Two treats from Anne Perry

I don’t know how Anne Perry does it.  She keeps her two very good Victorian England series going, plus her annual Christmas novel and the occasional foray into some other historical territory. Here are brief reviews of her latest novels in the William Monk series (from late last year) and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series.

One note: The two series, though both Victorian, depict quite different times in England.

The William Monk books, set in the 1860s, picture a gritty London with many people living in poverty and crime.  Monk’s job with the Thames River Police, and the work of his wife, Hester, at a clinic for prostitutes and other poor women, yield much insight into the evils of that society.

The Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels have moved into the waning days of the 19th century. Charlotte’s upper-class background and Thomas Pitt’s new job as head of the powerful Special Branch provide insights into the upper levels of government and society.  In this latest novel, musings about the age and health of Queen Victoria, and worries about the military, international relations and treason, remind us that not many years passed between the death of the queen and the start of World War I – with all the changes that terrible conflict brought.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BLIND JUSTICE. By Anne Perry. Ballantine Books. 338 pages. $26.

When Hester Monk learns about a preacher who seems to be taking financial advantage of members of his congregation who can ill afford it, she, true to form, sets out to see what’s going on.

Before long, the preacher finds himself on trial for extortion, with the Monks’ friend, Oliver Rathbone, newly appointed to the bench, presiding.

What originally seemed pretty clear-cut surprisingly develops into something much more complicated, and Rathbone makes a decision that plunges him into trouble.

William and Hester try to do what they can to make sure their friend’s career and life are not ruined – and that justice is served.

As she so often does, Anne Perry tells a good story while probing the intricacies of human nature. What happens when what is legal and what is just are not the same? What are the consequences of errors in judgment, however good the intentions? What is the price of revenge, and the worth of forgiveness? Moral dilemmas are Perry’s specialty.

This is a compelling story.

DEATH ON BLACKHEATH. By Anne Perry. Ballantine Books. 302 pages. $27.

Thomas Pitt’s elevation to the head of Special Branch has meant many changes in the family’s life. Pitt must deal discreetly with cases that could affect the security of the British Empire, and with people who look down on him because he was not born a  “gentleman.” His wife, Charlotte, and her sister, Emily, are rarely able to indulge their fondness for dabbling in detection to help with his cases. About the best they can do now is arrange social engagements and keep their eyes and ears open.

Unexpectedly, Pitt finds himself investigating two cases that seem more like what he dealt with when he was a regular policeman. One is the disappearance of a lady’s maid, with evidence of violence outside the home where she worked. A few weeks later, the mutilated body of a young woman with similar characteristics is found near that home.

The reason Pitt was brought into the case is that the master of the house where the maid worked is Dudley Kynaston, an important expert in naval weapons.

Was Kynaston involved in the maid’s disappearance, and if so is he vulnerable to blackmail, or worse? Or is someone trying to frame Kynaston, and if so, what does that mean for national security?

Charlotte and Emily do get involved on the periphery, making some astute observations. And Pitt calls on Victor Narraway, his former boss at Special Branch, and Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, the longtime family friend who knows as much as anyone about the workings of London’s upper crust. He also relies more than ever before on Stoker, who works for him and has increasingly merited his trust.

Once again, Anne Perry provides a page-turner rich in the history and atmosphere of its time. And once again, her characters make important decisions that involve justice and the possibility of redemption.

 

 

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Adventures with the Amazons

Often when reviewing an audio book, I consider whether I would have enjoyed the book more or less had I read the print version. Some books are so good I savor them both ways.

Although I was entertained, for the most part, by the audio presentation of Anne Fortier’s The Sisterhood, I doubt that I would have made it through the book in print. This is a lively story that could be a good source of amusement on a long car trip, for example. I happily listened to it over several days of commuting to and from my teaching job at a university two hours away. But because it’s long and has some annoying weaknesses, I doubt I would have finished if I’d been turning pages.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE LOST SISTERHOOD. By Anne Fortier. Read by Cassandra Campbell. Random House Audio. 24 hours, 19 CDs. $50. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

The Lost Sisterhood is an action-adventure romance dealing with myths and treasure, sort of like an Indiana Jones tale with a female heroine who gets embroiled in a (rather predictable) love story. It also has a secret language and ties to ancient history, something on the order of a Dan Brown novel.

