Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: What to Look for in Winter

Ugh, this book took forever to get through. It sounds like it should be fascinating. McWilliam suffers from a rare condition that produces functional blindness-- her eyes can see but her eyelids are unable to open. This condition arrived in middle age, a particularly cruel affliction for a person who lived her life in the world of books. Sudden blindness is a painful blow for a writer and reader.

I expected this to be a memoir about dealing with blindness, but it really is not. This is a memoir that seems to be simultaneously about everything and nothing at all. McWilliam covers the entirety of her life, and jumps around throughout. The memoir is written in stream-of-consciousness format, and the tone is depressing. Certainly McWilliam has experienced difficult and tragedy. Her mother committed suicide, and McWilliam is a recovering alcoholic. Still, the tone is terribly woeful. I've read plenty of memoirs about horrible things, and this one is particularly depressing. Much of the author's time is spent analyzing her relationships with her ex-husbands.

All of this said, McWilliam is quite a writer. She has some beautiful turns of phrase. Her technical writing ability is quite amazing. But this memoir is completely inaccessible. The writer seems to have little awareness of the benefits she reaped from growing up among the intelligentsia. I love the literary world in which McWilliam lives, but I found this memoir to be dull, slow going.

Candia McWilliam, What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (Harper, 2012) ISBN: 0062094505 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Beyond the Narrow Gate

This book is the story of the author's mother and three of her classmates. Leslie Chang's mother and her family fled to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution. There she attended Taipei's most elite girls' school. These schoolgirls dreamed of winning scholarships to study in the United States. Four of them managed to do so, but found that life in the United States was not what they had hoped. Marginal colleges were more like finishing schools than serious universities, and none of the women were ever particularly comfortable in their lives in the United States.

Normally I enjoy this sort of book, but I found this one lacking. I felt like the author had difficulty treating her mother as objectively as her other subjects. I found the writing to be, for lack of a better term, tiresome. The author regularly puts thoughts into the heads of her subjects. The book is long-winded, and the chapters seem to ramble on without organization. Some more serious editing might have made this book better. In any case, there are much better books about the immigrant experience and about Asian-American identity.

Leslie Chang, Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women from the Middle Kingdom to Middle America (Plume, 2000) ISBN: 0452277612 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Pyongyang

This is an odd book. It brings together the graphic novel and North Korean austerity. Canadian animator Guy Delisle spent time in North Korea, which has apparently become the new favored source for cheap animation labor. In this book Delisle captures the absurdities of life in Pyongyang, more through pictures than through words. Only one floor of Delisle's massive hotel has electricity, there's bizarre and uninspired food, and minimal recreation activities. Delisle brings a copy of 1984 with him, and North Korea is certainly an Orwellian society.

I think I would have found this book more effective if I didn't really know anything about North Korea. There's nothing really surprising here. I enjoyed Delisle's drawings, but I felt like there was too much drawing and not enough narrative. I think I'd have preferred an art exhibit to a book. Ultimately the book lacks depth, and the illustrations don't make up for what the writing lacks.

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007) ISBN: 1897299214 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Speaking from among the Bones

The Flavia de Luce series keeps getting better and better. This book was the best yet in the series, and it finds Flavia investigating the death of the parish organist. St. Tancred's parish is digging up the remains of their patron saint, and an old corpse is right up Flavia's street (literally and figuratively). When a much newer dead body turns up in the old tomb Flavia is on the case, with her chemistry lab at her service. Flavia spends plenty of time mucking around in the grave dirt to find the killer.

Like other books in the series this one is fast-moving with quirky characters. Bradley continues to develop the de Luce family, and Flavia continues to try and be accepted as a mature colleague by the vicar and the police. Bradley drops a huge bomb at the end of the book. The cliffhanger ending is tremendous. With one final line Bradley has basically ensured that I will go out and buy the next book immediately upon its publication. Well played, Mr. Bradley. I can't wait to see where this is going.

Alan Bradley, Speaking from among the Bones (Delacorte, 2013) ISBN: 0385344031 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smilla Jaspersen, daughter of a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father, has never quite adjusted to life in Copenhagen. Raised in the skills of Arctic hunting and survival by her mother, Smilla spends her youth in North Greenland. At twelve she is moved to Copenhagen by her father, a wealthy and famous doctor. While Smilla has become a scientist, she has always longed for Greenland.

When a young neighbor dies from a fall off the apartment building's roof, Smilla knows that something is amiss. The boy is also a Greenlander. Smilla's investigations take her to sea and to the land of her youth. They uncover a conspiracy and secrets of great magnitude.

This is a complex novel with a deeply-hidden mystery. Smilla digs into events that show Danish willingness to exploit the resources of Greenland and Greenlanders. The fallen boy, Isaiah, becomes a symbol of the expendability of Greenlanders. Smilla is able to investigate the case because of her scientific training, but it will be the skills she learned in her youth that will be her salvation. Hoeg's world is a world filled with violence. Smilla's suspicion that she can't trust anyone is fulfilled. The faults of colonialism are laid bare.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow (Delta, 1995) ISBN: 0385315147 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: Wasted

Marya Hornbacher was severely anorexic and bulimic from the age of nine into her college years. In this memoir she attempts to explain the experience of having an eating disorder. The picture is grim. Hornbacher cannot locate a single cause for her eating disorder. Certainly there are plenty of the regularly-accepted influences: a family that's weird about food, a society in which women are rewarded for being quiet and skinny, and so on. While living at boarding school Hornbacher was surrounded by girls with eating disorders, hers, too, was already formed. By the time she was in college Hornbacher was nearly dead.

The portrait of eating disorders that emerges from this memoir is complex and frightening. There are no simple causes and no simple answers. It is scary how easy it is for Hornbacher, as a desperately ill girl, to fall under the radar of anyone's ability to help, even parents and doctors. Hornbacher's analysis of her disease is thoughtful. She makes interesting points, and argues that anorexia in not, necessarily, an effort to remain a child. Light reading this is not, but essential for those who would like to understand more about eating disorders.

Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (Harper, 2006) ISBN: 0060858796 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

I'd heard a great deal about this book, and visually it is quite exciting. The book is full of bizarre vintage photographs. Unfortunately, the story doesn't live ups to the photographs. Angsty teenager Jacob Portman goes to Wales to try and find out about his grandfather's past. A refugee from the Nazis, Abe Portman grew up in a children's home in Wales presided over by the enigmatic Miss Peregrine. A mysterious abandoned manse, time travel, and a new girlfriend will all help Jacob unravel the truth about his grandfather and himself. 

While there are elements of fancy added to the characters, the basic story is, rather, basic. There's lots of reviews that compare this book to X-Men, and yes, that's pretty much it. More problematically, this reads like a child's story. The book is classified as young adult, and that appears to be the one constituency that is not served. The pictures are not as integral to the story as their volume might have one believe. It seems like Riggs often wrote the plot around the pictures, and that doesn't necessarily make for the best plot choices.

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk, 2011) ISBN: 1594746036 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: The Bride's Kimono

Rei Shimura is back solving antiques-based mysteries. This time she is a courier for antique kimono from a Tokyo museum to an exhibition in Washington. Rei discovers that the collection includes Kimono belonging to a courtier's wife and mistress. One of the kimono is stolen, a Japanese woman goes missing, and Rei has to try and preserve her reputation in the antiques community. The appearance of an ex-boyfriend adds to the drama.

I really enjoy this series. It is smart and enmeshed in the Tokyo art world. That said, that fact that the police are not involved in this fiasco is absolutely unbelievable. So too was the interaction on the airplane that puts Rei in contact with the murder victim.

Sujata Massey, The Bride's Kimono (Harper, 2001) ISBN: 0060199334 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Inside Edge

This is Brennan's expose on figure skating, the figure skating of the 1990s, that is. Basically, Brennan finds all sorts of corruption in the highest levels of the sport. Judges trade support for skaters from each others' factions. The Cold War may be over but it was still alive and well in 1990s figure skating, as formerly communist countries aligned as did the US, Canada, and western Europe.

Of all the things to say about this book, the most important is that it is out of date. Michelle Kwan was an up-and-coming teenager when this was written. This book was written pre-IJS, and that's only one of the many things that has changed in the sport. While I don't deny that there are still problems and accusations of favoritism, IJS has solved, or at least greatly lessened the kinds of judging problems Brennan illustrates. For the figure skating fan of 2013 this book reads more like a historical document.

My main issue was a much more esoteric one. For all the time that she spent researching and reporting on figure skating, I never really felt like Brennan had a deep, emotional connection to the sport. While she recognizes the difficulty of the sport, Brennan just never seemed to have the spiritual attachment that is evident among figure skaters and many fans. I really think this book could have been written more effectively by someone with that emotional attachment. That's why people do this crazy thing, where they whiz around a slippery surface on quarter-inch blades. There's something in the body movements and the music that makes the moment transcendent.

Christine Brennan, Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating (Anchor, 1997) ISBN: 0385486073 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Sisters

This is an epic family saga, covering three generations of women. Early in the twentieth century sisters Mabel and Bertie fight poverty and their stepfather's sexual advances in rural Kentucky. Elder sister Mabel makes a daring plan for the sisters' escape from their stepfather's violence. An accidentally missed message creates disastrous consequences, consequences that will reshape life for generations of women.

The story of Mabel and Bertie, their daughters and their granddaughters, sucked me in and kept me interested to the end. Jensen provides an interesting and fast-moving plot. I did find it sometimes difficult to understand Bertie's absolutely refusal to communicate with her sister. Her obstinacy has grave consequences, and it's hard for me to imagine behaving in the same way. At the end I found Bertie and Mabel and their generation to be the most interesting. All in all, an engaging book and well worth reading.

Nancy Jensen, The Sisters (St. Martins, 2011) ISBN: 0312542704 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Cocaine Blues

In 1920s Melbourne pilot and daredevil Phryne Fisher is employed ot investigate a young woman's mysterious illness. It seems that her husband might be slowly poisoning her. Fisher camps out in a luxury hotel and befriends a couple of precocious cabbies, who help her solve the mystery. Quickly Phryne is drawn into the Melbourne underworld, looking to uncover the source of the cocaine trade, as well as an illegal abortionist who is butchering young women.

I had no idea what to expect from this book, and I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are delightfully eccentric. Phryne gets up to all sorts of antics, and there are plenty of descriptions of 1920s high society. The mystery was also intriguing, as there was no one obvious suspect. Overall, I found this book to be quite satisfactory, and I will read more of the series.

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues (Poisoned Pen Press, 2007) ISBN: 159058385X 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Death of a Maid

Those who have enjoyed previous books in this series will likely enjoy this one too. It has all of the elements of the typical Hamish Macbeth mystery. A miserable person dies and everyone is relieved. Hamish investigates and finds that the local cleaner was a far more nefarious woman than anyone thought. Hamish continues to have woman problems and fights with Blair.

There are a few new elements. A new police sergeant has arrived in Strathbane. Blair seems to have worn out his welcome, and I can never figure out why he hasn't been fired yet. I'm getting a bit tired of Hamish's woman problems. He's unable to commit, and weasels out of commitment whenever he's in danger of coming too close. The mysteries are still entertaining, but the side plots are getting a bit tired. Hamish needs to get Priscilla back once and for all.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Maid (Grand Central, 2008) ISBN: 0446615471 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: They Came to Baghdad

I found this book to be different from Christie's usual fare. There's no murder mystery here. Rather, this book is about suspense and espionage. Former secretary Victoria Jones meets a man in the park and falls in love. When she discovers that he is moving to Baghdad, she decides to follow him. Victoria arrives in Baghdad on the cusp of an important meeting of world leaders to be held in the city, and the entire area is on high alert. Quickly it becomes obvious that it is not exactly safe for Victoria in Baghdad.

I will admit that I tend to prefer Christie's murder mystery books to those like this, on espionage. This isn't a bad book, it's just not necessarily as good as the murder mysteries. I felt like I didn't know the characters in this book, and that I couldn't get my head around the diplomacy. I did manage to figure out who the bad guy was, which was gratifying, and it was interesting to read about Baghdad at a very different time.

Agatha Christie, They Came to Baghdad (William Morrow, 2003) ISBN: 0062073788 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Paragon Walk

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are back investigating murder. This time a young woman has been raped and murdered in Paragon Walk, a fashionable London street that happens to be home to Charlotte's sister Emily. Charlotte and Emily decide to investigate. As Charlotte has married down and become a policeman's wife, Emily will have to dress Charlotte back up as the fashionable lady she once was.

This book seemed to be more social interaction and less crime-solving. Charlotte and Emily spend most of their time attending social functions and gossiping. It seems that Perry really wanted to spend more time commenting on social life and customs than to write a mystery. Undoubtedly the bitchy social interaction is amusing. It's a backstabbing, every woman for herself arena, where Victorian manners and their transgressions are on full display. Still, I really wanted more mystery. I hope Perry returns to more mystery in the next volume of the series.

Anne Perry, Paragon Walk (Ballantine, 2009) ISBN: 0345513975 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Brigade

Trow has a fabulous sense of humor, and it is on full display in this book. In this book Lestrade goes undercover to investigate the deaths of elderly veterans who belonged to the same army regiment. His disguises include other investigators at Scotland Yard, as well as an orthodox rabbi, and his case has him traversing the country into every corner of the countryside.

There's plenty to like about these mysteries, and I enjoyed this one. Though they are based on the Inspector Lestrade character in the Sherlock Holmes books, Holmes and Watson are very marginal to this book, even more so than they were in the first in the series. It is Lestrade who is the center of London investigations. This is not a series for those who take their Holmes seriously. Trow takes plenty of liberties, and the main attraction for me is their humorous writing, not their adherence to Conan Doyle's canon.

M.J. Trow, Brigade: The Further Adventures of Lestrade (Regenery, 2000) ISBN: 0895263424 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: My Animal Life

I've never read any of Maggie Gee's novels, but I enjoyed reading her autobiography. Gee grew up in a working-class family and went on to Oxford and a literary career. While Gee has always been committed to a literary life, a life of the mind, Gee's point in her autobiography is that one cannot deny one's animal influences. The memoir is a record of how these animal influences: birth, sex, love, death, have shaped her life. This is also an autobiography about class. Gee came of age at a time when the British class system was being overhauled, and working-class children could first aspire to an upper-class education.

I enjoy autobiographies because I like to see how people make sense of their lives. This one offers an interesting look at the publishing industry, and at the demands of writing. It likewise provides a look at growing up with a difficult and demanding father. For all these things, there were times when I found my interest in the book flagging. Gee is rather liberal in offering advice, which I didn't necessarily need or want. There are also points at which reading about others' animal instincts ceases to be interesting. Most readers will gravitate towards this autobiography because of their interest in Gee's literary career, and those tend to be the best parts of the book. The appeal of this book comes from the fact that Gee is not merely an animal like everyone else, but a writer.

Maggie Gee, My Animal Life (Telegram, 2011) ISBN: 1846599873 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: The House at Tyneford

Elise Landau, a young Viennese woman, is the daughter of a wealthy Jewish novelist. When Nazi persecution in Vienna increases, Elise escapes to England, to work as a servant at rural Tyneford House. The transition from wealth to servitude is decidedly difficult. Elise is terribly homesick, and she doesn't understand the conventions of an English country house. Life becomes more complicated as she develops a relationship with the heir to Tyneford House, Kit Rivers.

War looms on the horizon. The Second World War will completely transform life at Tyneford House and all of its residents.

This is a book about transformation and loss. Elise Landau becomes an English woman, and part of the strict hierarchy of a country house. In the process she loses loved ones. World War II will take a great deal away from everyone in Tyneford. It takes people, and it also takes customs. The war marks the end of numerous customs that have defined the lives of Tyneford's servants. This book offers a haunting look at the effects of war on rural England.

Natasha Solomons, The House at Tyneford (Plume, 2011) ISBN: 0452297648 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: The Forgetting River

Descended from Spanish colonials, Doreen Carvajal is convinced that her ancestors may have been conversos-- Spanish Jews forced into hiding during the Inquisition. To research her past she takes up residence in a small Andalusian town. Carvajal finds that even hundreds of hears later the issue of conversos is met with silence. Signs of Jewish communities have been hidden, and many are unwilling to talk about Spain's troubled past. Research has shown that Spain has unusually high levels of anti-Semitism. It has also shown that a significant portion of the population has converso ancestors. Spain's relationship with its Inquisition and its larger history of religious persecution is certainly an interesting one.

Carvajal writes beautifully about her Spanish town, its residents, and its customs. She is a strong believer in fate, in things happening for larger cosmic reasons, and genetic memory. Carvajal believes that the sense of belonging she feels in Andalusia is the result of awakening genetic impulses, long buried by the Carvajal family's colonial settlement in the Americas. She discovers all sorts of potential hidden messages in art and architecture, secret acts of resistance on the part of conversos. Some of these conclusions are more tenuous than others. I must admit that I have less of a belief in fate and genetic memory than the author, so I think I was a bit more skeptical of some assumptions. Still, the book is a pleasure to read. The subject matter is engaging, and the descriptions are beautiful.

I realize that this was not written as an academic text, but there were significant points at which I wanted more scholarly apparatus. I wanted to know what existing research and literature have to say. I wanted footnotes that I could dig into. There were things discussed generally that I wished were cited, so I could find out their origin. I suspect Carvajal was required to leave the scholarly heavy lifting out of the book by her publisher. I believe that was a mistake. That framework would have added tremendously to this book.

Doreen Carvajal, The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition (Riverhead, 2012) ISBN: 1594487391 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: Some Girls

At age eighteen Lauren dropped out of NYU, and went to Brunei to join the royal harem. Her duties were to look beautiful at nightly parties, and be sexually available to the sultan's younger brother. In return she received expensive clothes and gifts.

The world of the Brunei royal family is a strange one. Women from all over the world jockey, fight, and manipulate for position within the harem. They live together in communal houses that could rival the cattiest sorority. The women are not allowed to leave the compound unescorted.

Essentially this struck me as a case of adolescent rebellion on a grand scale. The Brunei harem was fairly grotesque. Still, I enjoyed this look into a totally bizarre life. It was disturbing how disposable the women in the harem were. Some lasted weeks, others months. All of them seemed to be chasing a completely unattainable goal- to become one of the royal wives. None of them would.

Jillian Lauren, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (Plume, 2010) ISBN: 0452296315 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: Too Hurt to Stay

Casey Watson and her husband, Mike, serve as foster parents for seriously troubled children. This is the story of one of those children, Spencer, an eight-year-old who supposedly put himself into foster care. It becomes clear that Spencer has a host of problems, including habitual stealing, running away, and harming animals and peers. Casey is convinced that the story about Spencer's family is deeper than what social services knows. She hopes to uncover it.

It is absolutely essential to note that the Watsons are doing a very difficult job, and they are clearly passionate about the kids they parents. Their affection for Spencer is evident. That said, I do feel like some parts of this book must have been changed or embellished. The ending, in particular, was absolutely implausible to me. Without giving anything away, let me just say that, there's no way. That said, the book reads easily and moves quickly.

Casey Watson, Too Hurt to Stay (Harper Element, 2012) ISBN: 0007436629 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: The Case of the Missing Books

This book doesn't work. It just doesn't work. Israel Armstrong travels to rural Northern Ireland to become a librarian. He arrives to find that the library has been closed. His job is to drive the bookmobile, but all of the books have been stolen. It becomes Israel's job to search for the books in a place full of bizarre and unfriendly locals.

There is so much about this book that doesn't work. Every instance of dialogue goes on for far too long. Israel is an absolutely pathetic character. He mopes around being miserable and refuses to do anything to improve his situation. The ending of the book is hardly an ending at all. This is one of those books that made me feel like I had wasted my time by reading it.

Ian Sansom, The Case of the Missing Books (William Morrow, 2007) ISBN: 0060822503 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: Her

This is a raw and devastating memoir about what it means to lose an identical twin. After being raped Cara Parravani fell into deep depression and substance abuse, which culminated in her suicide. Cara's identical twin, Christa, was left to pick up the pieces. for those who are not twins, this is a fascinating read about what it is like to have another person who feels like part of your body. In grief Christa faces her own depression and addiction.

This is a deep and emotional memoir. It highlights the prevalence of abuse-- the Parravani girls are abused as children, and Cara is raped as an adult. It shows the dangers and miseries of substance abuse, and the overwhelmingness of grief. This memoir is both elegantly written and affecting.

Christa Parravani, Her (Henry Holt, 2013) ISBN: 0805096531 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: The September Society

Charles Lenox faces two challenges in this book. The first is to solve the mystery of an Oxford student's association with a secret society and subsequent disappearance. The second is to ask his friend and neighbor Lady Jane to be his wife. George Payson has disappeared left a variety of odd objects in his room- muddy boots, a tomato, and little scraps of paper with the mark of the September Society. A bit of investigation determines that the September Society is an exclusive club for officers stationed together in the east. Determining what this has to do with the missing Payson becomes Lenox's task.

These Charles Lenox mysteries are always satisfactory. They're complicated and well-written. The books have more depth than a cozy mystery, but give plenty of attention to Lenox and his personal relationships. It's rather charming to see Lenox worrying like a love-struck teenager about his impending proposal. Finch's writing is good and he offers solid historical mysteries. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Charles Finch, The September Society (Minotaur, 2008) ISBN: 0312359780 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: Firefly Summer

A saga. This is a saga of a family, of several families, of a town. Mountfern, Ireland is a sleepy, rural community. In the summer of 1962, the wealthy American Patrick O'Neill arrives in Mountfern trying to reconnect with his ancestral roots. He purchases the old O'Neill homestead and plans to develop it into a hotel. At the center of the story is the Ryan family; their pub stands to be rendered obsolete by the new O'Neill hotel. Over the next five years the entire village is changed by the O'Neill venture, none more so than the Ryans.

This is early Binchy, and the book is remarkable in its scope and scale. There are many characters and many strands of narrative. It has the Binchy touches of tone that will be familiar to her regular readers. The book took some time to get started. It took me some time to get invested, which I haven't found to be an issue in other Binchy works. I appreciated Binchy's willingness to take on what must seem to many Irish people as the absurdity of Americans coming back to "claim" their Irish heritage and expecting to be welcomed with open arms. Ultimately this book requires an investment of time. It's not the best example of Binchy's work, but it does serve the sort of comfort-read purposes that many find in Binchy.

Maeve Binchy, Firefly Summer (Dell, 2007) ISBN: 0385341717 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Murder at the Vicarage

This is the first Miss Marple book, and I think it must be the best Miss Marple I've read. I like that in this book we get an unusually large dose of Miss Marple. She's a full and important character, unlike some later books in which she is only tangential.

This book has Miss Marple working on her home turf of St. Mary Mead. Colonel Protheroe, a man no one liked, is found murdered in the vicarage. The narrator of the story is the vicar, and he is endowed with a slightly sarcastic sense of humor. In ambiance and complexity this is one of Christie's best.

Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2006) ISBN: 1579126251 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: The Oxford Project

This is like no other book I have ever read before. In 1984 Peter Feldstein took a picture of ever resident of the tiny town of Oxford, Iowa. In 2007 he took pictures again. Feldstein asked people to tell their stories in their own words. The book presents old and new photos along with their subjects' stories.

What emerges is the collective portrait of a small town. Oxford is a place where people stay for generations. The collected stories show just how much tragedy and suffering regularly afflicts human beings. It is evident how strongly people crave connections to others. Poverty affects many in Oxford. Young marriage is the norm, and many are married in their teens with children following shortly thereafter. Many regret lack of college education.

Oxford is an entirely different place from anywhere I have ever lived. I wonder how much of the country is still like Oxford. For everyone who bemoans the decline of close-knit community, the Oxford example suggests that people who live in such places are not necessarily any more or less happy than their big-city counterparts. I'd be interested to know more about the people who have left Oxford. They are not included in the book, and that is a side of the town's story that is missing.

