Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How To Be A Victorian by Ruth Goodman

I had previously read a book that explained aspects of life in Austen's and Dickens' England and enjoyed it because--English period drama.  When I saw a review for this book someplace, I thought it was right in my wheelhouse--because English period drama.  The book about life in Austen's England covered English customs and life in the late 1700's to early 1800's.  The Victorian period covers about mid-nineteenth century to early twentieth century.  How To Be A Victorian: A Dawn To Dusk Guide To Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is about exactly what the title says.

Goodman gives an account of a day in the life of the average Victorian.  She covers those living in the early Victorian period and addresses the changes to Victorian life that occurred later in the period.  She also addresses the differences in Victorian life that would exist between the classes as well.  And Goodman also distinguishes between the daily life of men, who worked outside the home, and the work of women, some of whom worked outside the home depending on economic circumstances, and others who worked in the home and ran the day to day life of the family.

The author literally begins the day at dawn and takes us through Victorian life over the course of a day.  It's a meticulously detailed and researched book.  Goodman has gone so far as to experience quite a bit of Victorian practices, such as hygiene and dress and other things as well, so she can often give a first hand insight into what it might have been like for the actual person living in Victorian times.  Indeed you will learn more than you ever wanted to know or thought possible to know about Victorian life.

I was really looking forward to reading this book.  However, after the first chapter or so it went downhill because it got bogged down in the daily minutiae of life during that period (as I imagine a book about contemporary life today would as well).  The lesson I came way with was that life was hard in Victorian times--especially if you were someone who was just barely scraping by in life.  I have a confession to make--I may have skipped and skimmed more than half of the book.  Normally if I'm this bored with a book, I just ditch it.  But I refused to jettison this book because WHAT IF I MISS SOMETHING.  If you're a hardcore historian with an interest in English life during the Victorian period, I recommend this book to you.  If you're a hardcore English period drama fan as I am, you may also want to try this book because some parts (or all of it) may interest you.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The 13th Gift: A True Story Of A Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith

I know, I know--I'm either late or early reading this book for Christmas.  However, I'll watch a Christmas movie even if it isn't Christmas time.  I love Hallmark Christmas movies; I've watched Lifetime's Christmas movies (not as good Hallmark's though); I've watched ionTV's Christmas movies.  I guess you could say that Christmas movies is another genre I enjoy almost as much as British period dramas.  Or maybe I like them both equally.  Anyway I don't normally read Christmas themed books.  I have read Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand, a Christmas themed book by an author I love.  My grandmother found The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith in a magazine somewhere back in December.  She read it about the same time as Napkin Notes and enjoyed it more than that one as did I.  I've checked this book out of the library a few times, and because of other readings that got in the way, I only recently got around to reading it.

In the aftermath of her husband's sudden, devastating death, Joanne and their three children are treading water emotionally and barely holding it together in the weeks before Christmas.  Still reeling from her grief, Joanne dreads this first Christmas without her husband and contemplates skipping the holiday altogether.  Then about twelve days before Christmas, mysterious gifts start arriving on the family's doorstep from an anonymous giver(s) who call themselves the Smith family's "true friends."  Patterned after the popular Christmas carol, "The 12 Days of Christmas," a gift and card appear on the family's doorstep each day leading up to Christmas.

At first Joanne resents the intrusion and resists being pulled into the holiday spirit, but the ensuing anticipation, mystery, and excitement that comes with the appearance of each gift unexpectedly rekindles the Christmas spirit in both Joanne and her children.  The mystery of the gifts draws her family together enabling them to find some bittersweet joy in the first Christmas without their father and husband and allows for some healing from their devastating loss.  For the first time, the family thinks they may be okay in the wake of their loss.

Some thoughts I had while I was reading this book:

If this story ends and we don't find out the who and why behind the gifts, I will be severely disappointed.  Also these events take place in 1999, how does Joanne remember the details of the dialog and the events from so many years ago?

I enjoyed this book.  The suspense of the mystery of the gifts kept me reading as did the emotional journey that the Smith family takes throughout the story.  This is a quick and easy read, and it's rather heartwarming story.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James

The Other Side of Midnight is the fourth novel by Simone St. James.  Her previous novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, Silence For The Dead, and An Inquiry Into Love And Death were all reviewed here on the blog.  You can click the links to read those reviews.  Simone St. James is an excellent writer, and I've enjoyed all of her books.  They are English period supernatural thriller/historical fiction.  Each has been a page turning, suspenseful, atmospheric, creepy, supernatural read.  Her next novel is due in April 2016.

