It’s a Mystery: The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #3)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Canadian village of Three Pines may be idyllic, but it’s not immune from murder. As T.S. Elliott so famously wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” and as Easter approaches, the residents decide to hold a seance to rid their vacant, creepy manor house of the malevolent spirits that have wreaked such havoc among them. It’s a daunting prospect, but something that must be done. One of their number dies of fright, and early the next morning, Inspector Armande Gamache arrives on what has by now become for him a familiar crime scene.

The charm of Louise Penny’s series derives from her eloquent writing style. This woman knows her way around words. She breathes atmosphere into her setting and humanity into her characters, and her plots are always intricate enough to sustain the mystery even after you think you know who did it. Gamache has to be one of the warmest, most ethical and understanding detectives ever invented. His success is due to his principles, one of which is that murder always starts with a secret. Penny doesn’t shrink from illuminating his flaws, however, which makes him all the more human. The murder at the center of The Cruelest Month has him genuinely puzzled, and events during the investigation leave him wondering whom among his team can be trusted. Gamache, of course, eventually prevails, but not without some ingenious plotting of his own. As another famous author, Norman Mailer, once wrote,”In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected.”

It’s not necessary to read the Three Pines novels in order, but that’s the way to get the most out of everything that Penny does so well.

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Folklore and Fantasy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our lives are shaped by our childhood impressions and experiences, and no one knows or expresses that truth better than Neil Gaiman. The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed, middle aged Englishman, who returns to his rural roots to attend a funeral. On a whim, he drives to the site of his former home, now a housing development where the country roads have been paved over, all except foThe Ocean at the End of the Laner the rustic lane that leads down the hill to the Hempstock farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock sees him arrive, and as they talk, snippets of memory begin to float to the surface. The summer he was seven, he and Hempstock granddaughter Lettie became friends, and he came to realize that there was something timeless about this family. They can see and do things that he can’t quite understand. Perhaps the duck pond, as Lettie insists, really is a sort of ocean. One morning, following a suicide in the neighborhood, a dark power is unleashed, and he and Lettie must embark upon a quest to vanquish something unspeakably evil.

What sounds like a prosaic sort of fairy story when I summarize it is much, much more in the hands of Neil Gaiman, though it does retain the key elements of the classic fairy tale. Mr. Gaiman writes beautifully, making every word count, and he is a master at conveying a genuine sense of the wonders and fears of childhood. His characters, which are few, are memorable and real. The action in Ocean vacillates between idyllic peace and heart stopping terror. Parents cannot always be counted on, and sometimes innocent mistakes bring serious consequences.There are omens (a fish that swallowed a sixpence), symbols (the number 3 is important), archetypes, and magic, but there is also a firm grounding in the ordinary. Emotionally powerful, mesmerizing, and highly recommended.

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It’s a Mystery: A Secret Kept, by Tatiana De Rosnay

A Secret Kept

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many reviewers have read and reviewed A Secret Kept after having done so with Tatiana De Rosnay’s first novel, The Secret Key, which received critical acclaim. The general consensus seems to that A Secret Kept can’t hold a candle to its predecessor. Not having read The Secret Key, I’m not hampered by expectations. This book is about a pair of middle aged French siblings, Antoine Rey and his sister Melanie. When they were children, their family took a series of vacations at Noirmoutier Island, and to celebrate Melanie’s 40th birthday, Antoine takes her on a surprise holiday there, hoping to rekindle happy memories. The visit does rekindle memories, but some of them are disturbing. On their way back home, Melanie confides to Antoine that she’s remembered something very disturbing about their mother, who died young. Suddenly, however, their car veers off the road. Antoine is not injured, but Melanie must spend several months in recovery, during which he finds himself suspended with all sorts of questions and speculation, wondering when she will be able to recall the momentous news. ,

The trajectory of this book follows the course of Antoine’s struggle to come to terms with an unwanted divorce. He still loves his wife, who has remarried, and his children, whom he sees on bimonthly visits. Desperately unhappy, he meets a free spirited woman who works as the hospital mortician, and he is stunned to realize that he’s falling in love with her. Melanie finally remembers and divulges the secret she’s discovered about their mother, and set out on a search to uncover how she died so many years ago.

A Secret Kept is a sort of family saga, recounted in real time and in a series of flashbacks. The Reys have always been an uncommunicative family, and, in addition to learning how to live his life anew, Antoine must learn to break out of that destructive pattern if he’s going to become the sort of father and lover that he would like to be. His newly found knowledge about his parents’ secret past, initially a shock, proves to be the key to first finding, and then reinventing himself. This well crafted novel is meditative and full of angst, but not overwhelmingly so, and it’s interesting to watch how Antoine handles having to change much what he thought he knew about who he was. In some places, it’s slow going, but generally worth persevering to the open-ended conclusion. The information about Noirmoutier, which can be reached by a road that’s obliterated by the tide twice is day, is fascinating, and the place becomes an apt metaphor for the book’s central theme.

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Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

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Here She Is —the Real Rosie the Riveter

post updated 4/26/15

This article was originally posted in 2009, and, in light of the sad news of Mary Keefe’s death this week, at the age of 92, thought it only right to update it today. Ms. Keefe is an American icon, and will always be remembered as Rosie. Not a bad legacy to leave !

One of the famous iconic images from World War II is Norman Rockwell’s poster of Rosie the Riveter. The painting, for which now-79 year old Mary Doyle Keefe posed twice and was paid $10, came to embody the can-do attitude of American women whose work helped win the war. Full story here .

post updated 10/1/09

Plants for dyeing: Comfrey

comfreyI’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.

It’s a Mystery: Season of Storms, by Susanna Kearsley

Season of Storms

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

History repeats itself at an estate high above the shores of Lake Garda, where a century ago, renowned playwright Galeazzo D’Ascanio wrote a drama, considered to be his masterpiece, expressly for his muse, actress Celia Sands. She disappeared without a trace on the eve of its opening, leaving him broken and bereft, and locals believe that she has haunted the estate ever since. Now his grandson, Alessandro, has endowed the property to a historic trust, and as a final tribute to Galeazzo, he plans to stage the play for the public before relinquishing the villa. For the leading lady, he has engaged a fledgling English actress, another Celia Sands, who with trepidation accepts the role and travels to Italy for rehearsals. At the villa, she is assigned the very same room once occupied by her namesake, whose portrait hangs above the bedstead. Celia’s nervousness about taking on her first starring role is exacerbated by tales about ghostly encounters, and the fact that two household staff members are missing adds to her uneasiness. When some unsettling incidents occur, she tries to chalk them up to imagination.

Season of Storms unfolds at a leisurely pace. It’s clear from the outset that events from the past will be mirrored in the present, so the book relies on characters and the process of staging a play as its center. Character development is uneven, however, and it’s unfortunate that Celia remains a reactor, passive and unsophisticated. Although she will come to feel real fear, the reader never does. Part mystery and part romance, both story lines fall a bit flat in spite of the spectacular Gothic setting in which they play out. What works somewhat better is the gradual reveal around modern Celia’s own family history, which is cleverly plotted and does come as a surprise

Susanna Kearsley’s books have been compared to those of Mary Stewart, which is fair, and I’m also reminded of Daphne DuMaurier (excepting the incomparable Rebecca).

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