Review of Books – Summer 2022 – Part Two

This is Part Two of my summer review of books – see last week for Part One. Welcome to my virtual bookstore – Happy Browsing!

Anne Tyler was typical Anne Tyler – French Braid was a quirky family saga – it opens with a long-ago family vacation with three teenagers who have nothing in common and their peculiar parents, including a mother who put her aspirations to be a painter ahead of her children and gradually moved out of the family home over the years to a studio.  Perhaps she thought they wouldn’t notice?  I don’t often read Anne Tyler as I just don’t get her – sure it’s readable, but what was the point of it all?  I actually had to google this one to refresh my memory as I read it last spring, it was that forgettable. 

Our House won a 2019 British mystery award, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I loved Louise Candlish’s last book, The Other Passenger, but this lacked by comparison.  I guess you could call it a domestic drama.  A woman arrives home to find another couple moving into their house, which her estranged husband has sold without her knowledge and then vanished.  You could tell it was going to be a train wreck, so it wasn’t very suspenseful.  

The Personal Librarian –   Historical tale about the life of Belle da Costa Green – a black woman who passed for white in the 1920’s, she was employed as JP Morgan’s personal assistant and helped him assemble the vast treasures of the Morgan Library and Museum.  Something about the writing was off – perhaps because it was co-written.  She led a fascinating life, so it should have been a better book, but then I’m generally not a big fan of first-person narrative…especially by two different people.

I really enjoyed The Lost Chapter even though I tend to avoid multi-generational/female friendship sagas.  Partially set at a finishing school in Lyon France in 1957, a friendship between a proper British girl and an independent brash American, ends badly.  Decades later, 80 year old Flo discovers that her friend has written a fictional book about their time there.  An artist, she befriends Alice a troubled teen, and along with her mother Carla, they impart on a road trip to France to confront her past.  Well done – I would like to read more by Carolyn Bishop.  As for the finishing school and the rules for female behaviour – how the world has changed.

The Long Weekend – another one I had to google to refresh my memory.  Three women go away for a long weekend in a remote corner of England, (without cell service of course) only to find a note waiting for them saying that one of their husbands will be murdered.  Suspenseful, from what I remember.

Verity – The librarian said this book was popular, but I am not familiar with the author, probably because I don’t read romance novels.  She also wrote It Ends With Us.  Billed as a romantic thriller, I abandoned it about fifty pages in and googled the ending on Goodreads, which justified my decision not to waste any more time on it.  A struggling young writer is hired by a charming man to finish a book his injured wife was writing.  If you want to read graphic details about two people having an affair while the wife is lying comatose upstairs, then I guess this is the book for you.  It was reissued recently with an exclusive new chapter after the author did a reading of it somewhere.  I think it was supposed to clarify the shocking ending?  Or perhaps it was a money grab?     

Iona Iversons’ Rules – charming tale about a group of people who ride the same London subway car every day, and how they meet, as the first rule of commuting is don’t talk to strangers.  A cheery read – I find I’m reading more light fiction by British novelists these days. It might have to do with the sad state of the world – they’re always good for a cuppa tea and a keep calm and carry on reading mentality. I was so impressed with this, I ordered Clare Pooley’s second book, The Authenticity Project, which was also a selection of my library book club. 

A lonely elderly patron leaves a green notebook in a local café with his life story in it, and urges others to write down the truth about their lives. The cafe owner finds it, adds her story and passes it along. Very good for light fiction, but in real life does a recovering cocaine addict who called you a bad name ever turn into the man of your dreams?    

Bloomsbury Girls – I loved this book and blogged about it in my literary salon (see link) – combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and bookstores. Three women working in a London bookstore during the 1950’s – the times they are a changing….

The Family Remains is a stand-alone sequel to Lisa Jewell’s, The Family Upstairs from several years ago, which was about two families sharing a cult-like existence in an old Chelsea mansion, until 3 of the adults turn up dead.   The author said her readers wondered what happened to the four teenagers in the house, so she felt the need to write a sequel.  I found The Family Upstairs to be a disturbing story, but this was better, except for that little unnecessary twist at the end.    

The Last to Vanish –  a mystery about a North Carolina inn set in a small town near the Appalachian trail, named the most dangerous town in the country. Six hikers have disappeared from the area in the past ten years.  Heavy on atmosphere (how much rustling in the woods can there be), and a fairly slow plot, but a nice ending. 

The Couple at Number Nine – British murder mystery about a young couple who are gifted a cottage when her grandmother develops Alzheimer’s and is placed in a care home.  They uncover two bodies while digging for an extension, and a crime investigation ensues.  This is more of a family drama/saga than a true suspense thriller, but the characters are well developed, and I enjoyed it.  I would order more books by this author. 

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – a short novella (120 pages) about a British char woman (cleaning lady) who scrimps and saves to buy a Dior dress. Written in 1958, I found the style dated and the Cockney slang/dialogue, difficult to read. A lot of repetitive description of Mrs. Harris being twinkly eyed and apple cheeked although wrinkly, gray-haired and middle aged but I found the tone of the book somewhat disparaging when she was described as a grotesque sight upon donning the vision of her dreams, a long frothy tulle and velvet concoction suitable for a jeune femme. I guess views on aging have changed. I love vintage fashion from the 50’s and am curious to see what they have done with the movie, which had fairly good reviews. The book was written by a male author I had never heard of, and I was astonished by his extensive list of books, 50 according to the flyleaf, including Thomasina the Cat, which I remember as a 1963 Disney movie and The Poisideon Adventure, from 1972. He must have been popular in his day. The second part of this book, was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, which I did not read as I had to return to the library, and I just couldn’t handle any more of the accent and the description. There are four books in the series, including Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow……not likely.

Out of Her Depth – was like the The Great Gatsby only set in a Tuscan villa a hundred years later – the young and beautiful and then the outsider. (Yes, the rich are different than you and me.) A young protagonist from an unfashionable part of London can’t believe her luck in landing a summer job at a Tuscan villa, where she meets a group of rich British college students on vacation. Even though I’m not the demographic for this type of psychological thriller I ordered it because it was a murder mystery set in Italy, although there was so little description of the country and the food (other than a few plates of pasta) that the novel could just as easily have been set anywhere. More character than plot driven, the story is told partially in flashback twenty years later when one of the group has just been released from jail for a murder he didn’t commit. There was some bad language, (it was young people and they tend to talk that way) but the characters were so mesmerizing and the plot-line so suspenseful, I managed to ignore it, although I was disappointed in the ending.

The other book, The Lost Ticket, was another heartwarming light British read – strangers aboard a London bus unite to help an elderly man with dementia find his missed love connection in this new novel from the author of The Last Chance Library. He lost the bus ticket with her phone number on it back in 1962. It sounded promising but I had to return it to the library as I had too many books out. (Two or three is comfortable, as I read about book a week, but seven is way too many and then I start to feel stressed…..I know, I know…..but such is retirement stress….that and medical appointments.)

A beverage on a tray on a bed is a recipe for disaster.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a decorating book, but I saw this mentioned on another blog. It was okay to browse through, but the print was so small (is this a trend, and no I don’t have cataracts yet) but as I’m not a fan of the serene staged minimalist look, I didn’t find it too inspiring, although I did like all the white/cream backgrounds and some of the photos were pretty. There are four sections on how to beautify your home according to the seasons. I vote for fall – bring on the scented candles.

