Fiction: “City of Ash” by Megan Chance

city of ash

I have had a hard time this last year knowing what I wanted to read when I went to the library. (Note From the Future: This year, the library is closed due to a freaking pandemic, so I don’t have that problem anymore.) I keep a list of “Want To Read” books on Goodreads, but when I get to the library and am going through that list, everything just comes up “meh” to me. I enjoy reading historical fiction, but I do not want to read about World War II. I like the Victorian time period, but I still don’t feel right bringing a silly little romance novel to work to read on my lunch break. (Note From The Future: Oh that’s sweet! Remember when you worked in an office?!) And I haven’t been able to enjoy reading thrillers or mysteries for a while – mainly because the world is so fucking terrible, I am trying to infuse joy into everything I do.

(Note From the Future: Holy shit I wrote this so long ago and the world is not only fucking terrible, but the terrible seemed to skyrocket this weekend. Be safe, everyone.)

(Which is why I will NEVAH apologize for enjoying the reboot of Dynasty so. damn. much.)

So one Saturday in April (Saturday is Library Day for me now, and I love that I have that as a routine), I was wandering the fiction aisles and picking up so many books that looked slightly interesting according to their spine, but then when I read the back of those books I found that they were Christian Romance novels*. And when I got to the “C” section and found this book, by the same author who wrote Susannah Morrow and Prima Donna, I was so exhausted of looking that I said “Fuck it, I’ll give this one a shot”.

*I admit that I have a built-in, untried prejudice against Christian Romance novels. It comes from my personal beliefs and distrust of religion. I’m sure some of them are very well-written; clearly, judging by the fact that the Auburn Public Library appears to have cornered the market on them, seeing as how there are full series of them on nearly every shelf, the genre is also very very popular. Look, if one of my (three) readers have read one and can recommend one to me to try, I’ll do that. But until that day comes, I will be the one picking up the book and going, “Oooh, this looks good – dammit, Bethany Books!” in my local library.

City of Ash is historical fiction, taking place in Seattle in the late 1880s. Geneva Langley, wife of Nathan Langley and daughter of the founder of Stratford Mining, was the toast of Chicago Society. She hosted salons to discuss art, music, and theatre, and was the muse and patron of many the artist. Nathan, passionate at the beginning of their marriage, has grown cold and aloof. He aspires to get into politics, using his father-in-law’s blessing, money, and reputation. Ginny sees that the love in her marriage is gone, and in hopes of being given a divorce from Nathan, agrees to sit for a sculpture by the very-up-and-coming sculptor, Jean-Claude Marat.

On the night of the unveiling of the sculpture, everyone is scandalized – clearly, it is Ginny’s face and nude body memorialized in the marble, and everyone immediately assumes that Ginny and Marat had had an affair. Instead of granting her a divorce, Nathan provides a choice: either be institutionalized, or go west with him to Seattle, where he can run the Stratford Mining division there while running for office. Not wanting to be sent to an asylum, she goes to Seattle with Nathan.

Society in Seattle has already heard of her transgressions, and does not welcome Ginny, nor provide her the fresh start she was hoping for. Instead, she secludes herself in her and Nathan’s home, trying to be as well-behaved as possible. She longs for her salon days back in Chicago, but she wants to be perceived as the perfect little wife for hers and Nathan’s sake.

One night, Nathan brings her tickets to the local theatre, as a present for not causing any more scandal (and really, how could she? Stuck in the house all day, reading novels and conferring with the cook about meals, she really didn’t have any opportunities for scandal if she tried). They go see a melodrama about pirates, and Ginny has her first happy evening in months. She meets the Readings, society people who are actually kind of nice to her, and she learns that Mr. Reading has paid another local theatre troupe to be allowed to play Brutus in a performance of Julius Caesar. (Remember kids, Theatre is Bad News Bears for Society People – the jerks. You can watch theatre, but step foot on the boards for even a second and clearly you are a depraved person whose soul is in need of cleansing.)

Nathan decides to invest in the Regal Theatre, and one night brings home a playwright, Sebastian DeWitt, to meet with Ginny and discuss a play he has written. Ginny is honored that Nathan has thought of her in such a way, and reads the play and meets with DeWitt. She loves the play and encourages Nathan to sponsor it for production at the Regal.

A few weeks pass; and Ginny meets with DeWitt a few more times to discuss the play. One night they go to a performance of … something, I can’t remember, and I’m not looking it up at this point – but anyway, they stop at a pub for a beer before returning to Ginny’s house. Nothing happens, but DeWitt is very uncomfortable.

Nathan asks Ginny if she’d like to perform in the play that DeWitt has written. At first she hesitates, but then agrees – it’s always been an unacknowledged dream of hers to act, and she’d love the opportunity. So Nathan goes to the theatre and pays to allow Ginny to perform the lead role of Penelope Justis, the play that DeWitt has written.

MEANWHILE.

The night they went to see the pirate melodrama, Nathan took notice of the second lead actress, Bea Wilkes. He comes back night after night, watching her. Bea is 29 years old, and has never had the lead role – she’s almost had it a number of times, but either another actress has cozied up to the manager or brought in a rich patron or who knows what, she hasn’t had the lead yet. So when Bea takes the notice of Nathan, she thinks “maybe this is her chance.”

Additionally, Sebastian DeWitt has approached her and told her that he has written a play for her – for her talents, and he intends for her to play the lead role. Of Penelope Justis.

Bea and Nathan have an affair, but it is not a romantic one. Nathan will claim Bea after the performance is over and pretty much ravage her back in her hotel room. Bea feels that he is punishing someone else through her, and she does not entertain any thoughts of him leaving his wife for her. She is using him too, in hopes of having that lead role she wants so desperately. Nathan does leave her presents – butterfly hairpins, and a gorgeous blue cloak.