It’s an ambitious book, alternating the stories of Myrina, the first queen of the Amazons, with that of Diana Morgan, a brilliant modern-day young Oxford academic who is obsessed with the legend (or is it truth?)  of the Amazons. Diana had a mysterious grandmother who thought she was an Amazon – and who may or may not have been mentally ill.

Accepting what’s supposed to be a lucrative one-week job from a stranger who approaches her in the street, Diana sets off on an extended adventure across several countries on two continents. Along the way, she encounters all sorts of danger and unexpected twists and turns. Often, she doesn’t know ally from enemy.

The roughly parallel story of Myrina begins in Northern Africa and eventually becomes entwined with the Trojan War. The treasure the Amazons (if they still exist) may or may not have likely came from the doomed city of Troy.

Although there were times when I thought that Myrina and her sisterhood seemed awfully 21st-centuryish for Bronze Age women, I generally thought their storyline worked better than the one set in the present day. That’s largely because I found Diana Morgan to be hardly credible, and if credible, not very appealing. For an Oxford professor who is supposed to be highly intelligent (we even learn her IQ), she makes a lot of bad decisions. She seems more foolhardy than brave, more mule-headed than determined. She has little or no sense of responsibility.  She gets herself into difficult, even dangerous situations, and then deals with them by begging “Please…” a lot.

Cassandra Campbell does her usual good job of reading the book. Don’t get me wrong; this novel does have its attractions. The story of the Amazons, and of Paris, Helen and the other leading figures in the Trojan War, is fascinating. The adventure is compelling at times. In spite of my impatience with Diana, I did keep listening – and sometimes found myself disappointed when I reached my destination and had to wait to hear what happened next.

 

 

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What an amazing life she led

Some books are entertaining but unapologetically superficial, a good read or listen but nothing more. That’s fine, and sometimes, that’s exactly what we want. Other books are richer and more complex, telling a good story, to be sure, but also offering layers of memorable information and insight. Such is the new novel by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I had not read any books by Gilbert, who has gained considerable acclaim for her fiction, her long-form nonfiction, and her memoirs, especially Eat, Pray, Love.  In fact, I identified her mostly with that memoir and the subsequent movie, and when the hefty box that contained the audio version of her new book arrived, I almost set it aside, thinking it was more of the same.

Thank goodness I started to listen … and couldn’t stop.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. By Elizabeth Gilbert. Read by Juliet Stevenson. Penguin Audio.18 CDs, 21 ½ hours. $39.95.

Late in life, Alma Whittaker is somewhat taken aback when a new friend marvels at the amazing life she has led. After all, for the first nearly half century of her existence, she barely left the Philadelphia area. Also for nearly that long, she had no suitors, and when she finally married, the union failed spectacularly almost immediately. Most of her visible life’s work as a botanist consists of a few academic books on mosses, of interest only to bryologists. She did have one grand idea, but lacked the confidence to make it public.

But Alma’s life story is, indeed, amazing, and in the telling of it in, Elizabeth Gilbert has created a grand, panoramic, unforgettable novel.

Gilbert begins The Signature of All Things well before Alma’s birth, with the story of how Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, rose from poverty in 18th century England through ocean voyages and jungle adventures to become the richest man in America. By the time Alma was born in 1800, Henry was a wealthy man with a flourishing business in exotic botanicals and pharmaceuticals. He had married a stolid, no-nonsense and highly intelligent Dutch woman so that she could be his ballast, a role she fulfilled well.

A bright child, Alma is taught many things by her mother and allowed in her free time to roam the family’s White Acre estate, where she delights in exploring nature. Her upbringing is highly unusual for a girl in the early 19th century; she is exhaustively educated and taught to be assertive and questioning. Her social training is largely the exchange of ideas with guests, usually intellectuals, at the family dinner table. She learns none of the social graces that would help her enter Philadelphia society and find a husband.

Alma’s highly privileged existence is badly shaken when her parents adopt a girl her own age who is orphaned when her mother, a prostitute, is murdered on their estate. The girl, renamed Prudence, could hardly be more different from Alma. Alma, unusually tall, dark and stoutly built, looks very much like her father, a fact that is deemed unfortunate by everyone except Henry. Prudence is petite, blonde and astonishingly beautiful. Even Henry Whittaker calls his daughters “the pretty one” and “the smart one.”

Though she’s obviously not destined to be a belle, Alma has normal yearnings – yearnings that are generally considered abnormal in polite Victorian society.

Alma’s fate in life seems to be to stay at White Acre, help with the family business and help with her increasingly difficult father, especially after her mother dies. With her world so circumscribed, she finds a universe to study in the mosses that grow on a boulder field on the estate.

Then when Alma is almost 50, her life changes profoundly. She falls in love with a beautiful, strange and gifted young man, who is obsessed with worlds that have meant little to her – the worlds of the spirit, of religion and the supernatural. Then her father dies, freeing her.

The woman who had barely been out of Pennsylvania now has adventures in Tahiti and in Amsterdam. She has experiences far beyond her imaginings. And she comes to deeper understandings of the nature of life. When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace begin society’s great debate on evolution, what they have to say is nothing new to Alma Whittaker.

Henry’s story alone could make a good novel. Alma’s story certainly would. But Elizabeth Gilbert deftly works in so much more: the effects of colonialism, the development of science, the power of religion, the growth of commerce, the changing role of women… . Alma was born at the start of the 19th century, a time when the world changed dramatically, and through her long life, she experienced and savored many of those changes.

Apparently as much a student of botany as Alma is, Gilbert treats us to detailed and intriguing descriptions, from the vast oceans to the Andes, from the hillsides of Pennsylvania to the cliffs of Tahiti. This is an ambitious, captivating novel, one that will stay with you long after you reach the end of Alma’s story.

Juliet Stevenson, an accomplished British actress, does a magnificent job with the audio version. She’s especially skilled with the various accents, be they British, American, Dutch or Tahitian.

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The wolves in our woods

Like Tom Dillon, I’ve seen red wolves. Years ago, when my older son spent several summers helping with biological research at Cade’s Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he took us to see a few wolves that were kept in pens as part of the reintroduction effort there. Then one day when I had gotten temporarily separated from the rest of my family on a hike in the Cade’s Cove area, a wolf loped across my path, staring me down as he or she passed. That was unforgettable.

Dillon, an old friend who is a fine nature writer, reviews a new book about the efforts to bring back the red wolves that once roamed coastal North Carolina.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE SECRET WORLD OF RED WOLVES. By T. Delene Beeland. University of North Carolina Press. 256 pages. $28 .

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE SECRET WORLD OF RED WOLVES. By T. Delene Beeland. University of North Carolina Press. 256 pages. $28 .

You don’t forget your first up-close encounter with a wolf. Mine came accompanying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officer on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I was there to do a story, but I was the only person with the officer when he discovered a trapped wolf that had dragged itself into a canal and was hypothermic. I had to help the officer rescue the wolf and get it into a cage.

What I remember best is the wolf’s distrusting yellow-green eyes after we had safely deposited the cage back at the depot where the Red Wolf Recovery Program had its headquarters. We may have rescued the animal, but it clearly wanted no part of us.

I’ve thought ever since that someone should do a book-length report on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to bring back this cousin of the storied gray wolf, and I was glad to see that Asheville nature writer T. Delene Beeland has taken on the project.

Beeland spent the better part of two years shadowing the biologists who work with the recovery effort, which is centered on the wildlife refuges of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in eastern North Carolina. She had unparalleled access to their records, as well as a reserved shotgun seat on many of their trucks as they bounced around the sand roads of the peninsula farms and forests.

What has emerged is a very good, detailed look at the now 27-year-old effort to bring back one of the most endangered animals on the continent. That covers the trapping of the last red wolves in Texas, a captive breeding program at several locations and the reintroduction of wolves at locations including the Great Smoky Mountains, Cape Romain refuge in South Carolina and elsewhere.

Today the program operates out of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and it has had ups and downs. Wolf “howls” have become popular tourist attractions on the Dare County mainland on summer evenings, and wolves can help control the spread of animals such as nutrias, South American rodents that have become a problem in the wetlands of the coastal plains.

(For more on the usefulness of wolves, you might reread Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Leopold says, in part, “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” In other words, maybe a predator or two wouldn’t be a bad thing controlling excess deer.)

On the other hand, some people think the red wolf is not a distinct species, some farmers worry about predation and some hunters have trouble distinguishing red wolves from coyotes, though the wolves are much bigger. There have been two recent reports of wolves shot dead on the peninsula; $2,500 rewards are offered for information in the shootings.

People who lease land for deer hunting may worry that the wolves will affect their livelihood, despite the still small number of wolves; it’s estimated at 100 to 120. There’s also latent grousing about the federal use of land. The program can use up to 680,000 acres of federal and state land in Washington, Hyde, Tyrrell, Dare and Beaufort counties.

A bigger problem may be the apparent apathy in the staff of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission toward the whole effort. Beeland quotes one commission biologist to the effect, “I’m not sure what purpose the red wolf serves that the coyote doesn’t.” In North Carolina, for the record, it’s OK to shoot a coyote any time.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book, to me, was a chapter interviewing residents of the peninsula, pro and con. Beeland talked with Kelly Davis, a former wildlife biologist with whom I used to work when I lived nearby, and she talked with hunters, land managers and farmers. Some of them seemed to feel the debate is in the past; I hope that’s true.

“We’ve seen three-dollar gas before, and we got used to it,” said one private wildlife land manager. “We don’t like it, it’s an inconvenience, but now we just don’t bitch about it.” The wolves may be, he said, like three-dollar gas.

There are a few parts of the book I took issue with. Much of it is written in present tense, an old editor’s hang-up, and I wondered about a chapter on the peril of rising sea level. To me, there are much more immediate concerns.

But I do like Beeland’s conclusion to this remarkable story: “I am hopeful that future scientists and citizens will see fit to conserve what we have left of canis rufus as a living reminder of both what was and what still can be.”

  • Tom Dillon is a journalist and outdoor writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

 

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What is real?

Sometimes, when she’s not writing historical novels or modeling Tudor costumes at book events, Anne Barnhill amuses herself by reading a good thriller.

Reviewed by Anne Barnhill

THE OTHER TYPIST. By Suzanne Rindell.  G. P. Putnam and Sons. 354 pages.  $25.95.

In her debut novel, Suzanne Rindell dishes up a delicious psychological thriller, a cold serving of elegant writing and bizarre twists reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or even Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

Set in 1923 in New York City, The Other Typist sizzles with speakeasies, petty crime and Odalie, the new typist hired by the NYC police department to take down confessions of various criminals.  Rose, the young woman who narrates the story, is also a typist at the police department, a dour gal with plain looks and keen powers of observation.  Rose, lonely at heart, comes under the spell of the charismatic Odalie and happily follows Odalie into all kinds of new and sketchy situations.

Freed from her strict morality, compliments of a childhood raised in an orphanage run by nuns, Rose begins a slow descent into an amoral world.  Eventually, she even decides to administer justice as she types a false confession, convicting a man she believes is a serial killer.  She begins to accompany Odalie to one speakeasy after another, drinking absinthe and champagne.  Rose’s feelings for Odalie brim with sexuality, though Rose cannot see these feelings for what they are.  Rose is deluded about a lot of things, most of all, Odalie herself.

This fine novel is riveting as the very nature of reality is tested.  What is real and what is fabricated weave together so tightly that even after finishing the novel, the reader is left with more questions than answers.  An excellent read!

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Spinning a good tale

Before the textile mills came to my home state of North Carolina, they were major economic forces in New England. This fascinating historical novel by the author of The New York Times bestseller The Dressmaker is built around the true story of a murder at textile mill in Massachusetts that was one of the first to employ large numbers of young women.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE DARING LADIES OF LOWELL. By Kate Alcott. Read by Cassandra Campbell. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 compact discs. $40. Also available in hardback from Doubleday. 286 pages. $25.95.

Kate Alcott had a winner with her 2012 novel The Dressmaker, the story of a young woman of limited means who survived the Titanic disaster and then made her way in New York. She uses much the same approach in her new book, again to good effect, in this new novel.

The historical event at the heart of The Daring Ladies of Lowell is not nearly as well known as the sinking of the Titanic, and learning about it is in some ways more fascinating. Alcott draws on the true story of the sensational murder of a young woman mill worker in Lowell, Mass., and the subsequent trial in 1833.

She tells her story through the viewpoint of Alice Barrow, one of the many young New England women who became “mill girls” in an attempt to escape a harsh life on a farm and establish some kind of financial independence.

One of Alcott’s talents is the ability to take a great deal of historical information and weave it into a compelling work of fiction. She describes vividly the harsh conditions under which these women – often mere girls – worked. The hours were incredibly long and the work exhausting. They were in danger from both unsafe machines and the cotton dust that fouled their lungs. The mill owned the town, and the workers had to pay some of their hard-earned money for room, board and any “extras” they might fancy at the company store.

