Books in the Mail

January days always seem better when you come home to interesting mail, and even more so when that mail involves books. I try not to buy a lot of new books, saving my splurges for book sales. Once in a while, however, I browse the Barnes and Noble clearance section to get the latest in series I like. It’s hard to beat brand new hardcovers for under $5!

Here’s the latest batch:

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the fifth book in his Isabel Dalhousie series.

The Tale of Briar Bank, by Susan Wittig Albert, from her mystery series featuring Beatrix Potter. I’m starting to outgrow cozies, but these are cute.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, by Lauren Willig. I admit that I have yet to read the Pink Carnation series, but I’m so sure I’ll like it that I get them cheaply when I can. Does anyone else buy books in a series they haven’t started, or is that just my completist mentality?

Among the Mad, by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs I have read and enjoyed, but am behind on the series. I should try to catch up this year.

I’m trying to be a little more judicious in my book buying this year, as many must still sit next to the shelves rather than on them. I think my recent conversion to hardcovers is also partly to blame. I read a lot of older books, and paperbacks from the fifties and sixties are cracked and chipping. The hardbacks are much harder to come by, but even the book club editions have held up better. The downside is that they do take up more shelf space. Perhaps I need to do another weeding soon.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Enemy in the House

When I finished The Woman in Black last weekend, I was so spooked I needed to start a different book relatively soon after. Of course, I should know by now that anything with suspense is hard for me to put down. I wanted a mystery, however, and grabbed a Mignon Eberhart at random. Enemy in the House turned out to be right up my alley.

When the book begins, Amity Mallon is in a tight situation. Her Loyalist father escaped to Jamaica from growing pressure in America earlier in the year, leaving Amity responsible for his beautiful second wife China and young son Jamey. Amity is his sole heir, and fears for the family’s welfare if the Continental Army confiscates their home. In addition, her aunt, uncle, and foppish cousin Neville have moved in, ostensibly to protect them. Amity fears in her heart that her father is dead, and knows that marrying a rebel just might save the property.

Her distant cousin Simon is an officer in the American Army, and out of loyalty to her father he agrees to a secret businesslike marriage. The next day she departs for Jamaica to determine the truth. The rest of the family follows her, however, with the disturbing news that both the lawyer and priest who married her have been killed. Meanwhile, her Uncle Groppit seems determined to get his hands on the Jamaica property however possible. It isn’t long before another death occurs. Amity must fight to protect not only her marriage, but also her life.

The historical setting was the perfect context for this mystery. As a female heir Amity is treated like a pawn, and must fight to provide for herself and her brother. She risks losing her South Carolina home because her father was a Loyalist and the Jamaican sugar plantation because her husband is a rebel. I don’t think I realized that Jamaica was a British colony at the time. (I should have; it’s mentioned in 1776). In addition, Mignon Eberhart introduces the tension between Amity’s relatives and the Jamaicans who work on the plantation, especially the regal obeah woman Selene.

The plot is somewhat complicated (I had a hard time summarizing), but she handles it deftly. Though similar to some by Phyllis Whitney, it felt much less predictable. I was turning pages eagerly to see what happened next. I’d have to rank this as one of my favorite Mignon Eberhart books so far.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Woman In Black

We had a half day for snow today, and likely no school tomorrow, so it’s an opportunity to catch up on reviews. I read this and another book over the weekend, which brings my January total up to five already. It’s funny, really. A year ago I was going through a reading slump, and all the time now I find myself dying to curl up with a book, even though I have a million other tasks that need doing instead.

Granted, The Woman in Black is a mere 150 pages, but Susan Hill needs little space to thoroughly haunt the reader. The story belongs to one Arthur Kipp, who will never be able to completely escape the events of many years ago. As a young lawyer he is sent to Crythin Gifford, a remote northern town bordered by dangerous marshes and the desolate sea, in order to look after the affairs of a deceased client for his firm. Whenever he mentions Mrs. Drablow, however, the gazes of the townspeople shift uneasily. The funeral is unattended save himself and a local agent, and a mysterious young woman dressed all in black who shows up only for the burial.

