Cindy Brown’s Ivy Meadows Mysteries

MacDeath is the first installment in Cindy Brown’s Ivy Meadows series, and it’s a delightful backstage mystery, as Ivy plays one of the Witches in a wild circus-themed production of MacBeth. (MacBeth is the lion MacDeathtamer, the king is the ringmaster, and the witches tumble in and out of a flying cauldron.) When a cast member dies under suspicious (at least to Ivy) circumstances, she undertakes her own investigation, dragging in her private investigator uncle, never sure which cast members she can trust.

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Quirky characters include a fellow witch who calls herself Candy MoonPie (Ivy’s own real name is Olive Ziegwart), a local news personality who wants to be a Shakespearean actor, a very attractive MacBeth, and a decidedly odd Lady MacBeth. The setting and background, local theater in Phoenix, Arizona, are well described and entertaining.

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When I finished reading MacDeath, I downloaded Ivy’s next two adventures. In The Sound of Murder, Ivy’s theatrical career becomes even wackier, as she plays sixteen-year-old Teazel in “The Sound of Cabaret,” a mash-up of, you guessed it, “The Sound of Music” and “Cabaret.” Well, they’re both set in Germany in the 1930s, aren’t they? Ivy’s just glad to have a dinner theater gig, while she works days at her Uncle Bob’s PI office, Duda Detectives (try saying that while introducing yourself). And a house sitting gig, since she set fire to her apartment, and it will be under repair for a couple of months. Even if that gig includes taking care of a The Sound of Murderswimming pool, not an easy job for someone with a water phobia.

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And then there’s the suicide next door (who turns out to be connected to the theater), the lead actress who can’t remember her lines, Ivy’s own problems with singing in front of an audience, that guy with the mirror sunglasses, and the hot fireman she met when her apartment combusted. Just another day in Phoenix—whoops, is that Ivy’s car catching fire again?

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Ivy and Uncle Bob go undercover in Oliver Twisted, aboard a Dickens-themed cruise ship (the S.S. David Copperfield—and honestly, I want to go on that cruise). They’re looking for a gang of pick pockets and thieves that has been plaguing the entire Get Lit! literary-themed cruise line (they’re redoing the S.S. Anna Karenina because Tolstoy was too depressing). Ivy takes on the part of Nancy in the on board production Oliver Twistedof Oliver! At Sea! (with some amusing lyric changes) and finds herself filling in for an aerial dancer in the magic show, something for which she has no training at all, while Bob poses as a wealthy rancher, and attracts a lady who arouses Ivy’s suspicions.

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Poor cell phone service hinders Ivy’s communications with Bob, and with with Matt back at the group home in Phoenix from which her brother Cody has vanished. Bodies pile up on the ship, along with both real and fake thieves (the boys playing Fagin’s miscreants run loose on the ship, as do all the “ambient characters” from Dickens’ tales).

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There’s a big bonus in the job for Ivy and Bob, as well as a few days cruising Hawaii, if they can figure out what’s going on, who they can trust, and what family ties really mean.

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I hope Cindy Brown is planning more adventures for Ivy and Bob. This is a funny, entertaining series, one of several I am enjoying from Henery Press, a small house specializing in cozy mysteries with a light tone (and great cover art). Their catalog is definitely worth checking out.

After Pride and Prejudice

I have a confession to make. I am not a Jane Austen Fan. (Some of my romance writer friends will consider this blasphemy.) I haven’t read a word of Austen since I was in high school, several decades ago. Back then I had a matched set of paperbacks, and I remember the covers (oval pictures surrounded by green vines on a white background) better than I do the contents, although I know I read all four. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility (never made sense of the title), Emma, and . . . what was that other one? Oh, yes, Mansfield Park. No idea what that one was about. Heck, I haven’t even watched the numerous movie and TV versions. Think I might have seen some version of Emma. Maybe.

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I think I’m in the minority on this. Some of my friends love the books, some love the movies (especially Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), some love both. Not many, like me, don’t much care. Somewhere in the house I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve never gotten past the first couple of pages. (I think I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my old Kindle, but I never opened it.)

