Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mystery at Lilac Inn--Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene

I know--you think I jest, right? But no. After I lost my backpack on a trip north a week or so ago, I found myself without any of the reading materials I had brought along for the journey and so started looking over my sister's shelves, where I was staying. It was going to be a short visit, so I didn't want to get into anything too long, and frankly my brain was a little fried from the mishap, so I wasn't looking for anything too heavy, either. She had a few old Nancy Drew books shelved amid more substantial fare, and as I in some ways associate Nancy Drew with convalescence, the fourth book of the series seemed quite apt.

This is the one where Nancy and her friend Helen canoe up a river to an old inn which their friend Emily and her soon to be husband Dick are renovating as a bed and breakfast. It doesn't take long for trouble to find Nancy, though, as their canoe gets rammed straight off the bat by an unknown assailant. The inn has its share of problems too, and on top of all that, Nancy has a mischievous and very talented double.  

There were several things that surprised me about the book. First off, it's a nice twisty suspense tale, somewhat improbably in parts, but logical enough if you allow its premises. I was a little unprepared for how uncozylike it was in feel, including an explosion, a truck running a car off the road and near death by drowning to name but a few incidents.

Another thing I was unprepared for was the respect Nancy received from men and women alike. Her competence was treated as a given by everyone, perhaps with the exception of one or two baddies. Not only does everyone treat her as a real detective, but she is pronounced by the local paper as the best in her skin-diving class, and so on. Although she is described as exceptional, there is no indication that this is particularly so because she's a woman. I liked the way that Nancy was able to fit comfortably into more conventionally feminine situations like getting ready for a wedding and fixing up and old house, but reserves herself for other things as well. At the very end of the book (not a spoiler), her friends apologize for talking about there steady partners, but she cuts them off, saying that for the present, her steady partner is going to be mystery.

Although this cover was the iconic cover of my childhood, I happened to notice that this 1961 edition was actually a newer version of an original tale told earlier. Looking this up on Wikipedia, I learned that the series was revised at the insistence of the publisher and part of the reason was to remove racial stereotypes from the original series, although the solution was apparently to eliminate non-white characters all together. And the novels were also shortened considerably, going from 25 chapters to 20. This is explains the feeling I had in several places of the mini-crisis at hand being resolved and accepted awfully quickly.

The article does say, though, that some of Nancy's rougher edges and more confrontational stances are smoothed down a bit in the versions I read as a kid and they find her a little too relentlessly upbeat. Perhaps. 

Wikipedia also discusses a trenchant criticism by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, who finds Nancy too WASPish and privileged. And indeed there is a sort of golden glow around the Drews and their friends, which feels nostalgic. But where Mason finds  that while "adventure is the superstructure, domesticity is the bedrock," I'm still impressed that in this book that predates the latest feminist wave, it is not taken as aberrant but as just assumed that a young woman would want adventure as much as anyone.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Tristan and Iseult at Escape Into Life

I happened to be reading The Romance of Tristan and Iseult and it seemed appropriate on Valentines Day to write about it for Escape Into Life this time around. I'm traveling and using someone else's computer so won't post a picture just now, so just head on over HERE if you're interested.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Killer Next Door, by Alex Marwood

For a certain kind of person there are few things more thrilling than getting free books, and even after years of working in a bookstore where there were galleys galore and now having more books on my shelves than I will ever have time to read, I am still one of those people. Or at least I found this to be the case when as a 2014 Bouchercon attendee I was given a nice canvas bag full of mystery writers' works.

Now, that said, the idea that I will actually get through all these books is more aspirational than likely, particularly as I immediately turned to the work of several authors whose acquaintance I made or whose work was already familiar to me. But I did grab one from the bag pretty fast, because the author was recommended to me by a fellow conference goer. 

The Killer Next Door was intriguing enough in the beginning, but I began to be put off by the macabre crime at the heart of the tale. So when I thought I had lost the book in my complicated holiday travels, I wasn't too bothered. I didn't think I would replace it.

However, it suddenly turned up in my house a couple of days later, and guess what? I was happy. I had missed it more than I thought. And as soon as I began to read it again, I saw it in a different light. Essentially, this is a London tale, and as I've said on this blog before, I do love me a good story set in London.

