Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday miscellany: progress in bookish projects, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare

I don't want to jinx anything, but when I took a look recently at two book-related projects I've been working on, I was pleasantly surprised to see some real progress.

First, my TBR number has shrunk to 237. That is the lowest it has been since I started tracking it back in 2008. Considering I started this year at 305, I am pretty happy with that number. I'd like to get it down to 200 by the end of the year, and then under 100 in 2016. (My ultimate goal is around 25.) I just need to stick to my "one in, one out" rule for unread books. I've also been focusing on the oldest books in the stacks. I'm currently looking at those I've had unread since 2002. Teresa of Shelf Love just wrote about her TBR pile, and she mentioned that she has a 5-year expiration date for unread books. I'm tempted to try that sometimes, a clean sweep of the old books, but there are still some I want to read - including a lot of Anthony Trollope. Next up from the 2002 section: his Orley Farm.

Second, I have finally hit the half-way mark in my "Mid-Century of Books." This is a project to read one book from each year between 1850 and 1949. I knew I'd never been able to complete this in a year, as others have done. I'm now in my second year, and it could well take me another two to finish. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who started the "Mid-Century" project, has made hers more challenging by limiting herself to one book per each author. I on the other hand have included multiple books by Anthony Trollope on my list, as well as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross. I need to write something about (re)reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, and then I can cross 1867 off the list as well - and Orley Farm will take care of 1862. I was thinking the other day that it would be interesting to read through the years in order, rather than randomly as I have done, but I'm not sure that would have been practical, particularly given how many years are still blanks on my list. I need to start looking for books from the 1850s, to start with.

Speaking of book-related projects, James of James Reads Books has just announced the final round of his TBR Dare - a Triple Dog Dare. This is a dare to read only from your TBR shelves for the first three months of the new year. Last year, my fourth time taking the Dare, I gave up half-way through - not to read new books, but because of an irresistible temptation to re-read (Dorothy Dunnett in particular). Still, I managed to clear quite a few books off the TBR shelves. So I am signing on again, but this time with a goal: three months or 35 books, whichever comes first. I'm also going to claim my usual exemptions, one for Lois Bujold's latest Vorkosigan novel, and one in case Deborah Crombie publishes her new book in those months. I think the last Elizabeth Peters book is scheduled for posthumous publication in April, but just in case I'm putting that on the exemption list as well. I'm glad that James is hosting this again - hopefully it won't really be the last round.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Her Son's Wife, by Dorothy Canfield

I think it will be a story which women will be interested in, (I hope which they will feel deeply) but I don't believe it can interest any man. They have for too many generations had the possibility and the habit, of putting on their hats and melting away out of the house, when family relations got too uncomfortably tense. I rather imagine they will put on their hats and melt from the book at about the third chapter. But I hope that women who have had, for generations, to stick it out with no escape, may have a certain horrified interest in the story. (Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, 3/28/1925)
Reading this book made me realize that I was starting to think of Dorothy Canfield as a "cozy" writer. Not that she didn't write about difficult themes, such as unhappy marriages and the damage that parents can inflict on their children. But the last three books of hers that I read have been about young people finding their way, growing into themselves, through the challenges of their families and backgrounds. They haven't been fairy stories, but the characters have struggled through to happy endings (which are themselves new beginnings). I knew before I started this book that it was about a family in conflict, as the title certainly suggests. I just wasn't prepared for the way that the story twists and turns - and my sympathies with it. I certainly read the last third or so with the "horrified interest" that the author hoped to invoke.

In the first chapter, we meet Mary Bascomb, holding court after school in her fifth-grade classroom. The mothers of her students wait their turns, to appeal, even to beg. She grants their requests - or doesn't - with a full appreciation of her power, and something of disdain for her subjects. We learn that she was widowed young, left with a son to support through teaching. Her son Ralph is about to graduate from college, and Mrs. Bascomb is ready to support him through law school. But she is tired, already looking forward to the day he will be established in his law office, independent. He has been in a nearby town, looking for summer work, and probably (his mother thinks) wasting time watching baseball games. Instead, a letter arrives, telling her that he has gotten married. "Just went before a justice of the peace with no fuss about it at all." In a scrawled postscript, Ralph adds, "Mother, Lottie's not your kind, but she's all right."

