Fiction: “The Ring and the Crown” by Melissa de la Cruz

ring and the crownJust before Christmas, I requested two books from the library – this one, and one I’d end up finishing in January 2018. Here’s the problem – I honest to god thought this was a different book when I requested it.

I had put this on my “Want to Read” list on GoodReads back in June, and I must have gotten it confused with A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, which is also on my “Want to Read” list. In the end, I’m kind of glad I read it, but I was expecting something a bit darker, and not … royal Gossip Girl on steroids and also ~magic~.

No. I’m serious. This book is like if Gossip Girl involved royalty (not counting that one prince Blair ended up marrying for like, half a season) and also ~magic~, and then the whole thing got turned up to 11.

This book is crazy.

It takes place in a weird alternative history – it’s pre-WWI, Britain and France are one united empire, Prussia is still a thing, and also, Merlins are real but a title and not a single person. And the entire place is overrun by horny 17-year-olds.

Let’s start off with Princess Marie-Victoria of England. She’s the only daughter of Queen Eleanor, who happens to be a sprightly 150 years old. That is not a typo. I can’t remember who Marie’s father is supposed to be, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a) Marie is suffering from the “wasting plague” (my notes describe that as “pretty consumption, like what Nicole Kidman had in Moulin Rouge“), and b) Eleanor wants to throw a ball to announce Marie’s engagement to Prince Leopold of Prussia.

Except Marie is in love with Gill, a commoner in the Queen’s Guard! (I had to double-check Gill’s spelling – I had taken notes longhand and looking back on them, I wasn’t sure if I had misspelled his name. But no, according to this amazing review by Goodreads user Khanh, his name really is spelled Gill.)

[Oh my god it’s so hot I’m typing this part on July 5 and I have not been able to get my apartment below 91° in more than 24 hours FUCK YOU SCOTT PRUITT I hope you live with rancid swamp ass for the rest of your miserable fucking little life]

[Note From the Future: Oh, July 5th!Alaina: honey, you have not lived the absolute hell that was the first weekend in August. Or last week. Or ANY OF THE NIGHTS BETWEEN JULY 5 AND AUGUST 31, because I don’t think my apartment dropped below 80° AT ANY TIME THIS SUMMER]

[Also, that punishment is entirely too light for Scott Pruitt. You can do better than that.]

ANYWAY. Prince Leopold has been having an affair with Isabelle of Orleans for a while. Isabelle thought he was going to propose to her, but instead, he breaks up with her so he can go marry Marie.

My notes remind me that, while reading the book, I had high hopes that Leopold was actually a Manchurian candidate-type character; no such luck. Leopold’s just a horrible person. An asshole, if you will.

Around the same time that Leopold’s breaking up with Isabelle, Marie’s childhood friend Aelwyn Myrddyn returns to the palace. Aelwyn, the daughter of Queen Eleanor’s Merlin, Emrys Myrddyn, was one of Viviane’s apprentices on Avalon. Aelwyn was sent to Avalon after she accidentally set Marie’s bedroom on fire, but she’s back now. Mainly because Emrys called her back, but also because she was in love with Lanselin (this book’s version of Lancelot) and needed to get out of that situation. It’s understood that Aelwyn will take over as Marie’s Merlin when Marie ascends to the throne.

However, Aelwyn doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot. She makes Marie prettier than she already is — seriously, the ~*magic*~ in this book is basically all the glamours and Sleekeazy potions from Harry Potter and none of the other spells. She does end up with a crush on Leopold, but it doesn’t really add anything to the love triangle between —

Well wait, it’s not a triangle. Because Marie loves Gill, Gill loves Marie, but Marie has to marry Leopold, who doesn’t give a shit, and Isabelle loves Leopold, until she realizes he’s a complete and utter asshole, and we haven’t even talked about three other people.

(Also – Jesus, poor Isabelle. Her parents are dead; she’s the ward of her horrible, molesty guardian, Lord Hugo; her best friend seems like he might have a crush on her, but once she gets over Leopold and decides to go after her friend, he’s dating some other chick. She may have also ended up pregnant by Leopold, but I cannot remember.)

Then there’s Ronan Astor, the best character. FIGHT ME. In this version of events, America is still a colony, and the Astors are destitute. Apparently, Daddy Astor invested in Science and Innovation, but ~*magic*~ didn’t go away like he thought it would and now Science is stupid, and now the Astors are broke. But they’re still rich enough to send Ronan off to England, where hopefully she can wrangle a rich, landed dude into marrying her.

When she reaches the boat, she’s embarrassed that she’s basically in steerage. But she meets this dude who’s name is Heath, and he trades her his luxury suite for her steerage tickets, and then hangs out with her the entire time. And they really, genuinely like each other!

But Heath is actually Wolf – and he happens to be Leopold’s brother! Wolf (short for Wolfgang, naturally) had been traveling across America because he doesn’t like being a member of royalty, but now he’s required to go back home for Leopold’s engagement. I think he proposes to Ronan but she turns him town, because she maybe didn’t know it was his luxury suite she ended up with? She needs to marry someone rich and she thought he wasn’t? It was a stupid reason, that much I know.

So all of these people converge on London for the ball for Marie and Leopold! Leo flirts with Aelwyn, who has agreed to pretend to be Marie via glamour so Marie and Gill can escape and be normal people! Ronan is surprised to see Heath, but really interested when she learns that he’s a prince!

