Non-Fiction: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris

rise of teddyEnjoy this review, kids – it’s gonna be short!

(Or don’t enjoy this review because I show a lot about my political leanings in here. Feel free to click the next link below, read the real review of this book I did back in 2011, and then come back when I’ve read my next silly little romance novel. Whatever. I don’t really care.)

I’ve read this book before. This book kicked off my attempt to read something about American History every April. KEY WORD: “attempt.” I think we all know how great I’ve been about keeping to deadlines and routines and such.

I decided to re-read the book this past spring because … because! HAVE YOU BEEN ALIVE THIS YEAR?! If so, good for you! And while I am aware that Teddy Roosevelt can be very problematic(*), I would give ANYTHING to have someone(**) like Teddy Roosevelt leading the government again.

(*) One thing I did learn in this re-read was that Teddy was very much a nationalist – one of the first times I can recall seeing someone in politics wrap patriotism up in a nationalist tone. That I do not like about Teddy Roosevelt.

(**) As long as that someone is a Democrat and under the age of 50, and preferably, not a straight white man. I WILL NOT VOTE FOR ANY WHITE MAN OVER THE AGE OF 50 IN THE PRIMARY, I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.

OKAY, SO ANYWAY. I re-read this book back in April. And I know I had dogeared all sorts of quotes that were different from what I picked out the last time, and I was looking forward to sharing new aspects of this president that I actually admired (for the most part).

BUT THEN – *sigh*

At one point, I was reading this at work and dropped the book and when I went to pick it up it had apparently got caught under the leg of the chair I was sitting in? And this happened:

(PS that Twitter thread is very awful and interesting, in that, while putting my broken copy of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt away in my bookcase, I discovered that I had accidentally purchased a book written by a Fox and Friends host who was trying to pretend that he was a historical scholar and I FELT UNCLEAN)

So because I’m a terrible person (and hadn’t bought a house yet and could spend money a little more willy-nilly-ey), I ordered another copy of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Then, I moved in September. And I moved both editions of this book.

(I also learned I had two copies of Colonel Roosevelt, the third book in Edmund Morris’s series.)

In late October or early November, my office had a book sale to support our United Way campaign. And by that point, I had found a few other books I wanted to get rid of (WHY did I have a copy of the first Vampire Diaries book? I mean, I *know* why, Vampire Diaries was my first Dynasty) (also YES I got rid of that Fox and Friends book SO QUICK), so one day, I grabbed them – including one of the copies of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and donated them to the book sale.

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Yeah. You know where this is headed.

I got rid of the copy that had my dogears and quotes noted.

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So thank you for indulging me for 600 words, but I truly have nothing further to add to my review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Have a nice day.

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Fiction: “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro

art forgerThis was a book I’ve had on my bookshelf for at least a couple of years. A spur-of-the-moment purchase, it has languished on my “historical fiction” shelf next to that last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre saga for quite a while. But it turns out, it isn’t historical fiction at all.

The Art Forger takes place in Boston, and it has its roots in the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. The narrator, Claire Roth, is an artist hoping to make it in the big leagues. She’s living in a studio apartment in Southie and has a former colleague and gallery owner coming over to see her latest series of oils. But what Aiden Markel actually brings is better and also worse than the shot at a solo show at his gallery.

Claire supplements her income (such as it is) by painting legitimate forgeries for online sales.

I glance across the room at the two paintings sitting on easels. Woman Leaving Her Bath, a nude climbing out of a tub and attended to by a clothed maid, was painted by Edgar Degas in the late nineteenth century; this version was painted by Claire Roth in the early twenty-first. The other painting is only half-finished; Camille Pissaro’s The Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom, Spring, Pontoise à la Roth. Reproductions.com pays me to paint them, then sells the paintings online as “perfect replicas” whose “provenance only an art historian could discern” for ten times my price. These are my latest work. [p. 4]

Aiden gives Claire what the back of the paperback calls “a Faustian bargain” – paint a forgery, much in the same way she does for Reproductions.com, tell no one, and when the job is done, he’ll give her a solo show at his gallery.

