Friday, July 31, 2020

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

Reviewed by Jeanne

When a body is discovered in the house next door, Miss Amelia Butterworth takes quite an interest.  The family who owns the house was not in residence, leading to some questions as to how the unfortunate victim entered; but the more important questions are who was this woman?  And is her death an unfortunate accident?  Suicide? Or murder?  

Miss Butterworth, with her keen observation and logical thought processes, determines quickly that this was no accident nor was it suicide but a very clever and vicious murder.  She tells the police detective, Ebenezer Gryce, this at once, but he seems to have some reservations about a spinster—even one of good family—being capable of detective work.  Miss Butterworth takes up the challenge, determined to prove that she is every bit his equal in deduction.

This book was republished as part of the Library of Congress Crime Classics series and after hearing Green praised repeatedly in the Dorothy-L mystery group, I decided I needed to give her a try.  I admit I was a bit hesitant; after all, a book written in 1897 might not be to modern tastes.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was indeed entertaining and I enjoyed the author’s sense of humor.   The book is very lightly annotated to explain a few minor details (for example, Miss Butterworth likes to wear “puffs” which was a hairstyle) and to put some things in context.  One scene that is at best cringe-worthy today involves a Chinese laundry, but the footnote describes the widespread fear of Asian immigrants—the “Yellow Peril”— of the time to explain though not excuse the attitude.

I was fascinated by the social conventions at the time of the book; one shock came when an adult female character explains that she longed for school and taught herself to read and write. I also was surprised by the importance of hats. There’s an ever present sense of the social hierarchy and adherence to a code.  There’s one scene in which a character lies repeatedly in a courtroom because he cannot admit there was any circumstance in which his wife would enter a house with a man who was not her husband.  

Another strong component of my enjoyment was knowing that all the period details and sentiments were correct because the book is a reflection of its time.  When a 21st century author tries to write a book set in, say, the 18th century, I find myself second guessing some of the choices.  Would a character really believe this or that?  Is this how life really was at that time? In this book, I have no doubt.

Miss Butterworth is a delightful creation, a stubborn spinster who holds definite views of what is proper.  Her birth name was Araminta but she signs herself as Amelia because she is a sensible woman and not “the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen” who is of Colonial descent and therefore a social force to be reckoned with. This is not to say that she’s any champion of women’s rights—Green herself did not think women show have the vote—but she sees herself as the equal (if not the superior) of the police because of her intelligence and social standing.
Green’s Detective Gryce, is thought to have been part of Conan Doyle’s inspiration for the later Sherlock Holmes, while Agatha Christie readily acknowledged Green’s influence—and for this reader it is very easy to see how Miss Butterworth could have a kindred spirit in Miss Marple.

If you like tightly plotted mysteries in a historical setting, you might want to give Green a try. I’m not sure how her Gryce books would be, but I’m certainly willing to take another stroll with Miss Butterworth—though I am sure she would not consider me fit company in a social setting.  I would just sit quietly (or not) and be amused.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Nevermore: Waco, North Korea, Blackberry& Wild Rose, Black Swan of Paris, Book of Lost Friends

Reported by Kristin

Our first Zoom Nevermore member started with A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau. This first person account of one of only nine survivors of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, this is a detailed account that calls into question the motives of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) group which opened fire on the cult members. While David Koresh did control his group members to an extreme, Thibodeau also discusses the positives of the community such as the teaching and loving treatment of children. Our reader highly recommended this insightful account, and another reader spoke up to claim the book for the coming week.

Next up was My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worse Place on Earth by Wendy Simmons. Journalist Simmons took the opportunity to travel through North Korea in the time of a most controlling regime, where tourism includes only what the government wants you to see. She had to ask permission to take photographs, and learned that the official history presented starts only a few generations ago. With water only available one hour a day, a lack of toilet paper, terrible food, and being locked into the hotel at night (and this was at the best hotels!) she still managed to learn much about the North Korean culture, and to keep her sense of humor despite the strictures.

Continuing around the world, our next reader dove into historical fiction with Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton. Sara Kemp is a young girl who was sent away for protection, but instead is taken in by a madam of a brothel. She is rescued by the wife of a master silk weaver in 18th century London, but soon finds herself in a difficult household there was well. Our book club member said that this was a very easy book to read, and she found that she didn't want to put it down.

In more historical fiction, another reader picked up the new novel by Karen Robards, The Black Swan of Paris. Set in World War II Paris, singer Genevieve Dumont uses her celebrity to infiltrate the Nazis as part of a resistance movement that may swing the entire direction of the war. Genevieve and her sister are also trying to find their mother, a personal side to the story which our reader particularly enjoyed.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate is another recent fiction release with two timelines—Louisiana in both 1875 and 1987. After the Civil War, many freed slaves sought to find their family members who had been sold and relocated from their original plantations. “Lost Friends” advertisements were frequently published in newspapers as families attempted to reunite. The lives of three young women from that post-war era were rediscovered over a century later by a young teacher in the rural South. Our reader exclaimed that this was one of the best books she has ever read, and highly recommended it to others.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Reviewed by Christy

            Jane is a pregnant, 18 year old pizza delivery girl. A soon-to-be teen mom of a once teen mom, she floats through life with no real direction. Though her mother and boyfriend Billy are warm and supportive, she feels smothered and yet lonely at the same time.

            When harried mom Jenny calls in a special order for a pepperoni-and-pickles pizza, Jane is intrigued and agrees to the unusual request – even running to a nearby grocery store to purchase a jar of pickles. When Jane arrives with the pizza and meets Jenny face to face, she sees her as a whirlwind of an interesting person who she wants to know more and more about. This interest turns into a preoccupation, which then develops into an obsession.

            I really didn’t know what to expect with this novel. I have to admit, the bright, fun cover drew me in more than anything. The description just isn’t normally the type of story I gravitate towards. Though I don’t think the novel really has the same carefree tone as the cover, it does have the same irreverence. Jane is going through a lot in her life, impending motherhood, uncertainty about her future, and the recent death of her alcoholic father, all of which she uses Jenny as a distraction from. Frazier’s writing is charming and wry, and leads to a dramatic climax that I honestly didn’t see coming. It’s heavy and a little dark but not without hope.

            Pizza Girl is a slim book, just a little over 200 pages, but it packs a punch. About half way through, I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it but I was enjoying reading it. The more I read, the more I liked it. So maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you sure can find a good read when you least expect it!