And last but not least, Between Two Kingdoms – a memoir of a life interrupted – a riveting but depressing account of a 22 year old college graduate who is diagnosed with leukemia with a poor prognosis shortly after she moves to Paris, and her grueling three year battle to survive.  The last third of the book deals with her cross-country road trip, after she is declared in remission, to visit some of the people who had written her letters during her ordeal. (She had a blog and syndicated newspaper column.)  This book was also my library book club selection and the consensus was, it was a good read but not for everyone.  Certainly not for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis as it was heavy on horrible details.  (While the treatment for leukemia can be notoriously long, I’ve known some cancer patients who were well enough to work throughout their treatment, and one treated for lymphoma who didn’t even lose his hair.) There was lots to discuss about this book, as in A) Why did it take so long to diagnosis her?  B) I can’t believe her boyfriend/fiance stuck around as long as he did, he must have been a saint. Two years without a day off?  And C) The whole road trip thing at the end just seemed like such a foolhardy decision – to put her life at risk like that when she wasn’t fully recovered, especially for a person with very little driving experience.  She left New York in a borrowed car, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, not even knowing how to merge into expressway traffic, not to mention she was alone, camping, mostly in winter, staying in isolated places and sketchy motels.  I wondered if she embarked on the trip to have something to write about?  Really I was horrified by it, and worried about her having a relapse. Having fought her way out of a such an excruciating ordeal, you’d think she would have been a bit kinder to her body, although she admitted she has had to learn to accept the limitations of her immune system.  Very well written though.  (pg. 274 – “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you – whether through illness or some other catastrophe – you don’t assume structural stability.  You must learn to live on fault lines.”) Sadly, this past year her cancer returned after a six year remission, and she underwent a second bone marrow transplant.

To recover from that read, I switched to TV for light entertainment. 

I’m sure this will be the last Downton Abbey movie.  While it was nice to see the old gang again, the story-line was thin, the fashions and scenery frumpy, except for the bit in the south of France, and don’t get me started on the ending…. it will be forever how I remember them. 

Hotel Portofino – I missed the first two episodes of this Masterpiece mini-series set at in hotel along the Italian Riviera in the 1920’s during the fascist/Mussolini period, so I ordered the DVD from the library.  The setting was gorgeous and the fashions lovely, but the storyline wasn’t that good, and some of the characters seemed miscast. I found the main character, Bella, the hotel proprietress, particularly annoying.  It’s no Downton Abbey, but worth tuning in for the scenery – maybe Season Two will be better.  It’s set in the same area as Enchanted April, a movie and book I loved. 

And finally, I was excited to read that our library headquarters was holding their annual book sale of redundant copies – these would be excess copies from book club kits, once popular bestsellers, generally fairly good stuff unlike most book sales which are often the dregs from someone’s basement. I’ve never gone as it’s always early on a Saturday morning, and the location is out of the way, but because it was from 1-8pm and well advertised and there would be three years of books on sale, over a thousand people showed up in the first TWO hours.  By the time I got there around 3 pm, (it rained, so I dawdled, plus I knew there would be parking issues as it was at the fairgrounds), there was NOTHING left but empty tables.  The organizers were surprised at the turnout, as it usually only attracts a couple of hundred people.  It was so disappointing, as I’m still trying to accumulate books for my little library, but also encouraging in a way, as it tells us the pandemic has made so many of us into READERS!   

This week’s puzzle.

Review of Books – Summer 2022 – Part One

     My quarterly review of books has morphed into six months again – I guess I must have been too busy reading.   Since I last posted a general review in February (see link Review of books Winter 2022) I’ve read so many books that I can’t remember what some of the earlier ones were about, other than the vaguest impression, so I’ll just try to hit the highs (and lows) of my reading list.  While I read many excellent books last winter, this selection was more mixed, (although all are rated a 4 or 5 star on Goodreads), not necessarily an issue when nicer weather prevails.  Sometimes you just want a book you can pick up and put down, without staying up too late.  So pretend you are in a bookstore browsing, and perhaps there will be something to tempt you when those chilly days arrive. 

Squirreling away books – from a circulating Facebook post

 (Note: these are not necessarily in the order in which I read them. This is Part One of a two Part post….because you know….it was long.

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors – I’ve enjoyed her novels, (State of Wonder, Commonwealth) so when her book of essays – on home, friendships, family and writing – came out I ordered it.   I loved the first half of the book, about growing up wanting to be a writer, and having her three dads at her wedding, her difficulty in getting rid of her old typewriter, her decision years ago not to have children. I felt like I had found a new friend, but then I came to a very long piece which comprised the latter third of the book, about her relationship with Tom Hanks publicist, Sooki, who was diagnosed and eventually died of pancreatic cancer.  Ann Patchett owns an independent bookstore in Nashville, and their acquaintance came about when she scheduled an in-store reading of Tom Hank’s book of short stories, (Ordinary Type) many of which were about typewriters.  (That book is a whole other topic, and while I love Tom Hanks he should stick to acting as struggling writers in garrets all over the world could have done better given the opportunity.  Maybe it was a pandemic project but he is now working on a novel about the movie industry due out next year, which is being billed as an ambitious project.)   Ann Patchett and her physician husband helped Sooki find an oncologist for experimental treatment and even invited her to stay with them in their home for six months while she was undergoing treatment during the pandemic.  She warns that the downside of staying with a writer is that you get written about but perhaps she thought she was memorializing her? Sooki, being a very private person, and fighting for her life, mostly kept to the basement flat.  She was probably too sick to socialize, but the author seemed somewhat obsessed with the idea that their friendship should have been closer. That’s the problem with memoir – you can unknowingly reveal some less attractive aspects to your personality.  Otherwise, the book was good, and the writing lovely, but that last essay just spoiled the whole thing for me. Sometimes when something about a book really bothers me I’ll hop over to Goodreads and read the reviews – all five star and glowing, so it must just be me.  

I’m a big fan of British mystery writers, including Ruth Ware, so I really enjoyed this, her sixth and best book so far – a who-done-it about a group of six first year students at Oxford.  She’s come a long way since her first book, In A Dark Dark Wood.  (Others are The Woman in Cabin 10, The Turn of the Key, One by One)  Although the two female room-mates have nothing in common, they strike up a friendship, until one night the popular one, The It Girl, is found murdered in her room.  The creepy dorm porter is charged and found guilty, but ten years later, after he dies in jail still pleading his innocence , a journalist starts snooping around. The book is told, partially in flashback, by the other room-mate who is by then married to the It Girl’s old boyfriend.   It was very well done and very suspenseful, and fairly long at 400 pages.  It took me back to my university days, where the friendships you made were often forged during the first few weeks, although our porter was a kind elderly gentleman, whose job seemed to be sorting the mail into the mail slots (yes, those were the days my friends, you got mail), while keeping an eye on the front door, although he could certainly glare with disappointment when you came creeping in in the wee small hours of the morning, so I totally understand why the protagonist chose to climb over the stone wall near the back entrance.  This was easily my favorite suspense novel of the year so far.    

The other book, Local Gone Missing, is about a female British detective on medical leave in a small seaside town when a local man disappears on the night of a music festival.  A good read – this was my first book by this author. 

I was a big fan of Grantchester, the Masterpiece series set in 1950’s Cambridge about a whiskey-swilling, jazz-loving young vicar and his crime-solving detective friend Geordie, at least I was until the storyline descended into repetitive dross, probably inevitable given it is currently in season seven.  While there is always a murder in each episode, and a moral of sorts, I find the secondary characters are often the best part.  The TV series was based on a series of books by the author James Runcie, whose father was a vicar in that era.  I read the first book in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, (it sounds like a Hardy Boys title) more out of curiosity, and then the second, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night.  The books are composed of self-contained chapters of some of the murders in season one and two, but as I already knew the outcome from the tv show I didn’t find it too suspenseful, although it was well written and sometimes insightful.  At the end of book two, they married him off to that simpering Hildegarde, and that was it for me, although his snobby friend Amanda was an equally annoying choice.  Poor Sidney, such terrible taste in women.  There are six books in the series, including the prequel in the war years.

The Tenth Nerve – a brain surgeon’s stories of the patients who changed him – was a memoir written by a Vancouver doctor, with each chapter about one of his more memorable cases.  I love a good medical book and the brain is such an interesting thing.  The tenth nerve refers to a new cranial nerve he discovered while operating on several patients with the same painful throat condition.  I found it well written and very interesting, if you like that kind of thing.

I love Frances Mayes so I was anticipating a travelogue in the vein of her usual Under the Tuscan Sun format, but this was more of a National Geographic guidebook, with sections on different parts of Italy – perfect if you were traveling there and wanted some background info on what to see and do in each region.  Unfortunately, the print was so tiny that I didn’t even skim through it.  There being no Italy in my foreseeable future, I returned it to the library, where the librarian, who has been to Italy five times (pause while I recover from turning green with envy) devoured it and pronounced it very good.   