After giving it a bit of thought, Claire agrees. And she’s both surprised but also not when she learns that the painting she needs to forge is one by Degas, last seen in 1990 the night of the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist. And it doesn’t appear to be a forgery.

So look. This book was great. I can’t wait to forget about it and read it again in like, five years (like I’m probably going to do with Jitterbug Perfume or Gilligan’s Wake again in the next few months). The characters were great, including those of Boston and also Southie. And I really liked the way the relationship between Claire and Markel develops over the course of the book. This book was so great, I’m not even going to tell you more about the plot and stuff, and I’ll just wait for y’all to discover its greatness on your own.

But what I am going to talk about, because I feel it made the book even greater, for me, was its connection to one of my top five favorite movies of all time that, let’s be real, I totally and completely made up. The connection between the movie and the book, I mean. I didn’t make up the movie. Or the book. Or – y’know what? you get it.

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How To Steal a Million is a fantastic movie. I almost waxed poetic about it a couple of book reviews ago, but I refrained. BECAUSE I CAN DESCRIBE IT IN DETAIL HERE!

When people name Audrey Hepburn movies they love, usually My Fair Lady, Roman HolidaySabrina, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes first. But for me, it’s this one, about an art heist gone wrong.

Audrey plays Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of an art forger. Papa’s specialty is Van Gogh, but as it turns out, forgery is a trait passed down from his father. Grandpapa carved a forgery of the Cellini Venus. And in the beginning of the movie, Papa has just allowed a prestigious Parisian museum to display the Cellini Venus – their Cellini Venus – in a short exhibition.

(Fun fact!: Benvenuto Cellini was a real sculptor, too!)

The fun begins in the movie when Audrey stays home from the museum gala, reading a magazine full of Hitchcock stories –

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– when she hears a squeak coming from downstairs. She sneaks down in her nightie, grabs one of her dad’s antique pistols from the hallway, and surprises Peter O’Toole, who appears to be stealing a painting!

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She decides to not call the police when she realizes that the Van Gogh painting Peter O’Toole was going to steal is a forgery because she doesn’t want an investigation to reveal her father’s … hobby. But then the antique pistol accidentally goes off and she has to take care of Peter O’Toole’s flesh wound (“Happens to be my flesh,” he grouses) and drive him back to his hotel (I can’t drive a stolen car!” “Same principle – four gears forward, one reverse.”) and if anyone wants to know where I learned to love banter between romantic leads, IT IS THIS MOVIE

(There are no good video clips online, otherwise I’d link you to all of them. And unfortunately, it’s no longer available to stream on Netflix or Hulu. You can rent the movie on Amazon for $3.99. OR, you could come to my house and I’ll make you watch it with me.)

So Audrey takes Peter back to his hotel, drops him off, and then goes home. WHAT AUDREY DOESN’T KNOW is that Peter is not an art thief, but an ART DETECTIVE (no, I’m not sure that’s a real thing, but we’re gonna go with it anyway), looking for evidence that her father is a forger! That’s why he chose that particular painting!

CUT TO:

About a week later, when the museum insurance guy visits Audrey and Papa and asks Papa to sign the insurance papers, which he does, but THEN, Insurance Guy wants to know if Papa is going to be present at the technical examination.

Y’know. When they test the statue to make sure it’s not … a fake?

So now Audrey and Papa are in BIG TROUBLE. When the insurance guys test the Cellini, they’re going to find out that it’s a forgery. So Audrey does the only thing she can think of –

She calls her art burglar pal Peter O’Toole and arranges to meet him in his hotel bar, while wearing the perfect subtle outfit that one should wear when arranging a heist.

Audrey in the bar

HER EYESHADOW IS DIAMONDS

HER ENTIRE OUTFIT IS BLACK LACE

NICOLE BONNET, MY ORIGINAL QUEEN

So anyway, she asks Peter to help her steal her own statue from the museum, and of course he agrees, because diamond eyeshadow and black lace cat burglar mask. And hijinks ensue. And it’s an adorable movie.

And as a bonus look into Alaina’s Messed-Up Psyche, the movie is also probably the first instance of Alaina’s Sexual Kryptonite – a.k.a., a man wearing a white Oxford button-down shirt, with the collar and top couple of buttons undone, and no tie. I always blamed that on the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, but now that I think about it, my first viewing of How to Steal a Million probably predates me watching Gilligan.