Mrs. Drablow’s home, Eel Marsh House, is a steadfast structure even more isolated than the town. It sits on a piece of land separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway, so that when the tide is in it is completely cut off. Even so, Arthur is impressed by the residence, and curious about what secrets it may hold. He spots the woman near the house again, and tries to approach her, but as he does her expression fills him with fear:

“It was one of what I can only describe–and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw–as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed–must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest of evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.”

Arthur will need several days to sort through all of Mrs. Drablow’s papers and decides to remain at the house, though when the fog rolls in questions the decision. A locked room and mysterious sounds from the marsh nearly convince him on more than one occasion to abandon the task. He is young, however, and with foolish pride wants to show the others there is nothing to fear. When he realizes that indeed, there is, it is almost too late.

Susan Hill’s writing is very literate, as well as chillingly atmospheric. The book could just have easily been written in 1883, rather than a century later; though a car and telephone are referenced, the setting seems to be the 1920’s or 30’s. With every page she builds the bleakness of the location, and the isolation from civilization. We feel Arthur’s heightening fear along with him, the foreboding created by that dreadful otherly presence. This is not a story to read late at night.

Only one element detracts from the story’s mood–the illustrations. They are delightful little black-and-white watercolors sprinkled throughout, and look like they belong to the New Yorker or a children’s book rather than a ghost story. I should not think that a graveyard looks charming, but it John Lawrence’s hands it does. The cover art as well is incongruous, and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It just makes me think of Abraham Lincoln.

If you’re a fan of classic ghost stories like Edith Wharton or Le Fanu, then this is a book you’ll want to read.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I’ve been meaning to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog since I first heard of it two years ago, and have just now done so. That’s about par for the course as far as my TBR list goes. It’s all about options, though, right?

In her second novel (the first to be translated from French), Muriel Barbery gives us the story of unlikely friends who impact each others’ lives. Renée Michel, a diamond in the rough,  is the widowed concierge at a wealthy apartment building. She’s nothing to look at physically; in fact, one of her chief goals seems to be to blend into her surroundings by exactly fitting the stereotyped explanations of her employers. She deliberately breaks grammatical rules in their presence, and blares a TV so she can secretly read in another room. Beneath her uncultured facade, however, lies a true intellectual, who embraces beauty and art and philosophy in all forms. She scorns the unintentional comma errors of the elite residents, and views their empty pursuits as a waste.

Unbeknowst to Renée, she has a kindred spirit in young Paloma Josse, who sees that the adults around her are all either falsely content or futilely searching. Rather than await the same fate herself she decides she will end her life when she turns thirteen. In order to leave something of worth behind, however, she keeps journals of Profound Thoughts and the Movements of the World, hoping to find some sense of meaning and order.

Both their lives are stirred up upon the arrival of the new resident Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman. He, too, looks for beauty and has found it, he alone seems to be at peace with himself. If Renée is willing, she may be able to let down her guard at last, and in turn be a role model for Paloma.

I’d heard the book compared on several occasions to those by Alexander McCall Smith, an author whom I really enjoy. In a sense this is true, as plot and character development is interspersed with wonderful little musings about everything from art and philosophy to the lifestyle of a cat. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel intelligent as you read it. I was surprised at how global the references were. Rather than focus on French culture, the characters espouse Dutch still-life paintings, Russian literature, and Japanese and American films. Muriel Barbery never gets to heavy-handed at one time, and often uses the thoughts to show parallels and connections among the characters. I have several passages I marked to come back to.

I had a hard time accepting Renée’s childhood, growing up in an impoverished rural family who came home from a hard day’s work and barely spoke to each other. This is meant to be justification for her distaste for the wealthy, and her tendency to hide herself from others. I’m fortunate to come from a loving family; the situation she describes seems completely foreign to me. Paloma’s adult outlook and cynicism also left a slight bad taste in my mouth as I read her sections. I longed for her to have some sort of childhood innocence as a protection. Overall, though I sympathized with the pair, I found them difficult to relate to or sometimes even like. Both tended to be egocentric and bristly.

