Fiction: “A Murder In Time” by Julie McElwain

murder in timeHello – and welcome to 2018! Or, at least, Alaina’s Reviews of Books She’s Read in 2018.

A Murder In Time was the other book I had requested from the library at the same time as The Ring and the Crown. The Yarmouth Library had the second book in the series (A Twist In Time) but not this title, the first; so an inter-library loan was requested. The plot, when I read the blurb on Goodreads, sounded like a cross between Outlander and an FBI procedural, and I was intrigued.

Reader, I was mightily disappointed.

Now, before I get into this, for all y’all who may be new to That’s What She Read, let me tell you a bit about my process. I have been reading a ton of library books in the past couple of years, which is great – it gets me out of my house, and for all my kvetching about the lack of first titles in series that Yarmouth suffers from, I have been able to find books I wouldn’t normally want to read, and in some cases, enjoy them.

However, as you’re probably aware by this point, I’m rather terrible at posting “reviews” “timely” – and yes, there are finger-quotes around both of those terms. I’ve also found that it gets harder to remember what the book was about the longer I wait to review it – and that includes any books that I’ve read that I own. So what do I do about library books, where I’m returning the book eight months prior to writing about it?

I found late last year that it’s helpful to me to take an evening – preferably at least one night before the book is due back at the library, though I’ve never been one to balk at overdue fees -, open a Word document, and type out at least the characters and some quotes I may have dogeared for later usage. If I have time or I’m on a roll, I may type up a brief synopsis of the plot as well.

“But Alaina,” you ask (and in this case the “you” is my friend Thomas, who has indeed asked me this question) – “Why don’t you just write the review before the book is due back at the library? Why do you take notes and then come back to it and rewrite it from scratch later?”

“Well,” says I, “first of all, that feels like cheating. Like I’m skipping ahead. Secondly, one of the things that sets my “reviews” apart from everyone else’s – besides the fact that my reviews tend to be of the finger-quote variety – is that I tend to take what’s going on around me and interject it into the review. In some cases, that provides context. In other cases, I let a weird event completely distract me from actually reviewing the book I’d read, but let’s be real, I’m not really “reviewing” anything anyway, so let me be me.”

So that’s where I’m at. A Murder in Time was a library book, and I can barely remember anything of the plot, save that it involved murder and time travel (I’ll get into that later). When I started to write this review, I went into my documents folder and sure enough, there was a Word doc waiting for me.

And this, dear Reader, is the entirety of that Word document’s contents:

Murder in Time

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Okay.

So – on the one hand, January!Alaina had a lot more faith in Future!Alaina than she ultimately deserved. On the other hand … for fuck’s fuckin’ sake, Alaina, get your shit together.

ANYWAY. I went to the review of the book over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to get familiar with the plot and the characters again, and I had taken numerous pictures of quotes from the book (because I was clearly so super-lazy back in January that I didn’t even want to take the time to type anything up), so in January!Alaina’s defense, she may have left enough bread crumbs to allow Current!Alaina to “review” A Murder in Time.

Here we go.

Kendra Donovan is an FBI agent. But not just an FBI agent – a super-young FBI agent, who was a child prodigy because she was – I KID YOU NOT – a eugenics test tube baby.

If he [Kendra’s boss, and no, I can’t remember his name] felt a little squeamish about dealing with her, he was careful to keep that hidden. It had been his decision eight months ago to pull her out of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, where she’d been using her profiling and computer skills to work on the country’s most vicious serial killer cases. It had given him a jolt to meet her in person, though. He put his reaction down to her age – only twenty-six, for Christ’s sake. But he’d read her file; he knew who she was. Hell, he knew what she was. The offspring of two scientists who advocated eugenics, she’d been a child prodigy, landing at Princeton when she was only fourteen. By the time she was eighteen, she’d gotten degrees in advanced computer science, psychology, and criminology. No wonder the Bureau had wanted her badly enough to circumvent their age requirement of twenty-three to get her in. Kendra Donovan was a capable agent, Carson knew. [Oh, his name was Carson. Whatever.] [p. 3]

What is it with me and books involving surprise!eugenics?

So Kendra’s super-smart, super-determined, and has major parent issues. As we see after her mission goes tits-up and her father has to visit her in the hospital:

“What’re you doing here?” She sounded a little breathless, but otherwise steady. “I’m the one with the head injury, but apparently you forgot that you disowned me.”

“Don’t be impertinent, Kendra.” Her father’s mouth compressed into a thin line. “I received a phone call from Associate Director Leeds, who suggested that if I wanted to keep doing my research, I should visit you.”

Kendra frowned. “I’m not following. What does your research have to do with me?”

“I’m working at the Fellowship Institute in Arizona—”

“On human genome research. I know.”

“Then you should know that the government is our largest donor.”

Kendra remembered the look of pity in the associate director’s eyes. “Ah. I see. Leeds blackmailed you. That’s why you’re here.” Not because her father wanted to see her. Heaven forbid that he actually cared. And odd how that hurt. She hadn’t seen her father in a dozen years, but he still had that power. [p. 34]

He’s a Bad Dad, yo.

After a few months of recuperation, Kendra is released from the hospital and physical therapy and now she’s ready for her next mission: revenge. (The last mission she was on didn’t just send her to the hospital – it also sent quite a few of her colleagues to the morgue.) She gets a lead on the culprit and follows him to Scotland, where the culprit (no, I didn’t write his name down, because he means absolutely nothing to the plot. I’mma call him MacGuffin) is attending a fancy period dress party for no other reason than to get Kendra into period clothing.

Kendra dresses up as a maid to blend in with the crowd and follows MacGuffin into a secret staircase. There’s a weird event – like she’s falling through a vortex, or maybe she feels like she gets shot; I can’t remember if she loses consciousness at all, but something weird happens in the stairway.

When she’s able to get to the top of the stairs she comes in contact with a scientist of some sort who’s very surprised to see her. He speaks very strangely and old-timey, and wants to know why Kendra is in the room, and what happened to her hair (it’s cut in a short bob). She manages to come up with a lie that she’s a lady’s maid and he buys it, so she is sent downstairs to get her tasks.

PLEASE NOTE: At this point, I, the Reader of this book, knew that Kendra had traveled back in time. (And not just because it was on the dust jacket.) Kendra is still figuring out what happened, though, so we’ve got a few pages of dramatic irony to get through.

She meets Rose, a tweeny maid (meaning she’s between downstairs and a lady’s maid, not that she’s a tween – although she is young) and Rose takes Kendra to meet Mrs. Beeton, who I’m assuming is the Mrs. Beeton.

The older woman flashed them a hard look.  “We’re a mite busy today, Rose,” she said, and handed the iron to her assistant, who immediately transferred it to the hearth to heat up again.

“Aye, Mrs. Beeton.” Rose nodded. “But miss ‘ere needs a dress.”

Mrs. Beeton wiped the sweat from her brow. “What kinda dress?”

“Maid’s dress.”

“We don’t have time to sew a new dress.”

“She can ‘ave Jenny’s old dress. Since she ran off to Bath with Mr. Kipper and all.”

“Ooh. And a right scandal that was. Not even a by-your-leave!” Mrs. Beeton sniffed, and gave Kendra a measuring look. “You part of the temporary help?”

“Well –”

“She’s been ‘ired on,” Rose put in.

“What happened to your hair? You been ill?”

“I—”

“She’s better now,” said Rose. [p. 124]

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Here’s the thing – maybe it’s because Outlander did it better; maybe it’s because Back to the Future is a real formative influence on me. But it felt like it took forever for Kendra to catch on that she had been sent back in time somehow. And unlike Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, Kendra Donovan is not great at blending in. Between the bob haircut and her need to get involved in a murder investigation that’s going on, she stands out like an extremely sore thumb.

So yeah – in addition to strange women getting thrown into time vortexes, there’s also someone going around slitting the throats of prostitutes from London. The Duke and his nephew, Alec Sutcliffe, are trying to figure out who the killer may be, and they are very reluctant to listen to a headstrong young maid who is talking about forensics and other un-ladylike things.

As I kept reading, the investigative plot started to feel more and more like a Catherine Coulter FBI thriller, and I wasn’t exactly pleased. I mean, y’all should know how I feel about Catherine Coulter FBI novels by now. (Is it time for me to read The Target? Should I write another verse of The Rant Song?) With A Murder In Time, I felt like Ms. McElwain relied on Kendra’s internal monologue to sort out Kendra’s character, and it wasn’t smooth.

First, there’s this, where Kendra is trying to tell her new 19th century friends about profiling:

“I’d need more victims, though, before I can identify it as a signature.”

“Signature?”

Kendra hesitated. She was giving them more information than maybe she should. Though in the latter half of this century Dr. Thomas Bond would offer up a profile on Jack the Ripper, she was introducing a lexicon that wouldn’t be part of criminal investigative analysis for another century, at least. Was she changing the future?

Dammit. She didn’t know. And she couldn’t worry about it. If she was going to do any good here, she needed to think and act like an FBI profiler. [p. 186]

Towards the end of the novel, the author makes Kendra realize she’d been kind of judgy:

The doctor, Kendra realized suddenly, wasn’t the only one who’d been hampered by prejudices. If she were honest, she’d thought little of her nineteenth-century counterparts. She’d judged them and, because they were different, had found them wanting. It shamed her. These people might not have the sophisticated tools of her era, but they were all intelligent. She might not be able to trust them with her time-traveling secret, but she could trust them in this quest for truth and justice. [p. 369]

But that type of characterization doesn’t feel earned to me – it’s like the author realized, “oh, wow, Kendra should have a realization about herself just before she gets kidnapped by the killer.”

I think the most egregious characterization of Kendra’s is the really out-there references thrown in around her. For instance – and please, remember as you read this, that Kendra is in her mid-twenties, in the second decade of the 21st century:

Kendra hadn’t known what to expect from a nineteenth-century detective, but Magnum, P.I. he was not. [p. 197]

Would Magnum, P.I. be your first choice for a detective from the modern era? I guess she felt weird comparing him to Sherlock Holmes, who admittedly was a nineteenth-century detective, but … I dunno, I guess Kendra never watched Veronica Mars, which is a damned shame.

