uninvited guests, Wickham becomes involved in the death of his close friends, which takes place during a stormy night in the Pemberley woodlands. He’s accused of murder, of which even Darcy refuses to consider him capable. Soon Wickham will be on trial for his life.

Ms. James is the consummate author, and she does a more than creditable job of channeling the Regency era among the aristocracy. The plot is simple, and Darcy is no Dalgliesh, but it’s a great pleasure to follow the course of this charming story, which does capture the tenor of Jane Austen’s fictional world. The Darcy marriage is, of course, idyllic, and he never neglects the opportunity to declare his love for his wife. He calls her Elizabeth, but we don’t know what she calls him, as I can’t recollect ever seeing her use a name. Fitzwilliam? Wills? Billyboy? Fitz? Alas, we’ll Never Know. I’m generally Not Fond of books in which authors confiscate the Famous Characters of others, but in the case of the brilliant P.D.J., I’ve made an exception.

Nothing short of Delightful.

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It’s a Mystery: Upon a Dark Night, by Peter Lovesey

Upon A Dark Night (Peter Diamond, #5)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery, and a cracking good one. Upon a Dark Night opens with a case of amnesia, a young woman found unconscious in a hospital parking lot. “Rose” is released into the care of Bath Social Services, and is soon reunited with her step-sister. In the meantime, head of murder squad Peter Diamond is bored and listless, in the absence of any murder cases, stuck working on an apparent suicide and a woman who fell off a roof. He won’t be bored for long.

Though his colleagues believe Diamond has set off on a wild goose chase, he’s convinced that more than coincidence lies behind these seemingly unrelated but concurrent events. His thinking is propelled, though he’d never admit it, by the brazen, colorful, tenacious Ada Shaftsbury, the homeless woman with “form” for shoplifting who lived with both Rose and the faller. Ada doesn’t hold with coincidence or accident, and Diamond takes some very flimsy evidence and soon has a puzzler on his hands. Nothing he likes better. And nothing that devoted mysteries like better either. Though plenty of clues are dropped along the way, solving this case is no slam dunk. An intricate plot, a motley cast of lively characters, a brilliant detective, and the setting in Bath make Upon a Dark Night a delightful way to spend your precious reading time.

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Monday Morning Poem: A Something in a Summer’s Day

by Emily Dickinson

A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away

Nordic Summer Evening, Richard Bergh (public domain via Wikimedia)

Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth — an Azure — a perfume –
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see –

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle — shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me –

The wizard fingers never rest –
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed –

Still rears the East her amber Flag –
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red –

So looking on — the night — the morn
Conclude the wonder gay –
And I meet, coming thro’ the dews
Another summer’s Day!

It’s a Mystery: Murder at Marble Arch, by Anne Perry

Midnight at Marble Arch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Within a matter of days, three of Victorian London’s society women are raped, and all three soon died as a result. This is not a subject discussed in polite company, but Thomas Pitt, now Commander of Special Branch, and his predecessor and friend, Victor Narraway, find themselves driven by moral outrage to see that justice is done. It seems that times have changed very slowly with respect to the prosecution of rape, mainly because, in the process, the victim’s reputation and emotional well being take more of a hit than the rapist’s. Veteran author Anne Perry does a superb job in illustrating the difficulties that beset all involved in such a crime, es Over the years, she has developed her Commander Pitt into a tough yet sensitive bull dog of a copper whose innate empathy never allows him to forget the human side of his cases, despite the fact that this trait causes him a great deal of personal anxiety. It is perhaps this factor that prevents this series, now at volume twenty-eight, from growing stale or hackneyed. Murder at Marble Arch is fresh, engrossing, and well worth reading not merely for its entertainment value, but also for the questions that it raises and ponders that remain valid today. The more things change….

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It’s a Mystery: The Bone Bed, by Patricia Cornwell

The Bone Bed (Kay Scarpetta, #20)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kay Scarpetta’s having a hell of a day. She arrives at her office and opens an email containing a photo of a severed ear. She’s due in court after lunch, and wouldn’t you know, gets called out to recover a body floating in Boston Harbor. Strangely, the corpse, which appears mummified, is tied up in such a way that it’s likely to be pulled to pieces during recovery, so Kay must dive in and figure out how to prevent that from happening. When she arrives late to court, the judge reads her the riot act in front of the jury. When she finally gets back to her lab, it’s to find that the FBI has horned into her case.

Over the course of thirty six hours, Kay and her team (Lucy, Marino, and Benton) discover and scramble to solve a string of interconnected murders. Kay and her cohorts are brilliant people all, but talk about emotional baggage! While struggling with their personal problems, which are heavy, it becomes evident that the killer is taunting Kay. Rarely has she felt more vulnerable or alone.

What is refreshing about this, the twentieth Scarpetta novel, is watching four pros who care very much about each other pool their first rate clinical specialties to resolve some nasty crimes; while it’s disconcerting and often aggravating to see them at odds with one another, it is this that makes them truly real, truly human. Unlike the characters in some long running series, they do grow older, and along the way, act and react and evolve over time. They stand by each other nevertheless. Sometimes, they’re a bit paranoid, but then again, who isn’t?

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Historical Fiction: New York, by Edward Rutherfurd

New York: The Novel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“I’m gonna make a brand new start of it, New York, New York”, sang Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli in what has become the city’s anthem. As he did for England, Ireland, and Russia, Edward Rutherfurd has undertaken to relate the history of New York City in novel form. My favorite of all his works is Sarum, told the story of the evolution of Salisbury Cathedral, though his other titles are also well worth reading. From Manhattan’s earliest years to the decade following 9/11, Rutherfurd traces the experiences of the fictional Master family as New York grows in size, prominence, and status. Along the way, he deftly weaves in the stories and contributions of slaves, Dutch and English settlers, Native Americans, and members of the various immigration groups, all of whom have played such important roles in the making of one of the world’s greatest cities.

If the novel conveys a theme, it would be that of the ongoing effort to build a socially just community. The first third of the book, covering the period from the settling of New Amsterdam to the War for Independence, is perhaps the most compelling section, and the most detailed. From then on, the author is forced by the vast scope of his topic to skipping entire decades and eras in order to focus on what he views as the city’s most formative events, including the draft riots during the Civil War, the prejudices and struggles affecting each immigrant group as they attempt to assimilate, the Great Depression, and second half of the 20th century. His characters are well drawn, though in my view, the later Master descendants lack the depth and vitality of the earliest ones. Particularly vivid are the portrayals of Quash, one of the family’s slaves, and his family. And Rutherfurd successfully depicts that vibrant ambience of this crowded and multicultural place, only fourteen miles long and two wide, and surrounded by water and smaller islands.

Read the book and you’ll “want to be a part of” New York too.