And just when Bea thinks she’s suffered enough, and she’s been rehearsing as Penelope for a few weeks – Nathan announces that his wife will be playing the lead role.

Ginny and Bea meet, and it does not. go. well. Bea is mortified that she actually placed faith that her role wouldn’t be taken away, and takes her anger and mortification out on Ginny. Ginny tries to get in her good graces, but having never acted before, she slows rehearsal down, which makes things worse.

One day at rehearsal, Bea actually lets it slip that she’s been fucking Nathan. And Ginny does not storm off, but instead pushes down her anger and betrayal to continue to perform the scene. She confronts Nathan about it when she gets home and asks to have Bea removed from the production –

“Well, I don’t demand that you have her let go, of course. But I should think it might ruin your political ambitions.”

“What has one to do with the other?”

“I imagine it would be quite the scandal if it was discovered that the head of Stratford and Brown was having an affair with a second-rate actress.” [p. 173]

But instead of getting angry, he asks if Ginny’s feeling well, and insinuates that she’s suffering from a delusion.

The next day, Bea is dismissed from the production of Penelope Justis, but remains in the company. Nathan takes Bea out for dinner that night at one of the hoitiest places in Seattle, and at his request, wears the hairpins and cloak Nathan had given her. During dinner, Nathan asks Bea to perform a scene from a play where the lead role accuses her husband of having an affair and descending into madness. Buying into his flattery, Bea agrees, though she feels a bit uncomfortable about performing in front of people who may not realize that she is performing, y’know? But she does, and at one point a doctor comes over to ask if she’s all right or needs help, and Nathan instead walks Bea out of the restaurant – while she’s still acting the scene – and says, “I just need to get my wife home to bed.”

Because yes – Bea and Ginny look very alike – same height, brown hair, same posture. So it is very easy for strangers to mistake one for the other.

Which is exactly what Nathan wanted – a way to get Ginny put in that asylum for good. He arranged everything – the patronage of Sebastian DeWitt’s play; having Ginny meet Reading and plant the seed of her performing (which again, is a Bad Thing for Society Ladies to Do); allow Ginny to become friendly with DeWitt, hoping she would have another affair. Of course, Nathan didn’t realize that DeWitt was in love with Bea Wilkes, but he also doesn’t really care about that.

The day of the Seattle Fire, before rehearsal, Ginny is looking for something in Nathan’s study and finds a letter to Nathan from her father, agreeing with Nathan that something must be done about Ginny. They are apparently waiting for another doctor’s diagnosis in order to truly commit her. Ginny comes up with a plan to escape Seattle before that happens, and goes to rehearsal in hopes of finding DeWitt.

But after rehearsal, the Great Seattle Fire happens, burning everything in the business district to the ground – including the Regal Theatre. Bea and Ginny escape together, putting aside their differences in order to survive. When they make it past the burn line, Ginny has come up with another plan – to be dead, so she can escape.

She and Bea talk about their mutual experiences with Nathan, and learn the extent of his manipulations. Ginny breaks into her house to find cash to facilitate her escape, with Bea acting as lookout, but Nathan comes home unexpectedly. Nathan runs into Bea, and he is very concerned that he has not been able to find Ginny since the fire. Bea consoles him, long enough for Ginny to get away with the cash – except there is no cash, Nathan’s safe is cleaned out.

And then they come up together with another idea. With Ginny truly dead, Nathan would gain control of all of her assets – and Nathan does not have his own money to speak of. Wouldn’t it be better if Nathan were declared insane, and committed, and then Ginny could come back from the dead (suffering from amnesia all this time!) and take control of her life again?

Well, wouldn’t you know it – that’s almost the plot of Penelope Justis. Which Nathan has never read or seen performed.

Perfect.

I thought the book started off very slowly. It took me about a month to read it from start to finish – although in my defense, April & May have been very busy months at work, and there have been many a day where I couldn’t read on my lunch break, because I didn’t have a lunch break, I had to drive down to the State House and wait for the work sessions on bills to begin. (May was a hangry month for Alaina, y’all.) I also went to London for 30 hours, and I don’t bring library books on vacations, so I didn’t even pick the book up for a few days in there. Once the fire happened and Ginny and Bea started working together, the plot picked up a lot.

Before I end this, can we talk about Sebastian DeWitt’s name and how much it inspires Addison DeWitt and how much I hope that wasn’t a coincidence?!

[Bea] laughed. “Sebastian DeWitt. That cannot possibly be your real name.”

“Why not?”

“Too improbable. Sebastian – he was a saint of some kind, wasn’t he?”

He looked surprised. “You’re Catholic?”

“Oh no. We did a play once. ‘Slay me not with words but with your arrows –‘”

“’And to my true heaven my soul will fly.’ I know it.”

“And then, of course, there’s the DeWitt. What a name for a writer. Are you witty, Mr. DeWitt?” [p. 207]

YOU GUYS. I fucking LOVE Addison DeWitt. I want to BE Addison DeWitt when I grow up. Before I die, I will stage a production of All About Eve, and not only will I *NOT ALLOW* Addison DeWitt to speak with A SOUTHERN ACCENT HOW DARE YOU, but I will direct myself as Addison DeWitt, because he is THE BEST PART in that play.

Anyways. The book was okay – it was a slow starter, I felt. But it wasn’t terrible. So, I dunno – two stars, I guess? I’ll give it an extra half star because it made me think of Addison DeWitt and that always makes me happy.

Also, the Guster Reading Challenge song for this book was “Getting Even” off of Goldfly, for reading “a book about revenge.”

Grade for City of Ash: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Murphy’s Law” by Rhys Bowen

Murphy's Law

Eagle-eyed readers of the blog may remember the name Rhys Bowen from when I read Her Royal Spyness a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Murphy’s Law is the first novel in another mystery series by Ms. Bowen – this one starring Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant who makes her way across the Atlantic to New York City, on the run from a murder she absolutely did commit.

