Review: The Summer Country by Lauren Willig

Review: The Summer Country by Lauren WilligThe Summer Country by Lauren Willig
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by William Morrow on June 4, 2019
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The New York Times bestselling historical novelist delivers her biggest, boldest, and most ambitious novel yet—a sweeping, dramatic Victorian epic of lost love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion set in colonial Barbados.

1854. From Bristol to Barbados. . . .

Emily Dawson has always been the poor cousin in a prosperous merchant clan—merely a vicar’s daughter, and a reform-minded vicar’s daughter, at that. Everyone knows that the family’s lucrative shipping business will go to her cousin, Adam, one day. But when her grandfather dies, Emily receives an unexpected inheiritance: Peverills, a sugar plantation in Barbados—a plantation her grandfather never told anyone he owned.

When Emily accompanies her cousin and his new wife to Barbados, she finds Peverills a burnt-out shell, reduced to ruins in 1816, when a rising of enslaved people sent the island up in flames. Rumors swirl around the derelict plantation; people whisper of ghosts.

Why would her practical-minded grandfather leave her a property in ruins? Why are the neighboring plantation owners, the Davenants, so eager to acquire Peverills—so eager that they invite Emily and her cousins to stay with them indefinitely? Emily finds herself bewitched by the beauty of the island even as she’s drawn into the personalities and politics of forty years before: a tangled history of clandestine love, heartbreaking betrayal, and a bold bid for freedom.

When family secrets begin to unravel and the harsh truth of history becomes more and more plain, Emily must challenge everything she thought she knew about her family, their legacy . . . and herself.

My Review:

The first book by Lauren Willig that I read was The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, probably 15 years ago. It got me hooked on her lush historical books, and I dip into one whenever I have a bit of time.

And so we come to The Summer Country, another lush and sumptuous historical by Lauren Willig. Unlike her well-known Pink Carnation series, this story takes place not in late 18th century France, but in mid-19th century Barbados.

However, they are both time slip stories. But the time that is slipped in The Summer Country encompasses considerably fewer centuries. The Pink Carnation series tells its historical story through a 21st century frame. But The Summer Country interweaves the past of Barbados at two periods only a couple of generations apart. Its “past” is in the early 1810s, and its “present” in the mid 1850s.

In other words, more than close enough together that the events of the past directly shape events in the story’s present – whether the protagonists are aware of that shaping or not. Mostly not. The time periods are also more than close enough together that it is within living memory for many people who still have secrets they desperately feel the need to keep.

At any cost. At all the times.

Escape Rating A-: The Summer Country is an example of the kind of epic family saga that they don’t publish much anymore. Because it’s a marvelous example of that kind of sweeping story, it does make the reader wonder why not. It’s lovely and captivating and pulls the reader into its world, much as its Barbados setting pulls in the characters who find themselves navigating the exotic and unfamiliar colony in the wake of their grandfather’s death.

A death that sets the whole story in motion.

This is a story about secrets, the cost of keeping them, and the fear of letting them go. It’s also a story that unspools as lazily as a day in the colonial heat – complete with an overarching sense of menace that coats the skin like sweat – and bites like the local mosquitoes.

It’s not a book to rush through. It begins with Emily Dawson, doing her level best to make her own way in this new world, trying to unravel the mystery that her grandfather has left her with his bequest of the ruined Peverill plantation. We see Emily buck the tide of ALL the men in her life and her orbit who are just certain that a woman couldn’t possibly know her own mind.

And we see the past, when her grandfather was a young man at Peverills, not as the owner, but as the poor bookkeeper. And we see all the people who stood in both their ways – some of whom still do.

It’s enthralling, it’s delicious, it’s decadent and at times it’s downright chilling. This is a book to wallow in – and you’ll be glad you did.

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Review: Queen Bee by Dorothea Benton Frank

Review: Queen Bee by Dorothea Benton FrankQueen Bee by Dorothea Benton Frank
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, women's fiction
Series: Lowcountry Tales #12
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow on May 28, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times-bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank returns to the American South in this latest novel about friendship and love that is full of heart, humor, and rich description.