I abandoned the Carl Bernstein book, which deals with his early years in the news industry in the 50’s and 60’s, after about fifty pages as I just didn’t find it interesting. 

The Truth About Melody Jones – is early Lisa Jewell,  2009, and yes she wrote about dysfunctional families even then.  A single mother has no memories of her life before age nine and seeks to uncover the truth behind her early life.   This was a paperback with very tiny print, but I persisted as I didn’t have anything else to read at the time.   

Bittersweet – How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole –  Susan Cain is the same author who brought us the wonderful 2012 non-fiction book, Quiet – a gift for introverts everywhere.  I was expecting an equally fascinating read.  I can’t even describe what this book was about, as the concept was so vague and shifting, that the book left me baffled and disappointed.  Not recommended – unless you want to wade through 300 pages looking for a few insights.   Billed as a masterpiece on the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, I would pass….and pass the dark chocolate.

This Agatha Christie autobiography was easily my favorite biography of the year, even though it was written in the 1960’s and published in 1977, a few years after the authors death.  I knew next to nothing about this elusive author, who led such a fascinating life.   See blogs – Agatha Christie – An Autobiography and Some Thoughts on Writing.

When I was growing up short stories were to be found in every periodical, even fashion bibles like Seventeen, and women’s magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal.  (I used to devour my mother’s copies and not for the recipes.)  I vaguely remember short story collections coming back in favor for a brief moment in the 1980’s, but other than a few authors like Alice Munroe (who may be Canadian but I have never understood the exultation of, ditto for Margaret Atwood), they seem to have become extinct in popular fiction.  So I was surprised to see these two selections under New Releases. Maybe Tom Hanks started a trend?  Unfortunately, I abandoned both after skimming a few of the stories as they just didn’t grab me, although I admit I didn’t give the Lily King one much of a chance.  As for the Brooker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle, it was set in Dublin in the early days of the pandemic.  The first story involved a middle aged man who is diagnosed with coronary heart disease – yes, the 60’s is the decade when things start to fall apart –  and faces his own mortality.   I don’t get why he is a Brooker prize winner – when his command of English includes so much unnecessary profanity.   

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s long neglected sister, Cassandra.  Excellent – blogged about it – see link. A first novel from this promising author.

Classic Elin Hilderbrand beach read about the restoration of an old Nantucket Hotel. The usual flawed characters, with too much bed-hopping, alcohol and food, but I did like the bit about the ghost.  She keeps saying she’s going to retire, but I don’t see any sign of it as she has a book of short stores coming out soon, Endless Summer. 

Sparring Partners – a novella and two short stories, one of which is about a prisoner who receives a visitor in his final hours on death row.  Sparring Partners is about two brothers who loathe each other and inherit their father’s once prosperous law firm.  I devoured these, but then anything by John Grisham is immensely readable.  His annual legal thriller, Biloxi Blues is due out soon.  I recently read an older novel of his, The Broker, (in large print, which pleasantly passed the time while waiting seven hours in ER for a CAT scan – only in Canada, folks), which was about a DC white-collar criminal jailed over secret documents who is issued a last minute pardon during the waning days of a corrupt US presidency.  (How prescient of him, given it was written in 2005) He is provided with a new identity by the CIA and set down in the middle of Italy where he must learn to blend in and learn the language with the help of a tutor. (Ah, the food, wine and scenery, such a hardship)  The aim –  to see which foreign government will pick him off – the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians or the Israelis?  A good read and satisfying ending.  I think back then he took more care with his endings.  

Speaking of endings, I’ll wrap this up. See you next week for Part Two.

PS. The squirrel above squirreling away books instead of nuts, reminds me that my 2018 blog, How To Make A Chestnut Wreath, is trending again. It’s my second most popular post.

Bloomsbury Girls – The Literary Salon

Historical fiction seems to be a popular genre these days, especially books set in Europe or Britain during WW2. Starting with The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, there have been so many of this type released over the past few years it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone read them. Another popular choice involves anything with a bookstore in it’s title. While I tend to be a sucker for these kinds of books, they sometimes don’t live up to the hype, but combine the two, and you get the absolutely delightful read, Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner.

Publishers Blurb:

The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

About the Author: Natalie Jenner was a new find of mine, after reading The Jane Austen Society, which I blogged about in 2020 (see link) – a post WW2 story about how a group of diverse villagers came together to save Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage. It was a good read for a first book, if a bit uneven, but this newest one is just brilliantly done. She must feel a great sense of satisfaction having two bestsellers, after five failed publishing attempts earlier in her life. (link) A life long lover of books, she owned an independent bookstore in Oakville, Ontario for awhile, so she knows her subject matter. She graduated from U of T with degrees in English literature and Law and worked as a corporate lawyer in Toronto, which probably came in handy for reading all those book contracts. (Translation rights sold to 20 countries.)

Discussion: This book was described by one Goodreads reviewer as Mad Men meets You’ve Got Mail. I never watched the TV show Mad Men – although I loved the fashions, I couldn’t get past the sexist attitudes, (not to mention the cigarette smoking), and abandoned it after the first few episodes. This is a 50’s book, but told from a feminist point of view.

I loved the clever way the author used the manager’s rules for employees at the head of each chapter, and then had the characters proceed to break each and every one. The characters are well drawn and not cliche, as so many of these books can be. Properly cast, it would make a good movie or tv series of the kind PBS/Masterpiece is famous for. I also liked the way she wove the real life authors and historical figures of that era into the plot. Plus it had a suspenseful but heartwarming ending. I always enjoy a bit of karma in my books.

I liked the way the author has carried forward several of the characters from her first book, including Evie Stone, the maid in the Great House at Chawton who helped to catalogue the library and then went on to study at Cambridge. Although connected, each book can be read as a stand alone. In an interview the author discusses her upcoming third book, due in 2024, where she transports one of the Bloomsbury girls to 1950’s Italy – shades of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – bring it on!

This is a book about strong women and a great read for book and bookstore lovers.

PS. While we may admire the elegant fashions of the 50’s who would want to go back to the chauvinistic rules and inequality of those years? I was lucky to grow up in the first wave of the women’s movement, with the invincible feeling that I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I think sometimes people forget what we fought for. Rise up, women of the world, rise up!

Miss Austen – The Other Sister

Due to the perennial popularity of Jane Austen,  An Interview with Jane Austen, remains my most read post to date, but the topic of today’s blog is her much neglected sister, Cassandra Austen – keeper of the flame or literary arsonist, depending on your point of view. 

While Jane Austen died relatively young (age 41 – 1817) after enjoying a few years of moderate publishing success, her sister Cassandra lived until old age, (age 72 -1845), long enough to know that Jane’s fame would long outlive her.  Cassandra died a decade before her nephew James wrote his famous biography about his aunt which served to revive her popularity but also enshrined her reputation as a sweet and pleasant old maid.  Jane’s letters told another story – witty and often full of satire and snark, they revealed a side of Jane’s personality that Cassandra felt was best forgotten….and so she destroyed 400 of them in the  years before her death.  One can assume that Cassandra thought she was doing the right thing in preserving Jane’s legacy, but what Janeite scholars wouldn’t give for those letters!  Only 160 survive and they provide the most revealing glimpses into her personality.

But what do we know about Cassandra?  Separated by two years, Cassandra was the responsible older sister, to Jane’s more sparkling and clever personality. They were close, the only girls in a large family, with her mother famously remarking that if Cassandra decided to cut her head off, Jane would too.  Their father believed in education, and they spent time away in boarding schools, as well as learning at home where he ran a boy’s boarding school to supplement his vicar’s income.  It was here that Cassandra met her future fiance, the young reverend Tom Fowle of KINTBURY.   They were considered an ideal match, but as he was in need of money for the marriage, he signed on as a ship’s chaplain on a voyage to the West Indies and died there of yellow fever.  Cassandra was heartbroken and like Jane, never married, sharing a household with her sister and parents for the remainder of her life, first in Bath and then later after their father’s death, at Chawton Cottage.