You think that everything’s coming up Milhouse, and then —

[SPOILER ALERT]

Emrys Myrddyn manages to SHOOT LEOPOLD, who DIES.

AND IT WAS ALL PLANNED BY ELEANOR AND EMRYS FROM THE BEGINNING

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Yeah. I AM disappointed. Because not only is Leopold dead (which actually is totes okay), but now, WOLF has to marry Marie. And because Marie can actually stand Wolf a bit, she AGREES, leaving Gill. AND THAT MEANS RONAN IS ALONE AGAIN.

Like, what the shit is that?!

This was supposed to be the start of a series, but apparently the publisher dropped it? So the second book, The Lily and the Cross, was self-published for Amazon. I do not think I’m going to read it, unless Wolf decides to leave Marie and be with Ronan. (Which I’m pretty sure won’t happen.)

Grade for The Ring and the Crown: 1.5 stars

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Fiction: “The Invasion of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

invasion of the tearlingY’all know how rare it is for me to read the next book in a series within the same year as the last one. I mean, at one point, I was reading a lot of series – Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, J.D. Robb’s In Death; hell, even Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, to name a few. To put in perspective how great-and-by-“great”-I-mean-“awful” at reading series I am, the last time I read any of the above series was 2015, 2016, and 2016 respectively. So the fact that I read the second book in the Tearling Trilogy only eight months after I read the first book – it’s kind of a big deal.

This book picks up relatively soon after The Queen of the Tearling left off.  (You might want to click that link and read what happened in the first book before going on with this review; Lord knows I had to, notes be-damned.)

[Also: I’m putting a warning out for this book. The book has detailed passages describing domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and other nasty, awful things steeped in patriarchy and the removal of women’s rights. Some of the scenes are horrifying. Please be warned.]

Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, the Queen of the Tearling, is readying herself and her country to deal with the repercussions of her actions at the end of the last book: she stopped the Shipment of Tear citizens to the Mort, and now the Mort Queen wants revenge – or at least, for the Shipment to start up again. Kelsea is determined to be a better queen to her subjects than her mother, Elyssa. She has sent her scant armies to the borderlands, waiting for the Mort Queen to invade. Meanwhile, after discussing with her council (led by the Mace), she has ordered all her subjects to evacuate to New London, where she can attempt to keep them safe from the Mort Queen. She’s also nervous, because the sapphires she has have been dormant for a while – in the last book, she relied on the energy coming from her jewels as a reassurance that she was doing the right thing. With the stones quiet, her doubt increases.

During all of this planning, Kelsea is also learning about the past leaders of the Tear. Mace (or another guard, I can’t remember and didn’t write it down) take her downstairs to the royal gallery, where there are portraits of all of the royalty dating back to when William Tear was the first leader of his utopian Tear. She notices a couple of things: 1) Row Finn, a former prince of the Tearling, has been visiting her at night in the fire (yeah, it’s kind of weird and mystical – it’s revealed he’s also been the Evil Thing that was spurring the Mort Queen on in the previous book), and 2) there is a small child painted at the feet of the Beautiful Queen who goes missing from the rest of the paintings.

In addition to the incorporeal visits of Row Finn, Kelsea has also been experiencing fugue states, where she drifts off from the Tear and visits pre-Crossing America.

And hoo boy – if y’all thought Gilead was bad … I mean, pre-Crossing America is still very very bad, but it’s not quite as bad as Gilead, but GODDAMMIT NEITHER OF THESE DYSTOPIAS SHOULD BE SEEN AS OPTIONS FOR SURVIVAL

(And no, I haven’t even dared to begin to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Just the thought of it sends me into anxiety. No thanks. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. )

Oh, what’s Pre-Crossing America turned into?

Rich (deemed “private”) citizens are physically segregated from the public (read: “poor”) citizens. There are private roads, for the rich and powerful people, and there are public highways, for the poor and indigent.  America has been ravaged, no thanks to their President Freeman (excellent anvil, there, Ms. Johansen): women don’t have to work, because their property belongs to their husbands. People have identity chips implanted into their shoulders, and an elaborate Security system is able to track everyone’s movements.

Also, not surprisingly, fertility and the ability to have children is prized. Fathers get promotions, so husbands need to have babies in order to hold onto their power.

Lily Herman is married to Greg, who works for the Department of Defense (or the new version of it, whatever). They live in a fabulous, private house in the suburbs of New York City, and every month, Lily is driven to her doctor for fertility treatments. Except Lily has actually been taking black market birth control for years, and is hoping that she can keep up the ruse. She tends to hide all day in the room tricked out as the nursery, because it’s the only room Greg won’t venture into. It’s also the room where she’s been able to loop the video surveillance so it looks like it’s empty.

That is very convenient when Dorian, a young woman from the “Blue Horizon” group, crashes over Lily’s backyard fence with a gunshot wound.

Lily knows she should report Dorian to the authorities, but she can’t bring herself to do it. She remembers her rebellious younger sister who was taken by Security and never seen again. Lily enlists the assistance of her personal bodyguard, Jonathan, and they help bring Dorian back to health.

Greg’s childlessness is affecting his work performance and his ability to gain a promotion, and of course he takes it out on Lily when he gets home. Greg is abusive up to and including rape. Spoiler alert!: he ends up dead. Hooray!

At a dinner party, Lily learns that the Blue Horizon group is going to be targeted and potentially eradicated by Security forces the next morning. She manages to kill Greg and steal the car to meet up with Blue Horizon in Boston, where she officially meets William Tear, and they venture to the New World, via the Crossing.

Kelsea sees that entire plotline through her multiple fugue states throughout the novel. It’s harrowing, but also feels kind of disjointed at times.

There’s also a subplot involving Father Tyler of the Arvath and the new Pope-dude (look, I can’t remember what the High Priest is called and I’m not looking it up; “Pope-dude” is good enough). The Pope-dude is terrible, and basically threatens to burn all of Father Tyler’s books if he doesn’t manage to poison Kelsea.

But Tyler is able to escape from the Arvath – and he’s able to steal the true crown of the Tear, but he isn’t able to send it to Kelsea.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Kelsea also sentences Arlen Thorne, the previous head of the Shipment to death, and executes him in a violent rage in the town square. The Mace has taken a shine to Andalie’s oldest daughter, Aisa, and teaches her how to defend herself. Aisa dreams about joining the Queen’s Guard, and she’s only like, twelve.

At the climax of the book, the Mort Queen herself has journeyed with her army to the outskirts of New London. Kelsea names the Mace Regent and ventures out on her own to negotiate with the Mort Queen. She even allows the Mort Queen to take her sapphires, but in exchange, the Mort Queen will leave the Tear and its people alone for three years. The Mort Queen agrees; but then when she takes the sapphires, they do nothing – even though the Mort Queen is that missing child from the Beautiful Queen’s portrait, Evelyn Raleigh, and she believes that she is the right true heir of the Tear.

Lily’s plot ends at The Crossing, with William Tear and Blue Horizon.

So … there’s a lot of plot to this book. A lot. And while I was intrigued by the plot of Pre-Crossing, and I felt it gave a good origin to the Tear and to show how far it has come since its inception, I felt that at times, it detracted from Kelsea’s own story. I know that she needs to see Lily’s story to influence her own, but still – it felt like two different books in one.

It also seems like Kelsea all-of-a-sudden learns she has super rage powers, as evidenced by her brutal execution of Arlen Thorne. I can’t remember if she experiences remorse for her actions – or at least, the level of brutality she evinced. I’m not sure how I feel about her at the end of the book. I admire her for putting herself at risk over her subjects, but her slip into the dark side may not have been so … slippery.

Anyway. I’ll probably read the last book of the trilogy. Not sure when that’ll be, but I’ve made such good progress on this series that I’d hate myself if I stopped now.

Grade for The Invasion of the Tearling: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Sealed Letter” by Emma Donoghue

sealed letterSO CLOSE to the end of 2017, you guys!

Emma Donoghue also wrote Room, one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years, and aside from the time I forced myself to read a book in a single day, the quickest-read book in many years. At my last visit to the library in 2017, I saw this book on the shelf and the synopsis intrigued me enough to give it a chance.

Miss Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a “woman of business” and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of her once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of Helen’s failing marriage and obsessive affair with a young army officer. What begins as a loyal effort to help a friend explodes into a courtroom drama that rivals the Clinton affair —complete with stained clothing, accusations of adultery, counterclaims of rape, and a mysterious letter that could destroy more than one life. Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian style. [inside jacket]

In other words, DRAMA

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(I swear to god, one of these days I’m going to binge the crap out of Riverdale. I started watching it about a month ago and then hit the pause button, and that was a MISTAKE. Rewatching Parks & Recreation for the fourth time, as soul-soothing as it is, isn’t putting me any farther ahead on my To Watch list.)

ANYWAY. The drama wasn’t as crazypants as I’d hoped, but good enough for me to keep my interest. I did not read it as quickly as I did Room, but that’s not marks against it. Let me recount some of the plot (or most of it – I took pretty good notes on this one) and see where this review takes us.

Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, who has made somewhat of a name for herself as the publisher of the Victoria Press, a weekly newspaper produced by women. She has made herself into a very progressive woman, after growing up in a very religious household. However, she can be extremely naïve and gullible, as we shall come to see.

One day, Fido is leaving the Press when she happens to run into her old bosom friend, Helen Codrington. When Helen was first married, Fido lived with Helen and Helen’s husband, Harry. Helen is accompanied by Col. David Anderson, a member of Harry’s company. Harry and Helen have just returned from a long period in Malta, and Helen is excited to be back in London. They walk together a ways, and then Helen spontaneously decides to ride the new Tube for a couple of stops. Unfortunately, Fido suffers a severe asthma attack on the Tube and has to leave the party early.

A couple of days after, Fido visits Helen at her house, where Helen confides that her marriage hasn’t been happy for a while. Even then, it takes a bit for Fido to realize that Helen has been having an affair with Col. Anderson on the regular. Knowing how faithful Fido is to her, Helen spins a yarn about needing to break the affair off with Col. Anderson, and could they meet in Fido’s apartment so she can break the news in private? Fido says sure! and leaves them alone in the living room. When thirty minutes goes by and Col. Anderson doesn’t run out of the rooms crying over losing Helen, Fido creeps back to the living room door and sure enough – Helen and the Colonel are screwing on Fido’s couch.

Nice. And the fact that Fido didn’t interrupt them and call them out on their clear jackassery shows how much Fido is faithful to Helen.

After another tryst at Fido’s apartment (because yeah, she lets it go on for a while, and yeah, I definitely got to a couple of points in the book where I’m yelling “Come on, Fido!” – it is hard to root for her), Helen and Anderson visit the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. On the way, Helen sends a telegram to her husband, saying that Fido invited her for dinner and dessert with Fido’s parents so she’ll be late coming home. Anderson drops her off much later after their assignation, where Helen learns that 1) one of her daughters has fallen very ill in her absence, and 2) Harry sent a response telegram back to Fido’s apartment instructing Helen to return immediately to take care of her daughter. So now, Helen has to come up with a lie about her late return.

(Luckily I can’t spoil you for that – I did not write that down in my notes.)

Harry talks to his friends the Watsons about his situation. Mr. Watson is a priest or some form of religious figure, and Mrs. Watson is a … *looks at notes* “a know-it-all Judgy McJudgerson.” Yeeeaaaah. She’s a bitch. She’d DEFINITELY call the cops on an 8-year-old girl selling water without a proper permit.

Mrs. Watson is super into the idea of catching Helen in flagrante delicto, and urges Harry to hire a private detective to follow Helen around. Harry waffles on it for a hot minute, but does hire someone, who happens to kind of stumble onto Helen and Anderson going into a hotel to enjoy some afternoon delight. When Harry learns that Helen is in fact cheating on him, Harry files for divorce.

Now, this was some SHIT back in the 1800s. Even though Henry VIII created a whole new church to allow himself to divorce Katherine of Aragon, it still wasn’t common practice for people to divorce. This whole thing went from DRAMA to Scandal!

scandal

Cut to: the divorce proceedings. So, in British divorce court back in the day, witnesses could only be called to the stand once. (I have no idea if that’s also true in American court. WHO KNOWS WHAT’S TRUE IN AMERICAN COURT, by the time I post this review we may have as a nation decided to chuck the Magna Carta and due process out with the immigrant babies’ bathwater because being “civil” to each other is what will make the abuses stop, apparently.

BUT PEOPLE WHO SIGN OFF ON CONCENTRATION CAMPS AND USE THEIR WEIRD MOUTHS TO SPEW PROPAGANDA ON THE DAILY SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO ENJOY THEIR FARM-TO-TABLE ROAST GROUSE IN PEACE, KAREN)

ANYWAY. Back in the day of British Divorce Court, judges typically sided with the men. (YEAH, NO SHIT) In order for Helen to keep at least some visitation rights to her children, she needs to make Harry seem like a worse person, so her cheating on him would be excused in the prim minds of society.

So Helen comes up with an idea.

the grinch

Back when Fido was living with the Codringtons, Helen would often sleep in the same room as Fido – ostensibly because of Fido’s asthma attacks, but really because Helen didn’t want to sleep with Harry. So Helen claims to her solicitor that one night, after Fido had taken laudanum to help her sleep, Harry snuck into the room and raped Fido.

Yeeeaaaaah. Helen’s an awesome friend, you guys.

What actually happened was Harry came in to stoke the fire in the bedroom for the ladies, and Fido is blind as a bat without her spectacles, and also, she was high on laudanum. Nothing actually happened that night. But Helen tricks Fido into swearing in an affidavit that Harry raped her, and now Fido’s going to be called to the witness stand to present her affidavit.

And here’s where the whole “sealed letter” comes into play, but I’m going to stop here so I don’t spoil everything for you.

The whole divorce thing is a mess. It’s tawdry, but also based on a true story. As the story continues on, I found myself not rooting for anyone in the entire plotline – I mean, Fido manages to get a bit of gumption up at the end there, but throughout the majority of the plot she’s just a poor girl caught in Helen’s crazy, manipulative wake. Even Harry does some awful things to save face.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the story. It kept me interested, but not interested enough to stay up until 1 in the morning reading (like I did with Room). At the end of the novel, Ms. Donoghue takes a few pages and gives the reader more of the documented story of the Codrington Divorce, and what happened to Fido, Helen, and all the rest.

The only other thing I have to mention about the book is a moment that made me stop biking at the gym long enough to take a picture of the page, because I couldn’t immediately write the quote down and I knew if I didn’t I’d forget:

“Miss Bessie Parkes is Madame’s chief acolyte and dearest friend, and set up the English Woman’s Journal, and edited it till her health obliged her to resign the job to Miss Davies – a new comrade, but awfully capable – so yes, I dare say Miss Parkes could be considered first among equals,” Fido admits. “My own efforts have focused on the press and SPEW – the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women –”

“What an unfortunate acronym,” cries Helen. [p. 26]

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Grade for The Sealed Letter: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Spymistress” by Jennifer Chiaverini

spymistressThis was a book I picked up on a whim. My typical plan of attack when perusing the shelves of the library is to wander down each row, head tilted so I can attempt to read the spines of the books, and I stop at books whose titles intrigue me, and then if the dust jacket sounds interesting enough, I add it to my pile. I stop looking when my neck starts to hurt or I have six books in my arms, whichever comes first.

Obviously, the title of this book – The Spymistress – is what drew me to pick it off the shelf. Who was this Spymistress? Was she like, the head of a ring of intrigue? What was she spying on? And how?

It turns out, this work of fiction was based on fact: the Spymistress was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew, a resident of Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. I’ve had a non-fiction book about Ms. Van Lew languishing on my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads since … apparently March 2014 (Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy). So The Spymistress is kind of fictionalized non-fiction? Maybe?

The book begins just before Virginia joins the Confederacy. Lizzie lives with her mother in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Lizzie is mostly a spinster: she was engaged to someone, who sadly died unexpectedly. She has never sought to marry after his death. Her brother, John, manages the family hardware store in town. John and his wife, Mary, live with Lizzie and her mother for about half of the book. Mary is a Confederate sympathizer, which irks Lizzie.

Things obviously get more strained between Lizzie and Mary when war officially breaks out. Mary arranges to have uniform sew-ins (or whatever – sewing circles, I guess, where ladies sew uniforms for their mens at war) at the house, and Lizzie nearly bites her tongue clean off, trying to keep quiet about her political beliefs.

Lizzie is able, however, to make more of a difference when the Confederates turn one of the old warehouses in Richmond into a jail for captured Union soldiers. Lizzie learns of the terrible, inhumane conditions and marches herself over to the general’s office or wherever and offers her services as a nurse. To the Union soldiers.

And doesn’t that get a lot of looks. “Why do you want to help them, milady?” And then she quotes some line from the Bible reminding the Confederate that Jesus says compassion and nursing is due all poor suffering creatures, and Union boys are definitely suffering creatures. So she’s able to get passes to visit the men in the jail.

In so doing, she works with one of the captured Union captains (or whatever) and manages to smuggle notes in and out of the prison in books and pie pans. She then is able to send those messages to a contact in Pennsylvania.

I wouldn’t say she was a spymistress; that implies she had an entire ring of spies working under her. She had a former slave who was freed and agrees to work as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s house in order to pass information back to Lizzie, but it’s not like she was running MI-5 or anything. I do want to read the non-fictionalized account of her life and see if some things were glossed over in order to focus more on the family drama between Lizzie and Mary.

(Mary takes to drinking alcohol and laudanum and is almost divorced by John when he comes home one night to learn that she has left their daughters at home, alone, while she went to a hotel and gallivanted with some Confederate soldiers. She’s not a great person. She’d totally call the cops on a girl operating a lemonade stand without the proper permits.)

After the war ends, Lizzie is appointed Postmaster of Richmond by Ulysses S. Grant, in honor of the work she did during the war. She was (I believe – it’s been a while since I finished the book) the first female Postmaster? Maybe?

Overall, I thought the story was interesting. It’s rare to read a Civil War story from the perspective of a Unionist trying to live her life and truth while implanted in the middle of the Confederacy – and yes, I can imagine that tension is akin to a liberal living in the middle of Oklahoma City, but here’s the thing with this book: whatever tension there is, it’s resolved almost immediately.

There are moments where you think Lizzie’s going to get caught, but she’s able to talk herself out of it super-quickly, and then the plot moves forward. At one point, Lizzie learns that Mary has ratted out Lizzie’s Unionist leanings to the adjutant general, but the whole thing is resolved within 5 pages of text when Lizzie’s best friend, Eliza Carrington, goes to testify on Lizzie’s behalf to the adjutant general, who happens to be a distant cousin of Eliza. Familial ties override Mary’s nastiness, and the plot moves on.

Even when John is drafted into the Confederate Army, the tension is resolved in five pages. At first, he’s able to receive a deferment. When deferments expire, he reports, but then he’s able to be smuggled up to Philadelphia. He’s safe, and so there’s no more worrying about his well-being and the story continues.

I did like Lizzie. She’s, as they say up here in Maine, wicked smaht.

“You mean Lieutenant Todd, Ma’am?” The soldier frowned at her quizzically. “Is he expecting you?”

She took her watch from her pocket, glanced at the time, and feigned surprise. “My goodness, no. It’s not yet half past one.” Taken separately, both statements were true. [p. 61]

Maaaan, do I love people avoiding lies by being very careful with their words. And you have to be super careful about that with certain people. Certain people who may be signing executive orders, for instance.

SPEAKING OF BLIND BELIEF:

“Why leave home and come so far?” [asked Lizzie]

The young fellow exchanged a look of surprise with his partner before answering, “Why, we come to protect Virginia, Ma’am.”

“Why?” Lizzie was genuinely curious. “Protect Virginia from what?”

“From them Yankees, Ma’am,” the other soldier replied. Freckled and dark-haired, he seemed little older than the young volunteer drummer boys, and for a moment Lizzie wondered if he had wandered into the wrong part of the camp.

“Mr. Lincoln said he’s coming down to take all our Negroes and set them free,” the first soldier explained, tucking the book beneath his arm. “If they dare to do so, we’ll be here to protect you women.”

“If this should come to pass, we’ll be grateful for your protection, of course.” Lizzie ignored her mother’s warning look, the subtle shake of her head. “But why do you believe it will?”

They regarded her with twin expressions of bewilderment. “Because the papers said so, Ma’am,” said the freckled solider. [p. 51]

Because the papers said so. In other words, propaganda.

If you like stories of the Civil War, smart ladies, and rebellion, you might like this book. I felt the tension wasn’t quite enough to pull me throughout the story, and this book covers the entirety of the war – it moves quickly, and I don’t think enough time was given on certain events. However, I can’t point them out right now, because I read this book eight months ago.

Give it a shot and I’ll let y’all know when I read Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.

Grade for The Spymistress: 2 stars

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

orient expressI get my love of mystery novels from both of my parents. Dad still has in his bookcase the full anthology of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and quite a few Hercule Poirot mysteries. I had borrowed one book that had Murder on the NileAnd Then There Were None, and at least two other classic Poirot mysteries back in eighth grade, and I distinctly remember finishing And Then There Were None during that year’s educational assessment test (I finished early), and then when that was done I started reading The Pelican Brief.

Dad would also watch PBS’s Mystery! – the old version, with the introduction animated by Edward Gorey, and he loved the Poirot films where David Suchet played the Belgian detective. If you think I have OPINIONS on stuff (like Hannibal, or all of my many ~FEELINGS about James Bond), lemme tell ya – they stem directly from the many OPINIONS my dad has about Hercule Poirot. The ability to have OPINIONS is genetic, is what I’m saying.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of my father’s favorite movies in the history of everything. And not the one that came out last year with Kenneth Branagh – the one from 1974 with Albert Finney and practically every other big star at the time. We rented it years ago, and —

I was going to say, if Mom and Dad could ever figure out their DVD player, I’d buy it on DVD for a Father’s Day present, but then I remembered that they do have a TV-DVD combo in their camper trailer, and he may get some use out of it that way – but then I learned that it’s currently available streaming on Prime, so I need to remember to tell Dad that the next time I see him.

Anyway. For all of Dad’s love of Poirot, he didn’t have a copy of Murder on the Orient Express for me to borrow to read. And, in a complete non-surprise, neither did the Yarmouth Public Library?

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So Mom was awesome and got it for me from the Brunswick Public Library, and then my sister bought a copy for Dad for Christmas, so everyone’s happy.

The story of the Murder of the Orient Express, briefly: Poirot is leaving Istanbul after finishing an investigation, and he’s called back to London to investigate something else. He runs into an old friend who’s a director of the railway and manages to upgrade himself to a first-class compartment. At dinner, Mr. Ratchett, an American traveler, approaches Poirot and asks Poirot to protect him, as he believes his life is in danger. Poirot doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett at all, and refuses to take the case.

That night, the train stops because an avalanche ahead has blocked the tracks. Also, Mr. Ratchett is found murdered in his locked room, with 13 stab wounds.

I’m not going to give y’all the solution – that’s what the book (or movies) are for. What I liked about Poirot is that he did all of his investigating by talking to people and making intuitive leaps. Sure, he investigated the crime scene and Mr. Ratchett’s body, so he has plenty of forensic knowledge, but the majority of the book read like a play – dialogue going back and forth, with Poirot asking questions and being able to squeeze answers from reluctant participants with nary an arm-twist.

If you’re unfamiliar with the locked-room mystery, you should definitely start with this one. It’s excellent.

Having said all that, the Kenneth Branagh version of the movie – if you decide to watch the movie before reading the book, and that’s totally fine, guys – but it doesn’t quite follow the plot. Yes, the solution is the same as in the novel, but Branagh (god love him) wants to add a bit more theatrics and effects to the plot. I mean, the bulk of the novel is Poirot sitting down, talking to suspects, and then discussing what was just talked about with his railway director friend. If it were a play, it could be staged very minimally, because there’s not a lot of action. So Branagh makes a suspect run away into the snow-covered mountains of Croatia and almost fall off a bridge, and there is at least one gunfight.

I had asked my dad last fall if he wanted to see Murder on the Orient Express. And Dad’s response was basically a big ol’ HELL NO.

Here’s a paraphrase of my Dad, after watching the trailer for the Branagh version (and yes, it’s spoken in the same tone of voice Alaina uses when telling people that The Revenant was a terrible, terrible film):

“There’s only ONE Hercule Poirot, and he was played by ALBERT FINNEY. Suchet was fine – but FINNEY WAS THE BEST. And look at those mustaches on Branagh – THOSE AREN’T WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE. And Poirot doesn’t run, WHAT IS HE DOING?” *sigh* “No, Alaina, I DON’T want to see that movie.”

Cut to: Me, in the movie theater, muttering under my breath, “He was right, Dad would hate this. I can hear Dad now, saying ‘That’s not how it happened,’ just like when he and I saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He’d be so disappointed.”

But when you take away the extraneous, Hollywood shit that Branagh threw in, the movie was still very good. I mean, film-wise, Branagh can do very little wrong in my eyes. (I’m resolved to no longer be mad at the fact that he cheated on EMMA FUCKING THOMPSON, QUEEN OF EVERYTHING.) The cinematography of the film was gorgeous, and I thought Branagh did a good job with the character of Poirot, mustaches be-damned.

Anyways. I liked Murder on the Orient Express, both the novel and the Branagh film. (It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the Finney portrayal that I’m not going to pass judgment on it, but based on Dad’s opinion, that’s also very very good.) If you like mysteries and haven’t read this one yet, you totally should.

Better double-check that your library has it first.

Grade for Murder on the Orient Express: 4 stars

Non-Fiction: “Incendiary” by Michael Cannell

IncendiaryHere it is, friends: the beginning of the end (of 2017). I have six books (including this one) to get through and then I’ve got the 2017 recap to get done. If I can keep my head down and power through, I’ll be able to post the recap before September, and therefore be better than I was last year.

The last six books of 2017 were also all library books. This title was on the “new and notable non-fiction” shelf, and I’ll be very honest: when I read the subtitle (“The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and The Invention of Criminal Profiling”), I picked up the book and checked to see if there were any references to Hannibal Lecter or Thomas Harris in the index.

Reader, there were.

The plot – such as it is, for a non-fiction book – covers the story of the Mad Bomber in New York City. Beginning in 1940 and continuing over the course of 16 years, the Bomber planted pipe bombs all over the city, mostly focusing in movie theaters, train and bus stations, and Radio City Music Hall. The police force struggled to determine the culprit – not only were forensics still fairly primitive compared to today, but the Bomber was extremely careful with his fingerprints. The Bomber would either write letters to the newspaper or the police station, I can’t remember which, but the police were aware that the bombs were placed in retaliation against Con Edison, a huge electricity public utility in New York State.

Around 1956, New York Police Capt. Howard Finney decided to visit a psychiatrist, Dr. James A. Brussel, who was the deputy commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Mental Hygiene. On a whim, Capt. Finney asked Dr. Brussel to try and give a psychoanalysis of the Mad Bomber.

This had never been done before. Psychiatrists would only analyze people in their presence. So, based on what evidence Capt. Finney could give Dr. Brussel, the doctor created the first criminal profile.

In addition to the anger the Bomber felt toward Con Edison, Dr. Brussel gave the following additional insight:

Male, as historically most bombers were male. Well proportioned and of average build, based on studies of hospitalized mental patients. Forty to fifty years old, as paranoia develops slowly. Precise, neat and tidy, based on his letters and the workmanship of his bombs. An exemplary employee, on time and well-behaved. A Slav, because bombs were favored in Middle Europe. A Catholic, because most Slavs were Catholic. Courteous but not friendly.

Has a good education but probably not college. Foreign-born or living in a community of the foreign-born – the formal tone and old-fashioned phrasing of the letters sounded to Brussel as if they had been written or thought out in a foreign language and then translated into English. Based on the rounded letter “w’s” of the handwriting, believed to represent breasts, and the slashing and stuffing of theater seats, Brussel thought something about sex was troubling the bomber, possible an oedipus complex – loving his mother and hating his father and other authority figures.

A loner, no friends, little interest in women, possibly a virgin. Unmarried, perhaps living with an older female relative. Probably lives in Connecticut, as Connecticut has high concentrations of Slavs, and many of the bomber’s letters were posted in Westchester County, midway between Connecticut and New York City.  [Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Metesky)]

And as Capt. Finney was leaving with the profile, Dr. Brussel added this:

In the parting moment Dr. Brussel closed his eyes. An image of the bomber came to him with cinematic clarity. He wore outdated clothes since his contempt for others would prevent him from holding steady jobs. His attire was old-fashioned, but clean and meticulous. It would be prim, perhaps with an enveloping, protective aspect.

“Captain, one more thing. When you catch him,” Dr. Brussel said, “and I have no doubt you will, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”

Dr. Brussel added, “And it will be buttoned.”  [p. 107-108]

From there, Capt. Finney went to Seymour Berkson, the publisher of the New York Journal-American, and published a letter to the Mad Bomber, asking him to give himself up.

AN OPEN LETTER
To The Mad Bomber
(Prepared in Co-operation with the Police Dept.)

Give yourself up.

For your own welfare and for that of the community, the time has come for you to reveal your identity.

The N.Y. Journal-American guarantees that you will be protected from any illegal action and that you will get a fair trial.

This newspaper is also willing to help you in two other ways.

It will publish all the essential parts of your story as you may choose to make it public.

It will give you the full chance to air whatever grievances you may have as the motive of your acts.

We urge you to accept this offer now not only for your own sake but for the sake of the community.

Time is running out on your prospects of remaining unapprehended.

You can telephone the City Editor of this newspaper at Cortland 7-1212, or you can go to any police station or even the policeman on the street and tell him who you are.

In all cases you will be given the benefits of our American system of justice.

Give yourself up now.  [p. 127]

The Mad Bomber began a correspondence with the Journal-American, and that led to confirming some of Dr. Brussels’ theories about the Bomber.

Eventually, a secretary at Con Edison found a worker’s comp document dating back to 1931, wherein an employee had been injured at work and found to have a permanent disability, and therefore fired. She found similar phrases used in the Mad Bomber’s letters and responses published in the Journal-American, and notified the police. The lead paid off: the culprit was George Metesky.

(Fun fact!: Con Edison also potentially delayed the investigation by claiming that all worker’s comp records dated prior to 1940 had been destroyed, when actually, they hadn’t. Capitalism!)

Metesky was arrested and indicted on 47 charges, including attempted murder and damaging a building by explosion. And yes, when he was arrested, he was wearing a buttoned double-breasted suit. Metesky was interviewed by numerous psychiatrists, and a judge determined him to be a paranoid schizophrenic; Metesky was declared legally insane and incompetent to stand trial. He was committed to Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

He was eventually released when the Supreme Court found that one cannot commit someone to a hospital unless a jury finds that person dangerous. Since Metesky was committed without a jury trial – and by that time, he’d served two-thirds of a maximum 25-year sentence – he was released. He died in 1993, at the age of 90.

So now that I’ve got that out of the way, here’s the part of the book that talked about Hannibal:

Today profiling plays a prominent role in the pursuit of all serial offenders. It has also become a preoccupation of popular culture. In the late 1970s a quiet, bearded former Associated Press editor named Thomas Harris audited classes and met with FBI agents at Quantico, Virginia, where he learned about the agency’s semisecret efforts to profile killers and sex offenders. “What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with … and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender,” said John Douglas, one of the profilers Harris consulted over the years. “I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure …. If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.”

Harris applied what he had learned at Quantico to his writings. His bestselling 1981 novel, Red Dragon, and its sequel Silence of the Lambs[*], introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and homicidal cannibal, and Will Graham, the profiler who tracked him. Like Dr. Brussel, Graham succeeded because he could get inside the mind of a madman and follow his logic.

“It’s the way you think,” Graham’s FBI supervisor[**] tells him in Red Dragon.

“I think there’s a lot of bullshit about the way I think,” Graham replies.

“You made some jumps you never explained.”

Harris almost single-handedly created a profiling genre that stormed the bestseller lists and commands prime-time programming. [p. 244-245]

[*] It’s The Silence of the Lambs, dammit!

[**] Will’s “FBI supervisor” is JACK CRAWFORD, MUTHAFUCKA!

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I liked the book. I thought Mr. Cannell did a good job with going between viewpoints: that of the NYPD, Mr. Metesky, and Dr. Brussells. He explained a lot of the forensics without being overly technical, which I appreciated. The plot – such as it is – moved along. If you’re interested in this type of topic, I’d recommend it. The Hannibal stuff was just a bonus.

hannibal-smiling

Grade for Incendiary: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “A Dangerous Love” by Sabrina Jeffries

dangerous lovePicture it: Halloween 2017. I had just gotten back from a whirlwind weekend trip to Montreal with an old friend and was pretty exhausted. My friend and her friend left for California on the last Sunday in October, and I didn’t have to go back to work until November. So after sleeping pretty much all day Monday, I felt like I had to accomplish something, and I wasn’t in the middle of binging anything on TV, and I didn’t have any Halloween plans. So I decided to sit on my ass the entire day on Tuesday, with the goal of reading an entire book in a single day.

Aside from a few Sidney Sheldon thrillers I read in high school, I’ve never been able to do that. I get distracted, or, lately, I fall asleep. But if I pick the right book – which would be around 300 pages with a good-sized print and an interesting plot – and if I pace myself, I could probably do it. I mean, books are, on average, 200 to 300 pages long. I tend to read (depending on print size) a page a minute. So even if I’m reading something that’s 360 pages long, theoretically, I should be able to finish a book in six hours – and that’s without stopping for food, bathroom breaks, or the inevitable naptime.

And to give myself a handicap, I picked a “silly little romance novel,” because c’mon, if I’m going to be in my jam-jams all day (“pajamas”), I’m not going to be reading anything heavier plot-wise than that.

I perused my romance bookcase and took out A Dangerous Love. This is the first book in Ms. Jeffries’ Swanlea Spinsters series, and I had previously read After the Abduction, the third book, so now I could have the added bonus of getting caught up in a series! And y’all know how I am with a series.

The good news is that I was able to read the book in a single day.

archer wooooo

The bad news is that I just grabbed the book off of my “to review” shelf and realized a) I did not dogear any pages, so there weren’t any quotes that really struck me, and b) I do not remember anything about the plot.

lana hooray

Here’s what the back of the book says:

The ailing Earl of Swanlea is determined to see his daughters provided for before he dies …

But Lady Rosalind, the earl’s headstrong middle child, wants no part of her father’s scheme to marry her off to Griff Knighton. She is, in fact, far more intrigued by the unwanted visitor’s man of affairs – a devilish rogue, more arrogantly self-assured than the average valet, who has an air of danger about him that is tempting Rosalind to venture onto forbidden ground.

It is Griff himself, however, who has enflamed her desires – having mischievously swapped places with his own manservant to avoid unwanted romantic entanglements. And though he never dreamed he could want any woman so passionately, how can he reveal the truth to the proud, exquisite Rosalind without destroying their blossoming –

— and that’s where the back of the book is cut off by a sticker that I cannot remove. Blossoming love, maybe? Who knows. It’s a mystery.

From what I can remember (and read off of other Goodreads reviews, and by skimming the first couple of chapters), Griff is made to believe he’s a bastard. Like, an actual, born-out-of-wedlock bastard, not just an asshole. In spite of his bastard state, he has managed to build a massive trading firm from the ground up, and it rivals the East India Company. (Sure; sure.) The Earl of Swanlea is a distant cousin of Griff (so marrying one of the Earl’s daughters wouldn’t be completely icky – thanks, Regency England!), and Griff isn’t interested in marriage – but he is interested in searching the Swanlea estate to try and find proof of his legitimacy, which will then allow him to join a trade delegation to China.

So his brilliant idea is to bring his business partner Daniel along, and while Daniel-slash-Griff is “wooing” Swanlea’s daughter, Daniel-slash-Griff’s valet “Griff” can search the estate for Griff’s parents’ marriage certificate, which will prove he was legitimate.

Meanwhile, Rosalind is dead set against marrying out of her impending poverty. Her elder sister, Helena, is also not interested in marriage. But their youngest sister, Juliet, is ready to be married and thus set the plan in motion.

Mentioned quite frequently on Goodreads is the boorish qualities of Griff. I believe them, because I have no memory of the plot. However, I just skimmed the rest of the book – speed-reading for the win! – and while Griff isn’t a bastard, he is most definitely a dick.

He cajoles Rosalind into making out with him and then going to third base. She drops her resistance, but in the light of #MeToo, this whole scenario is very icky. Meanwhile, Rosalind is extremely stubborn when it comes to believing people – her father, Griff after he tells the truth – but on the other hand it’s very understandable, seeing as how practically every man in this novel is lying to her.

That’s what I’ve got for this one. I’m very proud that I was able to read an entire book in a single day, but I wish the book was more memorable so I could talk about it more.

Oh well.

Grade for A Dangerous Love: 1 star