A woman wounded by her past comes to Sullivan's Island, South Carolina to find new meaning in life and to find herself. As she takes up a new hobby of beekeeping, she begins to come into her own and rebuild her life. When a new friend comes in and she finally allows for something more than just "friendship", everyone will realize that life could use a little taste of sweetness.

In what is sure to be another classic, Dorothea Benton Frank weaves a fun tale of self-discovery, love, and friendship with her signature charming wit, indelible poignancy, and hallmark themes.

My Review:

This book is a fun read and a hot mess at the same time. I would have thought those two things would be mutually exclusive, but after reading Queen Bee, they definitely are not.

Let me explain…

But first, I’d like to perform a bit of public service. The blurb for this book bears virtually no resemblance to the actual book. The book the blurb represents might be a very good book, but it certainly isn’t this book. At all.

To begin with, Holly Jensen doesn’t come to Sullivan’s Island, she already lives there. In fact, she grew up there and hasn’t left except for college. Nor does just just “take up” beekeeping. She IS a beekeeper and she has been one for several years. In fact, she’s an established beekeeper who has well-maintained hives full of happy bees who give her plenty of honey to sell – as well as giving her a sympathetic ear – or a thousand ears – when life starts closing in..

That new friend isn’t new, either. They went to school together. They just seem to have lost touch with each other over the years. As happens, even in small towns.

It happens especially easily in this case because Holly has found herself shackled to Sullivan’s Island, taking care of her cantankerous mother, the actual Queen Bee of the title. That “friend” of hers is in the nearby town, a member of the local police.

The person who does come back to town, because she’s been wounded by her present, not her past, is Holly’s sister Leslie. Leslie married Charlie, a man Holly refers to as “the wallet”, and blithely moved to Charleston. It seemed like Leslie’s marriage was perfect – at least self-absorbed Leslie made it seem that way.

Then again, everything Leslie does is perfect, at least in the eyes of the Queen Bee. Holly resents her sister’s freedom, resents being stuck on Sullivan’s Island taking care of their mother, and resents her mother’s resentment that Holly isn’t “perfect” Leslie. Because it seems to Holly that Leslie can do no wrong and she, Holly, can do no right.

When Leslie comes home, the three lives of the three women get forcibly kicked out of the ruts they’ve all been stagnating in – in more ways than one.

Leslie’s back because her husband, Charlie the wallet, wants to make a new identity for himself as a female impersonator, and is off to a contest in Atlantic City to see if he has a chance. He expects Leslie to be enthusiastically supportive of his decision, even as Charlie begins changing their entire lives to live as Charlene rather than Charlie.

(And that’s the last time I’ll refer to Charlie as either Charlie or as “him”, because from this point forward a gender-neutral pronoun is required.)

Leslie is more than a bit confused by the changes, and both she and the Queen Bee are at the “not just no but hell no” stage of, let’s call it, non-acceptance.

Then things change. A lot. Charlene wins a prize in the contest, and decides to stretch their wings by moving to Las Vegas to participate in even more contests. Charlene want to make a career out of this, and really, seriously want to become a star.

Leslie, hesitatingly, reluctantly, moves from “hell no” to being more open-minded, and ultimately more supportive. Holly, completely open-minded about Charlene, is just plain grateful that Charlene’s need for a support team and especially a costume designer gets the Queen Bee out of the depressive, self-destructive funk she’s been living in for years and temporarily moves her from Sullivan’s Island to Vegas to help Charlene take the first steps into this new world.

Meanwhile, back home, Holly is on her own and feeling relieved and miserable at the same time. On the one hand, she has the freedom to do what she wants when she wants without her mother’s constant negativity and harping.

On that other hand, what Holly wants is to finally get close to the widower next door. She’s been helping him out with his two young sons ever since his wife died, and she’s hoping there might be something more there. She fancies herself in love with him.

He fancies himself using her as an unpaid babysitting service while he marries a woman who makes the Wicked Witch of the West seem like a saint. That the original Wicked Witch is killed by a house falling on her head makes this resemblance surprisingly more relevant.

The bees fix everything for their queen. It’s up to Holly to take it from there.

Escape Rating B+: I have mixed feelings about this one. Lots of them. All of them.

First things first, this is a terrifically fast and fun read. It goes really quick, at least in part because there’s so much happening – and because so much of it is unexpectedly off the wall. And not in a bad way, either.

I will say that Holly is a doormat for way too long. She doesn’t grow a spine until 2/3rds of the way through the book, and listening to her internal dialog about Arch-next-door gets really old, really fast.

Admittedly, from the way that Holly’s mother treats her at the beginning, Holly’s spine has been pretty much surgically removed every single day of her life. It’s a bit of a miracle that she manages to grow one at all. But doormats do not compelling protagonists make – at least not for moi.

However, this is really a three-pronged story. Holly has a third, Leslie has a third and the Queen Bee has a third. And that’s where things get interesting. And also completely off the script of that blurb.

Leslie’s story moves from negativity to acceptance and resolution. It’s a reasonable progression and also a positive one. In the end, Leslie supports Char and the changes in their life while coming to the conclusion that as much as she loves the person, she is no longer sexually attracted to them as a spouse.

The resolution of Leslie and Char’s story takes as much “book time” as Holly’s, and is more interesting to follow.

Then there’s the Queen Bee’s story. The QB gets a new lease on life by going to Vegas. She also finds love with the genderqueer Suzanne Velour, an older female impersonator who has taken Char under their rather capacious wing.

That romance is sweet and surprising for all concerned, including the QB and Suz themselves. Unfortunately for the story, that romance feels a bit “shot out of a cannon” and proceeds too quickly. What we see of it is terrific, but it just happens too damn fast.

There’s a bit of “woo-woo” type magic between Holly and her bees – not enough to tip this into paranormal, but enough to make it feel like things happen on Sullivan’s Island, and in the Lowcountry, that just don’t happen anywhere else.

In the end, I liked the book, and had a good time reading it. I’ll admit to some serious questions about why two thirds of the story, featuring two genderqueer characters, were completely erased from the blurb. Anyone picking this book up based on the blurb is going to be surprised. Hopefully as pleasantly as I was, but surprised nonetheless.

Holly is the one who sums up this story, and all the relationships, best, when she says that “love comes in every color, shape, and size”, and that every life needs a little bit of sweetness. And she’s right.

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Review: Cat Chase the Moon by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Review: Cat Chase the Moon by Shirley Rousseau MurphyCat Chase the Moon (Joe Grey #21) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Joe Grey #21
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on April 23, 2019
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Feline P. I. Joe Grey and his friends pounce on three investigations that may connect to one larger mystery—including one case that is very personal—in this hair-raising installment in Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s beloved, award-winning series.

Joe Grey and his partner, Dulcie, are frantic when Courtney, their pretty teen-kitten goes missing. Aided by their two- and four-legged friends, they hit the streets of Molina Point in search of their calico girl. Has Joe Grey and Dulcie’s only daughter been lured away by someone and stolen? Is she lying somewhere hurt, or worse?

Courtney has no idea that everyone is desperately looking for her. Locked in an upstairs apartment above the local antiques shop, she’s enjoying her first solo adventure. When she first met Ulrich Seaver, the shop’s owner, Courtney was frightened. But the human has coddled and pampered her, winning her trust. Sheltered by her parents, her brothers, and her kind human companions, the innocent Courtney is unaware of how deceptive strangers can be. She doesn’t know that Ulrich is hiding a dangerous secret that could threaten her and everyone in this charming California coastal village.

With his focus on finding Courtney, Joe Grey has neglected his detective work with the Molina Point Police Department. Before his daughter disappeared, Joe found a viciously beaten woman lying near the beach. Now the police investigation has stalled, and the clever feline worries his human colleagues may have missed a vital clue. Joe is also concerned about a family of newcomers whose domestic battles are disturbing the town’s tranquility. Loud and abrasive, the Luthers’ angry arguing, shouting, and swearing in the early hours of the night have neighbors on edge and the cops on alert. One of the couple’s late-night shouting matches masked the sounds of a burglary, and now a criminal is on the loose.

Though the crimes are as crisscrossed as the strands of a ball of yarn, Joe Grey’s cat senses tell him they may somehow be linked. It’s up to the fleet-footed feline and his crime-solving coterie to untangle the mysteries before it’s too late.

My Review:

There is a sadness that permeates this tale  from the very beginning. While in the end good triumphs and evil gets its just desserts, the ending is bittersweet and something about that feels like it’s woven throughout the entire story.

It’s that all of the mysteries – which do, of course, get solved in the end – all have their roots in something not merely awful but also heartbreaking – and they all connect up at the end into one giant ball of wrong that brings a whole lot of grief in its wake – as well as the beginning of healing. And more adventure.

The story begins when a wandering Joe Grey discovers a half-dead woman half-buried in a shallow grave. He breaks into a nearby cottage, and the Molena Point PD receives a phone call from their favorite “snitch” letting them know where to get the body before it becomes a dead body.

As bad as that sounds, we don’t yet know (and neither does Joe Grey) just how that poor woman’s story is going to tangle into the others.

The family that has moved in across the street from Joe Grey’s humans, Clyde and Ryan, does not put the fun in dysfunctional. It’s more like the Luther family is one spark away from taking their regular domestic arguments over the line into the kind of domestic situation that gives police officers everywhere nightmares.

There’s plenty of sadness to be found in that mess, as the adults are at best neglectful and at worst borderline abusive of the pre-teen girl that they have dragged away from her beloved grandfather and equally cherished horse, leaving all three, the girl, the horse, and the grandfather in emotional distress.

A grandfather who not only misses his granddaughter, but one who has put the puzzle pieces together to figure out that his sons and his daughter-in-law are the ones behind the rash of robberies currently in progress in and around Molena Point.

His family is causing no end of trouble for everyone in town, but they are still his family. And he fears, rightly or wrongly, that getting them all locked up will see his granddaughter lost to him in the bowels of family services hell.

Just as it seems that nothing in town is going right, tragedy strikes directly at the heart of Joe Grey’s family when his daughter, the beautiful if occasionally silly half-grown kit Courtney, is kidnapped (catnapped?) by someone who promises her a life at the center of worshipful crowds IF she is willing to live that pampered life in a gilded cage.

Joe is frantic at the loss of Courtney, heartsore at the plight of Mindy, and worried at the situation of the woman he rescued. When it all comes together, it also falls apart. With deadly results.

Escape Rating B: With a cozy series like Joe Grey’s, the reader comes to expect a lighthearted tone to even some of the darkest investigations. And much of this series is pretty light and fluffy – as fluffy as the cats’ fur.

But this entry isn’t the least bit fluffy. It also ends on more of a fantasy note than has been seen in this series in a while, in spite of the series origins in the author’s contemporary fantasy novel The Catswold Portal. The speaking cats all have their origins in that realm beyond the portal, and it’s time again for one of them to make the journey into that Netherworld.

But not before we all work our way through everything currently wrong in Molena Point.

So much is wrapped up in the dysfunction of the Luther family. Zebulon doesn’t seem like a bad sort, so one has to wonder what warped all of his kids – but his progeny are all seriously bad. That he doesn’t want to turn in his own kids while still needing to turn in his own kids is a dilemma that no parent wants to face no matter how criminal those kids turn out to be as adults. That he turns his depression over his granddaughter being forced to move out into a determination to discover just how wrong his sons have gone leads to nowhere but grief for all concerned.

It’s a sad situation that permeates the story. Readers will find themselves wondering why, when every adult for miles around knows that young Mindy is being neglected if not abused, no one can manage to rescue her. In the end, she has to rescue herself and her grandfather. And she’s not even a teenager yet!

The situation with Courtney felt a bit odd. It seemed like a very weird tangent of the main case, because her kidnappers have catnapped her not because they know she can talk, but because she resembles a lot of historical portraits of magical cats and they think they can wrap an expensive traveling exhibit around her and the art works. This seems more fantastical to me than the speaking cats. YMMV.

There are also a couple of serious notes among Joe Grey’s circle that add to the atmosphere. Joe Grey himself, with his feline instincts and human intelligence, seems to have more and deeper questions about who and what he is and what it all means as the series goes on. His attitude is maturing in ways that make him question the meaning of it all – and that scare him, if he would admit to being scared – out of at least a couple of his nine lives.

The other thing I’m wondering about as a reader is the dilemma faced by Charlie Harper, the police chief’s wife. Charlie knows about the cats, her husband does not, in spite of the number of incredibly excellent tips the police have received from their elusive snitches. Max is suspicious of Joe Grey in particular, and Charlie is lying to her spouse. That’s a situation I expect to come to a nasty head in some future book in the series.

But speaking of future books, I love this series, and always look forward to my next trip to Molena Point for more adventures with Joe Grey, Dulcie and their clowder of speaking cats. This particular book was a bit darker than I expected, but I still enjoyed checking in with the gang and finding out how everyone is doing.

I’ll be back again next year to see how they’re all getting on, and whether the MPPD has figured out the identity of their favorite snitches yet!

Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd

Review: A Forgotten Place by Charles ToddA Forgotten Place (Bess Crawford, #10) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #10
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Though the Great War has ended, Bess Crawford finds herself caught in deadly circumstances on a remote Welsh headland in this tenth entry from the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author.

The fighting has ended, the Armistice signed, but the war has left wounds that are still agonizingly raw. Battlefield Nurse Bess Crawford has been assigned to a clinic for amputees, and the Welsh patients worry her. She does her best to help them, but it’s clear that they have nothing to go home to, in a valley where only the fit can work in the coal pits. When they are released, she fears that peace will do what war couldn’t—take their lives.

Their officer, Captain Williams, writes to describe their despair, and his own at trying to save his men. Bess feels compelled to look into their situation, but the Army and the clinic can do nothing. Requesting leave, she quietly travels to Wales, and that bleak coal mining village, but she is too late.

Captain Williams’ sister tells Bess he has left the valley. Bess is afraid he intends to kill himself. She follows him to an isolated, storm-battered peninsula—a harsh and forgotten place where secrets and death go hand in hand. Deserted by her frightened driver, Bess is stranded among strangers suspicious of outsiders. She quickly discovers these villagers are hiding something, and she’s learned too much to be allowed to leave. What’s more, no one in England knows where she is.

Why is there no Constable out here? And who is the mysterious Ellen? Captain Williams and his brother’s widow are her only allies, and Bess must take care not to put them at risk as she tries to find answers. But there is a murderer here who is driven to kill again and again. And the next person in his sights is Simon Brandon, searching for Bess and unaware of his danger. . . .

My Review:

This tenth story in the Bess Crawford series takes place in December 1918. The war is over, but the peace hasn’t really begun. The fighting officially ended at 11:11 am on November 11, 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. This is the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the U.K and the Commonwealth.

Bess Crawford served as a combat nurse during the war. Her service has not yet ended. While a significant part of a generation died on the battlefields, there were also many who came home missing significant pieces of themselves, and not all of those missing pieces were physical.

The war changed all who were a part of it, including Bess herself. Today we might say that she had post-traumatic stress disorder – along with many of the now ex-soldiers.

With the end of the war, the field hospitals are closing down, and the base hospitals are shrinking by the day. All the able-bodied are sent home – to a country that does not have nearly enough jobs for all of them.

Those who are still in hospital are the ones more severely wounded, still recovering as best as the medical science of the time permitted, from the loss of limbs or disfiguring wounds or both.

That’s where Bess comes in, as she becomes involved with a Welsh regiment that was wounded during the last of the fighting. A regiment formed in the coal counties of Wales, where every able-bodied man works in the mines. But the men under her care are no longer able-bodied, missing at least one limb if not more. They are alive, but have no lives to return to.

In the valleys, the only work is in the mines, and it is work they are no longer physically able to perform. They will be burdens to their families – if those families are willing to take them back. Bess does her best to help them prepare both mentally and physically for what is in front of them, but she is worried, and rightfully so, that any preparation is in vain.

So she takes it into her own hands (as she has so often during the course of the series) to follow up with this group of soldiers that has touched her heart and ignited her fears of what will happen to those irrevocably changed by the war after their war is over.

And finds herself stranded, alone and without allies, isolated in a remote Welsh village and caught between a horrifying secret and escalating evil.

All she can do is try to survive, until help comes. If that help can find her in time.

Escape Rating B: The second half of this story is a taut thriller, but the first half moves slowly, as time seems to do out in the remote Welsh villages on the Gower Peninsula.

Once Bess decides to check up on Captain Williams and his regiment, she finds herself traveling laboriously and ponderously from one tiny and remote place to the next. Once she catches up to him, she has discovered that he is the final survivor of his regiment.

That he and his men had sacrificed themselves for their country – but their country had nothing for them now that the war was over, is heartbreaking. But the trouble that finds Bess is not related to any war service – or at least not exactly.

There is a terrible secret hidden in this remote village. A secret that has caused the villagers to close ranks against any outsiders. There is no access to the place except by an uncertain arrangement for hire cars from not-so-nearby Swansea. There is no post office, no telephone exchange, no constable, no doctor. No one from the outside seems to be permitted. Captain Williams, helping his sister-in-law with her farm, is resented and reviled at every turn. Bess faces intense hostility from the second she arrives.

The atmosphere of this particular story will remind series readers of an earlier story, A Pattern of Lies. There is both that same sense of human nature twisted and corrupted, and the same atmosphere of almost Gothic horror.

Bess’ forced sojourn in this tiny place with its close-mouthed and close-minded inhabitants all hunkered around the protection of their dark secret drags on a bit for the reader, possibly in sympathy with Bess and her enforced vacation from her vocation. She does her best to be of use in the household that has been forced to guest her, but it isn’t easy for her and this part of the story isn’t easy for the reader.

Things speed up, as they often do in this series, when Simon Brandon arrives to spring Bess from the trap she has gotten herself stuck in. But also as often happens in the series, Bess refuses to leave until she has solved all of the riddles – even the ones that no one wants solved.

This series has followed the progress of the war, through Bess’ perspective as a combat nurse. Part of what we see in this particular story has a great deal to do with the way that the veterans of the trenches were treated after the war ended – which was mostly abominable. I also find myself wondering whether some of Bess’ concern about the fate of this regiment now that the war was over would have reflected her own unconscious concerns about what happens to her after her war is over – as it nearly is.

As much as I don’t want this series to end, I can’t help but wonder what Bess’ post-war life will be. I hope that we get to find out.

Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie HannahThe Mystery of Three Quarters (The New Hercule Poirot Mystery #3) by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #3
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on August 28, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The world's most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot--the legendary star of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and most recently The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket--returns in a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in the London of 1930.

Returning home from a luncheon, Hercule Poirot is met at his door by an imperious woman who introduces herself as Sylvia Rule. "How dare you? How dare you send me such a letter?" Ignoring his denials, Mrs. Rule insists that she received a missive claiming he had proof she murdered a man named Barnabas Pandy and advising her to confess her crime to the police. Threatening the perplexed Poirot with a lawsuit, she leaves in a huff.

Minutes later, a rather disheveled man named John McCrodden appears. "I got your letter accusing me of the murder of Barnabas Pandy." Calmly, Poirot again rebuts the charge. Each insisting they are victims of a conspiracy, Mrs. Rule and Mr. McCrodden deny knowing who Pandy is.

The next day, two more strangers proclaim their innocence and provide illuminating details. Miss Annabel Treadway tells Poirot that Barnabas Pandy was her grandfather. But he was not murdered; his death was an accident. Hugo Dockerill also knows of Pandy, and he heard the old man fell asleep in his bath and drowned.

