The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

October 15, 2016

The Secrets of Wishtide

      'Drat,' Mrs. Bentley dropped the potato she was carving (she was infinitely patient about cutting out the black parts). 'You're not expecting anyone today, are you, ma'am?' She got up and went to peer out of the window. 'It's Watson -- from Mr. Tyson's office!' Her pale eyes were suddenly as bright and alert as a squirrel's. 'Shall I ask him to come straight down?'
      'Yes, do.' I carried on rolling out the suet pastry, very glad not to be interrupted by a formal call, which would have meant handwashing and hairbrushing and the removal of my coarse apron. Despite my 'reduced' circumstances (that term always puts me in mind of sauces), the vicar's wide felt obliged to visit me, and I sat on several charitable committees with various local ladies. They all knew how reduced I was, but would have been horribly shocked to catch me in the act of cooking.

As you might know, I'm addicted to series mysteries, and the hint of a new one in the air always makes me happy.  I've been looking forward to this book since I first heard about it, and although it perhaps wasn't quite as wonderful as the build-up I gave it to myself, I definitely liked it, and its Victorian heroine, and am looking forward to her future adventures.

One of the things that the author did really well, I thought, was to quickly and easily weave in Laetitia Rodd's back story, and to sketch out her characters in a skillful way, so that it doesn't seem like this was the first time we had encountered them. Mrs. Rodd is a distressed gentlewoman in her fifties, still mourning after the death of her husband, a lovable archdeacon, and living in shabby comfort in London with her landlady and friend, Mrs. Bentley. She earns the funds to keep them both by assisting her brother Fred, a highly-regarded barrister, with some of his clients, and in this one, he sends her to Wishtide, the country home of Sir James Calderstone and his family.  At first, she pretends to be a new governess for the Calderstone daughters so that she can investigate the beautiful but unsuitable woman that their older brother insists on marrying. But then there's a murder or two or three, and it becomes her mission to convince Inspector Blackbeard of Scotland Yard to look elsewhere and save young Charles Calderstone from the gallows.

There was a thunk of a clue halfway through, but at least the intelligent and feisty Mrs. Rodd realized it herself a few pages later {there's nothing worse in a mystery than when you guess the ending much too soon...}, and I'm not sure the very last few pages worked, but these are very minor quibbles.  In the end, this was perfect, untaxing comfort reading, just what I needed, even though I'm always a little bemused that a cozy murder mystery would qualify as such. :)

The Secrets of Wishtide, by Kate Saunders
Bloomsbury Publishing 2016
Borrowed from the library

September 17, 2016

At Dusk: Boston Common at Twilight

The snowfall has ended in Hassam's view, but something of its enchantment remains. The fading light casts its rosy glow, turning the snow pink and encouraging contemplation. Hassam's selection of dusk, with its traditional associations of nostalgia and longing, of the inevitable passage of time, lends his painting a calm, thoughtful air, at least to twenty-first century eyes, colors and covers over the clamor of traffic, the frenzied activiry of rush hour.

I had already known that Childe Hassam, an artist I'm always drawn to, had painted a few scenes of Boston, because I love to visit two of them {this one and this one} whenever I go to the Museum of Fine Arts.  But somehow I never realized until a few weeks ago that he was born in the Dorchester section of Boston, and that makes me even happier. :)

And so did this book.  It's essentially a 'biography' of this iconic painting, and as you might guess, anything that extends the idea of a biography into another area is wonderful to me.  {Ms. Hirshler, a curator at the MFA, has written a similar book about this Sargent painting, another favorite of mine.}

She tells us that At Dusk was one of Hassam's earliest paintings, and was dismissed by critics when it was exhibited in the early 1890s (it went unsold, and was finally purchased in a 'clearance sale'). For a long time, this painting, reproduced on the coffee mugs and holiday cards sold in the gift shop, seems to have been mostly a sentimental icon; in the 1970s, when it was lent to the mayor's office, 'perhaps this peaceful vision also acted as a political statement ... projecting to his guests a sense of harmony and calm during an era of political and racial turbulence.'

But what was fascinating {and surprising} to learn was how innovative, and 'modern,' this painting was for its time.  Hassam was one of the earliest artiists to paint urban scenes {in an earlier painting, he recorded his fascination with the way rain looked on the city's newly paved streets}, and his 'deliberately muted palette, with its gentle harmonies of rusts and browns' was seen as an alternative to the brighter colors being used by the Impressionists {and by Hassam himself, later}.  But as she tells its story, Hirshler writes in depth about its subject matter:  the changing nature of Tremont Street, where a colonnade of houses was being replaced by commerical buildings, the streetcars, the new, much brighter streetlights, one little girl's very fashionable fur-trimmed coat, and even the idea that it was becoming acceptable {in Boston, at least} for a respectable young woman {in her subdued dress, not engaging with the men crowding the sidewalk} to walk and linger, unescorted, on a city street.

All things I didn't know; a short, fascinating, delightful book...and now I can't wait to visit this painting again.

Childe Hassam, At Dusk:  Boston Common at Twilight, by Erica E. Hirshler
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005
Borrowed, from the Boston Public Library, and now on my bookshelf

September 14, 2016

Revenge in a Cold River

I enjoy Anne Perry's mysteries very much, both the series about Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, set in the late 1800s, and her series (this one) about William and Hester Monk, set in the middle of that century. They're consistently good: very well written, with very well drawn characters; I always look forward to the next book in these very long running series, knowing I'll enjoy them.  I'm slightly fonder of the Monks, if only because in this series the arcs that Perry writes into the lives of her recurring characters are little more dramatic.

Monk is the Commander of London's River Police, and in this book he is still reeling from a battle with gun smugglers and river pirates that resulted in serious injuries for Monk and his officers and the death of his closest colleague. Monk is sure that the River Police were betrayed, and strongly suspects that McNab, an officer in the Customs service, was involved, so he is suspicious when McNab brings him in on the investigation into the death of an escaped prisoner. The two men hate each other, but Monk doesn't know where McNab's enmity comes from; even worse, Monk realizes that McNab knows his deepest secret:  after a carriage accident thirteen years before, Monk has no memory of his early life, only secondhand glimpses of the man he was. As the investigation turns against him, he begins to know more about his past, in a very unexpected place.

Revenge in a Cold River has just been published by Random House/Ballantine Books. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read it!

Revenge in a Cold River, by Anne Perry
Random House, 2016
Advance copy, via NetGalley

September 12, 2016

The Capel Letters

Though I don't seem to pick them up as much as I used to, I love to read volumes of letters, and this book was a lovely one to discover.  When I was reading bits of a book about the summer of 1816 {as the 'Year Without a Summer,' with great climate changes all over the world due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia two years earlier} and the Shelleys and Lord Byron's summer in Geneva, I came across some quotes from a certain Lady Caroline Capel, an aristocratic Englishwoman who was spending that summer in Switzerland. I couldn't resist looking her up, and finding this book was the wonderful result.

When her husband's devastating gambling debts came to light, it became necessary for the family to retrench, and to go abroad in search of a cheaper place to live.  The letters -- from Lady Caroline and her older daughters to Lady Caroline's mother -- begin when they eventually arrive in Brussels in 1814, with most of their twelve children, who range from Harriet {in the painting} who is 21, to Adolphus, who is a year old.  Their social circle ranges from the Duke of Cambridge {one of Queen Victoria's uncles} and Prince William of the Netherlands to a wide circle of other English expatriates and military leaders, and their letters are filled with descriptions of dinners and balls and parades on the boulevards of Brussels; at the same time, they're writing about their 'most delightful house' and the happily lower cost of meat and vegetables. 

The letters were most likely published {more than a century later} because the family was in Brussels durng the Battle of Waterloo, with Caroline eight months pregnant with her thirteenth child and reassuring her mother that that they were safe there, and that none of her children had been born before their time. I remember the story of how the Duke of Wellington and many others spent the night before the battle at a ball, and even as they write home about the frightening sound of cannons, the friends they lose and the horrible ranks of wounded soldiers, there's something of that odd juxtaposition in Caroline's life, too.  Her brother Lord Uxbridge, who is honored for his heroism in the battle, is shot in the knee and loses his leg.  His aide-de-camp reports that after the operation "He said smiling:  'I have have  pretty long run, I have been a Beau these 47 years and it would not be fair to cut the young men out any longer.' "  But there is one problem:  six years earlier, Lord Uxbridge had abandoned his wife and six children and eloped with another woman.  All of the injured parties had happily remarried, 'but the social stigma ...attached itself only to the wife who had dared to leave her husband and marry another's...She was not spoken to by the respectable members of the Paget family -- at least not by the ladies; but now Caroline would have to meet her erring sister-in law and, what was worse, so would the Misses Capel.'  A few weeks after the battle, they {like many others, apparently} visit the battlefields, almost like tourists, and the house where Lord Uxbridge recovered from his wound and where his leg was buried in the back garden.  

A year later, in the summer of 1816, they decided that Brussels had become too expensive, and reluctantly decided to take a house in Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva. There's more about  weather that summer and their ongoing domestic economies and difficulties, and accounts from the daughters of a day spent in Geneva and what seem like very intrepid journeys into the mountains.  I would, of course, have liked to spend more time with them in Switzerland, or even a glimpse or a gossip about what was going on across the lake, but the letters came to an end, much too soon, with the Dowager Duchess' death in 1817.

The very last section of the book, though, goes back to their time in Brussels and Harriet's passionate and unrequited love for a certain Baron Trip, a military officer 20 years her senior, and her letters to him don't provide the only drama ...
      So far, neither her mother or father suspected the deep attachment which their daughter had formed towards Ernest, though in early February Caroline had written:  "Baron Trip still keeps his ground & and is here almost every day'; but soon (and how it came about we shall never know) some passionate communication between Harriet and the Baron was intercepted by her father; whatever it contained it is clear that Ernest was considered to have acted most dishonourably, for Caroline wrote to Lady Uxbridge on April 19th, which warranted indeed the 'Private' written at its head.
      'My very Dearest & most beloved Mama
      'I know reports fly quick & often with untruth or exaggeration & lest any should reach you, I write myself to say that my dear Capel has had an Affair with Baron Trip (Harriet, the Unfortunate cause) in which no blood has been spilt, Thanks be to Almighty God -- I can at this Moment enter into no particulars. You may suppose what the blame must have been to have induced so peaceable a Nature as Capel's, the Father of a Family, to have taken such a Step; the Duke of Ruchmond was his Second & has behaved in the most Perfect manner  ... Had I wanted  any thing to increase My attachment to My dear dear Capel his Conduct now would have done it. ... He had to keep us all from the knowledge of it & he did it so effectually that with all my anxiety of Mind I had not the slightest suspicion...
      This Unfortunate affair took place the day before yesterday, Sunday -- He beg[g]ed me to have Prayers directly after Breakfast as he had promised he said to call on General Barnes ar 12 O'Clock to see him before his departure for a few days -- little did I think where he was going!'

There is exasperation and annoyance as well as anxiety, Harriet is sent off to stay with friends in the Hague {'Poor wretched Harriet!  How bitter had her great passion made her; but no one could accuse her of being anything but constant1'}, and when the Baron comes to a bad end, Lady Caroline writes 'In short, my beloved Mama, I almost dare to look forward to the prospect of this fine creature (tho' I say it) being one day restored to herself.'

The letters, found in family papers, were assembled and edited by the great-great-grandson of Lady Caroline's brother, Lord Uxbridge, and published in 1955. {Do you read The Persephone Post at all?  It  was (I thought) a wonderful coincidence to see his portrait in it on Thursday, just as I was finishing this book, but the distinguished gentleman turned out to be his father; his sister's portrait appeared the next day.}

The painting is Lady Capel holding her daughter Harriet by John Hoppner, c.1794, found here

The Capel Letters:  Being the Correspondence of Lady Caroline Capel and her daughters with the Dowager Countess of Uxbridge from Brussels and Switzerland, 1814-1817, edited by The Marquess of Anglesey
Jonathan Cape, 1955
Borrowed, from the Boston Athenaeum

September 11, 2016

The Dollhouse

There were things I liked about The Dollhouse, with many others that I wished were better. I read it in a few short bursts over the past couple of days, after waiting for it for a long time at the library.  I loved the premise:  it's set in New York's famous Barbizon Hotel for Women, partly in the 1950s, and partly in the present, now that the hotel has been turned into high-priced condos. There are still {truly, apparently} ten ot twelve elderly residents still living in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor, and as she encounters one of them in the elevator, Rose Lewin, a young journalist who lives in the building, becomes fascinated with finding out more about their lives.

The author is wonderful with setting and atmosphere and details, and a little more distant and less vivid in creating her characters. The real challenge with the book, is that it uses the technique of telling you (right upfront) how the story will end, and then trying to build interest in how that ending came about. I think you have to work even harder to make that technique work, and the for all these reasons, the book fell a little flat for me; it was fun to read, but except for the historical detail, it didn't rise too far above that. On the other hand,  it's a first novel, and I hope she'll write another one.

The Dollhouse, by Fiona Davis
Dutton, 2016
Borrowed, from the Minuteman Library Network

September 8, 2016

The altogether unexpected disappearance of Atticus Craftsman

Oh, this was one was fun, just a romp, with the kind of quirky silliness that works especially well if some of its ingredients {tea, and eccentric British people, and a plain 'literary spinster' (!!!) in her fifties} are the things you'd love to find in anything you read, even as others are altogether unexpected, like the book being set in Madrid and Granada. {The dust jacket mentions that this is Mamen Sánchez' sixth novel, but the first to be published in English.}

I'll give you the barest bones of the story.  Atticus Craftsman is the handsome, restless son of Marlow and Moira Craftsman {for generations all of the men in the Craftsman family have been given the names of literary figures}. Atticus works for his father, the head of a British publishing house, and is sent to Madrid to close down the failing literary magazine the firm had launched there. Faced with the loss of their jobs and the lives they have built around them, the five women who run the magazine — Berta, the contented 'literary spinster'; Asuncion, who is placid, overweight and comforting; Maria, the young wife and mother who (it turns out) is unfaithful to her husband; Gaby, the computer whiz who is recently married and unable to get pregnant; and Soleá, the sexy young woman from Granada who wants a career and a flat of her own more than a husband — try to delay the inevitable by luring Atticus away from the office with the promise of finding some unpublished poems by Federico García Lorca in a trunk in Soleá's grandmother's attic. Then, when the elder Mr. Craftsman realizes that he hasn't heard from Atticus in months and Mrs. C. starts asking questions, he reluctantly enlists the help of Inspector Manchego, an intrepid middle-aged policeman who has changed his name so that he can channel Don Quixote.

I think it might be impossible for me to describe how Sánchez turns this story into such a delightful romp, but she does. So if reading a book with tea and books and hot-blooded romance and elderly aunts doing the flamenco in a cave on a Spanish hillside is at all appealing, this one's definitely recommended. :)

The altogether unexpected disappearance of Atticus Craftsman, by Mamen Sánchez,
translated by Lucy Greaves

Atria Books, 2016
Borrowed, from the Boston Public Library