The novel takes place in 1901, and Molly has just accidentally killed the landlord’s son. In our day, we’d call it an act of self-defense, seeing as how the landlord’s son was in the middle of attempting to rape Molly, and Molly merely pushed him into a counter, head-first. But since this book doesn’t take place in our day, Molly’s only option is to run away from home forever and never go back.

Her ticket on the boat to New York is her new friend, Mrs. Kathleen O’Connor. She was on her way with her two children, Birdie and Seamus, to meet her husband Seamus. But Kathleen has just been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she will be denied passage. She gives Molly her ticket and her children, and tells her to bring the children to Seamus, who will help her get settled.

While on the boat, a Mr. O’Malley takes a liking to Molly/Kathleen. Or he is an asshole and Molly/Kathleen puts him in her place. Either way, Molly tries to avoid him as much as possible. Molly does make a friend called Matthew, who is very nice with the children.

On their last night on Ellis Island, Mr. O’Malley is killed. And because Molly was up and about out of the women’s quarters looking for Birdie (who sleepwalks), and a number of people on their boat knew that Molly/Kathleen and O’Malley were at odds, Molly/Kathleen becomes a suspect.

It is during her first questioning that she meets Captain Daniel Sullivan of the NYPD. She assures him of her innocence, and flirts a bit to him – he flirts back, even though she is, to him, Mrs. Kathleen O’Connor. He knows she wasn’t strong enough to have killed O’Malley (who may have been strangled? I can’t remember), so she and the children are free to go. But it looks like Matthew may have killed O’Malley (possibly in Molly/Kathleen’s defense? I can’t remember), so he is sent to jail.

Molly is determined to prove Matthew’s innocence. But first, she has to find employment. Seamus the elder allows her to crash in their tiny apartment, and offers a job at the fish market, but Molly refuses to work there, believing herself good enough for a governess position. Molly gets kicked out of Seamus’s apartment after another one of the tenants puts the moves on her – she’s fighting to get away when the mover-putter’s angry wife walks in and the mover-putter claims that Molly put the moves on him, so Molly gets kicked out, of course. She spends one night in a shelter but then finds a room in a very Bible-ey boarding house for women.

Meanwhile, during all of this, Molly has been trying to figure out who may have killed O’Malley in the attempt to clear Matthew’s name, and visits Captain Sullivan almost daily. Like many police detectives in his day taking ideas from women, he’s not happy about it and wants Molly to stay out of trouble, but he does appreciate that her ideas are good and full of leads, so he eventually relents and allows her to help with the case.

Molly literally stumbles across the murderer while she’s working as a serving maid at a fancy party thrown by a city Alderman. The murderer actually has ties to a bank robbing gang back in Ireland, so the murderer gets deported, I think? And Molly, Seamus, and the children find a better apartment to live in and Molly also tells Captain Sullivan that she’s not Kathleen O’Connor, so everyone lives as happily ever after as Irish immigrants in 1901 can – at least until the next book.

As I said above, I read Her Royal Spyness by the same author and really enjoyed it. And around the same time I was reading that, I was reading Deanna Raybourn’s novels Silent in the Grave, and then I read A Spear of Summer Grass, also by Deanna Raybourn, which I absolutely loved. I had also borrowed Murphy’s Law from the Yarmouth library no less than three times and returned it each time before actually reading it – so this time, when I saw it in the Auburn library, I decided I was going to finally read it.

So I don’t know if it was because I was so happy with Spyness and thought that, much like Deanna Raybourn’s novels, each series would be equally as good? But I did not enjoy Murphy’s Law as much as I’d hoped to. It is probably due to the fact that the book dealt with much darker themes (immigration, racism) than the Spyness series thus far (fake royals, roaring 20s). I also felt that Molly didn’t have the same spunk level as Georgie – and I get that they’re different characters in different settings with different circumstances, but … regardless, the book didn’t give me the same feeling as Her Royal Spyness had.

And that’s why, this book’s Guster Reading Challenge song is “Expectation,” off of Evermotion: for a book that didn’t meet my expectations.

Grade for Murphy’s Law: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs[Note From The Future: This entry was written back in early October while I was attending a conference. I am not in a hotel currently.]

All right, let me try this again …

So I’m typing this on my tiny keyboard while in North Carolina for a conference. Much like my review of Girl Waits With Gun, I could have sworn that I had written at least a page worth of notes on Maisie Dobbs, but if I had, they got lost at the same time as the Girl Waits ones.

I have nothing. I *had* a quote from the book (which I saved into this draft before I flew to North Carolina), but thanks to a weirdness between the WiFi in the hotel and my Bluetooth keyboard I’m using, I hit something and the quote got deleted and I can’t retrieve it.

(And holy shit I think everyone in the hotel is on the WiFi right now because NOTHING is loading. I’m going to attempt to save what I have so far and if I’m still awake in a few hours I’ll try once prime WiFi Time is over.)

(UPDATE it is now the next day. I gave up last night and watched Big Mouth and crocheted instead.)

OKAY. So the point is, I can sort of remember what happened – which is impressive, considering I read this back in January and it’s currently October. I’m a little mad that I lost that quote I wanted to use – it was about cults! and the discussion about the cult sounded VERY SIMILAR to a CERTAIN SITUATION OCCURRING IN WASHINGTON, in January AND NOW – and I *also* lost the link to a Thing That I’m Doing With Books This Year (“This Year” meaning “the books that I read in 2019, not just the remainder of the calendar year 2019”), but hopefully I’ll be able to post this when I get home and can add it in later.

SO. Maisie Dobbs is a person.

She was some … downstairs person? Maybe a governess – no, not a governess … she was a maid at a school and someone caught her reading books? Look, she was underprivileged but taught herself to read and had a very apt mind for … learning things – anyway, she was planning on going to college when World War I broke out, so she went off instead to be a nurse because that’s what good British women did.

While in France, she and three other nurses become good friends with each other and some captains in the army. Maisie becomes quite friendly with one of the captains, whose name escapes me, and I’m unable to find his name on Goodreads, so … Captain. At one point, they get a weekend off together, and it’s very sweet – almost treacly – and it is understood that if they can survive the War, they’ll get together afterwards.

Consider this your spoiler alert. We are talking World War I, remember?

The book actually flashes back to Maisie’s origin story about a quarter of the way into the plot. When we begin the novel, Maisie is beginning her … I can’t remember if it’s a private detective business or a psychology business – I think it’s more of a “find lost things and people” sort of thing. She is putting up her shingle and then invited to dinner at her patroness’s house, and from there she finds that her case and her patroness’s case are the same case well, not right away, but it should have been obvious.

Maisie’s first case is to find out whether someone’s wife is cheating on him. So Maisie tails the woman and finds out that she spends Tuesdays and Thursdays at the grave of someone – I think it was her brother, but it may have been a former, pre-War lover. The dead brother (I’m gonna go with brother – no, it must have been a lover, otherwise her husband would have known – goddammit I’m so mad I lost my notes) ANYWAY the dead lover didn’t die in the war, but after. He couldn’t assimilate to post-War life, and went away to a —

GODDAMMIT THAT’S NOT RIGHT EITHER

Okay, this book had too many plots. I didn’t like that Maisie’s origin story took up half to two-thirds of the book. The plot of the possibly cheating wife I think led to Maisie’s plot with her patroness’s son, another ex-soldier who was suffering from what we would know as PTSD, but what happens is he joins up for this “retreat” where soldiers eventually sign over all of their funds to the Retreat and the Retreat lets them live there, and it’s basically militaristic in nature so the ex-soldiers never have to assimilate to post-War, civilian life.

Except the Retreat is run by a maniac who won’t let anyone leave if they feel like it, and manages to kill soldiers who want to leave the Retreat by making it look like an accident. Hence, the connection to the not-cheating wife’s dead ex-lover (although I can’t recall if that’s how the ex-lover died, or if just the fact that the cemetery is so close to the Retreat that that’s what spurs Maisie’s investigation).

Maisie herself could almost be a therapist for her clients. She knows enough to just listen to people – especially if they’re in the middle of an emotional episode, or in their feelings – and those conversations usually breed answers. The not-cheating wife was having a hard time keeping her emotions in regarding the dead ex-lover, and Maisie just … sits there and has tea with her, and lets her talk through her emotions. And Maisie’s not a private investigator in the same vein as, say, a Kinsey Millhone – she just listens to people.

I think, at the end of the book, she updates her shingle to read “psychologist and investigator”, to show she can do both. But I don’t know – maybe it’s me, and the fact that I used to watch a lot of crime shows, but I could figure out that the Retreat was shady from the get-go. I’m not sure how much mystery there was.

I didn’t hate it? I don’t think I fell in love with the book, but I think I enjoyed it for what it was. I do know that I’ve developed a distaste in general for books set during WWI or WWII – and is it just me, but is there a lot of them all of a sudden? It feels like every time I check out Goodreads’ New This Month list half of the historical fiction section takes place during WWII.

So The Thing I’m Doing For Books I Read in 2019: Goodreads has a Book Club that I’ve joined. And by “joined”, I mean “I clicked on the link when I signed up for Goodreads about a decade ago and never really paid attention to it at all, I even unsubscribed from the emails”.

But I *do* follow Guster on every form of social media, because Guster is my favorite band, hands down, I’m one hundred percent serious, I’ve seen them play 10 times, and I even flew out to San Francisco to see them in January with My Dear Friend Emily after she flew out to Portland to see GusterFest 2 with me in 2018.

Anyway, Guster retweeted or posted on Facebook, I can’t remember which, that This Book Club I Joined has a Band Reading challenge, where they take the discography of a band and assign a value to each song title and then when you find a book that matches that value/song title you check it off the list, and your goal is to complete the list – or, for a prolific band such as Guster, maybe a single album – in a given year.

So I love Guster, and I love challenges, and I especially love every opportunity to talk about Guster. So I’m doing this. I’m going to see a) how many I can accomplish with books I read in 2019, b) see if I can complete an album title or not, and c) will probably continue on until 2020 or until the list is complete.

(Unlike some readers on Goodreads, I am trying to assign one value to each book, rather than let a book use more than one value. Yeah, it’s an added layer of difficulty, but I’ve never been one to do things the easy way.)

For Maisie Dobbs, I chose “This Is How It Feels To Have A Broken Heart” off of Guster’s Evermotion album, for the value “Read a book that takes place during wartime.”

Grade for Maisie Dobbs: 2 stars

Fiction: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

girl waits with gunLAST BOOK OF 2018 I FUCKING DID IT

I won’t post the recap before October 1, so I *continue* to get Worse At This every year, but you know what? I HAVE HOPE THAT SOMETHING WILL CHANGE

(Namely, the fact that I am gonna post all my in-progress drafts and notes and possibly done drafts that I have on my laptop into the WordPress App because I have a Fire Tablet that I’m taking to a conference next week [as I’m writing this review] and my goal is to post a review a night because BASEBALL’S DEAD TO ME THIS YEAR, FOLKS and I’ll be on a plane for The Good Place and home by the time Dynasty kicks in for season three and basically, WHAT AM I, BUSY? NO, I AM NOT)

[Note From the Future: I did not meet those expectations at all. I did okay. I wrote one post and saved it, and started another. But at the end of the conference days I was exhausted (and missing my cat, but that’s another story) and basically I binge-watched Big Mouth until I fall asleep every night.]

So anyway.

The worst part about all this? Is that I swear I had jotted down notes for this book back in January, and I could have sworn I had at least four hundred words? Some quotes, even, maybe? But I must have shut the laptop down or some update ran and then I didn’t save the right file because when I opened my Word doc up, this was all I had –

girl waits notes

Thanks, Alaina. Good job.