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Many Austen lovers have tried their hand (or keyboard) at Austen sequels and variations (mostly, as far as I know, based on Pride and Prejudice), an enterprise made possible by the growth of independent publishing, but I haven’t been swept into that phenomenon, either.

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So when I read Cheryl Bolen’s three post-Pride and Prejudice novellas, I was diving in cold. I recognized the Darcys and the Bennets (I haven’t actually been living in a cave all these years), but the supporting characters—which were Austen’s? which were Bolen’s?—were a mystery. But I enjoyed the stories very much.

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Pride & Prejudice Sequels

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Miss Darcy’s New Companion is Lucy Wetherspoon, who takes the position as Elizabeth and Darcy leave for their continental honeymoon. Lucy is a spinster without a fortune; the Darcys’ neighbor, Lord Fane, is a bachelor in need of a fortune with which to restore his own family’s home. Perhaps Georgiana’s dowry will do the trick—until he meets Lucy.

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In Miss Darcy’s Secret Love, Georgiana is wooed by a highly eligible bachelor, the Earl of Hampton (that thirty-thousand pound dowry might just have something to do with his interest), and she believes such a marriage would please her brother. But she can’t forget her feelings for her childhood friend Robert Carrington, who has recently come home to ask his brother for permission to marry a woman he met in Spain.

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Domineering mother Lady Catherine de Bourgh unwittingly arranges The Liberation of Miss de Bourgh when she arranges a marriage for her sickly daughter Anne. Charles St. John, the cash-strapped Earl of Seaton, needs the wherewithal to launch his sisters into society, so he agrees to a marriage of convenience with Anne, who isn’t expected to live past Christmas, in exchange for becoming the heir to the de Bourgh fortune. But when he takes Anne away from her mother, everything changes.

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If you’re a Jane Austen devotee, you’ll find much to appreciate in these novellas. If not (like me), you’ll still find much to enjoy, sweet romance with social commentary and humor.

The Elegant Beast

About thirty years ago, I bought two copies of a wonderful picture book called The Elegant Beast, one for me and one for my mother. Written and illustrated by Leonard Lubin and published in 1981 by The Viking Press, the book is subtitled “Or Conversations on Costume, Being a Treatise with Illustrations Showing How Clothes The Elegant BeastCan Bring Out the Animal in All of Us.” The twenty beautifully drawn and colored illustrations depict a wide range of animals dressed in costumes ranging from the Middle Ages to the Belle Epoque.

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Some years late I chopped up my copy of the book in order to frame the pictures. I gave several to my writing friends as Christmas gifts that year and hung the rest around my house, convinced that somewhere I had the copy I’d given my mom (a lover of fashion illustration, and pretty darn good at it herself), who had passed away by then.

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But I couldn’t find that second copy, not in the books she brought with her when she moved in with me, not in any of the bookshelves around the house. For all I know, it’s here somewhere still—my house overflows with books, and I’ll bet at least ten percent of them are so lost on the shelves that I will only find them by accident.

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I think I bought those original copies on a remainder table somewhere: the original price was all of $10.95, but I’m sure I didn’t pay that much for them. When the Internet made it easy to find out-of-print books I looked for it, and found the price had skyrocketed. Eventually I ordered a copy at a reasonable price, and received a battered book that once belonged to a branch of the Dallas Public Library, shelving stickers and card pocket still firmly glued in place. All the pictures were there, but it was something of a disappointment.

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So when I ordered a book from Alibris last Tuesday, I cruised around the site until I found a copy of The Elegant Beast, described as “good,” for about five dollars (the price of the book on Alibris currently ranges up to $96, and I saw one on Amazon for $115). What the heck, I thought, and clicked it into my shopping cart. Both books were on my doorstep Friday afternoon, and both were in perfect condition.

