Nostaligia Fail

When I saw Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions on an ebook sale recently, I knew I had a paper copy on my SF&F keeper shelf, a very old copy with tiny print and slightly yellowed pages. So I downloaded the digital copy and set out to find out why I’d held on to the book for so long, decades in fact. I read a lot of Poul Anderson’s novels back in the day, and enjoyed them, but only kept a few.

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And having reread Three Hearts and Three Lions, I’m not entirely sure why I kept this one. All I remembered was the basic premise, a Danish engineer swept from a World War II battle to an alternate Faery/Carolingian world. His adventures there weren’t nearly as interesting now as I apparently found them forty years ago. Making allowances for the fact that the novel was published in the early 60s (and expanded from a novella written in the 50s), it’s no surprise that the writing seemed dated. The hero’s occasional bursts of humor were a welcome relief from the heavy lifting of working through the thick dialect of some of the characters, but the plot was rather episodic and confusing.

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Another old paperback still on my shelf is Anderson’s Midsummer Night’s Tempest, and I downloaded a copy of that to my Kindle. I love the premise: a world in which Will Shakespeare is a respected historian, writing about true events. But I couldn’t get past the thick dialect on the third page.

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Anderson was a giant in the science fiction and fantasy world, and undoubtedly a major influence on many authors who came after him, but the books I’ve reread haven’t held up for me. (I made a stab at the David Falkayn series a while back and wasn’t swept away by those novels, either, although I loved them long ago.)

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Perhaps some literary memories are best left undisturbed.

A Novel for Oz Lovers: Finding Dorothy

I have been an Oz devotee since I was a little girl. I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read the book (and many of the sequels, by L. Frank Baum and others). A while back I read a biography of Baum, Finding Oz, by Evan I. Schwartz, a rather academic but interesting book, which included much information about Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, a remarkable woman in her own right and the daughter of a famous suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage.

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The cover of Elizabeth Letts’ novel Finding Dorothy makes no mention of Oz, and I’m not sure what bit of serendipity made me pick it up at the bookstore. Finding Dorothy is a well-researched rendering of Maud Baum’s life, from her years as an early female undergraduate at Cornell University to her involvement in the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1938.

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The novel flips between the ups and downs of the Baums’ marriage (two very different people devoted to one another, she the pragmatist holding the family together, he the creative and imaginative one, diving into one adventure after another) and Maud’s fervent desire to protect Frank’s legacy as she watches the filming of the movie. She worries about Judy Garland and tries to protect her from some of the harsher realities of Hollywood. Unable to get her hands on a script (“It’s a work in progress,” she’s told again and again), she worries about the changes from book to film.

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Where Schwartz’ book tries to find the basis for The Wizard of Oz in nineteenth century politics (I was not entirely convinced), Letts finds Dorothy in Maud’s life and her relationships with her family. We recognize bits and pieces of Oz in Frank’s interactions with their children, and we come to understand why Maud, who had four sons but no daughters, feels so strongly about Dorothy.

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The picture Letts paints of a woman’s life in the late nineteenth century is frightening. The dangers of childbirth (largely unpreventable, contraceptives being illegal) and infant mortality, the isolated life Maud’s sister faced on the Dakota prairie, the lack of women’s rights in general. Maud’s mother and her friends (she worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others) spent their lives fighting for the right to vote; that came some twenty years after Matilda’s death.

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Letts adds an Afterword, describing how she came to her interest in Maud’s life, how she changed a few things here and there, and what became of some of the people in Maud’s life. Maud was born in 1861 and lived until 1955—what changes she saw!

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Finding Dorothy is a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, and her equally remarkable husband. Without Maud’s love and support, Frank Baum might never have written The Wizard of Oz, and the world would be poorer for that.

The Silent Patient

I haven’t been doing a lot of reading lately (trying to remedy that!), and I’ve fallen behind posting book reviews. I have a few waiting, so here goes.

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I’m not sure how to review The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, because it’s hard to talk about without giving something away. And I definitely don’t want to give anything away. Let me just say that the end of the book turns the whole thing upside down. What happened? How did he do that? (I may have to read the book again to figure that out.)