1925.  London.  The death and terror of the war has sparked an obsession with the occult and so-called psychics who claim the ability to contact the dead.  Frauds prey on the survivors left behind who are desperate to speak with their lost loved ones one last time.  In all of England, the sole proven true psychic is Gloria Sutter, a flashy, manipulative, competitive woman, who contacts the dead for a price--she's out for herself and only herself.

One night Ellie Winter is called on by a mysterious man named George Sutter, who enlists Ellie's reluctant help in solving the murder of his estranged sister, the famous psychic, Gloria.  Ellie too is a true psychic who chose anonymity over proving her powers in the wake of a brutal betrayal by her former friend, Gloria.  The two women had not seen each other in years.  Ellie knows the business--it's how she makes a living after all--and she knows the players.  She can go where the authorities cannot and glean information from people who won't share what they know with the police.

The mystery also brings James Hawley, the psychical investigator and the man who ruined her mother's career, back into Ellie's life.  He is also looking into Gloria's murder, and so Ellie forms a reluctant and uneasy alliance with a man she doesn't like and doesn't trust.  But the investigation draws Ellie and James closer, and despite both their better judgement sparks fly.

As Ellie reaches out to her former circle of psychics and hangers on, interviewing former acquaintances and amassing information, she realizes she cannot trust anyone, not Davies, Gloria's right hand woman and business assistant; not George, Gloria's own brother who remains a shadowy figure on the periphery of the investigation; not James, who wonders why both Ellie and her mother failed their psychic tests; and not Gloria, who wasn't above omitting certain details from her clients' readings, manipulating a power play against her best friend whom she also saw as competition in the business, and breaking her own rules and endangering herself because she was desperate for money.

The deeper Ellie is drawn into this world that she has avoided these past three years, the more she is caught up in it and in the murder case.  But as she uses her powers in ways she'd vowed never to use them again, the more they grow both stronger and unpredictable and the more she learns about the nature of her gifts.  Then Ellie realizes that Gloria's last days don't make sense.  Why did she travel to a strange house in the countryside for a seance?  Who orchestrated the seance party and why?  And how are they connected to her murder?

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Monday, April 27, 2015

Deadline by John Sandford

If you've read this blog for a while now, you know that John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series is one of the series that I read.  Deadline is the eighth installment in this series.  I've read and reviewed all the previous installments on this blog.  You can click here to read the review for the previous installment in the series.  I've been doing some thinking about some of these story lines and the crimes that Virgil Flowers' has investigated over the course of the series, and some have been a little absurd and ridiculous (and in some cases, Virgil has even agreed with me!  See the review for Storm Front, the book right before Deadline).  I'm thinking about the one in which he goes up against some Vietnamese spies/assassins that come to Minnesota to rain down some vengeance stemming from a forty or fifty year old massacre that happened half a world away and the last one in which a Da Vinci Code-esque Biblical archaeological artifact heist is at the center of the story.  And then there's this one in which the blurb states that a local school board votes to put out a hit on a local investigative journalist, but it opens with a dognapping.  That's not a word according to my spell check, but for the sake of this review, I'm making it one: dognapping= like kidnapping only it's a dog that's been abducted.

Virgil's ill advised fling with the woman he was investigating for fraud or something from the last book has blossomed into a full fledged romance.  While it seems they're a better match than all his previous marriages, I can't help but worry that this is going to bite Virgil in the ass at some point or burst into flames and take out everything in its path.  You know how these things go.

So the book opens with a dognapping in Buchanan county, Minnesota.  Virgil's friend Johnson calls in a favor with Virgil, which is how Virgil ends up in Buchanan County unofficially investigating the alleged dognappers who hail from an insular, hillbilly enclave on the edge of town.  Through his investigation, Virgil stumbles upon a decent sized methamphetamine cooking operation that happens to be based in the aforementioned hillbilly.  Drugs are the feds' problem, so Virgil calls in his buddy, Gomez the DEA agent, to come roll up the drug operation.  Unfortunately for Virgil, dognapping and meth cooking are the least of Buchanan county's problems.  While Virgil's in Buchanan county, a local journalist is seemingly randomly murdered while out for a night time jog.  And so Virgil's dognapping (though unrelated to the meth and the murder) just snowballed big time.

The local school board has been bilking the school district out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the dead journalist, Conley, stumbled upon the conspiracy and was threatening to write an expose on the whole sordid business.  However, the conspiracy extends slightly beyond the board of directors, and Conley trusted some people that he maybe shouldn't have and that's how he gets three bullets in his back for his troubles.  You see the school board, wishing to protect their greedy little asses, votes to have Conley killed.