Cassandra spent a considerable amount of time at her brother’s houses assisting with childbirth (two of her SIL’s had eleven children), so the letters flew back and forth between the sisters and other family members.   Cassandra was the quiet capable one.  It was commonly acknowledged that she ran the Chawton household, which allowed Jane the time to write in her later years.  She was also the prettier of the two (the old pretty vs smart debate), and as a watercolorist, her two drawings of Jane provide the only evidence we have of her appearance.

Small 4 X 3 sketch in the National Portrait Gallery London and the basis of the later Victorian version now on the British bank notes.

As for Cassandra herself, there is only a black and white silhouette, as seen in this Ten Things to Know About Cassandra article. (link)

These are the bare facts of Cassandra’s life and about all you will get in most biographies of Jane Austen, but doesn’t it leave you curious about Cassandra? Although history relegates her to a shadowy supporting figure, did she have her own story to tell, as Gill Hornby, the author of Miss Austen, writes.

Publishers Blurb:

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine. 

About the Author: Gill Hornby is the author of two novels, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England with her husband and children.

After noting that the author lived in Kintbury, I was inspired to find out more about her and found this fascinating article about how the book came to be.  (link) After moving to the village she discovered that she lived on the site of the old Fowle vicarage, the home of Cassandra’s fiance.  In a bit of serendipity, she was asked to write a book about Jane Austen for young readers and was drawn into Cassandra’s story.  Enjoying the same scenery that Cassandra had once viewed, the author found she began to haunt her mind – perhaps her ghost was lingering about the place, asking for her story to be told, longing for a bit of notoriety for herself.    

Discussion:

As a fan familiar with all things Austen, I found this book intriguing.  Of course, it’s historical fiction, an imagining of someone’s life, but it was surprisingly well researched and well done, which made it a believable read.        

The story is told from the point of view of Cassandra in her old age, re-visiting the Fowle vicarage after the death of her fiance’s brother in order to retrieve both her and Jane’s letters to his wife Eliza.  Interspersed are flashback chapters to the time of her engagement and subsequent grief (1795), their years in Bath where her parents retired with the added hope of finding husbands for the girls (1805), and their years alone in Chawton cottage (1913). Instead of focusing on Jane’s alleged romantic affairs, this time it is Cassandra who takes centre stage, but after meeting the perfect man at a seaside resort, Cassandra turns him down.  (It never fails to amaze me how three promenades in the company of family chaperones could net a marriage proposal, but for the sake of the plot it works.)

The dialogue and letters captured the spirit of a Jane Austen novel, and in some cases exceeded it. Here are a few excerpts. “ Once home, Jane at once sat down to her writing with an air of great satisfaction.  She had repulsed Mr. Hobday with an expert efficiency.  She could return to her invented world.”   Of course ,Jane knows it is really Cassandra he is interested in.  “What matters a bad sister off in the background.…I am quite sure I saw sparks flying off him.  I think one caught my bonnet.  Because of you and your charms, I might have gone up in smoke.”

The author presents some perfectly plausible explanations for certain episodes in Jane’s life, such as her one and only marriage proposal.  (see link to post by Caroline, JA’s great niece). When Cassandra refuses her suitor, Jane accepts a marriage proposal from Mr. Wrong in Every Way, hoping that seeing her settled will free her sister to marry herself, but changes her mind when she realizes Cassandra has no wish to marry. This decision, hastily reversed the following day after a sleepless night, has long remained a puzzle considering Jane’s well known opinion on marrying for love.

Why did Cassandra reject Mr. Right’s proposal?  After the death of her fiance she had made a pact with a vengeful God never to marry again. While spending a very quiet Christmas with her mild-mannered fiancé and his family at the Fowle rectory she realizes she has doubts, and after his death, felt those doubts were a curse of sorts. (Her fiancé had left her a small legacy which might have compounded her guilt).  Or was the pledge just an excuse when the truth was she missed her sister and her boisterous Austen family and didn’t want to be so far away from home.  Perhaps it was not true love after all but a long held expectation?

Although marriage might have been an ideal and an economic necessity for women of the time, it also meant motherhood and a high risk of death in childbirth.  Two of her SIL’s died shortly after birthing their eleventh child and Cassandra was often called in to help care for the children.  Being an aunt in those days might have seemed the safer occupation.

The sub plot of the novel concerns what will happen to the three spinster Fowle daughters after their father’s death when they must vacate their own vicarage.  The plight of the spinster in Austen’s world was often the centre of Jane’s books, but wasn’t it possible to forge a purposeful, happy and contented life without a husband or children, as the author illustrates? 

As an aging and joyless spinster Cassandra knew well that she was made fun of, but perhaps she destroyed the letters, as much to protect her own story as to hide certain aspects of Jane’s.  The other spectre raised is that of Jane’s moods and bouts of melancholy, and this is surely an interesting aspect and pure conjecture as I have never heard reference to such, but it has been the downside of many a brilliant and creative mind, particularly those who seek fame and success. 

 “Of course, their cottage (Chawton) had been a place of great joy when they had lived there together.  But that joyfulness was Jane’s natural and dominant emotion was far from the truth.  Oh the power upon reputation brought by an untimely death and a modicum of fame and success!  Still, she thought as she gathered her things, she would not contest that legend, if that was what they chose to send out to posterity.  The moodless Jane Austen.  What a splendid image.  She rose from her chair.  Now it only remained to destroy all evidence to the contrary.”

 Reading through the letters she notes, “She stumbled across references to Jane’s high spirits, remembered and smiled.  That those spirits were, sometimes, perhaps too high, that the happiness had an almost hysterical edge to it, that this tended to happen when they were in the comfort of the stable established homes of their family and friends, these were not observations that Cassandra had shared with Eliza.  She had chosen to keep them to herself.  But the other extreme of Jane’s temperament, the seemingly endless days in the darkness, these she had written of, for she had to tell someone. Cassandra licked a finger and flicked through, searching for the letters of danger.  There.  January 1805. That was where it all began…..” According to the book, their father’s death started Jane’s downward spiral into despondency, and indeed those were years when she wrote nothing at all.  

As a beloved and devoted sister and best friend, Cassandra knew that Jane would not, could not write again, until she was settled into a home of her own, so she hinted to her rich brother Edward, who owned several estates, including Godmersham Park, that they needed a place of their own – Chawton Cottage was offered and accepted, and Jane began to write and revise and publish, and the rest is history. 

After Jane’s death, Cassandra wrote, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” 

Such a close sisterly bond is a rare and wonderful thing, so perhaps that fateful bonfire was Cassandra’s final gift to Jane after all. They were private people, and would remain private for eternity, and doesn’t that add to the mystique?

Author’s Note:  “It is a matter of family record that, in the last years of her life, Cassandra Austen looked over the letters that she and her sister had exchanged.  All those she found open and confidential – the majority of them, then – she burned.  We cannot doubt that there would have been a long and deep correspondence between both Cassandra and Jane, and the Fowle family at Kintbury.  None of this has, as yet, come to light.   The letters in this novel are entirely imagined.   The beneficiary of her will was Isabella, now married – she left 45 pounds, and to Elizabeth, the only one left unmarried, she bequeathed the extraordinary sum of one thousand pounds – presumably in reparation of that bequest she herself had received so many years before.”   

Of note, this novel is being developed into a four-hour Masterpiece miniseries.  (link) Just my cup of tea!

The author also just released a new book, Godmersham Park (link) in June – might as well ride the Jane Train while you can.   Of course, it’s all pure speculation, as the best of historical fiction is, but I’ll be ordering it anyway.

A Tale of Two Mysteries

     One hundred years later, Agatha Christie remains the most famous of mystery writers, with a prolific output of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, six fiction novels under a pseudonym and the theater’s longest running play, The Mousetrap.  One of the highest selling authors of all time (2 billion copies) her books are still in print and movie versions abound even today.  I recently saw Crooked House on Netflix (mixed opinion on that one) and Death on the Nile is on my to-see list.  

   As I’ve only read a couple of her books, Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None, I can’t say that I’m a big fan.  The flaw I find in her writing is the sheer number of characters in some of them, it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially when she gives such a small amount of description and background about them.  In my opinion, we never really get to know the people in her books, except perhaps for the recurring ones, like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and I’ve always disliked that ridiculous mustache.

