Monday, November 26, 2012

The Mystery at Lilac Inn

Finished The Mystery at Lilac Inn, the fourth original Nancy Drew Mystery, published in 1931 and reissued by Applewood Books. Once again, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote the book, under the pseudonym of Caroline Keene. Nancy goes to work to find her friend Emily's stolen inheritance of $40,000 worth of family jewels. While spying on the suspected thieves, she is captured, bound and gagged and left to die on a sinking yacht. While this part of the book is exciting, if a bit shocking, the rest was kind of ho-hum. Not nearly as gripping as The Bungalow Mystery. I do love the cover art for all of these though.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Treasure Island

Finished Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson. In this coming-of-age classic, Jim Hawkins finds himself running up against pirates all over the place. The novel's greatest villain (yes there are many), Long John Silver, morphs quite a bit throughout the story. At the beginning he is an affable, peg-legged, benevolent sea cook and a model crew member of the Hispanola. This is of course his disguise. Later Jim overhears his treacherous plans and witnesses the mutiny of the crew. At this point Silver is their ruthless leader. Later in the story when the mutineers turn against him, he switches back to the right side of the law, joining Jim, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney is rescuing the treasure and returning to England. This was a fun adventure read.

I wonder how many people read Treasure Island these days. How many people who eat fast food at Long John Silver's know where the name originated from?

Louisa and the Crystal Gazer

Finished Louisa and the Crystal Gazer: A Louisa May Alcott Mystery by Ann Maclean. Knowing my love of anything Alcott, my daughter picked this book up at our local mystery book shop, Aunt Agatha's. It's actually the second book in the series. Louisa is in Boston, staying with a family friend and working hard as a seamstress in order to earn money for family Christmas presents. Although Louisa thinks it's all bosh, her friend Sylvia talks her into attending a seance with her at the home of famous Boston medium, Mrs. Percy. Among the colorful cast of seance attendees is Mr. P. T. Barnum, who Louisa takes an immediate liking to. When the group is invited for a second sitting, they arrive only to find Mrs. that Percy has been locked into her own preparation room, and is dead. Various suspects become obvious to Louisa as she works to resolve the case.

This book was an enjoyable read with the Alcott aspects well researched. The take away moment, for me, was minor and yet mind-blowing. Louisa takes her sister Lizzie for a music lesson at the home of a world renowned Italian musician, Signor Massimo. Upon entering his house she detects an unfamiliar aroma and says to Lizzie, "What is that smell, do you think? Garlic? How wonderful! I would love to taste some." In 1855 most Americans had never tasted garlic, something we now encounter on a daily basis. Think of that.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Death of the Heart

Finished The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Published in 1938, today it appears on lists of the best 100 books of modern fiction from Time Magazine and The Modern Library. I chose to listen to an audiobook recording of the novel and I'm glad I did. Some years ago I read Bowen's The House in Paris and found it heavy going. Now I know why. Bowen writes with the kind of attention to miniscule detail that Robert Post's Child would call Laurencian. Knowing my own impatience, I decided it would be wiser to listen to someone else plod through the pages. For much of the novel I wondered just why it appeared on these revered lists. It was not until the last third of the book that this became apparent.

Portia is an awkward 16 year old who having recently lost her mother is now an orphan. She goes to live with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna in London. Portia and Thomas have the same father. Up until this time, Portia and a her mother had lived a nomadic life, moving from one cut rate European hotel to another. She had no real home and no lasting relationships. She is innocent of the dangers of having faith in other people.

All the adults in the novel seems to lack the capacity for outward emotion. Thomas is vaguely aware of Portia's presence in the house. Anna is plainly put out by it. Portia is not so innocent that she does not perceive this. She records her observations of life in the house in her diary. Anna finds the diary and of course reads it. She then discusses it with her friend St. Quentin. Anna doesn't seem to have any female friends. Her other friend, Eddie, who has been openly flirting with Anna for years, seems to take notice of Portia for the first time when she hands him his hat in the hallway one day. Charmed by her gesture and sensing an easier quarry, he writes Portia a note thanking her for her thoughtfulness and calling her a darling. This of course sets Portia on the road to unhappy romance with Eddie, and Eddie being the despicable cad that he is, let's it happen for the sake of amusement.