Kendra has also apparently never dated anyone, ever:

[Kendra] shook off her sense of amazement, and tried to pretend she was watching a period play. There was a lot of flirting going on, plenty of fluttering of ivory fans and eyelashes. It was weird to to think that in another two hundred years people would flirt by pole dancing, twerking, and sexting. [p. 130]

Okay, so admittedly, I have been very open about the fact that I don’t have any idea when people are flirting with me. One of my friends asked me a while ago, if one of my other friends ever tried to hit on me, how would I react, and my actual response was “he’d have to be extremely blatant for me to get that he was actively hitting on me.” Friend: “But what if he was and you got it?” Me: “I guess my first reaction would be to ask him if he’d fallen down and hit his head on something hard.” Because my instinct tells me that someone’s more likely to be suffering from a concussion than possibly be attracted to me? That’s messed up.

Having said that – I do know that people do not flirt by pole dancing, or by going up to people in bars and twerking at them without at least saying “hi” first.

(I guess some people could say that strippers flirt by pole dancing, but MY DUDE, that is a paying job that a woman has sought out and her job is to make you think she’s into you, but SHE IS NOT. Tip her, but she is NOT YOURS. Also, remember: there is no sex in the champagne room, or in the lighting booth.)

Now, compare Kendra to Rebecca, Alec Sutcliffe’s younger sister. She is ready and rarin’ to go when it comes to investigating these crimes:

“This is about the girl who was killed, is it not?”

“Becca – “

“Oh, don’t look so Friday-faced, Alec! If Miss Donovan is allowed to stay, I don’t know why I should be sent from the room. I am not a child – I’m three and twenty.” She gave both men an arch look. “And I seem to recall you applauding my study of Miss Wollstonecraft’s work. You have always encouraged my artistic and intellectual pursuits.”

“For God’s sakes, Becca, we are not having a theoretical discussion in Duke’s study or the drawing room,” Alec argued impatiently. “This is not an exercise in women’s rights.”

“Oh, but that is exactly what it is, Sutcliffe!” She was no longer smiling, and her blue eyes narrowed. “For the first time, we can take the discussion out of the theoretical and apply it to the real world. Unless you were gammoning me.”

Kendra had to admire the woman. She’d neatly turned the tables on the men. If this were the twenty-first century, Lady Rebecca would’ve made a good lawyer. [p. 184]

Within a couple of lines of dialogue, I feel like I immediately know Rebecca’s character and how she and her brother get along. Maybe Ms. McElwain could write a book about her next?

One piece of dialogue that never fails to make me think of something else (similar to whenever anyone mentions something about catching someone red-handed):

“Of course, there’s another possibility.”

The Harry Potter glasses glinted in the sunshine as he looked at her. “What, pray tell, would that be, Miss Donovan?”

“She could’ve had the stain on her coat before she met the killer,” she pointed out. “We’re assuming it happened here.”

Aldridge beamed at her. “Excellent point, my dear! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” [p. 373]

And we all know that post hoc ergo propter hoc means “after hoc therefore, something else hoc.”

Okay, two more things and then I’ll shut up about this book. First, Ms. McElwain plays to her strengths in at least one area. In her real life, Ms. McElwain is an editor for CBS Soaps in Depth, where she focuses on The Young and the Restless. In A Murder in Time, many chapters end on cliffhangers where characters have an exclamation of something, like this:

If possible, Gabriel seemed to pale even more. “No, Thomas is his manservant …”

Rebecca lowered her handkerchief and stared at Gabriel. “I beg your pardon?”

He raked a shaking hand over his hair, disheveling it even more. “God. I’ve been a fool. A bloody fool.”

Rebecca was taken aback by the look in Gabriel’s eyes: utter despair.

“If I had my wits about me, I might’ve saved the maid.”

“What are you saying, Gabriel?”

His mouth twisted. “Thomas isn’t the monster. But I know who the monster is.”

Rebecca put a hand to her throat, felt her pulse leap beneath her fingertips. “Who?” [p. 453]

That’s it; that’s the end of the chapter. Can’t you hear dramatic organ music whipping underneath that dialogue?

And please, let me reassure you: I have nothing against soap operas! I am extremely proud of my heritage of watching All My Children for years – for years!! I refused to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer at first because I knew Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kendall Hart, illegitimate daughter of Erica Kane! Erica had Kendall at 14, following a rape; she put the baby up for adoption and completely forgot about it, only to have Kendall come roaring into Pine Valley looking for the silver spoon she felt she deserved! Kendall tried to seduce her stepfather, Dmitri, and when he rejected her she accused him of raping her, which made Erica have a flashback to her own rape, and in an attempt to defend herself and Kendall, she STABBED DMITRI WITH A LETTER OPENER!

Vintage All My Children was THE BEST, you guys.

The last thing that Ms. McElwain did that I have to mention is: she could not resist this line:

Kendra’s lips curved with an irony her audience would never understand. “I always say there’s no time like the present.” [p. 189]

facepalm 2

Great Scott – she had to make a time joke.

Look, overall, the book didn’t suck – there were just some parts that … could have been better. There’s a good chance that I’m probably going to read the next book in the series; but at least now I know what to expect.

Grade for A Murder in Time: 1.5 stars

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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!

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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.

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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: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderAbout a year ago, Starz premiered American Gods, which was showrun by Bryan Fuller — the same Bryan Fuller who was responsible for a little show called Hannibal. And because I would follow Bryan Fuller to the ends of the earth, I added Starz to my Amazon Prime so I could watch the show.

I don’t know what happened, because I could not get into the show. But it had everything – Bryan Fuller! Ian McShane, formerly Al Swearengen on DeadwoodGillian fucking Anderson! Whatever the reason, it must be the same reason why I can’t get through the book. And I’ve tried to read that THREE TIMES.

When I can finally get through that book I’m sure I’ll rant more about American Gods. Meanwhile, Starz is also the home of Outlander, and I didn’t let my Starz subscription go to waste – over the summer, I rewatched the first season and half of the second season, and also read the first book, Outlander.

I’m not going to get into too much of the plot (she says, hopeful), because I can tell you that the first season does an excellent job of following the book. There are a couple of deviations made for artistic license, but overall I thought the series did a great job telling the story. So if you don’t want to read an 850-page book, you can just watch about 16 hours of television instead.

Outlander is a novel of many genres: it’s got time-travel (sci-fi); it’s got romance; it’s got history; it’s got actual science. It begins in post-WWII Scotland, with Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, enjoying a second honeymoon. Frank is researching his ancestry, and is very interested to learn more about Black Jack Randall, a captain with the English Dragoons. Claire is broadening her nursing education through botany, learning about flowers and plants that have healing capabilities.

One day, Claire goes to visit Craigh na dun – a stone circle similar to Stonehenge, but smaller in scale – and has a weird experience: she hears one of the stones screaming. Her vision begins to blur, she feels faint, and when she wakes up, she is no longer in 1945, but 1742.

Of course, it takes Claire a while to figure that out. Or, rather, it takes her a while to believe it. She is nearly captured by Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall himself, but is rescued of a sort by Jamie Fraser and his clan. And so begins what can only be described as a very well-written soap opera.

(Trust me – I loved it.)

Claire tries to avoid arousing suspicion – which is hard to do, considering her English accent. Using her knowledge of modern medicine combined with her botany learnings, she becomes the new “nurse” (I can’t remember what they actually called her and no, I’m not going to look it up) for the castle. Then Jamie’s cousin, Dougal (Dougal might be Jamie’s uncle, I DON’T CARE) wants to bring Claire along when they collect the rents, which suits Claire fine – she just wants to escape back to Craigh na Dun and try to get back to Frank.

IT’S SO SOAPY, you guys! Because Claire gets captured by Black Jack Randall again! And the only way to save her is to become part of the clan, so she has to marry Jamie Fraser! And that’s hard for Claire, because she still loves her husband Frank! But obviously no one knows about Frank, so bigamy it is! And then she falls in love with Jamie anyway! And there’s —

Okay, but for real, no exclamation points, CONTENT WARNING, there is also rape. Claire is violated by an English Dragoon – who gets killed immediately by Jamie -, but there are further rape threats to her and also to Jamie (by Black Jack Randall). It’s … it’s not pretty, at times.

And sure, it’s supposed to be “a description of the times”, and sure, the 1700s were not great for women and women’s rights, and the book does show … or attempt to show the struggle that Claire has as a “modern” woman, trying to fit in during this backwards time period. For instance, after Claire is rescued from Black Jack Randall the first time, though Jamie is relieved to learn she’s okay, he does feel the need to punish her, corporally:

“I’ve said I’m sorry!” I  burst out. “And I am. I’ll never do such a thing again!”

“Well, that’s the point,” he said slowly. “Ye might. And it’s because ye dinna take things as serious as they are. Ye come from a place where things are easier, I think. […] I know ye would never endanger me or anyone else on purpose. But ye might easily do so without meanin’ it, like ye did today, because ye do not really believe me yet when I tel ye that some things are dangerous. You’re accustomed to thin for yourself, and I know,” he glanced sideways at me, “that you’re not accustomed to lettin’ a man tell ye what to do. But you must learn to do so, for all our sakes.” [p. 391]

And beat her ass he does. Yay feminism! :/

As much as I liked it – and the TV series – there are some problematic themes. Caveat lector.

I like Claire. She’s smart, yet not a Strong Female Character™ – she has flaws, and moments of panic. She does her best to adapt to her new world, and eventually comes to accept the fact that she’s probably not going to be able to return to her normal time. At the end of the book, she and Jamie are sailing off to France, escaping the Dragoons, and trying to figure out how to change history so the Scottish clans aren’t eradicated in the Battle of Culloden.

Eventually – maybe after I get caught up with Better Call Saul – I’ll power through the next couple of seasons of Outlander on my Starz subscription. And I have the next book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber, waiting for me to pick up as well. We’ll see how it goes.

Grade for Outlander: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

Tea RoseAs 2017 continued onward in its quick, Tower-of-Terror-esque descent into madness, I found myself turning more and more often to escapism. I stopped watching TV, for the most part, unless it was The Great British Bake Off or Bob’s Burgers for the umpteenth time. There is so much prestige TV drama I feel I should watch (American Crime Story: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, House of Cards*, any number of BBC historical dramas, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc., etc., etc. – to the point where I almost need to do a TV Alaina’s Never Seen, but I can’t even get through Project X), but I kept sinking in to things that made me feel good.

*Remember, I read this book in August, pre-The Reckoning. I’m sure as shit not starting it now. I’m gonna wait for the last season to come out and y’all else can watch it and let me know if it’s worth getting through the Spacey years to see General Antiope kick ass, but if the fifth season’s not going to live up to my expectations, it can fuck right off.