The criminal in the story remains macabre, and he's not the only one. But what the book is really about the neighbors of the criminal, at first their individual somewhat oppressive lives and the way they, slowly, come together. It's really the story of anonymous urban life in any city, and the way that anything can be the sudden catalyst for breaking through the walls.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon reviewed at Escape Into Life

Just a short post to say that I've posted my review of Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon over at Escape Into Life. Kleon burst on the scene with the similarly formatted Steal Like an Artist, and I suppose in a way they are companion pieces. It's a  snazzy little book and I enjoyed it, though I still have qualms about this culture in which we are all advertising ourselves all the time. But this is the age we live in, and it's probably a good idea to figure out where you really want to be in relation to the global exchange of information. Kleon puts perhaps the best spin on it and in any case is espousing taking the high road in all your interactions. Have fun with it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Marked Man, by William Lashner

I put up this short review over on GoodReads, but I figured I might as well post it here as well.

I read a bunch of Lashner several years ago now and really enjoyed his 'better than he wants to be' protagonist, the lawyer Victor Carl. As is the way sometimes with series for me, though, I at some point stopped reading without ever having actually lost interest. So I was happy in a bit of a reading lull to pull this one off my shelves.

As usual, Victor is still hoping to be the bad boy who makes a killing without regard to scruples, but unfortunately for him, he still has some. That's what we know about him that he doesn't seem to know about himself, although to his regret, he's slowly realizing it. In the quest for one Chantel Adair, whose name has quite literally been tattooed on his chest without his consent, and while trying to pay back a family obligation by bringing an errant son back to his dying mother, Victor of course finds himself in more trouble than he ever anticipated.

Series regulars like Victor's law partner Beth and the private eye he hires, Phil Skink, have their roles here, but for the most part Lashner breaks out into new territory with a new cast of characters. I find this a greatly enjoyable series with a comic undercurrent, and wish Lashner was better known than he appears to be, at least out my way.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Remodeling Eve, by Helen Kantor

I had the opportunity to read this novel in manuscript form a while back, and as an early reader I was eager to read the finished version, which came out this fall. Although I'm sure it has been tightened up in many ways I can't see, it remains much the same story, and I found that it held up well to a second look.

As the novel opens, Eve Tilden is contemplating not one but three looming issues in her life. First, her teenaged daughter Audrey is not keeping pace with her classmates when it comes to emotional maturity. Secondly, Eve's mother Daphne, a famous photographer, is slipping into dementia. And finally, the Tildens are remodeling their kitchen.

In some ways, though, these outside factors are really just a distraction from the fourth issue, which is that Eve is in the midst of something like a midlife crisis. One day, she comes across a box of her old t shirts, emblazoned with the names of rock bands she idolized as a teenager. She wonders how she lost the self that led such an exuberant life. Tentatively, Eve begins the process of reclaiming the person that she once was.

Into these interlocking experiences walks Nick, a contractor who also happens to be a rather stunningly attractive surfer. As he begins the process of remodeling the kitchen, both Eve and Audrey rev to life in his presence, and soon, Eve is making a rather surprising calculation about him.

What really brings this story to a different level, though, is that Eve's perspective is paralleled by Audrey's. If we only saw the story from the outside, we would find it hard to see Audrey as anything but the problem figure that she represents to her parents. But Audrey's perspective on the world is a very different one than ours, and the first person narrative here is strong enough to seduce us into taking the world on her terms. As parents, as teachers, as classmates,  everyone would like Audrey to be more normal. But Audrey is the granddaughter of another woman of unique vision and the road she ends up traveling will be very much her own.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Longbourn by Jo Baker at EIL

Just a quick note to mention that my review of Jo Baker's Longbourn is up at Escape Into Life. As I mention at the outset of the review, I'm a bit dubious about novels set in Austenland, but Adrian McKinty mentioned it on his blog, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and he's usually a reliable source for good reading. And he was right, it's good. Baker manages to level a fair amount of class critique without beating you over the head with it too much.

I thought I would link to a very apt poem that Linh Dinh put up on his blog, Postcards from the End of America. Usually the site features his photographs, but occasionally he'll post prose or poetry. The poem is called Clean, Clean, Clean. Start reading even the first couple of pages of Longbourn and you'll get the connection.

Longbourn is also slated to be a movie. I thought there was a trailer, but I guess it's a bit early for that. I'm curious about how they'll do it, as in thinking about the book, I realize that if the filmmakers are true to the story, there will be a lot less focus on upstairs fashion and luxury and a lot more focus on downstairs grime and guts than is usually the case in these period things.

Here's a short book trailer on a factor I noticed but didn't report on in the review.