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So here are a few of the Elegant Beasts (I have committed no sin against bookbindings—the spine of the ex-library edition was broken when I got it, and that’s what I used for the photographs). The facing page to each illustration gives a paragraph or two of period history and a detailed description of the pictured clothing.

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The first models, brown and black rats, are dressed in the Gothic fashions of 1430 to 1460.

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Elegant Beast Gothic

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Here a chihuahua and a bull dog represent the Tudor period.

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Elegant Beast Tudor

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Along the way we meet a variety of dogs, cats, and birds, an Elizabethan Galapagos tortoise, goats, hares, and lions, baboons, a llama and a camel (the French Empire period) and a pair of jaunty zebras (French Directoire).

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Here we see a gentleman warthog and a lady pig from the late Victorian era.

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Elegant Beast Victorian

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And, finally, from the Belle Epoque (1910-1915), a harbor seal and an elephant seal represent the height of fashion.

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Elegant Beast Belle Epoque

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Lubin ended his history there, feeling that the First World War changed many aspects of life, not the least of them attitudes toward fashion, and perhaps the wealth and leisure to pursue such an interest disappeared as well.

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The Elegant Beast is an utterly charming book. If you’re lucky enough to run across a copy in your favorite used bookstore, grab it.

What’s in My Purse?

The Wednesday Writers are back! We took July off because so many of us were going to the RWA National Conference in San Diego. Oddly enough, there’s actually a connection between that event and the contents of my purse.

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I have for years carried way too much junk around in one oversized purse after another. Way back in high school (in a previous century), I had a shelf full of purses and changed them frequently to match my outfits. I guess that seemed important back then, and I probably had less to carry around. Definitely no phone or camera, probably a wallet, a hair brush, school supplies, and a paperback novel.

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Now I buy a purse and use it for months, until something breaks or I get bored and crave a new one. And for years I’ve been very particular about purses: must have three sections, with a zipper on the middle one, so many pockets, some place to clip my keys on, and so forth. All very well, and all rather large. I bought a new one earlier this summer, and realized it was closer to a tote bag than a hand bag.

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Heading for San Diego in July, I decided I needed a small purse, something easy to carry, that would hold my large wallet, my new smartphone (also rather large), my Kindle, and a few other odds and ends. And I discovered I really liked it, but when I got home it was just a bit too small for everyday use.

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So I went out and bought a slightly larger purse in the same style: one section, a couple of outside pockets, a couple of inside pockets, and someplace to hang my keys. And I set out to declutter my purse.

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No need for that big notebook, not every day anyway. Cut the fourteen pens down to five. Ditch the address book—I’ve put all that information in my phone. Ditto the shopping list. And the calendar. (Heck, that’s why I spent all that money on the phone, isn’t it? I don’t make many calls, but I sure like having a little computer in my purse!)

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PurseNow I’m down to wallet, phone, checkbook (I could probably leave that at home), keys, extra sunglasses (clip ons, I keep my regular pair in the car), aspirin, bandana (for cleaning my glasses), tissues (smallest possible package, highest cost per tissue), five pens and two styluses (styli?), lipstick (the extent of my make up needs), chapstick, hand cream, nail file and clipper, magnifying glass and measuring tape (don’t take up much room), extra car and house keys, clip on watch (I don’t wear one, and with the new phone I probably don’t need the purse watch), and a hair brush. If I need something to read, my Kindle fits in there, too.

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With a little effort (or a smaller wallet) I could probably downsize even further. Maybe back down to the purse I bought for the conference. Maybe I could even pick up a couple of other colors and change them now and then. Maybe . . .

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Stop by and see what Tammy Baumann, Wendy LaCapra, Priscilla Oliveras, Carol Post, and Tosha Sumner have been carrying around in their purses.

Visiting the Vorkosiverse

I’ve been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series since the early 1990s, and I have the old paperbacks of the first few novels to prove it. Somehow I let Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance linger on my TBR Captain Vorpatrilshelf for quite a long time, perhaps because it wasn’t about Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. Miles’ cousin Ivan, a supporting character in the saga, takes center stage here, and he is a delight. So is the book. Space opera, romance, intrigue, a marriage of convenience, buried treasure, and two sets of crazy relatives! What more could one ask for?