Because of that, I liked the book a little bit less than I would have otherwise. Muriel Barbery nevertheless has a great capacity for philosophy and language herself. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is deserving of its praise, and I’m glad I read it.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Bar on the Seine

He had handled hundreds of cases in his time, and he knew that they nearly always fell into two distinct phases. Firstly, coming into contact with a new environment, with people he had never even heard of the day before, with a little world which some event had shaken up. He would enter this world as a stranger, an enemy; the people he encountered would be hostile, cunning, or give nothing away. This, for Maigret, was the most exciting part. He would sniff around for clues, feel his way in the dark with nothing to go on. He would observe people’s reactions–any one of them could be guilty, or complicit in the crime.

Once in a while on one of the nights I tutor I treat myself to dinner at Panera with a book. It’s one of those places like Starbucks where if you are alone, you’re almost expected to have something with you to do. Unfortunately the last time I left my current book at home (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), and had to stop at the library en route. This little Maigret mystery was the perfect size.

I first met Georges Simenon’s Parisian inspector last summer in The Yellow Dog. The Bar on the Seine begins when Maigret visits a young man on death row to break the news that he must face the gallows. In frustration, the prisoner hints that he knows of others just as deserving of his fate. Six years ago he and a friend saw a man commit an unknown murder; they blackmailed him for a while, lost track, and recently saw him at a small bar called the Guinguette à Deux Sous.

Maigret has no name or clue save a bar no one seems to know, but feels compelled to investigate in honor of the prisoner. A chance eavesdropping eventually leads him to the Guinguette à Deux Sous, and the close-knit group of Parisian bourgeois who make it their weekend getaway. One of these carefree vacationers has murdered in the past. Before the weekend is over death strikes again, and Maigret must untangle the loves and loyalties of the group in order to solve both crimes.

Simenon writes in a style that is direct without being blunt, factual without being judgmental. He has often been praised for his realism, and paints a snapshot-like picture of 1930’s France. Rather than giving a gritty portrayal, however, he has a surprisingly sympathetic touch. A condemned criminal, a cuckold husband, and a restless young man come to life on the pages, each human in his happiness, fragile in his failings. I loved this passage about Maigret visiting one of the men at home:

“The room was not more than four metres long, and yet it felt like two rooms, as if two people lived their lives here without ever crossing each other’s path. The wife, who had decorated the flat entirely to her own taste, spent her time sewing, embroidering, cooking, making dresses, while James would come home every evening at eight and eat his dinner without saying a word, then read until bedtime, when that sofa covered with brightly coloured cushions pulled out to form a bed. It was easier now to understand James’ need for his “little bolt-hole” on the terrace of the Taverne Royale, with his glass of Pernod in front of him.”

Maigret, too, is a human inspector. He makes the case a priority, and gets frustrated when it seems to go nowhere. He misses his wife, on vacation without him, but can understand the affairs of other men. He detects with equal parts insight, legwork, and luck, and knows when he is on the right track even if unsure of where it leads. Most of all, he seems to hate the crime without hating the criminal. His world is gray, rather than noir or white.

The Yellow Dog was good, but The Bar on the Seine was excellent. It would be a good introduction for anyone new to Maigret. I also have to say again how much I love the design of these Penguin editions. It sets the atmosphere even before you begin reading.

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fudged End of the Year Stats

The fact that I am posting this a week into 2011 just about sums up 2010 for me. It seems as this year was rather a slow one, in terms of both reading and blogging. I find that with all my work I’m often hesitant to lose myself in a good book for fear of procrastination. Even worse, I’m often at a loss as to what to say afterward; by the time I’ve really processed the  book, others issues are demanding my time and attention. I have quite a few drafts for posts with only titles (about 10–eek), books I was waiting to do justice to and fear I never shall. Unfortunately, these were often the books that were my favorites. As a result, the numbers are in all probability inaccurate.