After a sleepless night, Mrs. Bascomb steels herself to walk out of the house and send a telegram: "Mother's home always yours. Bring Charlotte home and we will talk things over and make plans for the future..."  Then she steels herself to go to work, where people will have seen the announcement of the marriage in the paper. Ralph and Lottie arrive that afternoon, and from the first moment Mrs. Bascomb knows that her new daughter is most definitely "not your kind." But Ralph is completely under his wife's spell, physically in thrall to her. When Mrs. Bascomb can bring him down to earth enough to talk of practicalities, they agree that Ralph will return to college, finish his degree, and then look for work. Meanwhile, Lottie will live with Mrs. Bascomb.

Mrs. Bascomb now has two to support, and it soon becomes clear that another member will be added to the family. Lottie does no work, even to keep her own things in order. She and her mother-in-law are the proverbial oil and water, both quick to anger and to hard words. They try to wage their campaigns through Ralph, who when he cannot melt away out of the house tends to take his wife's side, to his mother's disgust. But everything changes for Mrs. Bascomb the night her granddaughter is born.
The baby girl was lying on her back, her face as calm as that of a Buddha, her eyes wide open, gazing up fixedly. As their gaze met, John Bascomb's widow woke from her long nightmare. The eyes were the eyes of John Bascomb, set under John Bascomb's brow.
From that moment, her grandmother's life begins to revolve around the baby, named (to her despair) Gladys and nicknamed Dids. Mrs. Bascomb wants desperately "to protect her darling, to work for her as she is doing now, to fight for her." She wants Dids to have opportunities and choices, more than her mother or even her grandmother did. Lottie resents her mother-in-law's "interference" with her child, asserting her place as Dids' mother as much as Ralph's wife.

Their struggle plays out over the years, as Dids grows up, and it is not a happy story. In the later years, Mrs. Bascomb figures out a strategy that made my jaw drop, and I read on in horrified fascination, to an unsettling ending. As I was reading, I was thinking that in different hands, Mary Bascomb would have been insufferable. In the beginning, she is a petty tyrant with a martyr complex, who would have fit right in with Margaret Oliphant's self-sacrificing mothers - though Mrs. Bascomb does not suffer in silence. We learn more about her in the course of the story, and we also see how her love for her granddaughter transforms her life, not in an instant, happily-ever-after fairy tale way. There is still conflict and anger and pain. But there is also satisfaction particularly in her work. Mrs. Bascomb is a good teacher, and inside her classroom she is the Teacher, free from the tension and anxiety of her life as Mother and Grandmother. And while I didn't like Lottie much more than Mrs. Bascomb does, she is not just a caricature or a monster either. Eventually we learn something of her life before Ralph, of what shaped her, and in the end I found her a genuinely sympathetic character, particularly in the turn her life takes. I would love to meet these characters again, say four or five years after the book's ending.

As different as this book felt, I did note some familiar Dorothy Canfield touches. For several years Mary Bascomb attends a summer teaching institute at Columbia University, which both Canfield and her husband John Fisher attended, as do many of her characters. The Great War plays no part in this book, though key events take place in 1914. But at one point Mrs. Bascomb is likened to "the driver of a war-ambulance over a shell-swept road." I think John Fisher's experiences as an ambulance driver in France must have gone into the description of "peering blindly ahead into a darkness which was lighted only by terrifying explosions; and from one alarming moment to the next [she] could only try to hold out yet a little longer..." Like many of Dorothy Canfield's characters, at least in the books I have read, Mary Bascomb realizes "How long it took her to understand anything." It seems to me that her central characters always have more to learn. Their lives and their characters are not static. However, none of those I have met so far has faced the bleak sentence of one in this book: "leisure and self-respect she was never to know again..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali

Iran is on my list of places to visit one day. I am fascinated by its ancient history as well as its more recent. But I am pretty much an arm-chair traveler these days, making my visits via books and films. I'm always on the lookout for stories about Iran, fiction and non-fiction. A description of this book mentioned a mother and daughter returning to to Iran for a visit, which was enough to add it to my reading list.