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Well-known artist Alicia Berenson appears to have a perfect life, until one night she shoots her husband to death. No one knows why; she refuses to speak, not another word, although she does paint one more mysterious picture, a self-portrait named for the Greek myth of Alcestis.

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Psychotherapist Theo Faber is obsessed with Alicia’s case, and manages to get himself a position at the psychiatric unit in North London where Alicia is held. He sits with the unspeaking Alicia, he researches her past and interviews people who knew her, and he slowly peels the onion. But he has onions of his own to deal with.

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Michaelides is a screen writer turned novelist, and I’ve seen news that The Silent Patient has been optioned by a movie company. I can’t imagine how they’ll write that script.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg, my furry companion for more than nine years, crossed the Rainbow Bridge last Friday, after a long illness. She was a rescue cat, found in a culvert with her kittens when she was a couple of years old. By the time I met her at Second Chance Pets, her kittens had been adopted and she was ready for a life of leisure. That is to say she was prepared to be a couch potato for the rest of her life.

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She was affectionate and laid back, with a loud purr and a sandpaper tongue, with which she loved to wash my face. She loved ice cream and spaghetti sauce (no, not together). She was overweight by nature and never saw the kitchen counter, but she had her favorite places on the living room couch and my bed. She upheld the cat’s tradition of never allowing a bed to be changed without feline assistance, and nothing beat sleeping on a towel warm from the dryer.

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Early in December she lost her appetite, a marked change for her, and we began a series of visits to the vet. She had severe arthritis in her spine, but a battery of tests didn’t turn up much else, despite her obvious digestive problems. Steroid shots helped for a while, but when those stopped working, the vet diagnosed her problem as lymphoma. Gradually she stopped eating, but she still climbed into my lap to sleep in the evening, until at last she let me know it was time.

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When I started to put her things away over the weekend, I realized that even our furry friends leave the bits and pieces of a life behind. From time to time I go to estate sales with my friend Gerry Bartlett. Gerry has an antique business and looks for treasures for her shop. I occasionally buy something for myself (a book and two movies at the last one, a turtle carved from tiger eye not too long ago), but I remind myself that I don’t need more “stuff.”

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Seeing the material remains of someone’s life and household can be interesting, but I also find it a bit depressing. The contents of the kitchen spread all over the counters. Souvenirs of a stranger’s long ago vacations. Books, some well worn, some never opened. Clothing and shoes and linens. I hate to think of that happening to the contents of my house one day, but I’m not sure how to avoid it.

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I thought about that as I gathered up Nutmeg’s possessions and decided what to do with them. I expect another cat will find her way into my life eventually, so I cleaned the litter box and stashed it in the storage closet, along with food dishes, mats, comb, brush, and nail clippers, a few toys, and the doggy steps Nutmeg needed to make it onto the couch the last few months. Toys that showed years of wear I threw away, along with half a dozen of those corrugated cardboard scratching pads, which Nutmeg loved.

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She didn’t love the scratching post or the small kitty condo that sat in my living room ignored for years, so I put those out at the end of my driveway on Sunday evening. They were gone Monday morning, off to entertain someone else’s cat. I brought a box of Meow Mix seafood and sauce, the only food she was interested in the last couple of months, to work for the office cats and the ferals in the back yard. The leftover veterinary food (which was supposed to help Nutmeg lose weight, although it never really did) I took back to the clinic, to pass along at their discretion.

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I sometimes think my bedroom is haunted, not unpleasantly so, by the many pets who have shared it with me. I feel paws crossing the bed when there’s no one there, and I remember Cleo and Twinky, and the other cats before them, and the dogs, Sandy the scruff terrier, Fred the labrador mix, and Albert the gentlemanly basset hound. Now Nutmeg has joined them across the Rainbow Bridge. There should be quite a furry crowd waiting for me one day.

Two Historical Fictions

Natalie Meg Evans returns to Paris and the world of high fashion in The Secret Vow, but this one is set a generation earlier than her previous novels, opening in late 1918 as Katya (Princess Ekaterina Ulianova Vytenis) and her family run from the Russian secret police, targeted as aristocrats and Tsarists. Katya heads for Paris, where some cousins have already emigrated, with her unstable but determinedly aristocratic mother Irina, her angry younger sister Tatiana, and her older sister Vera’s infant daughter Anoushka.