Here’s how bad the state of the nation is when it comes to Alaina’s Entertainment Habits (please note, this is a very low factor in deciding the overall state of our nation, which is, to put bluntly, fucked): I started to rewatch 30 Rock, but I have fallen out of love with Jack Donaghy, because now when I see Alec Baldwin all I can think of is this –

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and it makes me sad. And a little nauseated.

SPEAKING OF SAD AND NAUSEATED, I was watching Two Weeks’ Notice (do NOT fucking tell me the title of the movie doesn’t have an apostrophe, IT NEEDS TO BE THERE) and enjoying the fuck out of it like normal – I love Sandra Bullock, and Hugh Grant is a fucking delight – and everything’s going well, Sandy’s given her titular notice and Hugh is being so fucking charming, and they’re at the ball and then –

the fucking asshole president is at the buffet.

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Hand to god, I pulled the blanket I was huddled underneath over my head and sang “LA LA LA LA LA” over and over again until the scene was done.

That motherfucker ruins everything he touches. He’s like Midas – fuckin’ wishes he was Midas – but with shit.

CLEARLY, I have not stopped with being emotional. But when it came to reading, I was turning away (for the most part) from mysteries and legal thrillers. I didn’t want to read about terrible things when the world was so terrible. Yes, Silent in the Grave was a mystery, but the characters had a lightness to them that their world wasn’t awful, like it would have been if I had gone with the next Rizzoli and Isles book, or the next Sara Paretsky, or … or whatever.

(Note from the Future: I will also experience this with the new Fall television season, where my favorite shows are The Good Place and … the Dynasty reboot. THE DYNASTY REBOOT, YOU GUYS, IT’S –

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IT’S FUCKING CRAZYPANTS AND I LOVE IT)

Also crazypants? The Tea Rose.

I thought The Tea Rose was going to be a high English melodramatic historical fiction. I was right, and yet so delightfully wrong at the same time.

If you want the Dynasty reboot in book form, then my dears, The Tea Rose is the book for you.

The Tea Rose begins in Whitechapel, London, 1888. Fiona Finnegan is a maid of seventeen years, working at Burton Tea as a tea packer. That is not a euphemism. Her father, Paddy, is a dockworker at Burton’s; her mother, Kate, a laundress; and she has an older brother named Charlie, a younger brother named Seamie, and a baby sister. The Finnegans live modestly, with a tenant in the form of Roddy O’Meara, a bobbie with the London Police Force. They are a very happy family.

Fiona is being courted by Joe Bristow, a “coster” in the market who grew up down the street from the Finnegans. A “coster” is the dude who stands next to the fruit and veg cart in a farmer’s market promoting the merchandise. Fiona and Joe are truly in love, and they become engaged. Fiona is a bit jealous of Millie Peterson, the fancy daughter of a wealthy grocer conglomerate; Millie is a terrible flirt, and Millie feels that she can steal Joe out from under Fiona’s nose.

Paddy is involved in starting a union down at the docks. But Burton doesn’t like the idea of a union, and decides to kill the union leader to kill the unionization talks. THAT SHIT REALLY HAPPENED, NOT JUST IN MELODRAMATIC NOVELS, BY THE WAY. Anyway, Paddy gets pushed off an I-beam and dies in the hospital, surrounded by his family.

The remaining Finnegans now struggle to get by. Joe accepts Millie’s dad’s job offer and takes a new job in the City. When he attends the Guy Fawkes party, Millie gets him drunk and date-rapes him. When Millie tells Joe that she’s pregnant (!), he sadly breaks things off with Fiona because it’s only right and proper to marry Millie and be a father to the baby.

And then the Finnegans have to take a lower-rent room. They move deeper into Whitechapel, and Kate and the baby become sick.

Fiona’s out somewhere – I think she tried to be a barmaid during this time, to earn more money – and Kate hears a ruckus in the hall of the apartment complex. She goes out to investigate, and –

Oh, y’all know that the Jack the Ripper killings are also known as the Whitechapel Murders, right?

So Kate gets murdered by Jack the Ripper –  not because she was a “lightskirt,” but because she was a witness. Fiona’s baby sister dies soon after from malnutrition and illness. Big brother Charlie, overcome with grief, goes to fight in a boxing match to earn money; a few days later his body washes up the shores of the Thames.

It’s now just Fiona and Seamie. She moves into Roddy O’Meara’s flat for a bit. Then she gets it into her head that Burton’s owes her family a settlement for Paddy’s accidental death. She marches herself over to Burton’s and manages to get into the office, where she overhears Burton himself talking his underling, Bowler Sheehan, about how easy it was to murder that union upstart Finnegan. Fiona hides near a conveniently open safe, and when Burton and Sheehan walk into the room, Fiona accuses them of murder and then runs out.  It’s not until she escapes back to Roddy’s flat that she realizes she had a stash of £500 in her fist.

She remembers that Paddy’s brother, Michael, runs a grocery in New York City. Plan in place, she wakes up Seamie, packs up their meager belongings, leaves a vague note for Roddy, and then she and Seamie board a train for Southampton.

Guys – that’s like, only the first third of the book. We haven’t even hit peak crazypants yet.

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I know.