In the mill boarding house, Alice becomes friends with Sarah “Lovey” Cornell, a spirited young woman who bends the rules and challenges authority. When Lovey is found strangled, Alice is determined to see that justice is done.

Meanwhile, Alice has come to the attention of Samuel Fiske, the elder son of the wealthy mill owner, Hiram Fiske of Boston.

As the trial of the man accused of murdering Lovey progresses, and as some of the mill girls and other workers become increasingly disgruntled with their working conditions, Alice feels torn between her feelings for Samuel and her loyalty to the friends with whom she has much more in common.

The romance is another similarity between this book and The Dressmaker. As with the earlier novel, that plot line is somewhat predictable, and some of the scenes and writing border on being trite. Again, the question is whether Alcott needs the romance. Could the book have been stronger if it focused even more on the plight of the mill workers, without one of them having an improbable chance to escape with the owner’s son?

But that would have been a different book, and using a romance to propel a novel rich in historical insights is, apparently, what Kate Alcott does well. As it is, The Daring Ladies of Lowell is a historical novel rich in insights into the early feminist and labor movements. It’s also a good story that keeps you reading – or listening, if you choose the well-done audio version read by the accomplished Cassandra Campbell.

 

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The more things change …

Anne Barnhill’s second historical novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is set to be released March 18.  The indomitable Anne finished this novel and moved on to start work on her next book despite her recent battle with cancer.

And now, I’m happy to say, she’s also managed to contribute another review to Briar Patch Books.

Reviewed by Anne Barnhill

ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE. By Stephanie Lehmann. Touchstone.416 pages. Paperback original. $16.

 Astor Place Vintage is a delightful novel set in New York City in 1907 and in 2007.

 Though separated by a century, two women, Olive and Amanda, have more in common that might be expected. Amanda Rosenbloom, the owner of Astor Place Vintage, has a fascination with old clothes, antiques or anything else from times gone by.

When she visits Jane Kelly, a wealthy old woman from whom she hopes to purchase some vintage clothes, she is surprised to find a journal hidden in the lining of an old muff. This journal belongs to Olive Westcott, a young woman who came to New York with her father in 1907.

Unable to stop herself from taking the journal and reading it, Amanda becomes fascinated and embroiled in the details of Olive’s life. Though the two women lived 100 years apart, Amanda finds that the struggles of women trying to make it alone have not changed.

Olive tries to support herself when her wealthy father dies unexpectedly, leaving her without funds; he’d lost everything because of poor investments.  Olive wants to be a buyer in a department store and has the polish for such a position.  However, she has no verifiable experience; the work she did was for her father and for no pay.  Slowly, Olive becomes aware of how hard it is for a young, single woman to survive in New York City. Amanda has a similar experience as she tries to keep her store open in spite of several obstacles.

In alternating chapters, Stephanie Lehmann explores each woman’s challenges.

As an extra treat, she also gives an architectural history of New York City, enriching the novel in the process – the city itself is almost like a character. Her prose is clean and clear:

The journey itself was a diversion.  Surrounded by my fellow employees, I had no fear of the subway, as I did that first time.

 Or at least not until someone mentioned we were traveling inside a metal tube underneath the East River.  I sat prone until we reached Brooklyn, where the train ran aboveground and I could contentedly look out my window at the scenery. 

 Our route passed endless rows of square brick houses, but the drabness of the dwellings was relieved by the variety of backyards.

 The times and places are lovingly described, adding to the grace of the novel.  Very nicely done.

 

 

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Art, life and wild animals in the attic

Years ago, when she wrote op-ed columns for The New York Times and I worked on a newspaper editorial page, I loved Anna Quidlen’s work. Her columns were well written and insightful, a welcome change from the humdrum, the strident and the boringly predictable that I read day in and day out.

I had somehow missed most of her novels, and I’m so glad I got my hands on this, her seventh.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS. By Anna Quindlen. Random House. 252 pages. $26.

This novel is beautifully written and quietly profound.

It’s the story of Rebecca Winter, a photographer who achieved considerable fame because of her “Kitchen Counter” series of photos of the everyday stuff of ordinary women’s lives.

Her fame has waned, however, just as much in her life has gone downhill. Her husband is gone, her son grown, her mother in an expensive nursing facility and her father needing help with his bills. At 60, she realizes that her career is faltering, and she’s running out of money.

Unable to afford the luxury of living in her New York City apartment any longer, Rebecca puts it up for rent and, on impulse, takes refuge in a ramshackle mountain cabin that looked a lot better in its photos on the Internet. A city person by birth and rearing, Rebecca has spent her life about as removed from nature as is possible.

Of course, she finds herself needing some help as wild creatures invade her attic and other realities of life in the woods set in. She finds help and a lot more in the person of Jim Bates, a local roofer.

That first summer, as Rebecca hikes the woods and hills near her new home, she begins to discover oddly placed white wooden crosses about 3 feet high, usually grouped with objects such as a trophy or a card. Of course, she takes photos of these unexpected discoveries.

Gently, with great insight and in lovely prose, Anna Quindlen leads us through the story of what happens to Rebecca and those in her life. There is a romance here, but there is much more. Anyone who knows Quindlen’s nonfiction and fiction works would expect insights into the life of a woman, and certainly they are here.

But even more striking is the reflection on the relationships between art and life. On one level, Rebecca learns to stop letting her art shelter her from life.

On another level, she comes to ponder the difference between created works and the realities that inspire or contribute to them. Creative writers, photographers, artists, even journalists capture a moment and make it representative of something more. What they produce is a truth of sorts, but only part of the truth.

Through Rebecca, Still Life With Bread Crumbs ponders “the terrible eternity of immortality,” in which someone’s pain or tragedy can live on, even after that person is gone.

This is a lovely book.

  • Linda C. Brinson is available for writing and editing projects. You can reach her at lindacbrinson@gmail.com

 

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What’s next for Flavia?

Once again, I treated myself to double enjoyment of Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce novel. I read the book as soon as it arrived, because I couldn’t wait. And then when I got the audio version, I listened, because the stories are just that good, and because I love British accents and can’t do them properly in my head when I read.  Jayne Entwistle, who reads the Flavia de Luce books, is a brilliant performer.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE DEAD IN THEIR VAULTED ARCHES. By Alan Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwistle. Random House Audio. 8 hours, 7 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 310 pages. $24.

I guess we all knew some things would eventually have to change in Alan Bradley’s delightful series about Flavia de Luce, the precocious English girl who amuses herself by dabbling in chemistry and solving murders. After all, Flavia can’t stay 11 forever, and how many murders can there reasonably be in one English village in 1950?

But in this, the sixth book in the series, Bradley changes so much that it made me downright uneasy. Then I remembered the Harry Potter series, and how J.K. Rowling let Harry grow up and the books grow darker as the story unfolded.

One of the most endearing things about Flavia has been her innocence. Despite her great intellect, she’s a child who’s been both sheltered and neglected. She knows more about chemistry than she does about life. That’s why her voice is so endearing, and why Bradley can make readers believe that Flavia might really still think, for example, that there might be some truth to the Santa Claus story.

This book is apparently a transition to a new phase in Flavia’s life, and even a change of primary setting from Buckshaw, the crumbling mansion where she’s always lived with her father and two older sisters, all attended by Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper, and Dogger, who served with her father in the war and now takes care of many things. Flavia has spent much of her time either in her chemistry lab or off on Gladys, her mother’s old bicycle, nosing into something in the village or countryside. Now she will have new experiences and new terrain to explore.

Readers who have not been following Flavia from the beginning of the series probably would not enjoy meeting her first in this book. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is too much a culmination, an end, in a way to Flavia’s childhood.

The defining factor in Flavia’s life has always been that when she was a baby, her mother, Harriet, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She has always felt lonely, living with her father who is nearly paralyzed by grief, and her sisters, who remember her mother, while she does not. Now Harriet’s body has been found and sent home to Buckshaw for burial.

As the family stands at the railway station awaiting the arrival of Harriet’s body, a tall man approaches Flavia and whispers an enigmatic message. Within moments, he is dead, apparently pushed under the train. In her grief over her mother, Flavia uncharacteristically almost forgets this apparent murder, but before long she’s trying to unravel that mystery and the greater ones to which it leads. Apparently, there is much to know about Harriet and other members of the de Luce family.

As people come from near and far to pay their respects to Harriet, Flavia finds herself dealing with Winston Churchill and the Home Office, and taking to the skies in Harriet’s Gipsy Moth airplane.

By book’s end, Flavia is about to head away from Buckshaw and to the next chapter in her life.  She’s turning 12, and she knows a good deal more now about her family’s legacy and her role in it. Flavia will have to make some major adjustments, and so will Alan Bradley. Here’s hoping Flavia doesn’t grow up too fast, and that the next book in the series will be worthy of those that came before, those that made us such fans.

  • Linda C. Brinson is available for writing and editing projects. You can reach her at lindacbrinson@gmail.com

 

 

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RLS and Fanny: A literary love story

I had begun to read this novel in print – and gotten thoroughly hooked on it – when two things happened: A copy of the audio version arrived, and I had to make a solo road trip. I switched to listening, and I can attest that whether read or heard, Nancy Horan’s new book is a delight.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY. By Nancy Horan. Read by Kirsten Potter. Random House Audio. 17 hours, 14 CDs. $57. In print: Ballantine Books. 474 pages. $26.

I’ve compared notes with another former English major or two, and I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one who didn’t know much about the late 19th-century author Robert Louis Stevenson. Oh, I knew the names of some of his most famous works – Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – and I’d read some of them, long ago. And seen the movie in one case.

I vaguely knew that Stevenson was a Scot and that he’d spent some time in the South Pacific. That was about it.

In his lifetime, his books were popular, and he was quite the literary celebrity. His works have also stood the test of time, widely translated and still read. But during the 20th century, critics and English professors tended to dismiss his books as either children’s literature or longer on style than substance. In recent years, his literary reputation has been on the rise again, so maybe today’s English majors and readers in general will learn more about him.

As Nancy Horan’s new novel makes dramatically clear, Stevenson’s life is as rich a story as anything his imagination created.

In particular, Stevenson’s relationship with his wife, the American divorcee Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, has sparked nearly as much disagreement and reassessment as has his literary legacy. During their lifetime, Stevenson’s friends and acquaintances were widely divided in their feelings about Fanny. Some praised her for having almost singlehandedly kept the sickly Stevenson alive and for having encouraged his writing. Others saw her as a temperamental shrew who, along with her children from her first marriage, distracted him and interfered with his writing.

To the historical facts and the many existing journals, letters and other writings by and about the Stevensons, Nancy Horan has added her imagination and insight into the nature of humans and their relationships. The result is a fascinating novel about two gifted and complex people who lived an exotic, passionate life together.

As she did in her widely acclaimed novel Loving Frank, about the scandalous relationship between Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright, Horan lets us see into the world of the woman who loved the famous man. And Horan does more: Managing the admirable feat of seeing through the eyes of both her protagonists, she also tells us much about Louis Stevenson’s life and struggles. In real life, there are usually at least two sides to every story, and Horan leads the reader to understand and sympathize with both Fanny and Louis.

The biographical story would be compelling in itself: Fanny met Louis when she was living in France with her two children, having gone there to study art and escape her philandering husband in California. Her flight had turned tragic when her youngest child fell ill and died, and a Paris doctor had sent her to the countryside to regain her strength. Louis, ten years younger than she, arrived to visit his cousin and other friends in the artists’ colony where Fanny had found refuge. The chance meeting turned out to be life-changing for both of them.

Louis, who had been a sickly child living largely in his imagination, was, despite his father’s objections, determined to be a writer. He fell quickly in love with the exotic American, and though Fanny at first was less than impressed with the skinny, immature, emotional Scot, they soon began an affair.

Eventually, Fanny returned to California, torn as to whether she should reconcile with or divorce her husband. Before long, Louis set out on a difficult trek across the Atlantic and the American continent to pursue her, a journey that broke his fragile health and nearly killed him.

Thus began their life together, a life marked by frequent crises and much traveling in search of a place that would be healthier for Louis. After many moves, they sailed the South Seas and settled in Samoa.

During these years, Louis grew as a writer, producing the works for which we remember him. Fanny, who also had aspirations to be a writer, found herself cast more in the role of nurse and assistant.

Horan tells this story vividly, enriching it with insights into the often stormy relationship. The difficulty of being an ambitious, creative woman in the days before the feminist revolution is a major theme, but it is far from the only theme in this rich novel. In exploring the volatile relationship between Fanny and Louis, Horan has much to say about such things as love, loyalty, marriage, family, genius and creativity.

Those who listen to the audio version will be further delighted by Kirsten Potter’s wonderful reading, especially her delivery of Scottish and American accents.

  • Linda C. Brinson is available for writing and editing projects. You can reach her at lindacbrinson@gmail.com
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