The story opens in New York in 1996. Mina gets a call from her mother Darya announcing that she has found the perfect gift for her daughter's twenty-fifth birthday: a very eligible Iranian American bachelor (the latest in a long line). Mina, who is studying for her M.B.A., doesn't want to sit through another awkward introduction, she doesn't want to get married, she doesn't even want to be in business school. She wants to be an artist, but her parents expect her to follow her older brothers into a successful career. Mina finally agrees to meet the perfect-on-paper Mr. Dashti. But later she surprises her parents by announcing that she is going back to Iran, to the country they fled eighteen years ago.
Part of her had always been hovering in midair over the place that she had left. What if the country and history her parents loved was still buried there? What if she could find it? Could Mina go back and see what Darya meant when she said she wanted Mina to have "everything she had"? Mina had always wished that she could have known the Iran Darya had grown up in, instead of the Iran that she herself had escaped from. Could she find it and piece it together if she went back there as an adult?
Her father Parviz tells her no, absolutely not. "What you are suggesting is ludicrous," he tells her, turning to Darya for support. Instead, her mother not only agrees, but tells her daughter, "The answer is yes . . . of course I will come with you." Mina, who had no idea of inviting her, is left as speechless as Parviz. She doesn't know that her mother has her own reasons, her own restlessness.

The story then shifts back to 1978, in the months before the Revolution began. We meet the Rezayi family in their Tehran life, the children in school, Parviz in his medical practice, rooted in their extended family. We see the events of the Revolution mainly through Mina's eyes, as her life becomes more and more bound by rules, and by the constant fear of police raids. Soon after Mina's tenth birthday, tragedy strikes their family, and her parents make the difficult decision to leave. We then follow the family to New York City, as they make a new life in America - only to face hostility from Americans who know Iran only through hostages and war. The story then shifts back to Mina and Dayra's visit in 1996, and their eventual return home.

I am drawn to stories of emigration, of the courage that it takes to leave one's home and family for a new world. It was interesting to read one from the perspective of an Iranian family. It was even more interesting to read about immigrants returning home, finding their place again in the world they left behind, observing the changes. I enjoyed seeing Iran through Mina and Dayra's eyes, particularly Tehran. It was fascinating to watch the transformation in Daryra, coming back to her home and extended family after so many years. She seems to find her place so much more easily than her daughter, who had the idea in the first place. The relationship between mother and daughter is complicated, in ways any mother or daughter would find familiar.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dispatches from the chaise-longue - some quick reviews

I've had bronchitis for over a week now, and it has really knocked me out. I can't remember the last time I felt this enervated and exhausted. Though I managed to stagger back to work at the end of the week, I generally feel like an overcooked strand of spaghetti. I do have quite an impressive cough, which causes some germ-conscious co-workers to back out of the room. On the positive side, I have had lots of time for reading, though I haven't been able to focus on anything really challenging. I've built up a little stack of books to talk about, so I thought I'd write a quick post before I need to go lie down and watch more "N.C.I.S." episodes (Netflix isn't quite as good as cable for mindless sick-bed TV, I've found).

Keeping the Feast, Paula Butturini

I found this on the library sale shelves and was intrigued by the back cover blurb:
When Paula Butturini's husband was shot and nearly killed twenty-three days after their wedding, it marked the beginning of a phase of life neither had planned. John would recover from his injuries, but the psychological toll lingered long after his physical wounds had healed. . . [This book] is a gorgeously crafted portrait of a marriage and partnership touched by depression, but even more, it is a testament to the extraordinary sustaining power of food and love, to the healing that can come from simple rituals of life, and to the stubborn belief that there is always an afterward, always hope.
The author met her husband John Tagliabue in Rome, where both were working as journalists (she for UPI, he for the New York Times). Two years later, in 1987, he was named the bureau chief in Warsaw, and Ms. Butturini went with him, working then for the Chicago Tribune. Both were injured covering the 1989 uprisings in eastern Europe. Ms. Butturini was savagely beaten by police in Czechoslovakia, while Mr. Tagliabue was shot while traveling in a car with other journalists in Romania. His injuries brought him into a deep depression that left him unable to work for many months. The couple, only recently married, returned to Rome to live, hoping the familiar place would help.  I expected this book to be a memoir of coping through cooking, with recipes, like Adrienne Kane's Cooking and Screaming. Though it is very much about food, it is not a cookbook, a choice the author deliberately made. It is a family memoir, of growing up in Italian immigrant families, of carrying food traditions forward, and of coping with depression (the author's mother also suffered from it). I found it a moving story.  I also found the couple's work and travels interesting, particularly the adjustment of transferring from Rome to Warsaw.

