A Study in Scarlet Women

scarletBefore I started writing this review I searched through our past blog entries several times, because this seemed like such an “us” book that I couldn’t believe one of us hadn’t already written about it. It’s a lady Sherlock Holmes! A Study in Scarlet Women is the first in a series of (currently) three books by Sherry Thomas about Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant woman who throws off the constraints of her conservative Victorian family and starts solving mysteries.

Overall this is a quick, enjoyable genre read but there were a couple of things I really appreciated about it.

  • Friend of the blog Jo originally made this observation, but there is not a one to one character match. There are plenty of parallels with the original Holmes stories, but Thomas constructs a world around Charlotte that makes sense and doesn’t try to wedge everything into exact characters and relationships when another arrangement offers more insight into her characters. So you get the fun of seeing the connections, but it doesn’t feel the author has just renamed characters from the original work.
  • Charlotte is portrayed as exceptionally smart and deductive, but not superhuman. As a woman raised in a sheltered environment, she has to learn lots of things and, as the story moves along, all of the different characters in her orbit contribute to her detective work. Sherlock Holmes is traditionally this lone genius who is completely self-sufficient when it comes to solving mysteries. I liked the slightly more realistic idea that even a genius isn’t going to know everything right out of the gate and might gladly rely on friends and family for help.
  • Thomas is known for her romance novels, and there is a bit of that sensibility here, just in that the relationships in the book are treated with a lot of respect and are central elements to the story. Love is as important here as figuring out who committed the murders.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Fun, feminist mystery

You might also like:  The Deanne Raybourne mystery books–I particularly like the series that starts with Silent in the Grave. And they’ve got a slightly different feeling, but I also enjoyed the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, starting with The Crossing Places.

Less

41SdL441MFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A number of years ago I made a decision: I was not going to spend any more of my wild and precious life reading books about how hard it is to be an old white man. Overall I’ve been pleased with this choice and think I am a happier person for spending my time reading YA and mysteries rather than Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Franzen or whatever else the New Yorker wants me to care about. But every now and then one of these “I am a white man with broken relationships and concerns about my legacy” stories slips through. Often this just reinforces my original decision (I am still mad about the time I’ve spent on Philip Roth) but on those rare occasions when I am pleasantly surprised, I want to give credit where it’s due. So let’s talk about Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

Arthur Less is about to turn 50, his latest novel has been rejected by his publisher, and he just got an invitation to his younger not-quite-a-boyfriend’s wedding to someone else. He clearly cannot possibly attend, so he patches together enough teaching/residency/vacation offers to make up a months-long trip around the world. The book follows him from his California home to Mexico, Paris, Morocco, India, and assorted other locations as he tries to overcome both small daily indignities and his looming worries that his life has amounted to nothing. This sounds like it would fall squarely in my hated “old white man” category, but it somehow covers that ground while also being quite charming and feeling relatable to those outside its main character’s demographic. Arthur has a sense of the absurd that gives him a perspective on what’s happening to/around him, and the author is aware enough to actually address the old white man issue within the plot in a quite clever way. It’s a brief book and quick read, but it’s stuck with me for days, leaving me thinking about how we perceive ourselves vs. how others do, and especially about how we are seen by those who love us.

A couple of final notes: first, I am definitely not breaking any news here, since Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As is typical for me, I’m just chiming in late on something already widely recognized as great. Second, as I was looking at various reviews and comments on this book, I saw a number of people refer to this as a comedic novel. This surprised me, since I didn’t think it was funny at all. I do tend to be sensitive to stories about people embarrassing themselves and that does make up a big part of this story–if other people find that funny, I can only conclude that they must be monsters. Maybe some reviewers feel like they have to call it comedic simply because it doesn’t feature constant addiction and death with a backdrop of genocide? I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a bittersweet story that at times made me very sad, but ultimately surprised me with how full of hope and supportive of happiness it turned out to be.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Delicate and surprisingly emotional

You might also like:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This was actually a tough one for me and I really struggled to think of books that shared both the general sort of story issues but also had the same sort of sweet and sad feeling. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this one–Less surprised me so much that I am still trying to get my head around it.

What She Ate

Current events at the moment seem specifically designed to fill me with rage, so at this point I am generally looking for escape in the books I read. I thought that What She Ate by Laura Shapiro–described as a look inside the lives of six famous women by examining the food they ate–would be a fun discussion of snacks and baking. In fact, what Shapiro actually did was highlight how the patriarchy has devalued the experience of women throughout history. So reading this did not help with my rage! But it was a completely absorbing, fascinating book.

Shapiro writes a chapter each on six famous women, using their own writings and primary historical sources to tell both their individual story and highlight some element of the time they lived in:

  • Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William, kept house for her brother in the Lake District until he married and struggled to find her place in 17th century English society as an unmarried woman.
  • Rosa Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England used food to, if not defeat the English class system, then at least to make herself a good life within it.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt apparently pretty actively supported terrible food in the White House for a variety of reasons, but at least part of it being because she had (and wanted everyone to know she had) bigger things to worry about.
  • Eva Braun’s insane relationship to food and illustrated a tiny corner of the Nazis’ insanity and hypocrisy.
  • Barbara Pym was a brilliant author whose stories of domestic life offered a window into the world of middle-class post-war England.
  • Helen Gurley Brown, the famously skinny editor of Cosmopolitan who was trying to navigate the ever-changing role of women in the workplace and mostly just seems to have ended up torturing and denying herself at every turn.

Each woman’s story was interesting, but Shapiro also uses the book to make a larger point about how what is considered “important history” has long been determined by men. Food is enormously important to everyone–we all think about food all day!–but because food was traditionally women’s business, history rarely takes it into account. Literature, as well. Shapiro describes how the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept in the Lake District has long been considered only in terms of the insight it could offer into her brother’s poetry, but is actually a significant historical and literary document in and of itself. Apparently the fact the she talks about what she plans to make for dinner somehow negates it’s worth. This book is a huge step towards insisting that food be seen as an important element of history itself, as well as a tool for examining larger cultural forces.

I should also say that although each of these stories was engaging to read, most of them were not particularly happy. Perhaps that is just the fate of being a smart woman in most any period in recent history, but quite a number of these stories ended sadly. The only two women that I might consider swapping places with would have been Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym–maybe because they were women least interested in fitting themselves into traditional roles and most willing to follow their own paths, regardless what anyone thought.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Sneakily-radical history via food

You might also like:  Each of the stories here made me want to track down more info on the person profiled (except for Helen Gurley Brown, she seems awful) and Barbara Pym is a goddamn genius so I obviously recommend that everyone go read her work. But if you’d just like to read something about fun that revolves around food, the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is lovely. And while I know it isn’t universally beloved, I really adore Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and I think she does a good job of discussing how Julia Child thought about food and how it impacted her life.

 

Dear Mrs. Bird

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I am an absolute sucker for books about the Blitz. Something about the combination of London, historical fiction, the drama of WWII–I will read just about anything the features the word “Blitz” in the blurb. And I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way, since these books continue to get published. The new Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fits nicely into my favorite sub-category of this genre–women in the Blitz–while adding some layers I haven’t often seen.

Emmie is a young woman living in London in the early days of WWII. She works part-time as a fire dispatcher, but dreams of being a reporter and is thrilled to get a job at a magazine, sure she is on her way to be an intrepid war correspondent. However, it turns out that she is mostly doing typing at an old-fashioned ladies’ magazine whose editor won’t answer any sort of reader questions that deal with any “Unpleasantness.” Of course, there’s a war on and life is complicated, so Emmie ends up reading lots of letters from readers with serious problems, and can’t bear to think that they won’t get any response. She she starts responding and well, hijinks ensue.

Now, the basic plot here requires that Emmie spends a lot of time worried about being caught and worrying about what will happen when she does, and that is one of my least favorite things to read–I find that completely agonizing and by the end of the book was almost skimming scenes in her office for fear of what was going to happen. What saved the book for me were Emmie’s experiences outside work, where she and her best friend attempt to live their 20-something lives in the middle of a war. More than most Blitz books I’ve read, Dear Mrs. Bird gets across the feeling that yes, terrible things were happening, but that for those people living in the middle of the bombing, it became normalized. Emmie and her friends have to view the nightly bombings and tragedies as just another irritation to deal with, like bad traffic, in order to live their lives. And when you’re twenty-two, something like getting dumped is likely to feel like a much bigger deal than the war. And yet, at the same time, the book takes on the issue of how the internal and external pressure to keep the famous British “stiff upper lip” was hard on people, and how sometimes even the most patriotic Londoner needed to acknowledge the toll the constant bombing took on them.