The crisis of the novel comes when Portia learns that Anna has read her diary. She goes to Eddie for solace, but he pushes her away, now afraid of her ernest affection for him. He implies that Anna is his lover and that he and she discuss Portia often. This mammoth betrayal is too much for Portia. She then runs away to Major Brutt, a sad, dull, penurious hanger-on of Anna's, who himself lives in cut rate hotels. He has been kind to Portia and sent her puzzles to do. She confides in Major Brutt that they two are the same, unwanted and laughed at by Anna. She begs him to marry her. She is sadly trying to recreate the secure existence she had with her mother, but with a father figure instead.

Major Brutt refuses. He insists on calling Thomas and Anna to let them know where Portia is. Portia agrees to this, but says she will base her decision on whether or not to return to Thomas and Anna's house on how the two respond to the situation.

Meanwhile Thomas and Anna are vaguely aware that Portia has not turned up for tea. Thomas finally has some brotherly concern for her which Anna dismisses. Thomas, Anna and St. Quentin sit down to dinner without her and Thomas questions Anna whether anything in particular has happened between her and Portia. The truth comes out that Anna has read Portia's diary and that St. Quentin has told Portia. Thomas is disturbed by all this and questions further. Anna complains that Portia was writing about them, but the truth is that what Anna read in the diary reminded her far too much of her own awkward girlhood. It is the cause of Anna's contempt for Portia. When the phone rings, the three supposed adults all hesitate and look at each other, unsure of who should answer it. Finally Anna takes the call from Major Brutt. She returns and explains the situation and the three analyze what's to be done.

In the end they decide to send the housekeeper, Matchett, as an envoy to fetch Portia from Major Brutt's hotel. Matchett was Thomas' mother's housekeeper. He inherited her along with his mother's furniture which Matchett polishes within an inch of it's life. She is Portia's only link to the past. She has told Portia stories about her father in the days when he was still married to Thomas' mother. Matchett seems the obvious olive branch to extend, but sending her is another example of them shirking their responsibility towards Portia and their fear of getting emotionally involved. Portia is all emotion, especially at this point in the novel. She is too righteous for them to face.

Bowen ends the novel with Matchett looking through the beveled glass door of the hotel, waiting for someone to open it. We are left to fathom the outcome of Portia's death of the heart on our own.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rainbow Valley

Finished Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maude Montgomery. It is the seventh book in her Anne of Green Gables series. Anne with an e is now in her 40s. She and Gilbert have been married for 15 years. Their six children spend all their free time in Rainbow Valley, adjacent to their house, Ingleside. They fish in the stream and cook their catch on an open fire. They have names for every tree and landmark, just as Anne had back in Avonlea. One day the scent of roasting fish draws a new group of children into the valley. They are the children of the new minister, John Meredith. The Meredith children are hungry for more than food. They crave companionship and fun.

Mr. Meredith is kindly man, and a good minister, but as a father he is very distracted. As a widower, he has only his own elderly, stingy, almost blind Aunt Martha to run his busy household, The Manse. He is so grief stricken over the loss of his wife a few years earlier, that he does not notice the terrible food that is put before him and his family, the state of his children's shabby clothes or the fact that the child who is a guest in his household is a runaway orphan.

The one thing that engages John Meredith, beyond his calling, is Rosemary West. Rosemary lives with her older sister Ellen in their mother's house on the edge of town. While she teaches piano to the area children, she and her sister keep mostly to themselves. Both disappointed in love when they were younger, they have pledged to stay with each other always. John Meredith falls in love with Rosemary, but is unaware of her pledge to Ellen. When he asks her to marry him she tells him she needs time to think it over. Ellen is severe with her, reminding her of the duty of her promise. Brokenheartedly, Rosemary writes John a note of refusal. After this he is even more disconnected from the world around him.

It was nice to have a romance in the story again. Montgomery is very good at portraying children and the wounds that they experience at the hands and words of others. The Meredith children are badly in need of a kindred spirit. Luckily they find one in the end.