Why did someone send letters in Poirot's name accusing people of murder? If Pandy's death was an accident, why charge foul play? It is precisely because he is the great Hercule Poirot that he would never knowingly accuse an innocent person of a crime. Someone is trying to make mischief, and the instigator wants Poirot involved.

Engaging the help of Edward Catchpool, his Scotland Yard policeman friend, Poirot begins to dig into the investigation, exerting his little grey cells to solve an elaborate puzzle involving a tangled web of relationships, scandalous secrets, and past misdeeds.

My Review:

This is now the third of Sophie Hannah’s New Hercule Poirot mysteries (after The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket), and there is one thing they all have in common. Actually there are several things they have in common, but the one that strikes this reader first is the sheer, compulsive readability of this series. Whether one considers them continuations of the original, homages to it, or a combination of the two, they are all absolutely brimming with can’t-put-it-down-ness. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. All day.

Another factor that is common to all three books is the new author’s invented “Watson” for Poirot, Inspector Edward Catchpool. Unlike poor Japp in the original series, Catchpool is a young detective, early in his career. While he sometimes (often!) chafes at being caught between his Super’s orders and Poirot’s “requests”, he is aware that he needs Poirot.

One of the gratifying parts of their relationship is the way that Poirot also seems to be aware that he needs Catchpool, and not just to provide official sanction. Poirot is always the lead partner, but there is a partnership developing.

The case in The Mystery of Three Quarters feels very Poirot in that it is convoluted in the extreme. Someone has sent letters, signed by Poirot, accusing the recipients of murder. The four recipients of those letters are various shades of indignant and perplexed. Poirot is incensed, because he did not send the letters – and their grammar and writing style is absolutely appalling. Instead he discovers that the supposed murder victim surely died by accident, and that his purported murderers don’t seem to have much relationship to each other – or even to the late, more-or-less lamented Barnabas Pandy.

It’s up to Poirot, with the able assistance of Inspector Catchpool, to figure out, not so much whodunit, but whydunit, before somebody else gets done.

Escape Rating B: It’s the must-keep-reading-ness aspect of this book that sticks with me. The case, as bizarre as it is (and Poirot’s cases were often a bit “out there”) pulls the reader along from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph and doesn’t let go until the end.

In other words, The Mystery of Three Quarters is a whole lot of fun to read.

Three books into this “new” series, I still feel as if it is more of a continuation of the TV portrayal of Poirot than the original books – or perhaps it’s just that Poirot’s extreme quirks feel even more quirky when one visualizes David Suchet’s performance than they must have when originally published. I always hear Suchet’s voice while reading this new series. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

One thing that stands out from The Mystery of Three Quarters is the utter wackiness of the entire case. As a device to get Poirot involved, the fraudulent letters are a stroke of both absurdity and genius. No one could resist getting to the bottom of the whole mess, and certainly Poirot is incapable of letting someone else take his name in vain. He can’t resist, which was the whole point.

Also the killer’s mistake, but of course that’s all part of the big reveal at the end.

One of the things that surprised me about the entire farrago was just how much of Poirot’s resolution turned out to be based on slightly far-fetched assumptions about motives and emotions. There’s not a whole lot of forensic evidence in this case until the very end. Instead it’s all about what people thought and how they felt and why they subsequently acted the way they did.

It all gallops along brilliantly as its going on, but looking back I’m not quite sure it all hangs together. But still, it was a terrific ride while it was happening, and I enjoyed every page of it.

I’m very happy that the author is continuing this “collaboration” with the late Dame Agatha Christie, and I look forward to more installments of Hercule Poirot’s “new” mysteries!

But I still like the UK covers better for this series. It’s Poirot. It’s the 1930s. Art deco is the right look and feel. Just run with it!

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Review: Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs

Review: Between You and Me by Susan WiggsBetween You and Me by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on June 26, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Deep within the peaceful heart of Amish country, a life-or-death emergency shatters a quiet world to its core. Number-one New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs delivers a riveting story that challenges our deepest-held beliefs.