Okay. So. Here’s what I remember.

Girl Waits With Gun is the story of the first female deputy sheriff (allegedly), Constance Kopp. Constance lives with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on a farm in New Jersey in 1914, maybe? Before WWI? Let’s say before WWI. (Goodreads says 1914 so yay me!) One day all three of them are in their cart and/or wagon going into town and Fleurette is driving, when a big ol’ motorcar comes barreling down and runs right into them. No one gets hurt (although Fleurette, the youngest, definitely swans about the house for a while after), and Constance tries to collect $50 from the motorist to repair their wagon.

Except that the motorist happens to be a nasty mobster who runs a shirtwaist factory (maybe? some sort of twill type fabric) and he assumes that ignoring Ms. Kopp will make her go away. But Constance Kopp is not one to back down from a fight. And her tenacity leads to the mobster threatening the Kopp sisters’ livelihood – arson, abduction of Fleurette, you name it.

Norma wants nothing to do with this whole mess – all she wants to do is train her carrier pigeons. (The entire Kopp family is eccentric.) Fleurette, as I said, is eating up the attention. But Constance is trying to figure out how to get the money they’re owed, and so she starts bugging the sheriff’s department.

I cannot remember the name of the sheriff that Constance befriends, and apparently he wasn’t worthy of any of the Goodreads reviewers to name. But this sheriff is the only person who encourages Constance – he knows there’s something shady with the fabric mobster, but needs more evidence to put him away. It also doesn’t help that the fabric mobster provides jobs to some of the working poor in this town – not great jobs, but a chance to earn maybe one coin. (He’s a shitheel, but the politics of shutting down a factory because the boss is a shitheel were bad in those days, apparently.)

The sheriff and Constance work together and are finally able to bring the fabric mobster to justice, though it took a while. And the title comes from the night where Constance waited at a street corner (surrounded by sheriffs and deputies) with a gun in her pocket, hoping to get a message passed to the fabric mobster.

Here’s the thing with the sheriff and Constance – I thought there was going to be more romance there. The way their friendship was written, I felt like there were stolen glances, and kind wrist touches, and that a relationship was going to be teased out over the course of the next couple of books. Turns out that’s not the case – these characters are based on real-life people, and Constance did not end up with the sheriff. In this book, at least, the sheriff is married, and people didn’t divorce people willy-nilly back then. So it probably remains platonic, and while I am okay with that (not every male-female relationship has to lead to romance, Alaina), I am a little disappointed.

Oh well.

I liked the book (in spite of the lack of romances). Constance is a great character – very witty, very matter-of-fact, very determined. I will probably continue reading the series.

And next time, I will try to take better notes.

Grade for Girl Waits With Gun: 3 stars

Fiction: “Dragonfly in Amber” by Diana Gabaldon

DragonflyI’m writing this at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. I’ve already taken two Tylenol PM because I’ve been fighting a headache all damn day, and I haven’t had a solid night’s sleep in at least a week (thanks, heat wave!). Let’s see if I can beat the clock, huh?

Is that a pun? Because this book deals with time travel? Oh god, I have no idea. Hey, Future!Alaina, when you review this before posting, if that’s not a pun, can you delete that? Thanks!

(Note from Future!Alaina: I mean, it’s not a pun, but it’s kinda funny. I’ll leave it in. Also, I did not finish writing this thing on that Monday (back in July, hence the reference to a heat wave), but I am pretty sure I got some good sleep that night, so – VICTORY)

Okay. Dragonfly in Amber jumps through a couple of periods of Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser’s life. At the very beginning of the book, we are in Scotland in 1968, and we meet Roger Wakefield, adopted son of the preacher who was helping Frank Randall determine his genealogy back in the 1940s, when Claire disappeared back to the past. But here, Roger meets Claire and her daughter, Brianna! Claire and Brianna have come to Inverness after the death of Brianna’s father, Frank.

Roger takes a quick shine to Brianna, and not gonna lie, it’s a tad creepy for my taste:

But if there was any bann-calling to be done, the name linked with Roger Wakefield in the parish register was going to be Brianna Randall’s, if Roger had anything to say about it. [p. 37]

PAGE 37. He like, just met her. She’s also barely twenty, buddy – calm your tits.

Anyway, Claire manages to get Roger to help her with some research – now that Frank’s dead, she’s free to research into whether Jamie and his family died in the Battle of Culloden, which was the end of the Jacobite uprising against the English. The three of them end up at a church, where Claire finds Jamie’s grave; on the stone is etched, “Beloved husband of Claire”. Claire gives us a recap of Outlander, and then we begin the next chapter of Claire and Jamie’s life, starting almost directly after the end of the first book.

Long story short (and I mean long story – this book is over 900 pages long): Jamie and Claire have headed to France after the end of Outlander in an attempt to change history. Claire knows what happens to the Scottish clans during the Jacobite uprising – they are slaughtered by the English, and the Battle of Culloden is that final battle. If she and Jamie can somehow convince Bonny Prince Charlie to remain in France – or, failing that, keep the Prince from raising the funds for his war chest – then they can avert that certain disaster back in Scotland.

What follows is a lot of fancy dresses and scheming. Claire is also pregnant, and Jamie is still dealing with the aftershocks of the trauma dealt to him by Black Jack Randall. At one of the parties at Versailles, Claire and Jamie meet Mary … something-or-other. Whatever, the book is thick and I’m starting to fade. But whatever – Mary, to Claire’s knowledge, goes on to marry Black Jack Randall, creating the ancestry that will eventually result in Frank, Claire’s husband back (forward?) in the 20th century.