The Blotting Book, E.F. Benson

The author's name caught my eye one day at Murder by the Book. I've never read any of E.F. Benson's work beyond the Mapp and Lucia series, apart from some of his ghost stories. This short book from 1908 is a mystery, set in Brighton. Morris Assheton, just turned twenty-two, has fallen in love. Under his father's will, his marriage will end the trust that has tied up his inheritance. His trustee, old family friend Edward Taynton, has been making some rash investments, and he needs time to set things right. He gets his partner Godfrey Mills to tell the young lady's father some lies about Morris, hoping to break off the match. In return, Mills demands a very substantial amount of money, to cover his own gambling habit. Learning of Mills's lies, Morris sets out to confront him. When Mills disappears, Morris becomes the prime suspect.

This was an interesting little story. It isn't a mystery in the "who-done-it" sense, because the villains are clear from the start. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, but the fun was in watching it unfold, and in the Brighton setting. I also enjoyed the smiling villain at the center. However, this doesn't have the fun of the Mapp and Lucia stories. It reminded me more of Benson's ghost stories, without the macabre.

Time Enough, Emily Kimbrough

This book from 1974 is an account of a cruise the author took with several friends along the Shannon River in Ireland. By this point, she was in her 70s, so she was content to leave the work of the trip to the crew of the boat. As in her other travel accounts, she and her friends spent their time squabbling a bit, watching the scenery, touring local sights of interest, and buying souvenirs. I've found that I enjoy her books more when they focus on the places she is visiting, and less on the "wacky" adventures or quirks of her fellow travelers. This was a pleasant-enough read, and I learned something about the geography of Ireland, particularly the Shannon, which stretches through the center of the country. Kimbrough took particular note of the small town of Banagher.
I found that [single wide main street] very poorly lit, but even in the darkness, interspersed among the shops, I saw several houses that seemed to me to have both substance and style. I doubt he lived in one of those, the young man of twenty-six who came in 1841 to fill the post of clerk to the district surveyor. His name was Anthony Trollope. He lived ten years in Banagher and began his writing there.
If I ever get to Ireland, I want to visit Banagher as well.

Greenery Street, Denis Mackail

Lyn at I prefer reading recently mentioned the acronym "HIU," or "Have it unread." Many of my TBR books are "RTO," or "rushed to order" - usually after reading a blog review. I'm not sure where I first read about this 1925 novel, but I remember the excitement of learning that Angela Thirkell's brother was also a writer. I knew from reading reviews that this book was about the first year of a young couple's marriage. Unlike his sister's Barsetshire books, it is set in London, in an idyllic street "of thirty-six narrow little houses." Ian and Felicity Hamilton move into No. 23 Greenery Street after their marriage. Ian goes off to his work at an insurance office, while Felicity tries to cope with servants and a budget. It is a domestic story, based according to the editor of my Persephone edition on Denis Mackail's own early married life. There are some dramatic elements involving Felicity's older sister Daphne, and a venial trustee, as well as a plot twist that echoes "The Gifts of the Magi." And speaking of echoes, Greenery Street has "little gods" who lurk in rooms and sometimes provide commentary on the action. I wondered if Angela Thirkell borrowed that idea for her angels that do the same, particularly around Mrs. Brandon. (The editor says that Mackail was bullied by his older sister, their parents' favorite!)  I see there are two sequels to this book, which are long out of print and apparently impossible to find. I will have to try inter-library loan, I'd like to read more about the adventures of Ian and Felicity. I also learned from the introduction that Denis Mackail was a close friend of P.G. Wodehouse's, and I found a picture of them in a biography of PGW that is still "HIU" on my shelves.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Touched by the Thorn, by Maura Laverty

The other day, while I was browsing on-line for copies of more of Kate O'Brien's books, I thought to check for Maura Laverty as well. And it was serendipitous, because that day there were two I didn't have: this one (published in the UK as Alone We Embark), and Liffey Lane (Lift Up Your Gates in the UK). I knew that Liffey Lane is set in Dublin (in the slums no less), so when I saw that Touched by the Thorn is set in the country-side, I decided to read it first.

What I hadn't realized is that it is set in Ballyderring, the small town in County Kildare that is also the setting for Laverty's Never No More. This story takes place later, so to my disappointment we don't meet Delia Scully or her loving Gran again. But at the heart of the story is someone a bit like Gran. Julia Dempsey had gone away from Ballyderrig to become a cook in Dublin, but she came home to care for her parents, and to inherit their little shop. She sells home-baked treats as well as sweets and cigarettes, and she makes a bit of money keeping lodgers. She "was the only landlady in the place who would board Balties," traveling show people. It is the arrival of "The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland," which sets the story in motion. "Julia Dempsey said afterwards that it was an unlucky day for a great many people when the Balties came to Ballyderrig in 1928." The most unlucky is a young woman who falls in love with one of the performers and breaks her engagement to a local farmer. That step sets off a chain of misfortune and pain for three families that stretches over many years.

The second section of the book jumps forward almost a decade, into the early years of World War II (the book was published in 1943). I don't think that I have ever read an Irish novel set in this period. It was an interesting contrast with what I've read of Great Britain and the U.S. There are shortages, particularly of food, and what they have is of poor quality - a problem for Julia's baking. No one seems to be queuing for rations, however. There is an exodus of workers over to Britain, for jobs in the defense industries. The more nationalistic citizens of Ballyderrig strongly object to this. Unlike Never No More, there is a political element to this book. One character is an active member of the IRA, which at least in this area is busy drilling and recruiting rather than carrying out any kind of actions. However, the young man argues frequently with Julia about the group. He and Julia disagree about patriotism, and about Irish workers helping the British war effort. "Do you want Hitler to win then?" Julia asks him. "We mightn't be so much better off if we had him over here. I didn't hear that the people in the countries he took are delighted with him." A page later the authorial voice speaks of "two classes of Irish patriots."
In the first class are men who find it possible to love their own country without hating another. Their dreams are too full of gladness for what is good in Ireland and of sorrow for what is bad to have room for the ghosts of past wrongs. And their days are too busy with doing what they can to better their own small corner of the land to leave them time for gunning. In the other class are those whose love for Ireland is deep and sincere, and whose hatred for England is equally so. They are the fighters, and many men think that hatred is necessary to a soldier. . . A blow when he is sore, an injustice when his heart is raw, and the hatred comes suddenly to him, changing him from a mild, fairly contented being into a gunman.
Maura Laverty understood both groups, but she made it clear which she thought was right.

But the heart of her story is people, not politics. As with Delia's Gran, Julia Dempsey's neighbors come to her for her listening ear and her advice. Some of their stories are dark ones, full of pain and anger, and Julia does what she can to help. She is a lovely character. "Perhaps it was because Julia never married that she gathered loves and friendships as Johnny Dunne gathered pound notes." She is particularly concerned about Mary, her goddaughter, and Molly, her young shop-assistant. There is also Teedy, the daughter of her friend Nora in Dublin, who comes to live with Julia after her mother dies and her father remarries. In another echo of Never No More, Julia finds her way to the girl's heart through cooking. When Julia tells her about a "golden web" of spun sugar, to put over a "flummery when you want it to look extra fancy," which her mother used to make for birthdays and Christmas, Teedy begs her for one. Julia can't make it with the beet sugar that is then available, but fortunately someone shares some loaf sugar. The adventure that Maura Laverty spins out with Julia's sugar! Then too, Ballyderrig itself is at the heart of her story, and she writes movingly of its beauties in the different seasons.

Maeve Binchy wrote an introduction to the Virago edition of Never No More, which made it clear how much she admired Maura Laverty's work (including her iconic cookbooks). This book in turn reminded me of Binchy's novels, set in small Irish towns. I know that Liffey Lane, set in Dublin's slums, will be a very different book, but I know it will be written with the same clear-eyed affection and empathy for the people living there.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced the publication of this, the 20th in her series of "Deborah Knott novels," she also announced that it would be the last. She said she felt that all the Knott stories have been told. Deborah Knott, the main character of the series, is a district court judge living in North Carolina, in the fictional Colleton County. She grew up on a farm, the youngest of twelve children, the only daughter. Her father Kezzie Knott was once the best-known moonshiner in the county, if not the state. An elderly man of almost 90 years, he now farms the family land, as do many of Deborah's brothers and their families. She is married to Dwight Bryant, a deputy sheriff, whose cases sometimes overlap with those she hears on the bench.