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Bujold provides a series chronology in the back of each volume, which is how I discovered the one Vorkosigan story I didn’t have and hadn’t read, the novella Winterfair Gifts, originally published in a romance anthology, Irresistible Forces, and also available as an e-novella. Told from the point of view of Roic, one of the Vorkosigans’ junior Armsmen, it tells how he and Sergeant Maura, a genetically engineered member of Miles’ old mercenary crew, foil a plot aimed at Miles and his fiancee, Ekaterin, and lets us attend the Vorkosigans’ Winterfair wedding. It’s a sidebar to the series, and a gift to fans.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the sixteenth book in the Vorkosigan saga and picks up the story of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan three years after the death of her husband, Count Aral Vorkosigan. Back on Gentleman JoleBarrayar, their son Miles has shouldered his responsibilities as Count (and as the father of a boisterous young family), but Cordelia remains Vicereine of Sergyar, where she has some surprising plans for her own future. There are no space battles or assassination plots this time; this is a novel about love, and family, and decisions that change lives. Bujold writes about a totally human future (despite a certain amount of genetic manipulation and reproductive technology), and even a few centuries down the road, humans haven’t changed much. Secrets only hinted at in earlier books are revealed, and events from the past are remembered. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is probably not the place to jump into the series, but it makes me want to go back to the beginning and read it all again.

Random Reviews

The cover of Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun caught my eye, so I took it home, stuck it on my TBR-soon shelf (alas, some books only stay there until they get demoted to the TBR-eventually shelves—I can’t keep Girl Waits With Gunup), but didn’t read it until a friend raved about it on Facebook. I had picked it up expecting a mystery, but this is actually a rather slow-paced novel about the three Kopp sisters (who were real people, as were many of the supporting characters and the situation), told in first person by the eldest, Constance. The three sisters are delightfully distinct, and rather eccentric, characters, whose adventures over a year or so in 1914 New Jersey swing from terrifying to exhilarating. A well-written, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of three unusual women a century ago.

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Ria Parkar, the heroine of Sonali Dev’s second book, The Bollywood Bride, is a woman with one foot in Bollywood–and one in Chicago. In India she’s a movie star; in Chicago she’s one member of a large, loving Indian-American family, gathering to celebrate a wedding. But Ria has secrets she has guarded since she was a little girl, secrets that tore her away from the man she still loves, Vikram Jathar.

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By the middle of the book I was growing a little impatient with Ria’s insistence on keeping her secrets to The Bollywood Brideprotect other people, never giving them, and Vikram in particular, a chance to make their own decisions, but then I got caught up in her past and sat up way too late reading the second half of the book straight through.

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Aside from the rekindling romance between Ria and Vikram, Dev paints a fascinating picture of Indian culture joyously preserved in the suburbs of Chicago. I want to go eat in Uma’s kitchen!

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I really loved Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, the story of Maggie I Still Dream About YouFortenberry, former Miss Alabama (forty years or so ago), one-time model, never married, now a real estate agent in an office that seems to be sliding down hill. Maggie has decided that it’s time to leave this life on her own terms (but this is NOT a depressing book, far from it) and has devised a detailed (complete with to-do lists) suicide plan. But Maggie is so responsible and conscientious, socially and financially, that her obligations keep getting in the way. She can’t bear to leave a bill unpaid, an account unsettled, or a friend in need.

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This is a delightful book about a woman of a certain age finding unexpected meaning in life and in the future, and coming to terms with the past. It’s full of quirky characters, the history and culture of Birmingham, Alabama, and even an entertaining historical mystery involving a steamer trunk and a skeleton. Alternately hilarious and touching, this is a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.