While in Paris, Jamie takes over his cousin’s wine transport company, and Claire is … well … Claire is not used to sitting still. She’s used to being active and participating in the household – doing chores, making healing poultices, that type of thing. So when she’s expected to stay home and do nothing, well – it irks her, to say the least. So she starts volunteering her time at the local Hôpital, assisting the nuns in healing the poor. Jamie doesn’t like it – because Jamie is, if nothing else, traditional – but he also knows better than to ban Claire from doing something.

There’s also a plot about a rival wine merchant who’s got it in for Claire and Jamie, because when Claire and Jamie first meet the Comte St. Germain, his wine ship has just made port and is carrying sailors with smallpox, and the local ordinances say that’s too bad, so sad, his boat has to be burned to prevent more plague. So St. Germain does pretty much anything to gain revenge against Claire, including labeling her as a white witch.

At one point, Claire and Jamie run into Black Jack Randall, who did not die during the stampede when Claire rescued Jamie from … Wentworth Prison? Hey, I was right! Anyway, Black Jack Randall shows up and Claire has to make Jamie promise not to kill him, but not because she wants Jamie to be above vengeance killing – no, she wants to make sure that Frank’s ancestry is assured. Which, as Jamie points out, is kind of a dick move, considering she chose to stay with Jamie in the last book.

Anyway, there’s a. lot. in this book, because in order to tell you about how Jamie does indeed end up getting into a duel with Black Jack, I also have to tell you about Fergus, the pickpocket that Jamie sorta hires and sorta adopts to help him steal messages from Bonny Prince Charlie, and how one morning Jamie takes Fergus with him to a brothel to pay a debt on behalf of the Prince or something, Black Jack Randall is at the brothel and decides to have his way with Fergus, who tries not to cry out during the event because it’s easier that way, which is so beyond fucked up I can’t even, and then Jamie catches them in the act and ta-da, a duel is scheduled for the following morning.

Claire finds out when and where the duel is set to take place, and shows up, just in time to see a) Jamie stab Black Jack Randall, possibly fatally; and b) Claire goes into early labor. She blacks out, and wakes up in the Hôpital with the nuns taking care of her. The baby is stillborn, who is christened Faith before being buried. But then Claire’s apothecary friend, M. Raymond, shows up and – tries to heal her? And magically it does? But it’s so weird, you guys, and also, pretty rapey, in a way.

It starts with a massage and some murmuring. But a page later –

I gasped and moved involuntarily, as one hand moved lower, cupped briefly between my legs. An increase in pressure from the other hand warned me to the silent, and the blunt fingers eased their way inside me.

I closed my eyes and waited, feeling my inner walls adjust to this odd intrusion, the inflammation subsiding bit by bit as he probed gently deeper.

Now he touched the center of my loss, and a spasm of pain contracted the heavy walls of my inflamed uterus. I breathed a small moan, then clamped my lips as he shook his head.

The other hand slid down to rest comfortingly on my belly as the groping fingers of the other touched my womb. He was still then, holding the source of my pain between his two hands as though it were a sphere of crystal, heavy and fragile.

“Now,” he said softly. “Call him. Call the red man. Call him.”

The pressure of the fingers within and the palm without grew harder, and I pressed my legs against the bed, fighting it. But there was no strength left in me to resist, and the incurable pressure went on, cracking the crystal sphere, freeing the chaos within.

My mind filled with images, worse than the misery of the fever-dreams, because more real. Grief and loss and fear racked me, and the dusty scent of death and white chalk filled my nostrils. Casting about in the random patterns of my mind for help, I heard the voice still muttering, patiently but firmly, “Call him,” and I sought my anchor.

“Jamie! JAMIE!” [p. 456]

It’s just … gah. Claire is clearly incapacitated, and it seems like this pelvic exam apparently cured her fever, and just … don’t let ANYONE cure my fever like that, okay?

Then, Claire learns that Black Jack Randall still didn’t die, but Jamie did castrate him. To which I said, GO JAMIE! Jamie ended up in prison, so Claire then had to do a favor for the King, and basically managed to paint Le Comte St. Germain as an actual witch, but then she also had to sleep with the King.

jon oliver cool.gif

But they have to leave France, because – duh. Look at all the trouble they caused in the first half of the book! So back to Scotland they go, and live on Jamie’s estate for … maybe a year? I’m not sure, it’s a while, but then Bonny Prince Charlie manages to get enough funds to go to war with England. So Claire and Jamie leave Lallybroch behind and march towards Culloden.

The end of the book comes fairly fast. Turns out, Mary (remember Mary?) is in love with Black Jack Randall’s brother, who is dying of … something. On his deathbed, Claire witnesses a pregnant Mary get married to … Black Jack Randall. And that’s how Frank survives!

And on the day of the Battle of Culloden, knowing what was supposed to happen, Jamie brings Claire back to Craigh na Dun, and makes her go back through the stones because she’s pregnant. He asks her to name the child Brian, after his father. And Claire returns to “the future”, two years after she had disappeared, and to her life with Frank Randall.

This book was very long, and there is so much that happens in it. I didn’t mind it; but I struggled in parts getting through it. I almost wish that it was split into two books – the France stuff could easily be a novel of its own. I like the story enough, but it’s starting to feel a bit … soapy. Based on the next seasons of Outlander on Starz, the next book might go between Claire-in-the-20th-century and Jamie-surviving-Culloden, and then eventually Claire goes back in time and manages to reunite with Jamie, and then they all end up in America? It just feels like … like if I were writing a soap opera and didn’t want to stop writing about the characters, so I just kept throwing them into situations, only in the case of Outlander, those “situations” are “historical battles”.

It’s not bad; don’t get me wrong, I like the story of Claire and Jamie. But I’m writing this review almost a year after I read the book, and I don’t feel any need to go out and borrow Voyager right now. I guess I want my soap operas to be quick and fast-paced.

Like Dynasty!