Okay, but seriously, look at this –

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Goddammit. Such a beautiful man.

ANYWAY. Here’s why I ranted so much about a relatively obscure romantic comedy from the 1960s – I found references to the movie (or made up references to please my crazy little head) within The Art Forger.

When Claire is narrating about different forgers, she mentions Han van Meegeren –

Probably the most brilliant […] was Han van Meegeren, a frustrated Dutch painter who spent six years in the 1930s formulating the chemical and technical processes needed to create a forgery that would hoodwink the dealers and critics who refused to recognize his genius. He used toaster parts to create an oven to bake his canvases and was a stunning success. He made a fortune until one of his “Vermeers” was found among postwar Nazi loot, and he had to prove he’d forged it to avoid charges of treason for selling a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. [p. 30-31]

Papa, during one of his speeches about his calling, name-drops van Meegeren! And I had no idea he wasn’t a fake person until I read this book!

Then there’s this, where Claire and Markel are discussing the buyer of the forged Degas she’s painting:

“But if he can’t sell it or show it to anyone, if it’s not a status symbol, and if he’s not going to use it on the black market, what’s in it for him?”

Markel leans back into the couch and sips his champagne. “It’s the rush of knowing you have it, that it’s yours and no one else but you can ever see it.” […] “It’s like an addiction. No, it is an addiction, one serious collectors can’t and probably don’t want to control.” [p. 166]

Another character in the movie is Davis Leland, an American tycoon who happens to be a rabid art collector. He gets close to Audrey/Nicole in hopes of purchasing one of her father’s collection. In the end, he gets a piece of art, but he understands that he can never display it.

So there you have it. More of a review for How to Steal a Million, and I’m only partly sorry about it, but if I discuss more of the book I think I’ll give too much away. I really liked it, and read it very quickly. I liked the details of the art forgery and, as I said above, I really liked the relationship between Claire and Markel. Give it a shot, I think you’ll like it too.

Grade for The Art Forger: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Other Side of Midnight” by Sidney Sheldon

Other Side of MidnightAfter Up Close And Dangerous left such a ragey flavor in my mouth, I didn’t read anything for like, a week. But when I was ready to read something again, I was still in the mood for schmaltz. But I also wanted a known quantity – I really didn’t feel like taking a chance on an author I’d never read before. Fool me once, shame on you, and all that.

So instead of the library, I went to my mom’s house and borrowed a couple of her Sidney Sheldon books.

Mom has pretty much the entire Sidney Sheldon… collection, for lack of a better phrase? He didn’t really write series – his books are like, stand-alone soap opera-esque epics that cover a woman’s life and the crazy antics she and her lovers get into, and also sometimes murder. By the time I was in high school, I had pretty much read all of the John Grisham novels published thus far, as well as the Kinsey Millhone series and most of Dick Francis’s stuff. And I was looking to add … more sex to my violence, as I’m fond of saying.

And since Mom was the one who introduced me to Dick Francis and Sue Grafton and John Grisham, she really couldn’t tell me I wasn’t allowed to read Sidney Sheldon’s stuff. Besides, Nick at Nite was a thing and I was really into I Dream of Jeannie (created by Sidney Sheldon!).

By the time I was a sophomore in college, and I had read every book by Sidney Sheldon my mother owned. And here’s the thing – I could read one of those books in like, two days. It was amazing! And it wasn’t just because I didn’t have a full time job and plenty of free time, either – the plots of the books just grabbed me and wouldn’t let me put them down.

The Other Side of Midnight was Sidney Sheldon’s second novel ever published. And when I went to my parents’ house that day with a Sheldon novel in mind, that was the one I grabbed.

(And then I kept it at my apartment, and then I moved it to my new home in Auburn. A couple of weeks ago my dad was helping me with a basement window thing and when we were eating lunch, he saw that I still had The Other Side of Midnight – it was out while I was writing this review. And poor Dad – he looks at me and asks, “Are you really reading that?” And I had to say, “No, Dad, I already read it.” YOU TOLD ME TO BROADEN MY HORIZONS DAD THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT)

So what is The Other Side of Midnight about?

It is the story of two women, both born just after World War I. For much of the book, each chapter moves between what is going on with Catherine Alexander, a young woman in Chicago, and Noelle Page, a young woman in France.

At 18, Noelle enters Paris a young, naive girl and immediately runs into Larry Douglas, on break from flying planes for the RAF. They have a wonderful weekend in Larry’s hotel room, at the end of which, he proposes. He says he’ll be back the following weekend to marry her. But – I’m sure you can guess what happens – he doesn’t return. In spite of her heartache, Noelle manages to become a model in Paris – very lucrative – and escapes much of the horrors of the Nazi occupation. However, she does manage to use her feminine wiles for good, and is able to smuggle her Jewish doctor out of Paris to save his life.

Meanwhile, Catherine has been going to college and then gets hired as a secretary for a PR firm. She makes an impression, and is practically running the place while her boss gets promoted to work with … I don’t know, Department of War or something? I’m not looking it up, I still know where the book is but it’s on the other side of the house and I’m still lazy, you guys. Anyway, she and Bill Fraser (her boss) get along very well together, and start sleeping together.

One day, Bill sends Catherine out to Hollywood to be assistant director on a film promoting the war effort. At the studio, she runs into Larry Douglas (!), and he’s such an ass to her that she assumes he’s just an actor and not actually a pilot. But when he apologizes and sets her straight, they … get married almost immediately!

Back in France, Noelle has turned her modeling career into an acting career, thanks to her manipulation of one of the premiere directors of Paris. The theater-going crowd worships her, and her best performance is the one she gives off-stage. Because she has hired a private detective and paid him handsomely – and his only job is to keep tabs on Larry Douglas. She receives reports monthly, telling her that he has been stationed back in London, or that his wife has returned to Washington for her job. And Noelle files the information away, just waiting for the best time to strike.

Because you see, all Noelle really wants – not fame, not money – is to enact vengeance on Larry Douglas.

Sidney Sheldon slowly strings the two ladies closer and closer together – after the war, Larry becomes a pilot, first for Pan Am, and then privately for a Greek tycoon named Constantin Demeris. Demeris also happens to be Noelle’s latest partner. And how do you think Larry managed to be plucked out of obscurity to be Demeris’s personal pilot?

I’m not going to ruin the ending or the rest of the plot for y’all. Unlike a soap opera, this book does have an ending. And even better, it’s a satisfying ending. But the getting to that ending – there’s plenty of drama to keep you reading.

Now, I was unable to read this in two days – unlike when I was in high school, I couldn’t spend an entire afternoon reading the book. But it was definitely a quick read. If you’re a fan of romantic suspense and haven’t tried Sidney Sheldon yet, I think now is as good a time as any.

Grade for The Other Side of Midnight: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better double-check that your library has it first.

Grade for Murder on the Orient Express: 4 stars

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: “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn

silent in the graveI had heard many great things about the Lady Julia Grey mystery series – from the Fug Girls’ Afternoon Book chats, from other readers, all sorts of places. But damned if I could ever find a copy of them. I think I had the first one out from the Portland library when I still lived there, or maybe it was during that weird six months where I worked at that horrible office, but if I had checked this out at that time, I returned it unread. And god forbid that the Yarmouth library had this title in stock.

But good news, everyone! I was shopping at Bull Moose – record store of my heart, that has also expanded to DVDs, games, and bless them, books – and a hardcover copy of Silent in the Grave, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, was on sale. And not only was it on sale, but it was on sale for $2.97.

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Now, the hardcover is heavy. It’s like, 500 pages. And I wanted to start reading it before going to My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower, but I also didn’t want to be carting around a 500-page hardcover book through airport security or on the Metro. I started reading this for real when I returned to Maine, and I read it super quick.

Lady Julia Grey is a widow in Victorian England. We know she’s a widow, because the first paragraph in the book reads:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. [p. 13]

Edward dies shortly thereafter, for all appearances, of stroke or seizure. Edward had not been well, either, so while it is a sad turn of events, it wasn’t completely a surprise. Brisbane was invited not as a guest to the dinner party that was going on, but because Edward had hired Brisbane to investigate a threat Edward had received. While the doctor declares Edward’s death due to his longstanding heart condition, Brisbane tries to convince Julia that Edward was murdered. She dismisses Brisbane out of hand and tries to get on with her mourning.

About a year later, Julia finds one of those threatening notes left for Edward, and she starts to think that maybe Brisbane was right. Julia seeks Brisbane out and attempts to hire him to find her husband’s killer, but he rightly tells her that too much time has passed since the death for any evidence or trails to exist.

But that doesn’t stop Lady Julia! She does her own investigating, and asking the doctor some questions, and also there are gypsies and –

Look, again, sadly, this review is going to suffer for my lateness and lack of note-taking. I know I did not bother to take notes on this book because I own it and thought by skimming through the book when it finally came time to review it, I’d be able to be fine with it? But I’m writing this at almost 11 p.m. on the Tuesday night before I have to go back to work after a six-day Christmas break and I really don’t feel like re-reading a 500-page novel again just so I can do a decent job reviewing it.

Note From the Future: I maaaay have started writing these reviews like, three at a time, and then posting one a day. I’m posting this today because I’m back to having four reviews in the can, so to speak, and that’s a good amount to have able to post, so – new year new me maybe this book blog backlog can be eradicated before the Oscars!

So I’m not going to talk about the plot – mainly, because I can’t remember much of it, and what I can remember, I’ll spoil the ending for you, and I don’t wanna play you like that. Instead, I’m going to tell you the emotions I remember and some other things.

First, Brisbane is a curmudgeon. A handsome curmudgeon, but a curmudgeon nonetheless. He is short with Lady Julia, and he tends to exasperate her, but later he introduces her to Hortense de Bellefleur, a patron-slash-mentor of sorts to Brisbane. A former courtesan, she delights in her newfound friendship with Lady Julia, and Julia responds in kind, not caring about what other people in society may think. Hortense also tells Julia that one of the factors for Brisbane’s prickliness is that he suffers from – well, we’d call them migraines, in common parlance. Can’t remember what they call them in this time period, and while I will look up the name of Brisbane’s courtesan friend, I’m not searching through the pages to find the euphemism for migraines.

Julia also has some ties to gypsies – a band of gypsies used to park on her father’s land when she was a teenager, and one of her maids or housekeepers is a gypsy. Somehow Julia is concerned that the gypsies may have been involved with Edward’s death, which leads her and her brother to disguise themselves to sneak into a nearby gypsy camp, where she discovers Brisbane boxing and also he’s fluent in Romany and when he discovers her there he gets super mad and also super protective and oooohhh, I see what you did there, Ms. Raybourn, it’s Next Love Interest Time!

I realize I’m sounding super facetious, but at this point I think I’m mad at myself more than at the book. I know I loved the book – much like when I skimmed the reviews for a couple of previous books, I’m shocked at how many people on Goodreads hate this book, but I enjoyed it. I thought the romantic elements between Lady Julia and Brisbane were great – a nice, slow burn, which I enjoy wholeheartedly. There’s also a subplot with Julia’s brother, whose name escapes me, and how he managed to steal a raven from the Tower of London and now the raven lives with Julia. There’s also Julia’s entire family, the Marches; her father is a Shakespearean nut, and all of the family members are named from Shakespeare characters. There’s a lot, and again, not looking it up, but I enjoyed that part of it.

I really did like this book. Unlike what some commentors on Goodreads thought, I didn’t think the multiple plotlines distracted from the story. I think this does something similar to the Lady Emily mysteries I’ve read: you have a strong, independent, almost-headstrong widow who’s determined to get to the bottom of something, but because she’s a Lady of Quality, she can’t devote every last second to mystery-solving. There are going to be subplots. Let’s face it; we all have subplots going on in our lives, we can’t devote every single second to the main action. In some cases, we may not even know whether the main action really is the main action.