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Fair Play, Deeanne Gist’s second book set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (following It Happened at the Fair) follows Dr. Billy Jack Tate, a female physician who finds herself working at the Women’s Building atFair Play the Fair, where she meets (and treats) Hunter Scott, a Texas Ranger spending six months as a Columbian Guard. When Hunter finds an abandoned baby on the Fair grounds, the two of them team up to find the baby a refuge at Hull House, where they learn of the terrible conditions of tenement living and the sad fate of so many children. Their desire to help the children brings them together, but will Billy’s career drive them apart? Another sweet romance from Gist, tempered with heartbreaking descriptions of life in the late 19th century slums of Chicago.

Hell On Wheels: Done

Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the road, with a final episode full of choices, endings, and new beginnings. (And this post is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched the finale, go watch it now.)

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“Done” (Durant’s one-word message to the rest of the nation) was an episode of human drama, without the raw violence and death that has marked so much of the series. Quiet conversations between Cullen Bohannon and Eva, Governor Campbell, Durant, George Armstrong Custer, and President Grant carried much of the story, settling old questions and raising new options.

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The transcontinental railroad itself, of course, was completed (in episode 13, “Railroad Men”), and “Done” opened with Durant and Huntington bickering over who would drive the Golden Spike. Durant won that argument, but things went downhill for him from then on, as he was indicted and sent back to Washington to stand trial on charges of bribery and corruption. We already knew, from a previous flash-forward (or from Wikipedia), that Doc Durant’s life ended in poverty and disgrace, but Hell On Wheels ended with his passionate defense of his building of the railroad. (Colm Meaney’s performance throughout the series has been magnificent: Durant was sleazy but determined, climbing back from every defeat, both mentor and foil to Bohannon.)

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The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

Eva Toole (one of my favorite characters throughout the series), who has survived everything a hard life could throw at her, tells Cullen that she left her Mohave family long ago to protect them from the white men determined to take her back. When Louise Ellison and her editor offer Eva the chance to write a book and set out on a lecture tour (as Olive Oatman, the inspiration for Eva’s backstory, actually did), Eva agrees, but she weeps when she tries to describe her Mohave family and realizes she can’t live with a version of her story dramatized for the public. She won’t be a victim—or another sort of whore. Instead, she cashes out her share of Mickey’s business, tames her white horse, and rides off into the west, perhaps in search of her past with the Mohave, perhaps the only time she was truly happy.

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Cullen wakes up with a hangover and a piece of silk with Mei’s last message, an address (he learns from an equally hungover Chinese foreman) in Ningpo, China. He stumbles to Mickey’s makeshift saloon and, while Durant and Huntington are driving the Golden Spike, starts a bar brawl that ends in laughter when Governor Campbell (now Secretary of the Interior) comes looking for him with a subpoena to testify against Durant back in Washington. In the capital, Cullen (in evening dress!) is offered a commission by President Grant to lead the 4th Cavalry in protecting the railroad he has built.

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Despite his reservations (“I’m no Indian killer”), he decides to accept the commission (he also has a job waiting with Huntington to build the Southern Pacific, if he wants it), and he appears at Durant’s trial in uniform. There he refuses to throw Durant under the train, insisting that without Durant, the railroad could never have been built.

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Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

A conversation—punctuated by target practice—with George Armstrong Custer shakes Cullen’s decision to return to soldiering. Custer’s delight in killing Indians (and raping Indian women) is exactly the attitude Cullen has tried so hard to leave behind. Still in uniform, he visits the very church in which he began the murderous trail of revenge that brought him to Hell On Wheels in the first place, sees the bullet hole he made in the confessional when he killed a man there, and breaks into tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

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No more killing. Cullen leaves the uniform behind and heads west, taking the train to San Francisco, on a track that exists in large part because of his efforts. No more railroad work, either. Instead (as I hoped, and to the delight of my romance-writer’s heart), he boards a ship to China, following Mei.

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I will miss Hell On Wheels (and perhaps one day will watch it again, all the way through), and I’m sorry to see it end, but I think the writers and actors did an excellent job of bringing the epic to a close and giving the survivors the endings—and opportunities—they had earned.

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