In this book, Margaret Maron has two stories to tell. The first involves a dying man, whom Kezzie Knott finds lying on a back road through their property. It takes the police a while to identify him as Vick Earp, a local man with a history of domestic violence. He had a grudge against the Knotts, because he blamed them for the loss of his family's property. Kezzie Knott bought it from his shiftless father years ago, but Earp believes it was stolen away from him. He also had some run-ins with Deborah's brothers over the years. So the local paper, looking to stir up scandal, all but accuses Kezzie Knott of murder, and Dwight of covering it up to protect his father-in-law.

Deborah suspects that her father and her brother Haywood know more than they're saying. She keeps an eye on the investigation, but she is also following a mystery of her own. Her brother Will gives her an early birthday present: their mother's brass Zippo lighter. Sue Knott died many years ago, when Deborah was 18. She was their father's second wife. Against her mother's wishes, she married someone far out of her social class: a high-school drop-out, a convicted felon and a moonshiner, a widower left with eight sons. The marriage was a happy one, and so was their family life. Now Deborah wonders about the initials engraved on the lighter, "W.R.M." and the inscription on the inside, signed "Leslie." She knows that her mother met Walter McIntyre during the war, while she was volunteering at the U.S.O. And Sue told her daughter that though she wasn't in love with him, Mac "changed her life." It's too late to ask her mother, but Deborah hopes to discover more about Mac and Leslie, and about her parents. As she asks questions, the narrative shifts to flashbacks where we meet Sue and Mac, and then Kezzie.

As always, reading this book felt like meeting old friends again. I feel like I could almost drive through Colleton County without a map. I'd stop at the BBQ house one of the cousins owns, where the family gathers to eat, and then to play and sing together. The two mysteries in this story are both interesting ones. I knew Mr. Kezzie hadn't killed Vick Earp, but there were several other suspects with various motives. I did spot one clue before the detectives, which made me feel smart for a few pages, but as usual I was on the wrong track in the end. I enjoyed meeting the younger Kezzie Knott, and Sue, who has been a large presence in the books through her children's memories. And the final chapter is an interesting one. The younger generation of Knotts has been looking to diversify the family farms, once based on tobacco. Here they have hit on what I think is a brilliant idea, and I'd love to know how it works out.

I did have two quibbles with Kezzie and Sue's story, however, at least as told here. First, it doesn't seem to fit the framework of the series. Kezzie Knott is nearly 90 in this book, which is clearly set in the present day (up to the minute, based on some of Deborah's political comments).  If he was born in 1925, he simply cannot be a widower with eight sons in 1945, when we first meet him - even that includes a set of twins. He married his first wife Annie Ruth as a young man, but he wasn't 12-13 years old. I think Margaret Maron wanted to use World War II for Mac's story, so she shoehorned Kezzie and Sue's story into it.

Edited to add: I withdraw this quibble, and I apologize to Ms. Maron for suggesting that she is guilty of sloppy plotting. In fact, just the opposite: I've been re-reading some of the earlier books in this series, and it's clear how very carefully she plotted out the family story. In the second book, Southern Discomfort (published in 1993), Deborah and her father visit the family graveyard where Annie Ruth is buried. Deborah takes notice of her grave marker, which states that she died in 1944. In the third book, Shooting at Loons (published in 1994), Deborah meets an elderly man who knew her mother Sue and Aunt Zell where they were working in the USO. Deborah remembers the man in this last book, and he is one of the people she tries to track down for more information. What I did not take into account was that the first book in this series (Bootlegger's Daughter) was published in 1992. Though these books were published over a 23-year span, only a few years have passed in the characters' world. I've read other authors' comments on this challenge, in writing a long series. Sue Grafton, for example, chose to keep Kinsey Milhone in the world of the 1980s, though the books span 30-plus years. Margaret Maron took a different approach, in moving her characters forward in time, but not tying their lives to the real timeline outside of the books, if that makes sense. As I mentioned above, it is clearly the 2010s in this last book, but Deborah and her family are only a few years older than in Bootlegger's Daughter. I also noted that in Southern Discomfort, no one even has a cell phone, and running up to a convenience store to use their pay phone is taken for granted, while in the later books they have all the latest technology.