The only page I dogeared in the entire novel was page 55, where Julia reminisces about her courtship with Edward. I felt that, through this paragraph, I felt akin with Julia:

I was not like the other girls; I had no frivolous conversation or pretty tricks to win suitors. I had forthrightness and plainspoken manners. I had a good mind and a sharp tongue, and I was cruel enough to use them as weapons to keep the cads and rogues at bay. As for the young men I might have liked to partner me, I was far better at repelling than attracting. I did not swoon or carry a vinaigrette or turn squeamish at the mention of spiders. Father had raised us to scorn such feminine deceptions. Like my brothers, I wanted to talk about good books and urgent politics, new ideas and foreign places. But the young men I met did not like that. They wanted pretty dolls with silvery giggles and empty heads. [p. 55]

Heeelloooo, Alaina! Like, FOR REAL. I do not know how to flirt. I am bad at it. I can’t tell when dudes flirt with me, which leads me to think that dudes aren’t flirting with me, which is also fine. But seriously: aside from literally screaming my head off at the sight of a garter snake (ask my sister, it happened, I’m ashamed but also, not apologetic for my actions), that paragraph could be describing one Alaina L. Patterson.

Again, that’s not the only reason I liked the story, and encourage y’all to read it given the chance. But it’s nice when a reader can truly relate to a character.

Grade for Silent in the Grave: 4 stars

Fiction: “Publish and Perish” by James Hynes

Publish PerishI first read this book years ago – like, I was still living with my parents, “years ago”. I found it at the library, and I think the only reason I picked it up was because I had heard good reviews of Mr. Hynes’s next book, Kings of Infinite Space (which I still have yet to read – that’s been on my bookshelf for decades now). The subtitle of this book is “Three Tales of Tenure and Terror”, and y’all should know by now that I have a … different relationship with the horror genre.

Look, I like vampires. Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Dracula – hell,

OKAY, SO, as I was writing that paragraph, a FUCKING HUGE SPIDER just FUCKING DROPPED from the ceiling. Like, “hey, y’all, I see you’re writing about horror, GET A LOAD OF ME” and I may have flipped out a wee little bit. BECAUSE I DON’T REALLY LIKE SCARY THINGS.

Here are the aspects of horror I enjoy: Vampire-related, to a point. Buffy and Dracula will always remain top spots in my heart, even if upon a second read I found Dracula to be boring. I … no longer know how I feel about the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. I remember enjoying them at some point, but I haven’t enjoyed one since … ever, according to my blog history. I liked the Sookie Stackhouse series – until I stopped reading it. Although I am in the middle of getting caught up with True Blood right now. (What? Seasons 1-6 are included with Amazon Prime, so why the hell not? If Lifetime’s UnReal isn’t coming back until 2018, what other options for summer cheese do I have? TNT’s Will? Oh dudes – that’s a story for another time.)

Are vampires even considered “horror” anymore? If someone said, “Hey, there’s a new horror movie playing,” my first thought is, “how many people get slashed by things hiding under beds and shit?” Because that’s the thing I hate. I don’t like the idea of people walking into rooms and having blood dripping down the walls. I don’t like slasher films. You will never, ever, get me to watch Saw or Paranormal Activity.

Now, psychological horror – like Hannibal / Silence of the Lambs, or Psycho – those I’ll watch. And if people go back to making goofy horror movies (like The Grudge, or Final Destination II), I may watch one. On Redbox.

I’m also a terrible Mainer, in that I’ve only read one Stephen King novel. It was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I even read it way back when was because Sean Patrick Flanery was playing the bad guy in the USA series way back when, and Sean Patrick Flanery played my favorite Boondock Saint. (I’m going to try The Dark Tower – soon. Maybe.)

So it’s really against my nature to pick up a book in the horror genre. It’s also against my nature – at least, I think – to enjoy it. And it’s really against my nature to enjoy it so much to want to read it again. I think it helps that the three stories in this book aren’t gory or slasher-ey, but more along the lines of WTF.