So in Southampton, Fiona attempts to book steerage passage to New York for her and Seamie, but the boat’s full up for two weeks. She befriends a very nice young man named Nicholas Soames, who had booked first class passage for two for himself. He offers Fiona and Seamie room in his rooms, and offers to pretend to be her husband so no one would think twice. Fiona accepts, desperate to get to New York.

The good news is that Nicholas is actually as nice as he sounds. He’s a gay man, escaping from his terrible father who disowned him. He’s also mourning the death of his lover, Henri. He’s moving to New York to open an art gallery (Henri was an artist), and he grows to platonically love Fiona and she him. He’s a genuinely nice guy, you guys! It’s so rare but also very sweet!

[This is probably where you guys are going, “Hey, Alaina, how are you able to remember Nick’s lover’s name? Haven’t you spent the last few book reviews going ‘Man, I suck for not taking notes, this blows, sorry ‘bout this shitty review’?” YOU GUYS – I TOOK NOTES FOR THIS ONE

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I win.]

Fiona et. al. get through customs and Fiona finds her cousin Michael.

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Michael is mourning the loss of his wife through the classic coping mechanism of “drinking all of his problems away and not doing a great job of it.” His grocery has been foreclosed upon, his baby daughter is in the care of the upstairs neighbor, and he spends nearly every waking moment at the pub. It’s … it’s not a great look. Fiona takes her anger out on Michael’s flat, cleaning it from top to bottom and basically making it habitable again. Then she marches over to the bank and asks for a loan to reopen the grocery. She has great ideas, namely coupons and advertisements, but the bank manager thinks her ideas are stupid because they’re coming from a female mouth, and he dismisses her.

But! A millionaire entrepreneur and subway constructor (as in the first subway system, not like a Subway™ franchisee) William McClane overhears Fiona’s great ideas, and when she leaves the bank manager’s office, he goes in, tells the bank to give her the loan, and then goes out and give Fiona the good news.

[My headcanon (because I did not write down that part of the book) is that McClane goes into the office and, like Goldfinger in Goldfinger after Oddjob hat-slices the head off the statute, says something like “I own the bank.”

My headcanon continues that William McClane is like, the great-great-grandfather of John McClane, and John’s dad probably ruined the company and lost all sorts of money which is why his son becomes a cop.]

The grocery store is open and it’s a big hit. I think McClane put an advertisement in the local paper, unbeknownst to Fiona? He did something, and he also shows up after opening night and takes her out on a date. They begin to court, and it’s cute, but Fiona realizes she still isn’t over Joe.

Oh, what’s going on with Joe? Because like a true soap opera, there are multiple plots. Joe never falls in love with Millie. And when he learns that Fiona has disappeared, he tries to figure out where she went, with the help of Roddy O’Meara. When Millie finds out, she gets super jealous, and her anger causes the baby to be born stillborn. I know. When the baby dies, Millie’s father forces Joe to divorce Millie and fires him from the Peterson’s grocery business.

Back to Fiona. She decides that, in an attempt to expand her business, she’s going to develop a tea to sell. She could recognize strains of tea from her days packing it at Burton’s (not a euphemism), and she finds a special tea blender and starts her own proprietary brand, which she calls TasTea.

Let me take a second here and get something off my chest. I fucking hate that name. There is no reason to have that second T capitalized. It looks like shit. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

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Having ranted, I am unable to come up with a better name, I just hate it.

Moving on. TasTea becomes a hit, and she expands her brand, adding new scents and flavors to the line. The tea becomes such a hit, she returns the grocery to (now sober) Michael’s responsibility and sets off to open a series of tea rooms. She purchases a beautiful, old yet rundown building and convinces the owner to sell the property to her, and she begins to fix it up to turn it into the first tea room, named The Tea Rose. Also, there’s room for an art gallery on the second floor, because she and Nicholas are still very good friends.

Meanwhile, she and William McClane have grown very close, and William proposes marriage. She accepts, even though a part of her is still in love with Joe. (Fiona also doesn’t know about Millie’s baby or Joe’s divorce.) William also expects that, once they’re married, she’ll find someone else to run her tea empire so she can move upstate with him and be a quiet married lady with no aspirations. That whole thing makes Fiona choke, but she doesn’t come right out and laugh in his face.

Because William’s son, Will Jr., is about to pull some shenanigans! (Oh, right, William McClane is a widower with a couple of adult children. He’s a lot older than Fiona, but it doesn’t really read.) Will Jr. has Congressional aspirations, and he’s worried what will happen to his career if his dad marries again and this time, to the merchant class. And yes, when I picture Will Jr., I see Paul Ryan at his utmost smarmiest. I hate my head sometimes.

So Will Jr. orchestrates a scandal – he learns that Nicholas sometimes goes to what we would today call gay bars, and organizes a raid, only to see Nicholas arrested. Fiona learns of Nicholas’s arrest, and at his hearing, pretends to be his fiancée so he’ll be cleared of the homosexuality charge. The judge, who is also Will Jr.’s best friend says, “okay, Nick can go, but you have to come back tomorrow and I’ll marry the two of you in my courtroom. If you don’t, I’ll know you’re lying and also that he’s gay, so you’ll both go to jail. Different jails.”

Nick protests, but doesn’t say that’s the stupidest thing a judge has ever done in a courtroom, but only because he didn’t have time to look up the entire history of the court system. Fiona agrees, because how else is she going to save her best friend? This solves everyone’s problems: Will Jr. can now successfully run for Congress because obviously Will Sr. can’t be a bigamist, Nick is safe, and Fiona can continue to grow her empire, unimpeded by a stupid man.

Nick does offer the marriage to be in name only, so Fiona might be able to find someone to love her physically. Fiona won’t hear of it, so they settle into a perfectly platonic marriage.

Meanwhile, what about Joe?? Joe took a small loan from his parents and started a door-to-door vegetable delivery service, so cooks and servants don’t have to spend an entire day to go to the market and stock up on produce that will go bad quickly. His business takes off, and over the years, he has turned it into a very successful high-end grocery store chain – like Whole Foods, but less snobby.

Years pass.

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Fiona’s business has also grown, and she’s responsible for numerous offshoots of **uuggghhh** TasTea. She’s also been investing a good amount of her profits into Burton’s Tea stock shares, in the hopes of becoming majority shareholder and then shutting Burton’s down as revenge for herself and her family.

Nicholas has been … okay. Because I probably didn’t mention it before, he is a gay man. And this is the 1890s. And while HIV/AIDS wasn’t a thing back then, syphilis sure was. In what is undoubtedly the saddest but also one of the loveliest moments in the entire novel (yes, I … I may have teared up, I’M NOT MAD AT ME), Nicholas dies.

Fiona goes over Nicholas’s will to discover … Nick was in line to a dukedom. Or would have been, if his father hadn’t disowned him. But also, Nick owned 30% of Burton Tea’s remaining shares! Which puts her over the majority!

(There’s a minor subplot about how Burton’s was beginning to fail and so in an effort to raise cash, Burton sold a portion of his personal shares to Nick’s Dad, who hid it in an account under Nick’s name… and now they’re the property of Fiona and they can’t get it back neener neener neener, but Nick’s Dad sues Fiona anyway oh this will be bad)

Fiona takes the next boat to London to force Nick’s Dad to drop his suit. With Roddy’s help, Nick’s Dad allows Fiona to retain the shares. (No, I didn’t write down what happened, it’s like the one thing I didn’t write down, leave me alone, read the book to find out).

Fiona marches over to Burton Tea, where there’s a shareholder’s meeting going on. Perfect timing, Fiona! She reveals herself as the majority shareholder and new owner of Burton’s. Burton goes mad and attacks her with a penknife. Roddy and Fiona’s lawyer attempts to catch him, but he runs away.

Fiona heals after a spell in hospital, moves into a house in London and one day, goes to visit the family cemetery. On her way back, she walks to the Thames and starts skipping stones, like she used to when she was a carefree girl in love with Joe. BUT JOE’S ALSO THERE! They meet again for the first time in over ten years, and they learn that Joe’s not married to Millie, and Fiona’s no longer married to Nicholas, and they immediately reconnect and admit that they love each other still, and become engaged again.

And the book still isn’t over! But it almost is, so I’m going to leave the finale to your reading pleasure.

The book is long. Goodreads says it’s almost 700 pages. So, 3,000-word long review aside, I know I left some stuff out. But I wouldn’t be a good reviewer (I mean, I’m not anyway, but you know what I mean) if I didn’t point out a couple of places that stood out to me.

There’s a point in the beginning of the book (heh, beginning, this thing I’m going to quote occurred on p. 106) where Joe is living in the City and Fiona hasn’t left London yet, but they’re separated, and this happens:

[Joe] rose from his chair, stoked the coals, and walked to the loo to wash up. He had to get some sleep. As he dried his face, he looked out of the bathroom window. The London sky was remarkably clear. Stars shown against the black night. He stared at one twinkling brightly. Did the same star shine down on her? he wondered. Was she maybe looking at it out of her window and thinking of him? He told the star he loved her, he told it to watch over her and keep her safe.  [p. 106]

Whoops, I mean this happens. (Sorry not sorry about the earworm, folks)

And then there’s this:

Nick had been stuffing himself with steamed mussels, sopping up their garlicky broth with hunks of crusty bread. [p. 188]

Dear god, do I love steamed mussels. I was reading this paragraph while on the bike at the gym, and I almost cried because all I could taste in my mouth were those little, garlic, winey morsels and I still had like twenty minutes to go and nowhere to get those mussels.

Now, Nick is eating those mussels in Paris, and just above that line, the narrator mentions Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and for about a second I thought that Nick’s Henri was actually Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and I stopped pedaling the bike and did this:

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This book has everything: tea, Jack the Ripper, syphilis, and high melodrama. It’s great to take your mind off the shitshow that’s currently playing on our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

And guess what? It’s a trilogy.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock

Grade for The Tea Rose: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Ross Poldark” by Winston Graham

ross poldarkOh, good – another book from the library where I only wrote down the characters’ names. (*eyeroll*) I swear to God, Alaina …

Well, okay. This one will be quick, then.

There is a BBC television series (currently airing on PBS) on the Poldark series of novels by Winston Graham. I had never read them or watched any episodes of the series, but I had put the TV show on my Prime watchlist. And one summer day, I was loading my arms up with books to read and saw one of the books on the shelf, and as luck would have it, the first book in the series was also there, so I checked it out.

