Friday, December 14, 2018

Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan

Reviewed by Jeanne

Mordecai Tremaine, retired tobacco seller and amateur criminologist, has arrived at an English country house for a good, old fashioned Christmas, courtesy of an invitation from Benedict Grame, a man he knows only slightly.  It’s the post script from Grame’s assistant Nicholas Blaise that intrigues him, an ending that reads, “But I can tell there’s something wrong, and frankly, I’m getting scared.

Once he arrives, Tremaine meets an interesting assortment of characters, all of whom seem to have secrets. He’s particularly taken with two young lovers, kept apart by an apparent whim of the girl’s guardian, but then Mordecai is a romantic at heart. He even reads romance magazines.

 Before the sleuth can quite sort out all the relationships between the guests, Father Christmas is murdered—or rather, a member of the party in full Father Christmas robes.  The police are called, but in the best classic amateur sleuth tradition, it’s Mordecai Tremaine who will figure out the who, why, and how of the crime.

This is actually the second in the series by the pseudonymous Duncan, a reprint of the 1949 edition.  It’s in the mold of the classic mysteries of the sort done by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Marjorie Allingham.  I’m a fan of novels of that era, and often find modern takes on the themes to be somehow lacking, as if the author is trying too hard to replicate a style. This one flows very well and it feels fresh, not any sort of imitation.   Not only does it set up a fascinating puzzle (or, rather, set of puzzles) but the characters are deftly sketched.  There were a number of surprises along the way for me,  but in retrospect the groundwork had been fairly laid. Most of all, I was charmed by Mr. Tremaine.  He is interesting without being too quirky.  He’s genuinely interested in other people, keenly observing them, but without being coldly analytical.  Being a gentleman, he has a certain reserve but he comes off as being pleasant and good-natured. He's quietly confident, not egotistical.

If you like the classic cozy mystery style, by all means give this series a try. I intend to read all five.

As for the author, the mystery of his identity was solved when one of his children saw the reprinted books in a shop.  The author was one William Underhill of Bristol, England, who served in World War II and spent the rest of his working life as a teacher, supplementing the family income with his writing.  Besides the five Tremaine mysteries, he wrote over a dozen standalone novels between 1937 and 1959.  He died in 1988, at the age of 80.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Nevermore: Bookshop of Yesterdays, Fourth Monkey, Breathing Lessons, Outsider, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Reported by Kristin

With a group full of book lovers, it’s no surprise that the first title mentioned was The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson.  Miranda Brooks fondly remembers her Uncle Billy and his Los Angeles bookstore while she was growing up, but lost touch with him after he and Miranda’s mother have a falling-out.  Sixteen years later, Miranda learns that Uncle Billy has died and has left her his bookstore, and the clues left within.  Miranda spends a summer deciphering clues and following a mysterious scavenger hunt, as well as discovering more about her family.  Our reader found this story quite interesting, although rather predictable.

Next up was The Fourth Monkey by J. D. Barker.  The first book featuring Detective Sam Parker, this installment features a killer who has frightened Chicago residents for over five years.  Playing off the idea of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” the fourth monkey here is “do no evil.”  Our reader said that she read the entire book in one day and simply “could not put the darn thing down.”

Another reader picked up an older novel by Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons.  The story centers around Maggie and Ira Moran, a long married couple who spend a road trip reflecting upon their lives.  Married just after high school, Maggie and Ira have had more than their share of differences, joys, and heartaches.  Enthusiastically recommending this book as funny and relatable, our reader also noted that the book was so much better than the movie of the same name.

Turning to non-fiction, the next book club member shared her pleasurable experience in reading The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by New York Times bestselling author Frederick Forsyth.  Known for his suspense novels full of spies, arms dealers, and drug cartels, Forsyth has finally written the story of his own life.  A pilot in the Royal Air Force as a young man, Forsyth then turned to journalism as a Reuters correspondent, later working for the BBC.  With life adventures taking him across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and more, our reader found Forsyth to be a fascinating character.

Blending history with imagination, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird was up next, a story of an African queen who was brought to the New World in slavery, and her descendants.  The granddaughter, Cathy Williams, was born into slavery but seized her chance to fight during the Civil War by dressing as a man and joining the Buffalo Soldiers.  Based on the life of Cathay Williams who enlisted in the United States army as “William Cathay,” this novel was regarded as an interesting read.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Taste of Home Annual Recipes 2019

Reviewed by Kristin

I love nothing more than reading a book that appears to be ahead of its time, and I found that joy in reading the Taste of Home Annual Recipes 2019.  It’s almost Christmastime and no matter which holidays you celebrate, food is a common denominator in get-togethers with family and friends.  Taste of Home cookbooks have an excellent selection of everything from soup to nuts, and even throw in bone-shaped dog biscuits for your best furry friend.

Now if I had to plan a meal exclusively from this cookbook….

We’ll start with the Roasted Red Pepper Triangles.  Layering refrigerated crescent roll dough, cooked ham and pepperoni, cheeses, sweet red peppers and a Parmesan cheese-Italian seasoning-egg mixture, this triangle cut appetizer is sure to taste heavenly.  Next, the inspirational page labeled “Say Cream Cheese” will provide a variety of options for dips and spreads whether our guests prefer savory or sweet.  Throw in some cut veggies and crackers (homemade or not) and I think our munchies will be satisfied until the next course is rolled out.

How about the Skinny Cobb Salad to provide some tasty greenery for our salad course?  The Greek yogurt, feta cheese, chicken breast, apple, onions, bacon, garbanzo beans and avocado sound like delightful toppings for the lettuce and crunchy coleslaw mix.

The Chicken with Peach-Cucumber Salsa stirs my taste buds as I imagine the fresh spices and crisp cucumbers topping the perfectly grilled chicken breasts.  Or should I go with the Spaghetti Squash Skillet?  (Perhaps leaving out the chorizo mentioned in the recipe, if we are looking for a vegetarian main course tonight.)  The taco seasoning, tomatoes, sweet peppers and onions make this sound like a very tasty treat.

Ooh, the Zucchini-Crusted Pizza is another option, and with only 20 minutes to prep, I might just have to go with that.  Combining shredded zucchini, mozzarella and Parmesan sounds like a yummy crust, with red peppers and more mozzarella crowning the top.

A whole section on breads and rolls?  Breakfast and brunch too?  And I’m only halfway through the cookbook?  Uh-oh.  Jalepeno Cornbread filled with Blueberry Quick Jam, here I come.

I’d better skip to the desserts.  The Chocolate Cheesecake Bars would appeal to most everyone in my family and would only take 15 minutes to mix up and get into the pan.  Although the Rustic Caramel Apple Tart would be both beautiful and delicious.  Hmm, maybe I could combine the cheesecake and the apples.  Maybe we need two or three desserts if I’m inviting a crowd.  The more the merrier!

Who am I kidding?  I am unlikely to coordinate my time, ingredients, and baking dishes well enough to put together this multi-course meal and serve it all before midnight.  But maybe, just maybe, I can choose a recipe or two to serve to my family or take to a holiday carry-in dinner.  (Check out the “Potluck Pleasers” which is called a unique chapter.)  After all, it’s not all about the food and gifts, but about the togetherness that this holiday season brings.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

Reviewed by Jeanne

Christmas celebrations are entirely too secular, too given to merriment.  Sound familiar?  It should, as it’s a complaint that’s been made since at least the year 389—just thirty years after December 25 was designated as the Nativity.  A few centuries down the road, the complaint was that shops were closing on Christmas Day, drawing the ire of officials who did not consider the day to be a true Christian holiday because it was not mentioned in the Bible.  Penalties could be awarded to anyone caught even worshiping on “the superstitious time of the Nativity” as John Evelyn wrote in 1655 after a group of soldiers surrounded Evelyn and others who were gathered in prayer.

The fascinating history of Christmas and how it is observed is covered in Judith Flanders’ book Christmas: A Biography, a very readable and fascinating look at a beloved holiday.  My first surprise was finding that most of what we know about how Christmas was celebrated comes from prohibitions against doing things, such as drinking excessively or demanding food or money from householders. 

Although the author is based in London, she has a good bit of information about how the holiday was observed (or not) in the United States as well as other countries, especially European states. She explains origins of customs, including the Macy’s parade, Santa Claus, and the singing of songs (and how the term “carol” came to be associated almost exclusively with Christmas).  She traces the evolution of so many aspects of the holiday that we take for granted: the exchange of gifts, wrapping of said gifts, Advent calendars, and the emphasis on family, especially children. My second surprise was how recently the emphasis on Christmas as a family oriented holiday became the norm; earlier it was considered a time for adults (mostly men) to go to a pub and drink.

The writer makes a strong case that two authors are primarily responsible for our modern views of Christmas:  Charles Dickens and Washington Irving.  Of course, almost everybody in the U.S. has seen, read, or heard some version of A Christmas Carol, but the influential Knickerbocker Stories are relatively obscure now.  Irving’s book features comic exaggeration which many of his contemporaries would have known to be “tall tales” but modern readers have taken at face value.

My one complaint is the lack of an index, which makes it difficult to refer back.  Otherwise, I can happily recommend this informative, entertaining book.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Nevermore: Trump, Fannie Flagg, Paula McLain, Hank Green, Jennifer Worick, Greg Miller, Bob Woodward

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore is never afraid to tackle tough subjects, and several readers have picked up a recent release entitled Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward.  The author is no stranger to politics—as an investigative journalist he played a huge role in reporting the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  Since then, Woodward has also published eighteen political non-fiction books as well as serving as an associate editor at The Washington Post.  Our reader noted that this is neither a happy nor hopeful book, but it does bring forward many points for readers to consider.

Continuing in United States politics, another reader picked up The Apprentice: Trump, Russia, and the Subversion of American Democracy by Greg Miller.  Also a journalist, in this volume Miller examines the 2016 presidential election through hundreds of interviews.  Our reader said that while she did finish the book, she didn’t really enjoy it, and didn’t think there was enough new information of consequence included.

Our next Nevermore member picked up a delightful work of fiction—The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg.  A multigenerational saga set in Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the story begins with a Swedish mail-order bride coming west in pioneer days.  Her family grows, and watches the town grow through the decades.  Our reader found it delightful, such a nice book, and a fresh change in that it was not depressing like some of the other books she has read recently.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain was appreciated by our next reader.  In 1920s Kenya, Beryl Markham was a child raised by her English father and the African Kipsigis tribe.  Her adventures in aviation, horse training, and matters of the heart intrigued our reader, who was halfway through the novel and promised to follow up next week.

The next reviewer enjoyed The Prairie Girl’s Guide to Life: How to Sew a Sampler Quilt & 49 Other Pioneer Projects for the Modern Girl by Jennifer Worick.  Candle making, turkey trussing, pillowcase embroidering, rug braiding, and bread making are but a few of the old-timey skills included in this how-to book.  Our reader found it rather cute, and planned to share several of the ideas with a friend who is a young mother of girls.

Lastly, another reader raved about Hank Green’s debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  When 10-foot-tall statues in samurai garb suddenly appear in major metropolitan areas around the globe, New York City artist April May has the good fortunate (or misfortune) to be the first YouTuber who reports the news to the world.  The video quickly goes viral and April must deal with her sudden cyber-fame.  Quirky and relatable in this world where everyone lives on the internet, this debut portends great things for Green’s writing career.