    The same with the movie adaptations, on both Crooked House and the 2017 version of The Orient Express, there were so many actors with similar appearance – the same tall dark looks (the men) and thin with bobbed hair (the women) that it was hard to keep them all straight.  In Crooked House, the filming was so dark and the camera so distant that we seldom got enough of a close-up of a face to be able to distinguish between them.  This is perhaps a problem with casting and scripts however, not the books.  

     I know only the barest outline of her life – her first marriage to a husband who left her for another woman, and who, it was reputed, never bothered to read any of her books after the first, (good riddance to him), her second marriage to a younger archaeologist, her stints as an apothecary’s assistant during both world wars, which resulted in her extensive knowledge of poisons.  (I can’t say I share that expertise despite my forty years experience, but medication was mainly compounded from scratch back in the day.)  But one thing has always puzzled people – her disappearance for eleven days in 1926.   While all of England searched for her, she was holed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  Her mother had died earlier in the year and rumors abounded that her husband had asked for a divorce. Had she suffered a nervous breakdown, or perhaps intended to embarrass him? There was even speculation it might have been a publicity stunt.  Once found, they got back together again, but she eventually left him and he married his mistress.

So it was with interest that I read the new release, The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont – a fictionalized account of her mysterious disappearance. The reviews were great, and it did not disappoint.  I would consider this one of the best books I’ve read this year, deserving of being a Reese Book Club selection, which is not always the case.

The writing was excellent and suspenseful, and I am in awe of how the author spun the various stories together, with a very satisfactory ending, and of course there was a crime to solve, although it wasn’t the main focus.  I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but I do wonder how they got this book past the Christie estate because of that one pivotal detail. It’s all pure fiction of course, but masterfully done.  In short, it’s difficult to summarize this book, it’s historical fiction, it’s a suspense novel, but it’s mainly it’s just a very good story.

I’m not familiar with the author, but she has five other books I will check into. This book has also inspired me to read more about Agatha Christie’s life.  She never discussed the disappearance the rest of her life, only mentioning it briefly in her autobiography as “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Contrast this to my experience a week later reading Lucy Foley’s latest – The Paris Apartment – a modern day locked room mystery. 

Goodreads Publisher’s Blurb: Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there. The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbors are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question. The socialite – The nice guy – The alcoholic – The girl on the verge – The concierge. Everyone’s a neighbor. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.

Reading this book a week after The Christie Affair, I couldn’t help but compare the two.  Lucy Foley also wrote the previous locked room mysteries, The Guest List (destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland) and The Hunting Lodge (a Scottish lodge during a snow storm).  Now I have to admit I’m not the demographic the author is writing for (young, lots of beverage imbibing and bad language, some of it in French) but in my opinion any book which starts with an offensive opening sentence has nowhere to go but more of the same. Where were the editors?  Is there anything wrong with a simple “Ben, answer your phone – I’m freezing out here.”  No, but in a modern day mystery, it seems we must use explicit adjectives, and maybe that is the way young people talk, but I almost closed the book after the first page.  I was discussing this with the librarian when I returned it, and she argued that the author was trying to establish that the protagonist was from a disadvantaged background. I suppose there’s that….but she’s also unlikable.  It seems to be the fashion now to have an unlikable protagonist, but really, none of the characters were likable.  Which made me think – do I really want to spend 300 pages with these people? Still, I persisted….because I know Lucy Foley can spin a good tale.

It’s not a bad book, suspenseful, more character development than what Agatha Christie was prone too, but that is to be expected today.  We must have multiple motives, and in order to have motives you must reveal something about your characters, disagreeable or not.  I’m a sucker for any book with Paris in the title, but it’s like the author threw everything stereo-typically French – thin chic women afraid to eat, lots of wine, extramarital affairs and a rather sleazy descent into the seedier side of Moulin Rouge – into a pot and this is the plot she came up with.  There isn’t really even that much about Paris in it, it could be an apartment building anywhere, as that is where the majority of the story is set, although I think she ate a croissant, despite her dwindling cash reserves? I can see it being a Hollywood movie – lots of passion and sizzle, a rather thin plot, but a suspenseful ending.   It was somewhat better the last hundred pages, and was certainly a fast paced read for a book where nothing much happens, but will it stand the test of time?  That remains to be seen.   

Both were good books, in their own way, but my preference was for The Christie Affair – tell me an interesting story along with my dose of suspense.  

Which begs the question, does every mystery author eventually succumb to being dated?  Have you read any good mysteries lately?

The Maid – The Literary Salon

     One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel room is someone else cleans up, but do we ever really think about that person?  We may see them moving their trolleys up and down the hallway, and hopefully we leave them a tip, but it’s a job a lot of people take for granted.  It’s hard work, plus, you’d have to like cleaning.   

     Thankfully, Molly, the protagonist in the new bestseller, The Maid, loves her job and takes great pride and enjoyment in returning the rooms at the Regency Hotel to “a state of perfection” as their training program emphasizes. When she happens to clean away some murder evidence which along with her unusual behavior makes her a prime suspect, that provides an interesting premise for a murder mystery.    

Reading is better than spring cleaning…

Here’s the Publisher’s Blurb:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

About the Author: 

Nita Prose is a longtime editor, serving many bestselling authors and their books. She lives in Toronto, Canada, in a house that is only moderately clean.

 As an longtime editor, Nita Prose obviously had publishing connections, but this book is so good and so unique I’m sure it would have been found a home anyway.  I suspect the hotel in the book is based on The Royal York in Toronto, where I have stayed on occasion when work was footing the bill, (it’s handy to Union train station, but when I have to pay, I stay at the pleasant but cheaper Marriott) or it could be any one of those grand old dames with an impressive lobby which pride themselves on style and service.   

Discussion:    I loved everything about this book – the protagonist, the plot-line, the descriptions, the dialogue – it’s just a charming story.  I was already casting it in my head, when I read on Amazon that it is in development as a major motion picture produced by and starring Florence Pugh. I don’t know enough about this English actress to say whether she would suit the role or not, but it’s the kind of quirky movie the British do best.  Hollywood would probably Hollywoodize it, with sexy uniforms and lots of bed-hopping.

One thing to note, this murder mystery has nothing to do with the Netflix series of the same name, which is a totally different story. I haven’t watched it, but believe it deals with the struggles of a single mother working a minimum wage job. I don’t know what the pay is for hotel maids but personal maid services here charge $35/hr with $25 going to the maid, and even home care agencies charge $25 for light housekeeping, but the bigger hotel chains may be closer to minimum wage $15 as they are often staffed by people whose English is a second language. This is addressed in the book, as one of the employees does not have the proper immigration papers and Molly herself has difficulty making her big city rent. (These rates may even have gone up given the low unemployment rate and difficulty in attracting employees.)

Molly is such a memorable character that you can’t help but root for her.  Alone in the world after her grandmother’s death, she is unable to understand or read social cues, and takes everything at face value. The book is written in first person, which I often find annoying, but which works here as we are seeing the world from the point of view of someone whose thinking and behavior would be considered outside of normal. Although the author is very careful not to label her, she is probably somewhere on the spectrum, possibly Asperger’s Syndrome with a good dose of OCD thrown in.  She seems literally clueless when it comes to interpreting other people’s words and actions which leads her into trouble.  (I wonder if people who fall prey to obvious financial scams might be struggling with the same perceptive difficulties.)      

The dialogue is clever, (hence the movie), and the descriptions creative – her nest egg which was stolen is her “Faberge”, her restaurant date was “the Tour of Italy”( which made me want to eat at an Olive Garden, if only we had one here).

The plot was fast-paced, although but I had a small problem with the ending, but understand why it had to happen that way.  Overall, the book was a brilliant debut and also a gentle reminder that there are many “invisible” people in society, whose perceptions of the world may be somewhat different than our own.  

PS.  I use a maid service for my mother’s house, and also occasionally for myself for bigger jobs like windows, as I simply don’t have the energy to keep up two houses.  What I like about them is they send two, occasionally three, people so they are in and out in a couple of hours, so you’re not in their way all afternoon. They do an excellent job, but cleaning houses all day is hard work, so many of them don’t last long, although the head cleaner is always the same. She told me she loves to clean, as did the Molly Maid franchise owner I used before. I’m grateful that some people do…now if I could only find someone who loves ironing. Vacuuming is my second hated task, but give me something to organize and I’m happy.  While I used to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction after cleaning my house from top to bottom, now that I’m older I prefer that someone else return my house to “a state of perfection.”  If only it would stay that way.     

PS. Cleanliness in a hospital is a priority, so I would like to add a note of thanks to the hospital cleaners who have to deal with the COVID-units. I remember the floors in my rural hospital being so clean and shiny you could eat off them.

Do you enjoy cleaning? Any hated household tasks?

The Betrayal of Anne Frank – A Cold Case Investigation

     Imagine being stuck inside, in a small space, for two years, where going out meant risking your life.  No, it’s not the pandemic – it’s WW2, and the people in hiding are Jewish. 

   Like many teenage girls of my generation, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, written by a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl in Amsterdam, when I was in grade school.   So when I saw The Betrayal of Anne Frank – a Cold Case Investigation by Rosemary Sullivan – on the new releases list, I knew I had to read it, and having read it, I knew I needed to blog about it.  The book is a captivating read, and a cautionary one.  It’s a timely topic, as with so much political turmoil in the world today, and so much divisiveness and hatred, it seems like history is repeating itself.          

Goodreads Publishers Blurb:

Using new technology, recently discovered documents and sophisticated investigative techniques, an international team—led by an obsessed former FBI agent—has finally solved the mystery that has haunted generations since World War II: Who betrayed Anne Frank and her family? And why?

Over thirty million people have read The Diary of a Young Girl, the journal teen-aged Anne Frank kept while living in an attic with her family in Amsterdam during World War II, until the Nazis arrested them and sent Anne to her death in a concentration camp. But despite the many works—journalism, books, plays and novels—devoted to Anne’s story, none has ever conclusively explained how the Franks and four other people managed to live in hiding undetected for over two years—and who or what finally brought the Nazis to their door.

With painstaking care, former FBI agent Vincent Pankoke and a team of indefatigable investigators pored over tens of thousands of pages of documents—some never-before-seen—and interviewed scores of descendants of people involved, both Nazi sympathizers and resisters, familiar with the Franks. Utilizing methods developed by the FBI, the Cold Case Team painstakingly pieced together the months leading to the  Franks’ arrest—and came to a shocking conclusion. 

The Betrayal of Anne Frank is their riveting story. Rosemary Sullivan introduces us to the investigators, explains the behavior of both the captives and their captors and profiles a group of suspects. All the while, she vividly brings to life wartime Amsterdam: a place where no matter how wealthy, educated, or careful you were, you never knew whom you could trust.

The Author: Rosemary Sullivan is the author of fifteen books, many of which are biographies, and the recipient of many international awards. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and has lectured worldwide.

Discussion:

     I found this book to be a fascinating but disturbing read. Cold cases are always interesting, but a famous cold case which is part of history, even more so, and trying to solve one seventy-five years later when all of the suspects are dead, almost impossible.

     Part One, the first hundred or so pages, deals with the background story.  For those unfamiliar, Anne Frank and her parents and older sister, along with another Jewish couple and their teenage son, and a local dentist – eight people in total – were hidden for two years in the upper annex of her father’s spice business, with the assistance of four of Otto Frank’s employees who brought them food and supplies.  The annex was at the back of the building facing a courtyard with a tree, Anne’s only glimpse of the outdoors for two years.  Based on an anonymous tip, the address was raided a few weeks before the liberation of Amsterdam, by a German Gestapo agent and three Dutch policemen.  They were all sent to concentration camps, and only her father Otto Frank survived, and later went on to publish Anne’s diary.    

     Part one introduces us to Anne’s world, and the complex politics of Amsterdam at the time, including the collaborators and the resistance movement.  It’s a fascinating look at just how quickly a normal life can deteriorate into one of treachery and survival.  It describes the political environment and the raid in detail, and the background and history of the people involved, including the policemen.         

        Part Two deals with the investigation of who had betrayed them.  The investigative team of thirty people, led by the retired FBI detective, narrowed thirty possibilities down to twelve scenarios, and then a further four, until they reached their final theory, based on a random note found in the archives, (no spoilers here) and note it is a theory, as there is no absolute proof which they made clear.

     Like any cold case, they looked at three factors – Knowledge, Motive and Opportunity.  Knowledge could come from rumors, observations, or resistance people being tortured. Motive could have been for money (there was a bounty of $7.50 guilders or $47 US for each Jew turned in), hatred or self-preservation, trying to stay on the good side of evil.  (Which begs the ethical question, could you turn someone else in to save yourself or your own family?)  Opportunity was having knowledge and access to the Germans or SD police.     

     Some suspects could be eliminated as they weren’t in the area at the time.  The team systemically went over lists of known collaborators and addresses from extensive war archives, reconstructing a  detailed map of the area.  They also designed a computer program to handle the masses of data.  There was so many archives to wade through that solving the case took several years.     

     Vince Pankoke, the lead detective said “there was no aha moment to end the investigation – the emergence of the betrayer was a slow coming together of evidence and motive, a jigsaw piece that suddenly undeniably fit.  He remarked that there was a weight of great sadness after the case was solved which has stayed with him since.” 

Additional Points of Interest:

     Originally born in Germany, Otto Frank had served in WW1 but had fled Germany in 1933 and set up a business in Amsterdam, a city known for its tolerance.  Yet the Netherlands transported more Jews to their deaths in concentration camps than any other country in Western Europe.  Of the 140,000 Jews living there, 107,00 were deported and only 5500 returned. There were an estimated 25,000 in hiding, one third of whom would eventually be betrayed.  

    We have the greed of the Gestapo agent to thank for the survival of Anne’s diary.  During the raid, Anne picked up her father’s briefcase which contained the diary to take with them.  The German police officer threw her diary with it’s checkered cover on the floor and filled the briefcase with the valuables and money that Otto and the others had managed to hold onto.  Had she taken it with her to the camp, it would have been destroyed.  After the raid, the two female employees rescued it and tucked it away for Anne’s return.  

      It was interesting to note how some of the interviewee’s memories (and their descendants), changed over the years.  Sometimes how people remembered things, did not jive with the documented reality, particularly after Anne’s fame grew.    

      In a particularly poignant section, Otto Frank describes Anne drinking in the natural world that had been denied her for so long, on the last train to Auschwitz.  It was summertime and she reveled in the fresh air and sunshine.   

     In one of the last pages of her diary, Anne writes, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impossible.  Yet I keep clinging to them, because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” 

     It’s something to remember, that feeling of hope, especially at a time when the world seems to be tilting towards intolerance, that things can always be made right again.

     One final thought, you don’t have to like someone to help them.  My grandmother grew up in a southern rural area of Holland, and I remember her saying that her family had helped refugees during WW1.  (The Netherlands remained neutral during WW1 and attracted a flood of refugees.) They were from Turkey, and I also remember her saying that they were not nice people, but they helped them anyway.   My grandmother would have been 16 and it is debatable what would constitute not being nice at that age – being made to give up her bed, possibly being leered at, or the fact that they were gypsies, I believe was the word used.  Her parents were gone by WW2, although she had many brothers and sisters back home, but I never asked her, to my great regret, for any stories of those years.

PS.   You can visit the Anne Frank House and Museum in Amsterdam, (see online website for a one hour history and virtual tour of the annex) but anyone I know who has gone there has not been able to see it because of the long lineups. The Annex was accessed via a secret bookcase, (link to a 2 minute tour) and was fairly small to have housed eight people.  Here’s a youtube link to the only known video of Anne Frank on a balcony watching a wedding party. 

PS. One of my readers has mentioned that there has since been dissension about the research and conclusion of the book, to the extent that the Dutch and German publishers have suspended publication until they do a further review. Considering their end theory was a shocking revelation, and that Otto Frank (and his secretary) knew who had betrayed them for years and kept silent, and that the Switzerland foundation he set up in her name refused to cooperate in the research, it is not entirely unexpected for the book to be controversial. Readers wishing further information may google for more details.

Review of Books – Winter 2022

          Last July I did a review of the most memorable books I had read over the previous year – see A Reading Sabbatical.   I intended to do a quarterly review going forward, but other blog topics beckoned.  Since we’ve nothing much to do this time of year when we’re shut by the weather, here’s a summary of the (mostly) wonderful books I’ve read since.   Hopefully there will be something to tempt you to escape to another world for awhile….

Golden Girl – Elin Hilderbrand.    The protagonist, author of 13 beach novels and mother of three almost grown children is killed in a hit and run car accident while jogging near her home on Nantucket.  She ascends to the afterlife where she meets her guardian angel who allows her to watch what happens for one last summer.  She is granted three nudges to change the outcomes of events on earth but with her kids lives full of turmoil must decide when to use them.  

I can’t recall any other book where the protagonist was killed in the first chapter, so this was a unique twist on her usual drama-filled beach read.  This was intended to the author’s last novel, and seems somewhat semi-autobiographical, considering her bout with breast cancer five years ago.  For a swan song, it was a surprisingly good read, although being Elin Hilderbrand not without its annoying immature characters.   I wonder what she’ll do next?

Hostage – Clare MacIntosh –   You can save hundreds of lives – or the one that matters most.  A claustrophobic thriller set on a twenty hour plane flight from London to Australia.  The protagonist, a flight attendant with a five-year old daughter and a fracturing marriage back home, is handed a note by a hijacker, who knows exactly how to make her comply.  The anonymous skyjacker is part of a radical climate change group, and there is more than one of them seated among the passengers.   

If you can get past the premise that post 911, any flight attendant would ever allow anyone into the pilot’s cabin, then this was a very suspenseful read, and well done.  Clare MacIntosh at her best.  It seems like all my favorite suspense writers had excellent books out last year.  Perhaps one blessing of the pandemic was more time to write.

The Rose Code – Kate Quinn   A tale about the intertwined lives of three women codebreakers during WW2 and what destroyed their friendship. 

I honestly don’t remember much about this book, other than it was a good read.  There seem to be so many of these historical fiction books about WW2 lately that it’s hard to keep them all straight.

The Maidens – Alex Michaelides    A therapist becomes fixated on The Maidens, a secret society of female students at Cambridge associated with a handsome and charismatic professor of Greek Tragedy, after one of the members, a friend of her niece, is found murdered. 

The author’s first psychological thriller, The Silent Patient, was so successful (number one on the 2019 Goodreads mystery and thriller list), that it would be a hard act to follow, which he acknowledges in the notes.  This one also involves a therapist, and the author himself went to Cambridge, so perhaps he was writing about what he knows, but while I found it suspenseful, I didn’t find it nearly as good.  The whole idea of a secret sorority with slavish devotion to a professor seems like a throwback to the fifties, but then I’ve never been to Cambridge. 

A Slow Fire Burning – Paula Hawkins.    Psychological thriller about a young man found murdered on a London houseboat, and the three women who knew and resented him. Laura, the troubled one-night stand last seen on his boat, Carla his grief-stricken aunt, already mourning the death of another family member, and Miriam the nosy eccentric neighbour who lives on an adjacent houseboat. 

Paula Hawkins wrote The Girl on the Train, and seems to specialize in damaged characters or misfits, but the character of Laura was so well done, you found yourself cheering for her.  It was interesting to read the point of view of someone normally shunned by society.  An excellent read with a satisfying ending, this was rated number one in the Goodreads Mystery category for 2021.  

L.M. Montgomery – The Gift of Wings – Mary Henley Rubio    The definite biography of L.M. Montgomery, by the esteemed author who edited her five published journals and had extensive access to papers and interviews never published before, including with LM Montgomery’s son.

I blogged about the life of L.M. Montgomery back in May (see link), and having read several biographies over the years thought I knew a lot about her, but I found this book absolutely fascinating, especially from a psychological point of view, as Maud was a very complex woman.  The depth of research in it was amazing, but then she knew her subject well from decades of study.  It’s a 2008 publication, so I had to order it from the library, but it was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year.

The Other Passenger – Louise Candlish   Jaime, an older well-off male protagonist meets a group of fellow (“river rats”) passengers during his daily commute on a Thames riverboat in downtown London, including Kit a young hip debt-ridden twenty something, and they go for Christmas drinks.  The next time he takes the ferry the police meet him when he disembarks – Kit has been reported missing by his wife Melia and he was the last person to be seen with him…arguing.

Wow, this certainly had a lot of twists and turns.  So well done, which just goes to show you can tell a riveting story about the most dislikeable and unrelatable of characters.  The dedication at the front of the book said “For all those who think they want more” or words to that effect.  This was my first read with this award-winning British mystery author, and I was impressed.

The Four Winds – Kristen Hannah    Historical fiction novel set in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, with a strong female protagonist who after being abandoned by her husband, goes west with her children in search of a better life.  

This was interesting read, but although it’s been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not Steinbeck.  Kristen Hannah wrote The Nightingale (2000), a novel about fleeing Paris during WW2, but I didn’t find this one quite as good, although she is excellent at describing the plight of refugees, and it is a forgotten historical period, one I knew little about.  I absolutely hated the ending, although I concede it was probably necessary.

The Comfort Book – Matt Haig    A slim collection of one-per-page notes, quotes and observations that serve as gentle reminders that life is not all gloom and doom.

I sometimes enjoy a Philosophy-Lite book, and while I liked his novel, The Midnight Library, I was never able to get into any of his other non-fiction essay type books, most of which deal with depression.  Some of the quotes were memorable, and I thought I might write them down, but now I’ve forgotten them.   

Not a Happy Family – Shari Lapena    When a wealthy couple is murdered the day after a contentious Easter dinner with their three estranged children, they stand to inherit the family fortune, unless one of them is responsible for the murder.

Well, the title says it all.  Shari Lapena is one of my favorite murder mystery writers, and I look forward to her annual offering.  This was good and certainly well done, but we’ve become so accustomed  to unexpected twists at the end, that when there isn’t one, it’s feels somewhat disappointing.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell    A teenage mother leaves her baby with her mother while she goes out for the evening with friends, and never returns.  She was last seen going to a party at a mansion in the woods.  A cold case, an abandoned mansion and the kind of dysfunctional family Lisa Jewell does so well. 

Lisa Jewell is another of my favorite mystery authors and she’s really outdone herself in this latest one.

World War C – Sanjay Gupta     Lessons from the COVID Pandemic.

I debated not reading this, as aren’t we all sick of hearing about the pandemic, but it was quite interesting, but then I like a good science book.  His style is immensely readable, and I picked up some facts about the coronavirus I was unaware of.   25% of all mammals in the world are bats, and they tend to have immunity to coronaviruses.   Since the book went to press in the summer, it’s already out of date, but still a worthwhile read.

The First Survivors of Alzheimer’s – edited by Dale E. Bredesen MD   Seven patients talk about how they recovered life and hope in their own words.

I saw this on the shelf at the library and was curious, especially since I had read Sanjay Gupta’s book about building a better brain and the preventative changes we can make in middle age.  It’s edited by a physician who has developed a certain treatment regimen.  The patients were in the self-reported early stages of mild cognitive decline. While the patient’s stories were interesting, they never really explained what the regimen involved. I guess you have to buy his first two books for that. After I got to patient seven who was gulping down 40 pills a day, I lost interest. Not recommended at all.   

Taste – My Life Through Food – Stanley Tucci    Food memoir by the actor Stanley Tucci.

I loved this book and blogged about it in November. (see link)  This was my favorite non-fiction read of the year, and you feel like you’ve found a new friend when you’re done. 

The Bookseller’s Secret – Michelle Gable –  A Novel of WW2 and the Mitford sisters

I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it.  Another historical WW2 novel involving a modern-day journalist and a forgotten manuscript but as I don’t care about the Mitford sisters I never got past the first few pages. 

Wintering – Katherine May  –  a book of personnel essays about wintering the difficult periods of our lives.  

Blogged about it – (see link) – loved it – such wonderful writing.   Hope we hear more from this British author. 

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos – Dominic Smith   A novel about art and forgery, spanning three continents and three time periods.  A rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, is on a collision course between the inheritor of the work in 1950’s Manhattan and the celebrated art historian in Sydney who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

I would like to know more about the art world and thought this was a good premise for a novel.  A good read, nice writing.  A prize-winning author, but it’s the first book of his I’ve read.     

The Last Thing He Told Me – Laura Dave   Wife is handed a note – Protect Her.  Mystery about a man living a lie and his new wife and 16-year-old daughter who band together to discover what happened after he suddenly disappears. 

This was a selection of my book club and a Reese Witherspoon pick as well.  Very well done for one of those how well do you really know your spouse genre mysteries.  A satisfying ending.   

Wish You Were Here – Jodi Picoult     Thirty something art specialist who has her life all mapped out, travels to the Galapagos Islands alone when her surgical resident boyfriend must stay behind in New York to deal with the early days of the COVID crisis (2020), and then starts to re-evaluate her life, job and relationships.

She’s one of my favorite authors, but I’ve barely recovered from her previous disaster The Book of Two Ways – that 400-page tome about death doulas/Egyptian mythology/archeology digs/AI/old boyfriends/parallel universe with the totally ambiguous ending.

First of all, I hate a dumb protagonist. If an island is closed and they tell you to go home, don’t act like a rich entitled tourist and stay and then gripe about it.  I was so irritated by the main character and the whole premise that I was going to abandon it, because of course she meets someone on the island, and there are some truly laughable love scenes……but then……around page 190…..it all changes.  What a brilliant piece of trickery! So, my advice would be to stick it out, although after the “sudden revelation,” I did guess the ending. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s gotten her groove back, but it’s close.  I just hope she doesn’t start writing romance novels because love scenes are not her forte.  

One word of caution though – do not, repeat, do not read this in the ER dept as I did, (for a non-COVID issue), and also if you have lost someone to COVID or are paranoid of catching it then best to skip it altogether.  Her boyfriend’s texts/emails contain way too much ICU detail, and aren’t we all sick of the pandemic anyway – do we really want to read about it, even in a novel?   

So curl up with a cat and a cup of tea, and a good book! I hope this wasn’t too long, but for book lovers can there ever be too many books to check out?

Wintering

If wintering is a verb then we all need to learn to winter – to rest and recharge, especially in difficult times.  Wintering can be a season to survive, a respite from the busyness of the rest of the year, or a state of mind such as a feeling sad or depressed. 

Winter is often a time for retreat – never more so than this year.  Usually I don’t mind the month of January, and enjoy the excuse to stay home when the weather turns nasty, but this year it just seems like more of the same.  So it was with interest that I saw a review on someone’s blog of a non-fiction book called Wintering, by Katherine May.   As I sometimes enjoy a light philosophical read, I ordered it from the library, but found it so interesting and well written that it might go on my purchase list.  (I usually only buy books I intend to re-read.)

The crazy quilt behind the book is perfect for winter slumbering

Here’s the Publishers Blurb:  Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.

A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.

Ultimately Wintering invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times. May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear. A secular mystic, May forms a guiding philosophy for transforming the hardships that arise before the ushering in of a new season.

About the Author:

Katherine May is a freelance writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and previous creative writing teacher.  Her journalism and essays have appeared in a number of publications, including The Times, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.  In the book she reveals she has Asperger’s Syndrome.  “I learned to winter young. As one of the many girls of my age whose autism went undiagnosed, I spent a childhood permanently out in the cold.” (page 11)

Discussion: 

As we’ve just passed the winter solstice, this is a book to curl up with and enjoy in the deep dark depths of January.

The book is a series of personal essays, divided into chapters, from September to March, with further sub-titles such as Slumber, Light, Midwinter, Snow, Cold Water, and Thaw.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on hibernation, (who knew dormice and bees could be so interesting), slumber (isn’t it always easier to sleep in the winter), and light (seeking out the northern lights in Norway).  As the author lives by the sea in England, and has not experienced the full force of a brutal snow-filled winter, she journeyed north to seek the cold and snow and to view the Northern Lights.         

Northern Lights over the Farm

She also visited Stonehenge during the Winter Solstice. There’s a chapter on light (the festival of St. Lucia), on cold water (taking the polar bear plunge) and snow (winter walks in nature are much easier on a British beach than trudging through snowdrifts).

Our beach in winter (December) before the snow.

Here’s a Goodreads link to some quotes from the book for a sample of her writing. The prose is so lovely, I would recommend it for that reason alone, even if you weren’t interested in the topic.   No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert praised it as “a truly beautiful book.”

She also mentions a poem by Syliva Path titled “Wintering” which I was not familiar with, but I imagine inspired the title of the book.   

It’s difficult to sum up what this book is actually about, it’s not advice, or self-help, but more meditative reflections on a season we all must go through. 

Winter! Bah Humbug!

Mr. Dickens and His Carol – The Literary Salon

It’s that time of year again – time for me to blog about one of my favorite books, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Recently, my library book-club chose Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva – a fictionalized account of how this famous book came to be written.

Publishers Blurb: Charles Dickens is not feeling the Christmas spirit. His newest book is an utter flop, the critics have turned against him, relatives near and far hound him for money. While his wife plans a lavish holiday party for their ever-expanding family and circle of friends, Dickens has visions of the poor house. But when his publishers try to blackmail him into writing a Christmas book to save them all from financial ruin, he refuses. And a serious bout of writer’s block sets in.

Frazzled and filled with self-doubt, Dickens seeks solace in his great palace of thinking, the city of London itself. On one of his long night walks, in a once-beloved square, he meets the mysterious Eleanor Lovejoy, who might be just the muse he needs. As Dickens’ deadlines close in, Eleanor propels him on a Scrooge-like journey that tests everything he believes about generosity, friendship, ambition, and love. The story he writes will change Christmas forever.

Discussion: I’ve blogged before (see link) about The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford, a non-fiction book which delved into the history of Dickens classic tale, and the inspiration for the plot and characters. Ms. Silva’s book is historical fiction, and common to the genre, she has taken great liberties, first in imagining his muse – a lady he met on the streets of London during his customary night-time wanderings while plotting out his books. Having read several biographies of Dickens life I’m fairly certain no such woman existed, but as he is reputed to have left his wife and ten children for a much younger actress towards the end of his life, perhaps that is where she got the idea? In this book his wife and children depart for Scotland, angry over Dickens decision to pay an impromptu visit to his first love, and he is left alone to ponder his problems. (Serves him right – maybe he was a bit of a player?) Second, we’re a hundred pages in before the woman-of-mystery-muse is introduced, and not one word has yet been written, but as I recall Dickens wrote his novella over the course of six weeks, not two as she says. I guess I like my historical fiction to be somewhat factual. Third, was the inspiration for Scrooge, Dickens himself? The idea is intriguing, and she has a plausible explanation for the age difference, but somehow it just doesn’t translate.

The book jacket describes the author as a writer and screenwriter from Idaho, and she mentions several near misses in selling the script to Hollywood. As this and the Standiford book (a much better book, if a mediocre movie) came out the same year (2017), she decided to adapt it into a novel instead. That must be frustrating for an author – to find out someone else has a similar idea, especially after you’ve poured your heart into it. For a debut novel, it is well-written, in a style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens.

As I’m only half way through, it wouldn’t be fair to critique it too harshly, but it’s light fluffy fare – but then sometimes that’s exactly what you need, especially at Christmas. Save the heavy stuff for the fruitcake. I’m not sure why the book-club chose this, but it’s no fault of the librarians, as they’re limited to the book club kits purchased by someone else. Perhaps it was just a seasonal selection which sounded promising. The chapters are short, the plot thin, and I’m not sure what there would have been to discuss but as the book-club is now virtual, perhaps they just toasted with some hot rum punch and wished everyone a Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas and God Bless Us Everyone!

(Edited to add – I stayed up late last night and finished it, and the last fifty pages and ending were surprisingly good! – so I would give it a 3 out of 5)