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Rescued from total disaster in Sweden by Harry Morten, a British/Swedish businessman, Katya and her family arrive in Paris to find a situation far different from what they expected. The Russian emigres in the city are struggling, the money Katya’s far-sighted father invested in France seems out of reach, and Katya’s mother slips into a drug-hazed depression.

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Katya, however, has a spine of steel, not that she recognizes her own strength, and she talks her way into a seamstress position, discovering along the way that Harry Morten runs his textile business from an office in Paris.

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Evans makes the reader feel as though she’s actually visiting Paris in the wake of the First World War, as Katya encounters a variety of characters, some inclined to help her, others only out for themselves—and sometimes it’s not easy to tell them apart. If you’ve read Evans’ earlier books (and I urge you to do so), particularly The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, you may recognize a character or two in The Secret Vow, as their younger selves sneak into the story. The Secret Vow is a great entry into Evans’ world of historical fiction.

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Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is the third book in Amy Stewart’s series following the adventures of Constance Kopp, a real woman who did indeed make law enforcement history in New Jersey in the early twentieth century. Constance and her very different sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are fascinating characters, making their way as independent single women in a time and place when that was not at all easy.

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In this book Constance, now deputy sheriff (and jail matron), finds herself dealing with the problems on the women under her care. Some of them have indeed committed crimes, but girls who have done nothing worse than leave their parents’ home for a job and a room in a boarding house can be thrown in jail and sentenced to years in a reformatory at the whim of parents, police, and judges. Constance sees no justice in this, an attitude which just might trip her up when Fleurette decides to spread her wings.

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Stewart’s research is as thorough as possible (don’t skip her “Historical Notes and Sources” at the end of the book), and nearly all the characters in the book are based on real people, wonderfully fleshed out, from the young women accused of immoral behavior to the theater troupe that fascinates Fleurette.

Mysteries: Three Firsts and a Third

Diane Kelly begins a new series with Dead as a Door Knocker, featuring apprentice house flipper Whitney Whitaker and her cat Sawdust. Whitney is an experienced carpenter and property manager, but the house on Sweetbriar is her first attempt at rehabbing a house. With the help of her cousin Buck, she dives into the project, dealing with one disaster after another. But a corpse in the flower bed might just be too much—especially since Nashville police detective Collin Flynn thinks Whitney just might have her own motives for putting that corpse under the topsoil. Every bit as enjoyable as Kelly’s previous series: the Death and Taxes series featuring the hilarious misadventures of IRA special agent Tara Hollway and the Paw and Order series featuring accidental K9 officer Megan Luz and her furry partner Sergeant Brigit. I’ll be looking forward to the next installment.

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Nancy Cole Silverman’s Shadow of Doubt is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Carol Childs, a radio station news reporter in Los Angeles. When her neighbor, a talent agent, is accused of murdering the head of her agency (who is also her rather controlling aunt), Carol jumps to her defense, while balancing her relatively new job, her young teenage son, and her FBI agent lover. The “Hollywood Bathtub Murders” soon become a sensation; the case involves agents, actors, scandal, bath salts, and more than a touch of Hollywood noir. An entertaining beginning to another series from Henery Press.

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The Crossword Murder is the first in a long-running series by Nero Blanc (a husband-and-wife writing team). I downloaded it because (a) I love crossword puzzles, (b) it was the first installment, and (c) it was on sale. I’m not sure it lived up to my expectations. The story was a reasonably engaging mystery, and I particularly enjoyed the budding (but very low key) romance between the two protagonists, private detective Rosco Polycrates and crossword editor Belle Graham. The book includes several crossword puzzles (which can be downloaded and printed from the OpenRoad Media site, but beware—some of the answers on the site are in error, although they are correct in the back of the book), but I found those too much tied into the narrative to be entertaining as independent puzzles.