Here are the notes I made on the characters in the book:

Ross Poldark: Captain from Cornwall, who fought in the Revolutionary War (for the British), came back to run his derelict farm.

I cannot remember if Poldark was an army or navy captain; I think navy? And he didn’t just come back to run the farm – he came back because the war was over, he wanted to return to a normal life, and he hoped to wed his neighbor Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Ross’s girlfriend before the war; [Poldark] came back to find her engaged to his cousin.

Leslie whaaaat

Elizabeth thought Ross had died in the war. Because remember, this is the Revolutionary War – there ain’t no telegrams or anything. And because this is the late 1700s and women couldn’t be independent, she did the next best thing and get herself engaged to Ross’s cousin (because also, there aren’t a whole lot of people around).

Francis Poldark: Marries Elizabeth; childhood friend of Ross; gambler.

So Francis, if I remember correctly, was a bit of a dick. He grew to be very jealous of the friendship between Elizabeth and Ross, even though Ross made no attempt to drive Elizabeth away from Francis. Elizabeth and Francis have a child, whom is doted on by Elizabeth; but Francis either wants Elizabeth to have another child and she’s not ready, or Francis’s dickishness just explodes everywhere … I can’t remember, but he’s not cool. Also he’s a gambler and nearly bankrupts the family.

Demelza: The waif Ross adopts/conscripts into service as his maid; quick to learn, devoted to Ross – becomes his wife.

One day, Ross goes to the nearest village to purchase something or maybe sell something, and he meets Demelza, a young, teenaged waif who was getting into trouble in some way. When he stops her from whatever it was she was doing, she says her only option is to return to her Da, who will beat her. He takes Demelza back to his house (he has two servants, who are terrible and lazy) and turns Demelza into a jack-of-all-trades scullery maid and servant. Over the years (because this book really does cover a few years), Ross and Demelza become attracted to each other, and they end the book married.

Verity: Francis’s sister, good friend to Ross and Demelza

Verity visits Ross a lot when he first returns to Cornwall and his land. She lives with Elizabeth and Francis, and wants to make sure Ross doesn’t isolate himself after Francis’s marriage.

Captain Blamey: The captain Verity falls in love with, who accidentally killed his first wife while he was drunk

*snickers* Captain Blamey … oh man, that’s a nickname I need to keep in my back pocket…

Verity also spends a lot of time at Ross’s house because he sort of understands the romance between Blamey and Verity. Make no mistake, he’d prefer that she didn’t love him, because he doesn’t trust Blamey not to fall back into alcoholism and he worries about Verity’s safety, but he understands the attraction between the two people.

Charles Poldark: Ross’s uncle, Francis’s & Verity’s father

I think Charles dies in the novel? I think? There was also some sort of bad blood between Charles and Ross’s father, but it’s dispensed with quickly.

Jud Paynter and Prudie: Ross’s servants

When Ross returns to his land, it’s been in the hands of “caretaker” Jud and his wife Prudie. They are terrible people, in that they are completely lazy and give no shits. When Ross comes home the house is a decrepit mess, with I think only one horse and no crops to farm? He spends a lot of time fixing up the place and whipping Jud and Prudie into shape. Adding Demelza into the mix helps to inspire Prudie to at least mediocrity.

Jinny & Jim: lovebirds who worked in the mines, later married, and lived on Ross’s land; Jim gets caught poaching and goes to jail for two years.

The biggest “plot” in the book is Ross getting the ol’ family mine started up again. He hires some people, including Jinny and Jim, to help mine the copper (or was it tin? *checks Wikipedia* Copper. A copper mine). When Jim wants to marry Jinny, Ross offers to let them live in an old cottage on his land rent-free (essentially, “you work for me, now because I provide housing you can’t leave.” CAPITALISM) (tone it down, Patterson, this was written about miners in the late 1700s, communism is still a red herring at this point).

But in order to get food, Jim poaches on some hoity estate and gets caught. Even after Ross vouches for Jim in court, Jim still gets sent to jail for two years. At the end of the book, Jim is still in jail.

And those are all the notes I took. No quotes, nothing else. Overall, the plot of the book was very … like, “slice-of-life” stuff. How can I explain this …

Instead of telling a single story – or maybe one primary story with a few B-plots – Ross Poldark tells the goings-on of one man over the course of a few years. Some stories escalate and resolve, some stories are just brief vignettes, and others don’t even resolve in the timeframe we’re watching.

And that’s okay, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t quite a picaresque novel (where instead of a plot with a through-line throughout the novel, the novel is a series of adventures starring a low-class individual [typically a thief or some other rogue] and the character doesn’t undergo any development), but it felt like it at times. However, characters do develop, Ross and Demelza especially.

I’ll probably watch the TV show (eventually, at some point), and knowing me, I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, but it’ll probably be a while. I guess I was hoping there’d be a little more suspense or action than there was, that’s all.

Grade for Ross Poldark: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

countess below stairsAfter I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!

So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.

A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.

Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.

So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.

Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:

“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]

Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.

Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!

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You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.

Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:

Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]

Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.

Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:

“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]

Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?

NOPE. According to Goodreads.com, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.

So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.

(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)

I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:

Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:

“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]

Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.

Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):

“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]

Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:

Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]

At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:

 It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]

Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.

He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:

“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”

“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]

I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.

In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.

I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.

Aaanyway. At least it’s over.

Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars