Nonfiction New and Old

I’ve recently read two very different books by and about women dealing with the pressures of family life.

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Kate Mulgrew’s second book, How To Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir, is quite a different tale from her earlier Born With Teeth. The former covered her acting career, up to the early years of Star Trek: Voyager. I am a fan of both her acting and her writing.

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How To Forget has very little to do with Mulgrew’s life in the theater and everything to do with the deaths of her parents and her relationships with her five surviving siblings.The whole family was heavily influenced by the childhood deaths of two sisters, one as an infant, and one from inoperable cancer as a young teen.

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Mulgrew gives us the lives and eventual deaths of her parents, separated by only a couple of years. While her father died fairly quickly after a terminal cancer diagnosis, preferring not to endure treatment, her mother spent several years fading away with Alzheimer’s Disease, eventually requiring 24/7 care, totally unresponsive.

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Having lost both my parents to cancer and my husband to the lingering effects of Alzheimer’s, I found Mulgrew’s story very relatable. On the other hand, her description of her parents, rather distant by nature from one another and from their large brood of children, made me grateful for the astoundingly normal family I grew up in.

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Definitely a book worth reading, especially for anyone who has or will be trying to help parents deal with the end of life—and that’s really all of us, isn’t it?

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I read Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies decades ago (it was originally published in 1957) and remembered it fondly, so when I saw an ebook version wander by (from Open Road Media) I grabbed it. And the book is just as funny as I remembered. The title comes from one of her essays about raising children (the inspiration for a movie), but much of the short book is about writing (Kerr was a respected playwright, her husband a drama critic) and life in general. Don’t skip the introduction, which may be the funniest piece in the book, in which she explains how she became a writer in order to fulfill her greatest goal in life: sleeping late in the morning.

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I hope Open Road rescues Kerr’s other books (The Snake Has All the Lines, Penny Candy), which also appear to be long out of print.

Romance!

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trouble brings together Scarlett Hall from Texas Lightning and Ethan Calhoun from Bartlett’s earlier Texas Heat trilogy–and a whole lot of trouble. Scarlett is doing her best to recover from a traumatic encounter with a knife-wielding criminal when she learns that Knife Guy has escaped from prison, and just might be looking for her. Meanwhile Ethan’s mother has escaped from a mental hospital, demanding help from him.

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Texas Trouble has lots of action, sizzling romance, some very scary villains, a talented tattoo artist, Scarlett’s brother (named, surprise, Rhett), a motorcycle riding PI, a sometimes exasperated Texas Ranger, and one very small but very brave dog. What more could we ask for in romantic suspense? (Rumor has it that Rhett Hall will be getting his own happy ending come December–I’m looking forward to that one.)

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I’m not an avid reader of historical romance, but I picked up (or rather downloaded) Zana Bell’s Fool’s Gold on the strength of its setting, New Zealand in 1866, definitely something different. Gwen (Lady Guinevere) Stanhope is an English woman left on her own in New Zealand after her father dies on the long sea voyage to the colony. Gwen has very little money, but she does have the photographic equipment with which her father had hoped to capture a picture of the (alas, extinct) moa and make enough money to buy back the mortgage on the family estate. Gwen is very nearly swept away by a sudden flood, only to be rescued by Quinn O’Donnell, an Irishman has arrived in New Zealand after serving as a surgeon in the American Civil War.

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Gwen wants only to return to Maidenhurst, the family home in England, even if she has to marry the man who holds the mortgage (her father’s back up plan). Quinn hates the English and wants to build a new life in New Zealand. But this is a romance novel, so we know something’s gotta give.

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Along the way, Gwen tackles a number of jobs, even working briefly as a housemaid, learning quite a bit about herself and about the people she never noticed when she was a pampered lady in England, while Quinn learns what he is really meant to do with his life. Their romance grows slowly (heat level sweet) and believably.

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The New Zealand setting is fascinating (and I assume authentic, as the author lives in New Zealand), the characters are likeable, and the story held my attention.

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Shelly Chalmers’ Must Love Plague is the first book in her Sisters of the Apocalypse series. Piper Bane, descendant of the Pestilence clan, returns to the small paranormal town of Beckwell, Alberta, for the wedding of her best friend, Ginny (heiress of Famine, who loves to bake) and a reunion with their friends Anna (heiress of War, currently the town librarian) and Nia (heiress of Death, who speaks to ghosts). Piper has spent ten years trying to avoid her heritage—and her propensity for making others ill. Now she’s faced with the rumor that she and her friends are about to rise as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, bringing on the End of the World.

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As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the first person she runs into when her car lands in a ditch going through the supernatural barrier that protects the town is her one-time fiance, Daniel Quillan, town doctor and sometime Fomorian (yes, I had to look that one up—definitely bad-ass guys). She’s also being stalked by a large brown toad. And the barrier that has protected the town and its not quite human inhabitants for a century has suddenly turned into a prison dome.

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What’s a girl to do? Piper and her friends are determined to avoid the Apocalypse, but the citizens of Beckwell aren’t making that easy.

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Chalmers’ imaginative approach to a wide range of mythology makes for an entertaining read, to be continued as the rest of the Four Horsewomen take their turns.

New from Kate Parker

Kate Parker’s Deadly Deception is the latest installment in the adventures of Olivia Denis, part-time journalist (limited by the mores of late 1930s London to the Women’s Pages) and part-time unofficial spy and investigator. As the book opens, Olivia finds her father (with whom she does not have a particularly warm relationship), kneeling over a corpse, blood on his hands, his knife in the man’s chest.

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Her father may have his faults, but Olivia doesn’t believe for a minute that he killed the man lying on the floor of his house, especially since the victim is an old friend who had been reported drowned two years earlier. But her attempts to prove his innocence clash with his refusal to cooperate and lead Olivia deeper into the maelstrom of pre World War II security.

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I’ve enjoyed all of Parker’s books, but Deadly Deception proved to be a real page turner; I had trouble putting it down, and read it over a weekend (when I should have been doing other things).

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Parker’s The Mystery at Chadwick House is part mystery, part ghost story, and part romance. Emma Winter is helping her best friend renovate a Victorian mansion, but so much goes wrong that it seems as though the house itself is fighting the work. Or is it someone in the house—that face in the window that shows only in Emma’s photographs? What about the mysterious man who may—or may not—be the last of the Chadwicks, or Emma’s childhood friend, now a police officer? And what really happened in the barn back in 1904? It all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining novella, quite different from Parker’s excellent historical mysteries.

Cozy Roundup

Murder, Curlers, and Kegs is the fourth installment in Arlene McFarlane’s delightful cozy mystery series featuring Valentine Beaumont, beautician and occasional crime buster. If you’ve read the earlier books, you already know that Valentine first attracted the attention of the local cops (including sexy Detective Romero) when she captured a killer named Ziggy Stoaks by wrapping a perm rod around his, um, private parts. Now it appears Ziggy, or someone acting on his behalf, is back, leaving unwelcome gifts on Valentine’s front porch. But did Ziggy have anything to do with the body in the barrel that rolls down a staircase and splits open at Valentine’s feet? And then there’s Jock de Marco, Valentine’s star employee at the salon, and a rival for Valentine’s affection. What’s a girl to do? In Valentine’s case, fend off a shooter with hand cream and defend herself with a variety of beauty tools.

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This is a charming and funny series. Read it from the beginning (Murder, Curlers, and Cream) and follow the adventures of Valentine, Romero, Jock, and the rest of Valentine’s family and friends.

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Plotting For Murder is the first in a new cozy mystery series by Tamra Baumann. Sawyer Davis has left her job as a chef in Chicago to return to her West Coast home town, Sunset Cove, to take over the Mystery Bookshop her late mother has left her. All goes reasonably well until a member of the shop’s mystery book club drops dead during a meeting—after eating Sawyer’s food, at that. As if that wasn’t enough, the man who left Sawyer at the altar years ago is now the town sheriff.

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Add the usual assortment of eccentric characters, some of them definitely on the suspect list, a visit from Sawyer’s traveling magician father, and the mystery of what else Sawyer’s mother may have left her, hidden from her greedy uncle, and you have a charming addition to the cozy mystery shelf.

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The Chihuahua Always Sniffs Twice is the fourth in Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series, and it’s just as amusing as the previous entries. Not surprisingly, dogs are involved, in this case a quartet of cocker spaniels who have inherited a fortune in trust. It’s also no surprise that there are a number of humans who would like to break that trust, along with some who want to protect the dogs, if only because they benefit from their positions caring for the wealthy canines. The case would be a lot clearer if apprentice P.I. Geri Sullivan and her talking (but only to her) chihuahua Pepe could figure out which side their eccentric boss, Jimmy G, is really working (that is, if Jimmy G is actually working at all). Lots of fun.

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Artifact is the first in Gigi Pandian’s Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series; it grabbed me (one-time archeologist) with its title and its fabulous cover. Jaya (who shares Pandian’s mixed American and Indian background) is not an archeologist but a historian specializing in the Indian subcontinent. So when an ex-lover mails her (from Scotland to San Fransico) a very old ruby and gold bracelet on the same day he is reportedly killed in an auto accident, Jaya is off and running. What is this piece of jewelry? Who burgled her apartment looking for it? What happened to Rupert?

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The hunt takes Jaya to London and then to a remote archeological dig in Scotland, accompanied (or pursued?) by an attractive art historian who may not be exactly what he claims to be. Mystery, adventure, and a bit of romance.

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There was so much action in the book that I was occasionally confused—but I enjoyed it enough to download the next three books in the series. My Kindle runneth over, and I’ll never catch up.

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.

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