A Year in Review by the Numbers: 2010

Total number of books: 58

Fiction: 19

Nonfiction: 1

Mystery: 13

Classics: 4

Children/YA: 11

Graphic novels: 10

Short stories: 5 and a collection

Books in Translation: 1 (and 5 of the graphic novels)

Favorite Books of 2010

I find that my opinions of books are usually much stronger at the final page than after the covers have been closed for a while. These books, however, still make the grade.

~A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster. Hands-down my favorite of the year. I tutor for the SAT’s on the side, and recently discovered a new-to-me practice test from the College Board. When I realized that one of the reading passages was from this book (discussing Lucy’s piano playing), I nearly squealed with delight.

~The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. This book needs no introduction, I’m sure, and I’m so glad I read it sooner rather than later. (And yes, for me this is sooner.)

~ Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. A fun Cinderella story for grownups.

~ Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald. I find her books very appealing, especially the premise of this one. It takes place at the BBC during WWII, and is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always observant.

~ Redwall, by Brian Jacques. It’s hard to describe this book, because warrior mice fighting to defend their abbey doesn’t quite do it justice. This was the third time I’ve read the book.

What does 2011 hold? I’m not making plans. After all, I’ve still got this list from last year, on which I only checked off three(!) titles. They are still all books I want to read. Hopefully this year I can keep them more in mind, rather than reaching for short offerings like graphic novels or old series books.

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Splendid Hazard

In a twist this year I didn’t really ask for books, mostly because I buy so many at book sales that the only ones I seek out brand new are Nancy Drews. My mom knows my tastes, however, and picked out a few treasures for me at the Bookbarn: two Mary Roberts Rineharts (Tish and The Red Lamp), and a book called A Splendid Hazard. I also just received a few mooches (on the right): a Honey Bunch book, and the first two in the Polly Brewster series (the third is still on its way). And, as evidenced by the inclusion of a picture, I finally got a new camera!

With older books you never know what you’re going to get, and I started A Splendid Hazard with no hint as to plot save the cover illustration by Howard Chandler Christy. As charming as it is (and from an actual scene), it doesn’t tell the half. Harold MacGrath spins a wonderful yarn that I quickly found myself unable to put down. I had been reading it while we were on vacation, and on the ride home was cursing myself for my inability to read in a moving vehicle.

“There would be something more than treasure-hunting here; an intricate comedy-drama, with as many well-defined sides as a diamond.”

It begins with a chance meeting at Napoleon’s tomb between a young American war correspondant, a German man down on his luck, and a retired American admiral and his daughter. None of them really knows who the others are, and they go their separate ways untouched.

A year later Fitzgerald, the journalist home in New York between assignments, is mysteriously summoned to the house of Admiral Killigrew and his daughter Laura. Meanwhile Karl Brietmann has applied to be the admiral’s private secretary, a post below his station and abilities, with some seeming ulterior purpose. Perhaps, Fitzgerald suspects, it is related to the mysterious noises in the chimney. When an old letter is found telling of a secret treasure buried on Corsica, the group and several friends with whose pasts also intertwine with the story set sail for the island, never dreaming that danger awaits them. The only one who knows the truth is renown butterfly collector M. Ferraud, a French secret agent, but he is reluctant to show his hand in the hopes of saving someone from destruction.

MacGrath is fantastic at building character and suspense. Breitmann is a man of many mysteries. He is proud, noble, and desparate, and the reader is unsure as to what his purpose really is. As another character remarks, he is either “a great rascal or a great hero.” Even the romantic entanglements of the characters are left unresolved until the end of the novel.

You can almost feel the hand of fate at work here, for every character has some prior connection to the others.  In fact, the entire book seems to take place on a grand scale. People live nobly, and love passionately, and all seem tinged somehow with something larger than life. Everything feels grand and important, but in a good way. I’m not sure I can quite explain it. I do think these characters would be fascinating to know. And, yet again, one of the heroes is a journalist. For some reason, to me it always seems the most romantic profession, other than the navy, because of the sheer amount of experience, wits, and personality that it entails.

I loved this book so much, and not just for the plot and characters. MaGrath has real skill as a writer. A Splendid Hazard has no pretentions at being great literature, and yet he often has an elegant turn of phrase that brings people and situations to life with a vibrancy. It almost reminds me of A Room With a View. For example, take this description of Laura:

She was one of those happy beings in either sex who can amuse themselves, who can hold pleasant conversation with the inner self, who can find romance in old houses, and yet love books, who prefer sunrises and sunsets at first hand, still loving a good painting.

Technically I finished this on January 1, and it feels a little silly to say I’ve found one of my favorites of the year, but I honestly could sit down and reread this from cover to cover. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more from Harold MacGrath. It seems he had several bestsellers in the early twentieth century (this is from 1910), many of which are available on Project Gutenberg.

Published in: on January 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Thirty-Nine Steps

“I felt the sense of danger and impending calamity, and I had the curious feeling, too, that I alone could avert it, alone could grapple with it.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the plays at the Walnut Theatre this season, so in anticipation I finally got around to reading the original spy thriller by John Buchan. I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations either, so I went into the story completely fresh.

Richard Hannay is an ex-military man who has now retired to London. Just when he believes that his life can get no more mundane, his upstairs neighbor Scudder accosts him with a story of great political import. Apparently a plot is afoot to assassinate a crucial Greek leader, a move calculated to hurl the continent towards war. Only Scudder knows the details of the plan, but must lie low since the enemy knows he knows. Suddenly Hannay finds himself fleeing to rural Scotland to preserve both the information and his life, with Scudder’s enemies and the local police hot on his trail.

Because his story seems too bizarre to believe without evidence, Hannay must rely on instinct and luck to determine whom he can trust, all the time under the watchful eye of an aeroplane circling above. He survives solely by using his wits and peak physical condition. Though he describes himself often as an “ordinary man,” his experiences in the service and in South Africa have primed him well. He can crack a code, play a role, and in general “use [his] brains as far as they went.” He is full of both ability and effort despite his modesty.

When I think “thriller” and “espionage” I tend to picture non-stop action, with the focus on discovering and stopping some sort of plot. The Thirty-Nine Steps is in some ways more like an adventure story; the notes mention slight nods to Robert Louis Stevenson. Hannay’s desperate crossing of Scotland is episodic in nature and focuses mainly on evading his pursuers, even though there are some high-speed chases and explosions. Since most of the plot was handed to him, he does not need to take the initiative to figure things out and confront the Germans until near the end of the novel.

My copy is one of the Oxford World’s Classics, which lays claim to being the “only critical edition” of the book. While I found Christopher Harvie’s introduction to be an interesting read after the book, his Explanatory Notes seemed for the most part completely unwarranted. Apparently (according to sources cited in the Introduction) John Buchan has entire literary journals devoted to him, and these scholars delight in retracing Hannay’s precise journey, but I care little for footnotes explaining exactly which train station and line he is using at various points. I don’t need military background on every experience Hannay references (in fact, it detracts from the reading), and even one unfamiliar with American slang could probably deduce that when a Kentucky man references the “Blue-Grass country” he means home. Yes, the book is a classic, and an important entry in the development of the genre, but not everything need noted.

I’m much more well-read in the history of detection novels than suspense, and most of my spy reading has been Helen MacInnes stories, so I was unfamiliar with the precursors mentioned. Apparently, shortly after the start of WWI, Buchan was ordered to a long bed rest and wrote this “shocker” as a means of amusement. He had written many historical and military pieces beforehand, so the book draws slightly on some facts, and later played an important role in war propaganda. He seems a very interesting character and had long careers in both publishing and politics. His biography might be an interesting read, in addition to the subsequent Richard Hannay books.

This was a short read, about a hundred and twenty pages without the introduction, and was also my final book for 2010. It is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books Lists.

Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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