Peter Feldstein, The Oxford Project (Welcome Books, 2010) ISBN: 1599620871 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The final episode in the trilogy finds Lisbeth recovering from near-fatal gunshot wounds, and approaching her trial. A guilty verdict would result in long-term commitment. The secret group within the Swedish Intelligence Agency is working hard to ensure that Lisbeth will have no credibility in court. Mikael Blomkvist is working to try and uncover their activities and actions.

While this is hardly great literature, this book fulfilled all my desires for thrill and suspense. It moves at lightening speed, with a large and complicated cast of characters. As was the case with the first book, I found the journalism sub-plots to be much less interesting than the story of Lisbeth and the Section. Erika Berger's troubles at SMP struck me as an unnecessary side-note. Still, I read all 500+ pages in a single weekend. It couldn't wait to find out what happens, and I'm sorry that there won't be any more.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Knopf, 2010) ISBN: 030726999X

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: Death of a Bore

Hamish Macbeth is back investigating the death of someone nobody liked. This time the victim is an arrogant author who runs writing classes solely for the purpose of taking villagers' money and telling them they can't write. John Heppel is an arrogant publicity-hound whose own book is pretentious and unreadable. Any of the villagers in Lochdubh could be the murderer.

By this point in the series I'm starting to wonder if things aren't becoming a bit too predictable. The formula is always the same: unlikable victim, many possible suspects, Hamish employs unorthodox methods that nearly get him fired. The romantic undercurrents are also the same. Hamish moons about the loss of former loves (in this book it's more Elspeth Grant than Priscilla Halburton-Smythe).

That said, it is a testament to Beaton's writing abilities that despite all this I still enjoy reading these books. What made this particular volume less enjoyable than some of the others was that it lacked the sense of danger that I've found in others. The climax, in particular, was missing that frisson of danger.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Bore (Mysterious Press, 2005) ISBN: 0892967951 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: What Happened to My Sister

This book is the story of Carrie Parker, her mother, and Carrie's imaginary friend, Emma. Carrie's mother is abusive and negligent, and she is vehemently opposed to Carrie's companionship with Emma. Over the course of the novel we eventually find out why. Carrie desperately longs for her mother's attention and affection, and walks on eggshells to avoid raising her mother's ire. The slightest thing sends Libby Parker into a rage. When Carrie meets Cricket she makes the first real friend of her life, and attention from Cricket's family gives Carrie some much needed stability.

This is a book about a child's will to survive in the face of horrible abuse. Throughout the book I kept hoping that Libby would be caught and taken away- her treatment of Carrie is criminal. The book is billed as a possible stand-alone read. Certainly it's possible to dive in and understand what is necessary to appreciate this book. Still, this is a follow-up to Flock's Me and Emma, and the premise of the entire plot gives away what I suspect is the crux of the first book. I haven't read Me and Emma, but I suspect the plot of What Happened to My Sister relies on some major spoilers.

Elizabeth Flock, What Happened to My Sister (Ballantine, 2012) ISBN: 0345524438 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: The Lantern

The Lantern is a Gothic tale of Provence set in a looming old house complete with a moody and mysterious resident and a ghost. Eve and her boyfriend Dom purchase the atmospheric and remote Les Genevrieres, but once they move in their relationship seems to disintegrate. Dom refuses to talk about his previous marriage and becomes more and more isolated. Mysterious objects appear and disappear in the house. Then, when digging a new pool, builders find the bodies of two women on their property. Eve has no idea what relationship these bones might have to her boyfriend and his former wife, or to a college student who has recently gone missing from the area. At the same time as Eve and Dom try to live with each other and their house, the book tells the story of the house's former residents, a blind perfumier and her sister.

This book is full of beautiful descriptions of Provence, both in the well-known, sunny summers that produce the lavender harvest and in the colder, more desolate winters. Lawrenson does an excellent job of creating a suitably creepy atmosphere. I enjoyed the two stories she told, though I sometimes found Eve's naivete hard to believe- buying a house with a guy who literally will not say anything about his past is probably not the best idea.

Deborah Lawrenson, The Lantern (Harper, 2011) ISBN: 0062049690 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: Flying Too High

In the previous Phryne Fisher book there were several references to Phryne being a pilot, but aviation played no role. The pilot references seemed like an add-on, so I'm pleased that in this volume we get to see Phryne in action: flying and wing-walking. Phryne is commissioned to find the murderer of a Melbourne tycoon. At the same time, she is also called to investigate a kidnapping.

As background to these two mysteries we get to see Phryne furnish her house and attend society functions, as she lives the glamorous life in 1920s Melbourne. Phryne is very much the "New Woman" of the 1920s- short hair, fashionable clothes, sexually liberated.

I like the approach of having two mysteries in the book, and as in the previous volume, 1920s Australia provides a fascinating setting. This was a quick and entertaining read, and I'll be reading more in the series.

Kerry Greenwood, Flying Too High (Poisoned Pen Press, 2007) ISBN: 1590583957 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

The father of a famous Pakistani cricketer drops dead after eating butter chicken at a Delhi banquet. Private eye Vish Puri decides to take the case. It will be a welcome diversion from his current slate of cases, which include the theft of a record-breaking mustache. The case brings Puri across the Indian border into Pakistan, and into Delhi's criminal underworld. The mystery is tied deeply to India's history, to the 1948 partition with Pakistan.

I always enjoy these Vish Puri mysteries. Puri and his circle of family and associates are entertaining. The discussion of Indian and Pakistan was interesting, and I learned a great deal about the role of women in the partition. Puri's Mummy-ji is still trying to help him solve mysteries. In this case she proves to be instrumental to concluding the case. Hall has done an excellent job creating the Delhi atmosphere. Hall's Delhi is a vibrant, colorful, chaotic, and corrupt place. The author has captured the cadences of Delhi speech and established a delightful cast of characters. I can't wait for the next in the series.

Tarquin Hall, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Simon and Schuster, 2012) ISBN: 1451613172 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Haldol and Hyacinths

I applaud Moezzi for putting a face on bipolar disorder. Well aware that mental illness remains hidden, often a source of shame for those who suffer, Moezzi has publicized her own battle with bipolar disorder. Growing up with a variety of advantages: a loving family, an excellent education, a calling to change the world, Moezzi never expected to find herself in a locked psychiatric ward. Years of misdiagnosis made it more difficult to come to terms with her illness.

I really enjoyed Moezzi's writing. She's funny, she's sarcastic, and she has a penchant for bad language (as do I). this is a book that talks about big issues while remaining true to the experiences and spirit of a twenty-something woman. As a Muslim and an Iranian-American, she offers interesting insights on what it means to have multiple identities, to be a sometimes-outsider, and to have to watch the turbulent politics of a meaningful place from the outside. If all of this sounds heavy, the book itself is not. It was an engaging and entertaining read, well worth reading for anyone trying to understand life with bipolar disorder.

Melody Moezzi, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life (Avery, 2013) ISBN: 1583334688 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: The Cater Street Hangman

Cater Street is an upscale residential neighborhood in Victorian London. It is the residence of the Ellison family, and it also becomes the scene of terror and mystery as several young women in the neighborhood are found garroted. The eminently respectable neighborhood appears to have a serial killer on its hands. What is nearly as bad as the murders is that they have been inundated by the police who are seeking the killer. Police are still rather suspicious in late-nineteenth century London, and they threaten the respectability of the neighborhood.

One of the Ellisons disagrees with these ideas. Charlotte, Ellison daughter of marriageable age, finds the case fascinating, and also starts to find the police inspector, Thomas Pitt, rather interesting too.

Aside from being a good mystery, which this is, this book offers a wealth of information about Victorian family and gender norms. The reader gets an acute sense of the structures binding a free spirit like Charlotte Ellison. Readers who are not especially familiar with the Victorian period will likely find the ideas about the police interesting too-- they are hardly complimentary and quite different from the twenty-first century.

I did figure out the responsible party in this mystery rather earlier than I would have preferred, but this book certainly pulled me into the series and made me want to read more. I'm expecting subsequent books in this series to be better; this book had to lay significant groundwork introducing the family and the Ellison sisters.

Anne Perry, The Cater Street Hangman (orig. 1979, Ballantine, 2008) ISBN: 0345513568 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Cargo of Eagles

This is the final book in the Albert Campion series; it was actually completed by Allingham's husband after her death. The book features Campion at the end of his career, and unlike earlier books he takes a backseat in the investigation of this case. Campion acts more as an adviser to a young American, Morty Kelsey, and his love interest, an attractive young doctor who has just inherited a country house in a seaside town. The town has quite a history of ghosts and pirates, among other things.

I enjoyed seeing Campion late in his career. He is world-weary in this book, happy to leave the actual investigating to younger associates. The end brings a surprising twist, and finally reveals to the reader the meaning of the title. As with other Campion books this one relies heavily on space and time- who was where when. Also like other books in the series this can get overwhelming. Still, it's interesting to see the gentleman sleuth in old age, and the books makes for a satisfying mystery.

Margery Allingham, Cargo of Eagles (orig. 1968, Felony and Mayhem, 2011) ISBN: 1934609919

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Her Royal Spyness

A down-at-the-heels minor royal, Lady Georgina refuses to be married off to a boring European prince. She desperately wants to escape the confines of her deadly dull sister-in-law's house. To try and gain a modicum of freedom Georgie runs off to the family's London home, finds a body in the bathtub, and sees her brother accused of the crime. To earn money and clear her brother's name Georgie engages in all sorts of schemes and adopts numerous disguises, including operating her own maid service.

This book offers a humorous look at the 'plight' of the minor royal. All of them are absolutely incompetent without servants. Georgie and her brother Binky can't run a bath, make a cup of tea, start a fire, or get coal out of the cellar. Royal protocol requires Lady Georgina to refuse private employment, but her family can't keep up their houses and servants on their too-small resources.

As this is the first in the series quite a bit of time is spent establishing the characters. This seems to frequently be the case with mystery series, and I often prefer subsequent volumes. I suspect that might be true with this series too.

Rhys Bowen, Her Royal Spyness (Berkley, 2007) ISBN: 0425215679 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Gold

A circle of elite cyclists and their demons train for the London Olympic team. Kate and Zoe are friends and rivals. Kate is married to Jack, the third of their cycling threesome. All three face hurdles in getting to the Olympics. Zoe is a ruthless competitor who is starting to wonder about the purpose of her life. Kate and Jack's daughter is fighting cancer. Through the books we get the trio's back-history as they train.

The writing in this book is technically good, and Cleave does a nice job drawing characters. Still, I found that the book failed to satisfy. At times I found it slow-moving, and the end was too saccharine for my taste. I could see the whole thing being a Lifetime movie. It was interesting to read about how elite athletes experience their bodies, how they are conscious of what every single cell is doing at every moment. That said, there was much more technical information about cycling than could possibly keep my attention.

Chris Cleave, Gold (Simon and Schuster, 2012) ISBN: 1451672721 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: We Sinners

The Rovaniemi family. eleven members, fundamentalist Lutherans, eschew most of the pleasures of modern living, and many of the pleasures of emotional comfort. They avoid television and dancing and worry about emotional complacency. Told through the viewpoints of each of the family members, we see how eleven different individuals experience a particularly rigorous form of fundamentalism. Three of the nine children decide to leave the church.

This is a decidedly sympathetic portrait of a fundamentalist family. The characters are complicated, and their relationships to religion vary. That said, I was struck by how much sadness was intertwined with religion. None of the characters is happy. None is even content, and there is little way out, either through faith or outside of it. The Finnish fundamentalist community is a tight one, one I didn't even know existed. This was an interesting read, but a depressing one too. No one finds happiness, and it quickly becomes clear that no one will.

Hanna Pylvainen, We Sinners (Henry Holt, 2012) ISBN: 0805095330 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Peter Wimsey solves a classic locked-room mystery, as he tries to determine how the corpse of an elderly man came to be in the Bellona Club on Remembrance Day. The man died sometime after 10am, but the exact time of death is a mystery. It becomes a pressing mystery when it becomes clear that the time of death determines who will inherit a large fortune. The convoluted family argument and complex relationships make Wimsey's efforts more difficult. Halfway through the book the culprit seems to be apprehended, but Wimsey isn't so sure. I liked the model of a solution partway through the book that had to be unraveled.

This book had little engagement with Wimsey's life outside of the mystery. It is a book dependent upon Wimsey entering an existing situation. The details are numerous, and we get an interesting look at a London gentlemen's club in the 1920s. Overall, an entertaining classic mystery.

Dorothy Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (orig. 1928) ISBN: 0061043540 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

This is a devastating book, beautifully written, but devastating. In the early years of the twentieth century Hattie Shepard and her sisters journey north to Philadelphia. They hope to escape the violence of the Jim Crow south. What they find is a world that falls far short of the hopes and dreams they had for their new life. The book follows each of Hattie's children as they struggle to make their way in the world. Through these chapters we discover that a life of poverty and struggle has turned Hattie into a hardened woman. She can survive against all odds, but survival burns up all physical and emotional resources. Hattie's children experience problems of their own, from racial violence to unfulfilled marriages to mental illness.

Mathis does an excellent job of portraying the harsh realities of the Great Migration. The historical details of the book are well-done. We see the cruelties of a world in which babies die for want of a few dollars' worth of penicillin, and mothers are forced to give up children they cannot afford. As fiction the strength of the chapters varied, and I found that they got stronger as they went on. Some of the conclusions of each character's story are not altogether satisfying. Still, this is a worthwhile read, as it brings to life an important part of the American story.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf, 2012) ISBN: 0385350287 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: Elimination Night

This book is an insider's look at American Idol, though purported to be fiction for legal reasons. If you've never watched the show, then I can't imagine this book would be at all interesting. All of the notable Idol stars show up in the book, from Simon Cowell to Jennifer Lopez. There's some thinly veiled anonymity, but it's VERY thinly veiled. Anyone who's seen the show will have no problem deducing who is who.

As for the story itself, there isn't much of one. Most of the book is an expose of the extremes and abuses of the show. Star judges fight with one another for better contracts. Staff are treated like dirt. The protagonist, Sasha King, is called "Bill" by cast and crew alike. Bill was her predecessor's name, and no one can be bothered to learn a new one. Just in case anyone didn't already think so, this book will make it clear that Idol is full of egotism and excess.

As mentioned, there's no real story. There's a sort of continuing theme surrounding Sasha's long-distance boyfriend, but it isn't very interesting. I can't figure out who the audience for this book is supposed to be. Anyone who's at all critical of reality show culture probably suspected most of this, and die-hard super fans are probably not going to believe it. The shock and awe could have been accomplished by an essay- a novel is simply too extended a format for the material available.

Anonymous, Elimination Night (New Harvest, 2013) ISBN: 0547942079 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: A Small Fortune

The saga of an Anglo-Pakistani family, this book shows how family members face their demons under the premise of acquiring some of a small divorce settlement. The prodigal daughter has quit medical school, a nephew is falling in with a dangerous crowd, and a brother is desperate for help. At the center of the family is Harris, who is trying desperately to reconstruct his family and to reconstruct happier times. Harris has lost interest in the life he once relished. When he receives his divorce settlement he is torn asunder by the competing needs of his family members.

While the blurb and title suggested that the book was going to focus on Harris's efforts to get rid of his money, that really is not the major issue. Money is the background, really a premise to get the family members to work out some long-festering problems. This was an interesting enough book. I particularly enjoyed watching the relationship develop between Harris and his new love, the professor. Other parts of the story were more predictable. Still, a well-written tale of a believable family.

Rosie Dastgir, A Small Fortune (Riverhead, 2012) ISBN: 159448810X 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Sarah Thornhill

Growing up in rural Australia, Sarah Thornhill, daughter of a transported convict, pursues her childhood sweetheart Jack. But Jack's mother was a native Australian, he has "black" blood. While this makes no difference to Sarah, it does to the rest of her family. Different cultures and family secrets try their relationship. Sarah fights for a future with Jack when all the forces of her family and community are against it. The best thing about this book is undeniably the setting. The Thornhills live in mid-nineteenth century rural Australia.

It is stark and unforgiving territory. White Australians have all of the anxieties and concerns of a colonial population. Native Australians are reeling from the brutalities of white colonists. It is a fascinating world, and one that Grenville portrays beautifully. That said, this book was too much of a standard romance novel to really speak to me. There are some fascinating themes, but they revolve to heavily around Sarah and Jack's relationship. I would have like a broader focus.

The most important takeaway? Grenville reminds readers that we have a collective responsibility for the past, one that a new generation cannot simply erase.

Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill (Grove, 2012) ISBN: 9780802120243 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach

Nora Keane has a troubled past and a troubled present. Her mother disappeared when Nora was five, and her marriage has been rocked by an affair. To get away from the scandal of her husband's affair, Nora packs up her two daughters and retreats to the small Maine Island where she was born. At the island Nora tries to sort out her marriage and find out what, exactly, happened to her mother.

The island is deeply steeped in Celtic mythology, and residents believe in the magical qualities of the sea. They believe that the sea brings creatures like selkies to aid mortals, and certainly some of the characters on the island have other-worldly qualities. This book is hardly fantasy, but it deals with how mythology functions in people's lives. These beliefs are particularly salient on a small island reliant on a tempestuous ocean for its safety and its livelihood.

Though Nora has clearly suffered, she is not always an especially likable character. She doesn't seem to take her older daughter's feelings about her home and father very seriously. I also found the resolution of the final series of events to be entirely unbelievable. In sum, not a bad book, and definitely well-suited to summer reading.

Heather Barbieri, The Cottage at Glass Beach (Harper Perennial, 2012) ISBN: 0062107976 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Mistletoe Man

The Christmas season finds herbalist/detective China Bayles trying hard to keep up with the busiest retail season of the year. It is nearly impossible to keep the shop supplied with mistletoe. China's chief supplier has always been a pair of sisters who operate an herbal farm in rural Texas. A strange and prickly new supplier shows up on China's radar, and he seems to be the answer to her supply problems, at least until he turns up dead. The mistletoe sisters are acting awfully suspicious, and China's best friend and partner Ruby is acting entirely out of sorts too. China ends up doing what she likes best- solving a mystery and selling herbs.

I absolutely love the discussion of herbs and the herbal industry that permeates these books. I also liked the festive, holiday atmosphere of this particular book. What I've never been able to come around to in this series is the relationship between China and McQuaid. It's not that I don't like McQuaid's character, it's more that I get bored with books about commitment-phobia, and that's a huge part of China and McQuaid's relationship. Still, I enjoyed this book. It's a good book for a lazy weekend afternoon.

Susan Wittig Albert, Mistletoe Man (Berkley, 2001) ISBN: 0425182010 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Stuck in the Middle with You

As a woman who transitioned from being a man, Boylan has experience as a father, a mother, and a person in the middle of changing from one sex to the other and one gender to the other. This is not a book about the sex change, it is a book about parenting written by one of the few people who can claim to have experience as both father and mother in the literal sense. Boylan finds that the experience of being father and mother is fundamentally not all that different. Her worries about transition disrupting her children's lives have come to naught. It's clear that the Boylans have raised two thoughtful and compassionate children.

This was an engaging book, and it made me think about what life must be like when for no reason of one's own choosing every action and family choice is considered political. Boylan's writing is thoughtful and very readable. This book deals with a variety of family and gender issues. It also includes a series of interviews with other writers who have had different experiences of parenting and gender. I generally found these to be far less interesting than the main text, and I preferred reading Boylan's own story.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (Crown, 2013) ISBN: 0767921763 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: My Life on a Plate

This novel tells a tried and true (and perhaps somewhat tired) story: the woman who supposedly has it all finds parts of her life to be significantly lacking. Clara Hutt has the home, the husband, and the children. She's always wanted the children, and she and her husband are the best of friends. But, as is the modern woman's dilemma, Clara is worried that her life and her marriage lack passion. And Clara is left with the question of whether she can rightfully expect passion in the long term. Complicating this is the fact that Clara seems to have it so much better than so many of her friends. Her friend Tamsin is miserably single, Naomi's husband is cheating on her with his secretary. Is it reasonable for Clara to want more?

Clearly, this plot is neither innovative nor unusual. Still, the book was enjoyable. Clara and the other characters are well-developed, and have enough quirks so that they defy clear stereotypes. With an engaging twist at the end this was, ultimately, a book I enjoyed.

India Knight, My Life on a Plate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000) ISBN: 0618093974 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Mrs. Malory and Any Man's Death

In rural England Mrs. Malory engages village politics and solves mysteries on the side. When local gossip Annie Roberts dies everyone in the village seems much more relieved than upset. Minor investigation reveals that Annie wasn't just a busybody, she was a nasty piece of work who used people's vulnerabilities for her own gain. Mrs. Malory faces the unfortunate task of investigating the murder of someone who made life miserable for everyone in the village. She can continue to investigate, or she can let the village enjoy its new-found peace.

This was not necessarily the best place to jump into this series. There was little information on who Mrs. Malory is and what her relationship is to the village. Even jumping into the middle of the series, there were some quirky and interesting characters. What really made the book less than satisfactory was the fact that Mrs. Malory was investigating deep, dark secrets, and we never really find out what many of them are. In the case of many of the characters we never know for sure what their ties were to Annie Roberts.

There are many elements here that suggest that this is a series I would enjoy, and I plan to read more of them.

Hazel Holt, Mrs. Malory and Any Man's Death (Signet, 2009) ISBN: 0451229665 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

This beautifully-written book is a coming of age story set in post-revolutionary Iran. Saba Hafezi is obsessed with English language and American culture, a dangerous pursuit in revolutionary Iran. This interest is cemented by Saba's memories of her mother and twin sister migrating to the United States in the midst of the revolution. Saba has to deal with the emotional baggage of being the twin left behind, while trying to find her way in a confusing world with few opportunities for smart young women. Saba's own story is interwoven with the stories she tells about her mother and sister. Storytelling becomes the way that Saba works out her sadness and grief.

This book provides a fascinating look at growing up in the Iran of the 1980s. Saba lives in a rural area. Her remoteness from the capital provides her with some protection, but she longs for the cosmopolitan Tehran she remembers from pre-revolutionary days. In a broader sense, this is a book about a community coming to terms with a confusing new society. Over the course of the book the presence of the moral police becomes heavier, and the opportunities for a smart young woman like Saba diminish. The author pays significant attention to the development of Saba's relationship with her closest female friend, Ponneh. Each woman takes a very different path to dealing with the restrictions of the new Iran, and neither finds complete satisfaction.

In language and description this is a beautiful book. I was drawn in by Saba and her community. I was less interested in the stories she told about Mahtab, and occasionally found these a bit ponderous. Overall, though, a very moving book.

Diya Nayeri, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead, 2013) ISBN: 1594487049 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: St. Peter's Finger

Mrs. Bradley is called in to investigate the death of a student at a convent school. Ursula Doyle is found dead in a bathroom. Her death is ruled a suicide, but the nuns are not convinced. Mrs. Bradley is given full run of the convent, and it becomes clear that the death is likely murder. Mrs. Bradley's own life is clearly in danger, as are those of Ursula's two cousins, also students at the school.

This was a rather delightful mystery. It is complicated, and there are numerous characters. I didn't figure out the solution in advance, but looking back I could see that Mitchell provides the clues. She offers plenty of red herrings.

I've read a number of books about convent life and schools during this periods, and the characterization of this one is decidedly different. Mitchell's convent is a warm and benevolent place. The children receive plenty of affection from the nuns, and students and nuns alike are generally happy. Even the orphans who are being groomed for domestic service content. That's a far cry from the cold and miserable convent schools that appear in so many other early-twentieth century novels and memoirs. Admittedly, Mitchell is primarily interested in crafting a mystery, and that she does well.

Gladys Mitchell, St. Peter's Finger (orig. 1938) ISBN: 0312001924