There’s also just a bit of romance, although I couldn’t help but feel that Emmie might have landed in the wrong place there–I’m holding out hope that there might be a sequel featuring my favorite character, Emmie’s long-suffering boss at the magazine. He’s in his forties and spends most of the book rolling his eyes at Emmie’s adventures and the rest of the world, and I found him completely charming. And I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that this is the role I would most likely be playing in this story.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society meets Bridget Jones.

You might also like:  Well, obviously, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the Bridget Jones books. But also a book I rave about a lot called The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets or another adorable one called Miss Buncle’s Book. And if you’re looking for a little period escapism with a lot of charming young British ladies falling in love, Mary Stewart basically perfected post-war romantic suspense and I read through all her work as a teenager–my favorites of hers were always Touch Not the Cat and Nine Coaches Waiting.

And if, like me, you’d just like to read some more books about the Blitz, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are epics that also involve time travel. I also love Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. And in other media, check out “The Stolen Child” and “The Doctor Dances” episodes of Doctor Who and the movie Hope and Glory.

Truly Devious

9780062338051Waaaay back in 2012, I wrote a review about the first book in a new YA fantasy/mystery trilogy by Maureen Johnson. I really liked The Name of the Star but at the time the rest of series wasn’t out yet. Books two and three are now available, and I recommend tracking those down for a good supernatural mystery. Johnson’s latest book is also a mystery, but it takes a slightly different, non-fantasy angle on things.  Truly Devious follows two different story threads–in the present day teenager Stevie, a true crime aficionado, is starting the year at an exclusive and unusual boarding school that was the site of a notorious crime in the early 1900s. She wants to solve the historical crime, but gets swept up into a present-day mystery. But while we watch Stevie try to figure out what is going on in her world, we are also following actors in the original mystery and slowly uncovering what actually happened when the wife and daughter of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped.

The downside of Truly Devious is that it ends on a cliffhanger with basically no resolution, and there isn’t even a publication date for the next one. This is clearly going to be a single story told over several books, but who knows when it all might wrap up. But this was a quick read with an engaging story and it would be perfect to read on a dark and rainy evening, since it’s a little creepy but probably won’t keep you up at night.

Also, Maureen Johnson is super fun to follow on Twitter (@maureenjohnson), where she is very funny and also posts lots of cute pictures of her dog. Plus, she just edited a YA essay compilation called How I Resist that looks really inspiring, that I may have to go track down.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Creepy, on-going mystery

You might also like:  One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus is a fun teenagers-solve-a-crime story, and if you’re looking for a quirky boarding school book, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a classic. The recent TV show about the Getty kidnapping called Trust also gets at quite a few of the period-piece thriller aspects of this. But considering that this is the story of someone obsessed with true crime, my main recommendation is the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which two mystery-obsessed women tell the stories of famous crimes to each other. Just this morning I was listening to an episode this morning about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which feels like it was a bit of an inspiration for the historical crime in this book.

The Sun is Also a Star

Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.inddWay back in early 2016 Anna wrote a review of a book called Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon, and almost surprised herself by really enjoying the sweet YA romance/coming-of-age story. I liked that book as well, and I’m here to tell you that Yoon’s follow-up The Sun is Also a Star is even better.

I had looked at the book several times but was always a little put off by the plot summary–two teenagers meet one day in New York and feel an instant connection, but she is about to be deported and what kind of future can they have? In our current political climate even thinking about immigration issues makes me feel sort of sick, plus I tend to be a cynical old lady about teenage love in first sight stories. But when I ended up desperate on a cross-country flight and decided to give this a try, I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting and loving it. The characters both feel very complete, their relationship feels organic, and Yoon does a great job setting the scene so that it feels like you’re out there walking around with Natasha and Daniel on the New York City streets.

The book also features this interesting little element where every now and then you get a flash forward or a flash sideways, I guess you’d say, to what a supporting character has going on in their lives or what will happen to them in the future. It’s a lovely effect that makes the story feel more expansive and universal than it would otherwise.

This is a quick read, and would be great for the beach or a plane or just when you need to feel a little bit better about the world.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Enchanting, challenging romance

You might also like:  Any number of other fabulous YA romance/family stories out there including Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (always a classic!), The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (which Anna mentioned back in March), Far From the Tree (this one will make you cry), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  And if you haven’t already seen Love, Simon, the movie based on that last one, I cannot recommend it highly enough–it was completely charming and featured great music by the Bleachers. It is going to be one of those movies like Easy A that I will be delighted to stumble upon on cable on a rainy Saturday afternoon and will be able to watch an infinite number of times.

The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.