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I enjoyed the book enough to finish it, and if I run across another in the series on sale I may download it, but I’m in no rush to do so. (There’s a Hallmark Mystery Movie with this title on the horizon, but it doesn’t appear to be related to this book.)

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The Big Chihuahua is the third outing for apprentice private investigator Geri Sullivan and her talking (but only to her) Chihuahua Pepe, stars of Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series. This time around, Geri and Pepe go undercover among the followers of Dogawanda, a cult devoted to the Way of the Dog, with a leader, as you might expect, devoted largely to herself.

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The object of Geri’s investigation turns up dead, and someone from her past turns up very much alive. Geri’s boss, Jimmy G (who only refers to himself in the third person) comes along, hoping to score enough moolah to avoid eviction from his office.

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A talking Chihuahua assistant private investigator is a pretty silly premise, but Pepe is such a charmer (and mostly level-headed Geri is a lot of fun, too) that I enjoy the series. It runs to five books, and I have two more stashed on my Kindle.

Random Nonfiction

Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox tells the story of her legendary variety show. If you loved the show as much as I did (or if you’ve followed the shorter syndicated version, Carol Burnett and Friends), you will enjoy this book. Burnett writes about the movie parodies (featuring, of course, the unforgettable “Went With the Wind” and the story behind “Starlet’s” famous curtain rod dress), the repeating characters (Eunice and her family could be heartbreaking), the hilarious sketches with Korman and Conway (their dentist chair skit has to rank near the top of the funniest things in the universe), and many guest stars. Lots of color photos, too.

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Craig Rice was a well known mystery writer back in the 1940s and 50s (she died in 1957 at the age of 49). She was also a crime reporter, and 45 Murderers: A Collection of True Crime Stories, originally published in 1952 and reissued this year by Mysterious Press, draws on her work as a journalist. The stories cover the period from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, but most take place in the 1930s and 40s.

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One reason I downloaded 45 Murderers was mention of the famous Black Dahlia case, a contemporary mystery in Rice’s day. I think my first exposure to the case was the 1975 TV movie with Lucie Arnaz as the Black Dahlia, but there have been numerous movies, books, and TV episodes based on this still unsolved 1947 crime. Rice’s take on the story is the last essay in the book, and the only one without some sort of official solution (although Rice wasn’t always sure the authorities got it right.) I wonder if she realized the murder would never be solved?

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On the whole an interesting book, and Rice’s voice is entertaining enough that I downloaded one of her mystery novels (Knocked for a Loop, also recently republished by Mysterious Press and on sale when I looked); she’s one writer I somehow missed back when I was devouring Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Rex Stout. How nice to have some of these old and out-of-print books reissued in convenient and inexpensive ebook editions.

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Paige Willams’ The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy jumped off the new books kiosk into my hands at Half Price Books not too long ago. In order to tell the story of the tarbosaurus bataar that upset the life of fossil hunter/dealer Eric Prokopi and rewrote a number of laws governing the market in prehistoric relics, Williams wanders into the history of paleontology, the history and politics of Mongolia, the career of Roy Chapman Andrews, the world of high-dollar trophy collectors, and a variety of other fields. If such things spike your interest (as they do mine—I remember being fascinated by Andrews when I was a child, and I have the National Geographic Channel playing in the background this morning), you’ll probably enjoy The Dinosaur Artist, but it’s not a fast-paced page turner. (If you’re a scholar, you might even enjoy the 120+ pages of acknowledgments, bibliography, and end notes, but I passed on those.)

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I’ve watched a few of Leah Remini’s anti-Scientology shows on TV, so I thought her book on the subject might be interesting, and indeed it is. Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology tells the story (in Remini’s distinctive, funny, sharp voice) of her life in Scientology, following her mother into the organization as a young teen, and finally opening her eyes (due in large part to the antics of Tom Cruise) to the downside. Remini’s acting career and personal life are also covered, with considerable humor. If you are interested in how people fall prey to what is essentially mind control (and financial greed) posing as religion, this is a good read. The one aspect I thought was missing, perhaps intentionally, was any indication of a truly religious aspect to Scientology, but then I’m old enough to remember when L. Ron Hubbard was just another (not particularly good) science fiction writer.

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