First up is “Queen of the Jungle”, which stars Paul and Elizabeth, two professors attempting to get tenure, and their cat, Charlotte. Paul and Elizabeth live in Bluff City, Iowa, and Elizabeth lives during the week in Chicago where she’s on a tenure track. When Elizabeth’s away, Paul definitely plays with his mistress, Kym, one of his students. Paul’s a stereotypical adulterous douche: he’s careful enough to make sure Elizabeth doesn’t find out, but he doesn’t care about her feelings enough to stop. He’s also fairly jealous of Elizabeth’s tenure track, as he’s been struggling to get his first thesis published. When Elizabeth tells him that her boss is interested in reading Paul’s research, which could lead to his own tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, Paul is ecstatic, and spends the week frantically fucking Kym and writing down whatever he could.

Meanwhile, Charlotte may or may not be attempting to sabotage Paul. She starts by peeing in Kym’s shoes every time she visits. Or taking Kym’s panties and hiding them, then dragging them out just before Elizabeth gets home. Paul even accuses Charlotte – a cat, remember – of unplugging his computer while he and Kym were out of the room, causing all of his day’s work to be erased.

I should warn cat lovers: Paul is progressively meaner and abusive to Charlotte. And there’s a moment before the climax of the story where it looks as if he kills the cat. (Note, I said looks – the horrific element comes in and allows you, the reader, to determine that for yourself.) And if reading my blurb about it causes you to not pick up the book, well, I can’t say as I blame you. But I’d also like to point out that the next two stories (which I’ll also briefly recap) do not have any harm come to any other animals, so you may want to consider giving the other two stories a chance.

“99” is the middle story, which has as its focus Gregory, a disgraced American anthropology professor vacationing-slash-forced-sabbatical-ing in southern England. The title of the story is taken from the following joke Gregory’s friend Martin tells him:

“A man is jumping up and down on a manhole cover. As he jumps, he’s shouting, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight…’ Now, another chap comes along and says, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ The first man keeps jumping up and down on the manhole cover, and he says, ‘Ninety-eight … it’s wonderful fun … ninety-eight … you really should try it … ninety-eight…’

“So the second man says, ‘Really? What’s fun about it?’

“And the first man says, ‘Ninety-eight … try it and see … ninety-eight …’

“’All right then,’ says the second man, ‘step aside.’

“So the first man jumps aside, and the second chap steps onto the manhole cover and starts jumping up and down, shouting out, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight …’”

“I get the picture,” Gregory said. Martin had little sense of pacing, an unfortunate lack in a documentary producer.

“Of course you do.” Martin smiled. “So the first man says, ‘Jump higher.’

“’Like this?’ says the second man, crying, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight,’ and jumping as high as he can. And as he jumps higher, the first man reaches under him, pulls away the manhole cover, and down falls the second chap into the hole. Then the first fellow puts the manhole cover back over the hole, and starts jumping up and down saying, ‘Ninety-nine, ninety-nine …’” [p. 101-102]

Gregory extends his sabbatical to a small town near Stonehenge named Silbury, which is known for crop circles and other strange phenomena. When he visits the local pub, there’s a wall of photographs of painted people surrounded by local villagers, dating back to the late 1800s. It’s attributed to a local festival, the Seven Sisters – a tradition. Without divulging spoilers, the joke and the festival are connected.

The last story, “Casting the Runes,” stars Virginia, an adjunct professor at a Texas university one paper away from being granted tenure. Unfortunately, her advisor, Victor Karswell, has other ideas – he wants to take her paper and publish it under his own name. And it’s not the first time he’s done this with other students. Virginia refuses and grabs her paper from his hands. When she gets home, she finds small runes written on the side of the last page. And then weird stuff happens.

What I like about this genre of horror is that the horrific aspects could be explained by coincidence or human nature; or, there actually could be a supernatural element behind them. We the reader are allowed to make that decision for ourselves, based on what we believe. If you don’t believe in any supernatural stuff at all, then these tales would fall squarely in the center of psychological terror. If you think maybe there’s something to pagan beliefs, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion.

I like these stories. They’re well-written, and allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. I’ve read a few books lately (to-be-reviewed) where the author tells you exactly what happens and there’s no doubt allowed, and I don’t enjoy those as much. If this type of genre intrigues you, I’d say go ahead and pick up the book. And feel free to skip the first story.

Grade for Publish and Perish: 4 stars