Grade for Dragonfly in Amber: 3 stars

Fiction: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” by Alison Weir

katherine of aragonSo again, here’s a book where I didn’t take any notes. I borrowed this from the library last year and read it quickly enough, I guess; but it didn’t make enough of an impression on me to mark down any quotes or whatever.

Alison Weir is a very talented and well-researched historian. She has written other books of nonfiction, including one about the princes in the Tower that Richard III ordered to be killed (it’s on my to-read list). She’s an expert on the Tudors, and has turned that expertise towards writing fictionalized non-fiction – and this is the first book in her series on the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Catherine (later Anglicized Katherine) was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – those who sent Christopher Columbus to “discover” the “New” “World”. As is typical of young princesses, she was betrothed at the age of 3 to the young Prince Arthur of Britain – the heir apparent. They married in 1501, but Arthur died shortly thereafter.

Now, princesses were betrothed with dowries. And when Arthur died and Katherine was just a princess taking up valuable space in a drafty castle, Arthur’s father, Henry VII, wanted to wait Ferdinand out and see if he would get the second half of Katherine’s dowry. He even briefly considered marrying her himself when his wife died. (Ick. Royals be nasty.) But eventually, he agrees to let Katherine be Henry VIII’s betrothed, and while they’re waiting for Henry to come of age (as he was five years younger than Katherine, making him … twelve when Arthur died), Katherine also acted as ambassador to Castile and Aragon.

According to Ms. Weir’s book, Henry and Katherine were very much in love in the early days of their marriage. They did have to have a special dispensation from the Pope, because back in those days, people followed that Bible pretty damn closely, and it’s against canonical law for a man to marry his brother’s widow. (Sure – okay.) (PS the whole “special dispensation” thing comes into play later.) Katherine had a difficult time conceiving and carrying to term – many of her children were born stillborn; one tiny prince only lived a couple of months before succumbing to what Wikipedia guesses may have been an “intestinal complaint”.

All told, Katherine had seven pregnancies, and only Mary I survived to adulthood.

So as Katherine’s ability to bear children declined, so did Henry’s hope of ever having an heir to the throne (allowing a daughter to ascend to the throne hadn’t been even thought of before). And Henry’s eye began to wander, and … yeah, we all know where this is going.

Meanwhile, Katherine was a beloved monarch – when England was at war with – I dunno, probably France, right? – anyway, Henry was off fighting in let’s say France, and there was a battalion in Northern England (sure), and someone had to go inspire them – so off goes Katherine, by all accounts very pregnant, riding her horse up to who-knows-where and convinces the army to go forward into battle.

THAT’S AWESOME.

But in spite of her diplomacy and just, overall, being a really Good Queen, Henry wanted a son. Or someone new. (Probably both – he was a dude.) So he needs to figure out a way to have another child, legitimately.

But he can’t divorce Katherine, because England is Catholic, and he has to answer to the Pope.

But then Henry gets an idea.

the grinch

What if – what if that special dispensation was wrong? What if Katherine was lying and she had consummated her marriage to Arthur? (No one knows for sure, obviously – but Katherine maintained that she and Arthur were never able to consummate their marriage, and was still a virgin upon marrying Henry.)

Maybe – maybe the *new* Pope can invalidate that old special dispensation, and then his marriage to Katherine would be invalidated, and he can try and get a son out of his new main squeeze, Anne Boleyn?

And if that wouldn’t work, then he’d just make up his own religion.

ron's permit-1ron's permit-2

(The new religion may have come after Katherine – I can’t remember.)

So Henry married Anne, and banished Katherine to a different castle, where she died in 1535.

Katherine’s life was, obviously, much more full than what I’ve made it out to be. The book was at least 600 pages long, I think? (GoodReads says it’s 602.) I felt that the book was kind of … lopsided? in what was portrayed. Like, I felt that a lot was made about Katherine’s education and Catholic faith (which, admittedly, were huge parts of Katherine as a person and as a Queen), but only a single paragraph was given to one of her lost pregnancies. And I get that the book was written in a limited perspective, but it was a little jarring once Katherine was banished and we never learned how Henry was feeling about it. Is that wrong? that I wanted to know what the dude was feeling during all of this?

I don’t know. It was very good, overall – I’m not kidding, Ms. Weir knows her stuff and the book was very well-written. I just couldn’t reconcile what I was hoping to get out of it with what I actually got. That’s not the fault of the author, in my opinion.

So anyway. I will continue with the series, but I also want to read Philippa Gregory’s take on the same people. Or maybe I’ll just take a shortcut and watch the Starz series. (What’s the plural of “series”? Like, there’s more than one series – is it serieses? Is there such a thing as a plural of series?)

Grade for Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen: 2 stars

Fiction: “A Spear of Summer Grass” by Deanna Raybourn

spear of summer grassI was hoping to find the next Lady Julia Grey mystery on one of my trips to the library last summer, but no such luck. And at that time the Yarmouth library wasn’t participating in inter-library loan programs, so it was a hassle to request books. (I’m hoping that process is easier in Auburn – although the Auburn library may charge me for it?!)

(Oh no wait – apparently they charge if the book is requested from a library outside of the State. That totally makes sense. Phew!)

But the library did have this stand-alone novel by Deanna Raybourn (the author of the Lady Julia Grey novels), and I decided to give it a shot.

Reader, I’m so glad I did.

The story takes place after WWI, and begins in Paris. Our narrator, Delilah Drummond, is a party girl. She’s been married three times, and divorced once. Her first marriage, to Johnny, ended when he was killed in WWI. Her second marriage to Quentin was amicable, but ultimately not a union to be maintained. They are still very friendly with each other – and at times, sexual, even though Quentin has since remarried and had children. Quentin is also her solicitor.

Delilah’s third husband, Misha, has just committed suicide. And the papers and gossip rags are all proclaiming that he killed himself over the idea that Delilah was going to divorce him too, but in reality, he had received a cancer diagnosis and, well, this is the 1920s, there aren’t a lot of options for palliative care.