The school board had a really (really) bad stroke of luck with Virgil being in residence thanks to the dognapping because we all know that Virgil has a high clearance rate and that he will break this conspiracy wide open.  The question is how long will it take and how many more bodies will drop before he can take down the school board.  By the time the school board realizes this, they are desperate and desperate people are very dangerous.  As Virgil closes in, accumulating evidence, talking to witnesses, and generally stirring stuff up, an innocent civilian aiding in the investigation gets dropped by the school board's strongman, and Virgil decides it's time to start rounding up the bad guys.  But before Virgil can start making arrests, the whole investigation nearly unravels before ending in a slow speed chase in jon boats followed by a foot chase that ends when the killer tries to make a break for it with a golf cart.  (Don't worry, Virgil's golf cart is faster.)

Really, the school board's luck ran out as soon as Virgil rolled into town.  And they know it, but they just keep going and digging themselves an even deeper hole. And that is unfortunate for them and for the people who end up dead because they're covering their sorry asses.  Despite the darkness of the crimes, there are comical moments in this book--see the aforementioned jon boat/golf cart chase.  The description of the chase is such that the reader can easily picture it in their minds.  This is a quick read and the book is hard to put down.  If you're a fan of the Virgil Flowers' series, you won't want to miss this one.  Further, if you're looking for a new mystery/crime/thriller series, I'd recommend this--just start at the beginning--you won't regret it.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Anzac Girls

I'm not sure how I ran across this mini-series.  I think I was looking at something on Amazon, and this was one of the recommended titles or something like that.  I thought it would be something a little different from the usual English period dramas that I watch.  With the centennial of the beginning of the first World War, there are several mini series and such that have been released--most are Australian or British productions.  Hollywood tends to focus more on World War II (there are always World War II movies coming out every year... hardly any about World War I with the recent exception of Spielberg's War Horse).  There is also the upcoming mini-series The Crimson Field which will air this summer on PBS about a British nurse (I think) serving in a military hospital in France during World War I.  It's based on a true story.  As it happens Anzac Girls is also based on a true story originally told by Peter Rees in his book, The Other ANZACS.  I haven't read the book, and it wasn't until I watched the mini-series that I realized it was adapted from a book.

Set first in Cairo, Egypt, and Lemnos Island, Greece, before shifting to the European theater, this six part mini-series follows a unit of nurses serving with the Australian Army during World War I.  The series focuses on five nurses as they serve in sometimes harsh conditions while tending to the wounded and ill soldiers under their care in the sometimes hastily set up, temporary hospitals.  In addition to tending to their patients and contending with being in a war zone far from home, the nurses must also struggle to prove that women do have a place in the Army.  We see the nurses' dedication to their work, their sense of duty to their country, their compassion for the patients under their care, and the care and friendship they have for one another.  The mini-series covers a lot of ground in just six episodes: it opens about a year into the war in 1915 and concludes three years later in 1918 with the end of the war.  This means that many months are covered in each episode and the time line can jump ahead months at a time every episode which can be very confusing.

Some thoughts I have [SPOILERS]:

--Sister Ross King has three suitors and almost as many proposals by the end of the first episode.  One of which comes from a soldier as she's tending his wounds in the hospital.  Her response is "what about my [nursing] work?!"  Girl, just say, 'dude, I'm just not that into you' (because you aren't!) or whatever the 1915 version of that is.

--Later Sister Ross King is all in for Lt. Moffitt, but I'm holding out hope that she ends up with Major Leopold by series end.  Something about the dialog during his second proposal reminds me of Mr. Darcy (from Pride and Prejudice), which I take as a sign that I may have finally watched one too many British period dramas, but I DON'T CARE.

--All Sister Cooke does is follow her wounded husband from hospital to hospital and back to Australia and then back again to war.  I'm over these shenanigans by about episode three, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised BECAUSE THAT'S WHY SHE JOINED UP IN THE FIRST PLACE.  Then she gets all bent out of shape when he expects her to take leave on a whim's notice to meet his parents in London with him.  Girl, you made your bed, now lie in it--this is what you've been doing all war long, so don't be surprised when he's come to expect it.

--Sad to see Sister Haynes go back to Australia with her husband, even though it is technically a happy ending for them because he can no longer serve in the Army due to injuries.  She was my favorite nurse, and I would totally watch the Sister Haynes Dooley show.

If you're a fan of war movies or mini-series, I recommend you try out this one.  Despite its shortcomings, it shares the stories of the capable women who served, and we don't often hear these stories.  Also if you're a die-hard fan of British period dramas, you may also like this mini-series.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie