Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady

This book is the satirical diary of a social climber trying to make an interesting life for herself in the English countryside. The provincial lady faces the problems of never enough money, unruly house and garden, never well-read enough, never attractive enough, and children never quite well-enough behaved. The provincial lady is constantly trying to be a model of attractive femininity, household management, and literary accomplishment. In all of these things the provincial lady claims to be coming up short, in part due to the multiple demands on upper-middle class women, and in part due to the very English tendency to underplay one's accomplishments. The provincial lady's world is populated by a host of amusing characters, snooty neighbors, oddball friends, and snarky servants. The book is certainly humorous, but perhaps longer than it needs to be. After the halfway point it starts to feel like more and more of the same. Repetitiveness is a double-edged sword. It certainly gives the reader a sense of the ponderousness of provincial life for many women, but it can start to sap the reader's energy too. This book is most effective when read in small increments, and is very much worth reading, particularly by those who enjoy early-20th century women's literature.

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (Academy Chicago Publishers, orig. 1930) ISBN: 0897330536

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death

Straight-laced librarian Miss Zukas is a bit of a dark horse. In addition to being a prim and proper librarian, she has a history as a canoeist. But her efforts to train for the big race and help the library's team beat the city planning department are interrupted. A dead man is found outside Miss Zukas's friend's house, and said friend Ruth becomes the prime suspect in the subsequent investigation. In her efforts to clear Ruth Miss Zukas finds herself in danger.

This is by all accounts an entertaining, quick read. Miss Zukas is starting to look a bit more human by this third book in the series. It's still not clear to me why all men in the general vicinity seem to have a crush on Helma Zukas- perhaps it's the stuffy/sexy librarian trope? Still, I suspect I'll be reading more in the series. These are fun books.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death (Avon, 1995)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: The Lilac Bus

This book, a collection of interwoven short stories, follows a group of people who commute to and from their small Irish town to Dublin on the same bus. Though they spend a fair amount of time in one another's company, it quickly becomes clear that those travelling on the bus know very little of one another. As the story of each is revealed the reader learns that each character had significant problems and heartbreak.

This formula is one that will be familiar to regular readers of Binchy's fiction. This is one of Binchy's early books, but she has used this formula in later books to great effect. There is something comfortable about Binchy, and the reader can slip into reading her easily. Binchy delivers here exactly what the reader has come to expect from her, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

Maeve Binchy, The Lilac Bus (Delacorte, 1991) ISBN: 0385304943

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Library Murders

Miss Zukas is the stuffiest of librarians. She follows policy to the letter, dresses like an old maid, and tucks in early each night. When a dead body is found in her library Miss Zukas starts acting strangely out of character.

For a stereotyped and downright cheesy as elements of this book are, I still found it rather charming. Miss Zukas is such a tremendous stereotype that she's more entertaining than serious. That said, given that Miss Zukas is such a stereotype, there's little room to understand how or why she would withhold evidence from the police, and why her best friend is a loud, disaster of an artist. In sum, I can't really explain why I found this book to be charming, but I did, and I plan to read more of the series.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Library Murders (Avon Twilight, 1996) ISBN: 038077030X

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

It took me some time to get my head around this book. It's not like anything I've read previously. This mystery, set in 19th century Egypt, is a parody of Victorian manners and mores. Amelia Peabody, an enlightened and educated woman who favors trousers, sets out to tour the archaeological sites of Egypt. Along the way she picks up an impoverished and wronged fair British maiden, and they find themselves at the dig site of the Emerson brothers. Soon the whole group is facing trouble as a wandering mummy continues to disturb them. Figuring out the mystery of the mummy quickly becomes dangerous and threatens to derail the entire expedition.

To really enjoy this mystery it's essential to get into the parody. A reader expecting historical fiction will likely be disappointed. The mystery was not especially difficult to solve, but each of the characters is so caught up in his or her particular personality quirk that they are blinded to the clues around them. Victoria is the archetypal Victorian woman, Amelia is the feminist, Walter Emerson is the young man in love, and Radcliffe Emerson is the gruff scholar.

Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank (Mysterious Press, 1988) ISBN: 0445406518

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Cracked Pot

This book features one of the most annoying protagonists I've encountered. Carolyn Emerson owns a pottery shop in a Vermont tourist town. When a dead body turns up in her backyard, the prime suspect is Carolyn's associate, who also happens to be her best friend's son. Convinced that the police are incompetent, Carolyn undertakes the task of solving the mystery.

The problem with all of this is that Carolyn is annoying. REALLY annoying. Her favorite activity is complaining. Carolyn complains about her husband, her customers, the local sheriff, among others. She's downright rude to the sheriff because she thinks he's incompetent (though there's no evidence of that in the book).

Then there's Carolyn's troupe of followers, "the firing squad," a group so devoted to pottery that they're willing to go all out to solve a dangerous mystery. They still take pottery breaks, though. Each of the members of the firing squad is a sort of stereotype, especially the ex-con with the heart of porcelain, and the tough, no-nonsense lady judge.

Honestly, life is too short for books like this. There are more entertaining ways to spend one's time.

Melissa Glazer, The Cracked Pot (Wheeler, 2008) ISBN: 1597228273

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: God on the Rocks

This is the story of eight-year-old Margaret Marsh. Daughter of overly-religious sectarian parents, Margaret finds little affection at home. Margaret's main caretaker is a bawdy servant, taken in by her father as a sort of religious project. Lydia is the most challenging of converts, she is also the only member of the household who shows Margaret much affection. Margaret's mother is overworked and overtired, and chaffing at the boundaries of her religious life. Margaret's father is everyone's holier-than-thou nightmare.

During the summer an indiscretion on the part of Margaret's father sets in motion a series of events that will end in tragedy. The plot of this book is quite straightforward. It is the elaborate details, rather than the plot, that give this book its brilliance. Gardam does not stray away from the absurd. She reminds me much of Barbara Comyns. This is a well-executed book, well-worth the time to read.

Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks (Europa, 2010) ISBN: 1933372761

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: This Boy's Life

As a boy Tobias Wolff and his mother moved west to seek their fortune and to escape an abusive man. They landed first in Utah, later in Seattle. In just a matter of months Wolff's mother has met and married another abusive man and moved Tobias deep into the Cascade Mountains where Dwight, his new stepfather, lives in a company town. In this remote environment Dwight is free to abuse Jack, as Wolff is known in his youth. And abuse is a constant in Wolff's young life. His stepfather has free reign, and Wolff's mother does little to reign in her husband's tirades.

The wild and dangerous setting of the mountains serves as a fitting background for Wolff's youth. His life in many ways mimics the scenery. It is lawless, it is amazing, and it has little connection to the outside world. Wolff's life is a test of wills, an assertion of wit and strength. His writing is lyrical and engaging. I was taken with his story from beginning to end.

Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life (Grove, 2000) ISBN: 0802136680