All of this gossip is hounding Delilah and her equally-dramatic mother, Mossy. While Delilah is fine with waiting the gossip out, it is Mossy who suggests that Delilah escape the scene and go to Africa. Mossy’s favorite ex-husband, Nigel, owns Fairlight, an estate outside of Nairobi. She agrees to go, and is accompanied by her much shyer and almost mousy cousin, Dora, whose nickname is Dodo.

On the train, Delilah reads from her guidebook on Kenya to Dodo:

I pointed out one bridge from my guidebook as we crossed it. “This is the Tsavo bridge, Dodo. When it was built, a pair of man-eating lions spent nine months gobbling up the crew. It says here they ate more than a hundred men.” [p. 39-40]

[That was only funny to me because I follow @SUEtheTRex on Twitter and every April 1, they let the Tsavo Lions take over their Twitter feed. I love SUE the T-Rex, everyone should go follow them RIGHT NOW.]

[SUE uses nongendered pronouns. Because they’re awesome.]

Upon arriving in Nairobi, Delilah meets Ryder White in a very memorable way – he goes up to a creep that had tried to hit on Delilah on the train, and Ryder horsewhips the creep in front of everyone because the creep is also an abusive husband. The next morning, Ryder is the one to drive Delilah and Dodo to Fairlight. Delilah is horrified at the state of the place – rancid food, crops failing – and she and Dodo resolve to restore Fairlight while they’re there.

The next morning, tribal women come to Fairlight for healing. Delilah, who had been a nurse during WWI, does what she can, and the next time Ryder comes by, she asks for supplies. He arranges to get her what she needs. Throughout the course of the book, Delilah continues to care for the people who live near Fairlight.

Meanwhile, former friends of Delilah’s happen to live nearby – Rex and Helen, cohorts of Delilah’s mother. Rex is hoping to help garner Kenya’s independence from Britain, and aspires to be the first Governor. Meanwhile, Helen and Rex are both sleeping around on each other. Their artist friend, Kit, is living in the cottage attached to their villa, within easy walking distance of Fairlight. Kit has also been a former lover of Delilah’s, and when she learns of his presence, they resume their fuck-buddy status while he paints for his next art show.

Ryder introduces Delilah to Gideon, a Masai man of the village who helps Ryder on his safaris and hunting trips. He and Ryder have an easy friendship, and Gideon shares some of his knowledge of Ryder with Delilah. He and Delilah grow to be friends; he introduces her to his babu (grandfather), a mark of high honor and respect.

Meanwhile, Fairlight’s groundskeeper, Gates, has come back from a vacation and does not like taking orders from women. Later on, Dodo finds out that Gates has overtaken a field that’s meant to grow pyrethrum has been turned into a field for cannabis – and in a move that shocks Alaina, Delilah doesn’t like that and orders the field to be mowed under.

It was another of the sad pyrethrum fields and I turned to Dodo with a shrug.

“So? It’s another few acres of a poor crop that ought to be plowed under.”

“Look again.”

I moved into the field, pushing past the first several rows of pyrethrum, and straight into something quite different.

I turned back to Dodo. “You must be joking.”

“No. Cannabis sativa. Hundreds of plants. The pyrethrum is only the border, no doubt for camouflage.” [p. 245]

I mean, I don’t understand why Delilah didn’t see that as a huge financial opportunity! Isn’t the post-WWI time period one of the best time periods for reefer madness? Maybe I’ve just been listening to my friend moan about how the marijuana legalization effort in Maine has not gone fast enough for him for too long (and maybe I also really really want that sweet, sweet sales tax revenue to benefit the state), but why wouldn’t Delilah consider a field full of pot a surprise goldmine?

Anyway. She fires Gates – and relishes it, after she learns he’s been beating Moses, Gideon’s younger brother that she hired to watch the cattle.

Later, Delilah is invited to a dinner party by Helen – Rex is out of town. Unbeknownst to Delilah, Helen regularly hosts dinner parties when Rex is away. And when I say “dinner party,” I totally mean “drug-fueled orgies”. Ryder happens to show up during the main course, and when the pairings-off begin, he grabs Delilah and they escape. On their way back to Fairlight they both succumb to their mutual attraction, but Ryder tells her that the relationship can’t continue because he knows that she plans on leaving Africa.

There are hunts for lions, and watching the wildlife amble about the landscape, and Delilah slowly falls in love with Africa. And it’s beautiful, and heartrending, and just … *sigh*

Together we watched the giraffe come and drink at the far edge of lake Wanyama. It was a small herd, just a few cows with their calves and a few adolescent males trailing behind. They were graceful and silent, bobbing their heads down at a ridiculous angle to get to the water. A crowned crane waded nearby, breaking the water into small ripples that flowed over to our edge, connecting us. And suddenly, the feeling Moses had conjured grew so strong and so deep I felt I could just float away on it. I was in love, really in love for the first time in a very long time, maybe the first time ever. And it was with this place, this Africa, as real to me as any man. The grey-green water of the Tana River was his blood and his pulse was the steady beat of the native drums. The red dust of his flesh smelled of sage from the blue stems of the leleshwa and sweetness from the jasmine and under it all the sharp copper tang of blood. In the heart of the Rift lay his heart, and his bones were the very rocks. Africa was lover, teacher and mentor, and I could not leave him. [p. 347-348]

Oh shit, I skipped ahead. There is a mystery in the book – it develops slowly, and I don’t want to spoil it. The above quote is towards the end, after the mystery has been solved, and – SPOILER ALERT! – Delilah does decide to stay in Africa. But the plot about the mystery and also how she connects with the people that live near Fairlight is just so beautiful, that I really did cry like, a few times while reading it.

So if you like love stories and stories about people finding themselves and also Africa, you would probably really like this book.

Grade for A Spear of Summer Grass: 4 stars