I think she rushed Kezzie and Sue's story at the end, in a way that felt out of character (even though I only met Sue in this book).  *I stand by this quibble though!

But this just a quibble. I really did enjoy this return to the Knott family. Even if Margaret Maron feels now that all of their stories have been told, I hope that like Ursula Le Guin with the Earthsea books, she will discover that there are still some after all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Benevent Treasure, by Patricia Wentworth

I have been working on a theory that the earlier books in the Miss Silver series are better than the later, or maybe I just like them more. But I really disliked the third book, Lonesome Road, from 1939. It features Rachel Treherne, who inherited her father's fortune, to the disappointment of her relatives - starting with her sister Mabel. She consults Miss Silver, because she has come to the reluctant conclusion that someone is trying to kill her. Of course Rachel doesn't want to believe that someone in her family could really want to kill her, and she resists Miss Silver's advice. In every other book in this series that I've read, people who ignore Miss Silver's advice end up dead. Not content with ignoring sensible advice, Rachel announces one day to these relatives that she will be walking along a cliff-side path that night. When she sets off on the walk, she discovers that the battery in her torch is dying, but she knows the path so well that she has no qualms about proceeding. She is much more surprised than I was when someone looms out of the dark and pushes her over the cliff. Luckily for her, she manages to cling to a small outcropping until she can be rescued from above with a rope.

When we first meet Candida Sayle, on the first page of The Benevent Treasure, she is clinging to a small outcropping on the face of a cliff. She manages to hang on until she can be rescued from above with a rope. She didn't fall over, though. Arriving at a small seaside hotel, she found the friends she was meeting were delayed. She decided to take a walk along the shore, after two elderly ladies she met in the reception area told her that the high tide would be at 11 PM. She was caught by the high water at 9 PM and had to make a dash for the cliff face.

When the story picks up three years later, we learn that Candida is alone in the world, having lost both her parents and the aunt who brought her up. She is surprised to receive an invitation to the home of two great-aunts on her father's side, Miss Cara and Miss Olivia Benevent. She is even more surprised to learn that she is the next heiress to the family fortune, after Miss Cara. And that fortune includes the mysterious Benevent Treasure, which their ancestor Ugo di Benevento supposedly brought with him when he fled Italy in the 1700s. No one knows exactly where the treasure is - if it really exists - but an old family legend warns Ugo's descendants "Touch not nor try/Sell not nor buy/Give not nor take/For dear life's sake."  It isn't too long before Miss Silver arrives in the small town of Retley. A distant cousin of her own lives there, but she has also been asked to investigate the disappearance of Alan Thompson, who worked as a secretary to the Misses Benevent. He vanished one day, along with jewelry and money from their home, but his step-father doesn't believe him guilty. Nor is his the only mysterious disappearance.

I thought The Benevent Treasure was great, over-the-top fun. The Benevents live in a massive old house, the kind with nooks and crannies everywhere - and rumors of secret passageways. Of course, if you're going to have a hidden family treasure, you need secret passageways. And of course there is a romance for Candida, with the type of imperious young man that so frequently turns up in these stories. (Patricia Wentworth seems to have had a soft spot for angry young men in love.) There is also a surly manservant, and a slightly hysterical female one. Both are Italian, and not quite free of stereotypes (o dio mio). This is another point of similarity with Lonesome Road, where Rachel has her maid Louisa, a hysterical and smothering woman whom I found really irritating. I think Rachel should pension her off immediately, but Louisa would probably kill herself and/or Rachel at the thought of being separated from her.

I have been trying to figure out why I enjoyed The Benevent Treasure so much, and Lonesome Road so little. I think it's mainly because the first is just plain fun - a Gothic and gruesome ending, with bodies everywhere, and buried treasure - while the second feels not just serious but rather dreary. Maybe the latter reflects the unsettled times in which it was written. I still have a good few of these to read, mostly from the 1950s, and they may prove my theory completely wrong.

Oh, and for anyone else keeping track: in this book Miss Silver knits several pairs of grey stockings for her niece Ethel Burkett's three sons, and then starts on a blue jumper for Ethel herself.