Caught between two worlds, Caleb Stoltz is bound by a deathbed promise to raise his orphaned niece and nephew in Middle Grove, where life revolves around family, farm, faith—and long-held suspicions about outsiders. When disaster strikes, Caleb is thrust into an urban environment of high-tech medicine and the relentless rush of modern life.

Dr. Reese Powell is poised to join the medical dynasty of her wealthy, successful parents. Bold, assertive, and quick-thinking, she lives for the addictive rush of saving lives. When a shocking accident brings Caleb Stoltz into her life, Reese is forced to deal with a situation that challenges everything she thinks she knows—and ultimately emboldens her to question her most powerful beliefs.

Then one impulsive act brings about a clash of cultures in a tug-of-war that plays out in a courtroom, challenging the very nature of justice and reverberating through generations, straining the fragile threads of faith and family.

Deeply moving and unforgettable, Between You and Me is an emotionally complex story of love and loss, family and friendship, and the arduous road to discovering the heart’s true path.

My Review:

Between You and Me is not quite what I was expecting. Much in the same way that neither Reese Powell’s nor Caleb Stoltz’ lives turn out quite the way that they – or anyone around them – expected.

The unexpected can turn out to be wonderful.

Reese Powell and Caleb Stoltz don’t seem to have much in common, at least not on the surface, and they certainly live lives that should never have intersected. But life is funny that way, and sometimes we meet the people we really need to when we really need them.

Even if, or especially because, they challenge us and everything we thought we believed. The best laid plans of mice, men and especially parents go oft astray.

Caleb’s nephew is injured in a tragic accident, and his tiny Amish farming community does not have the resources needed to keep the boy from bleeding out. His nearly severed arm is a lost cause, but the boy’s life isn’t – at least not yet. When the life flight helicopter comes to take Jonah Stoltz from Middle Grove to Philadelphia, Caleb rides along.

His first ride in a helicopter, something that he has always longed to do.

While Caleb may be Amish, his heart has always yearned for the wider world. When he went on his rumspringa, his version of going wild was to attend college. He had no plans to return to Middle Grove and his abusive father.

But when his older brother and sister-in-law were murdered, Caleb took up his duty and returned to care for his niece and nephew. Not just because he made a promise to his brother as he lay dying, but to prevent his father from abusing the two children who would otherwise be left in his care.

Jonah’s tragic accident gives Caleb a tiny, tempting chance to break away from his life for a brief moment, and in his care for the boy he lets himself take it.

Reese Powell is a fourth-year resident at the hospital where Jonah is taken. She’s part of the trauma team that preps the boy for surgery. And something in her heart reaches out to the boy whose life has just irrevocably changed, and to the lost, lonely man who is truly a stranger in a strange land in the urban setting.

Just as Caleb takes this brief opportunity to break free of the life he is expected to lead, in her friendship with him Reese discovers an opportunity to examine what she wants for herself, and to break free of the heavy weight of her parents’ expectation.

They expect her to become a pediatric surgeon so that she can become a partner in their high powered and highly successful OB/GYN IVF practice. A practice that produced Reese herself. But what they want for her is not what she wants for herself. Not that Reese does not want to be a doctor, but that she wants to be a different kind of doctor than her parents, or than her parents have planned for her to be.

And even though their attempts at any relationship beyond friendship seem doomed to failure, that they try gives both of them the courage to discover what they are truly searching for in life.

It might even lead them back to each other.

Escape Rating A+: Upon reflection, I don’t think that the blurb matches the book all that much, except for its final paragraph. Between You and Me is deeply moving and unforgettable, and it is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, family, friendship and just how difficult it can be to find your own true path and the people who you need to have walking that path beside you.

But this isn’t a story about faith, except possibly faith in oneself. It also is not a story about beliefs, at least not in the religious sense that feels implied in the blurb. Instead, it feels a story about the intersection of duty and commitment, about the weight of promises made and the guilt of promises broken. And how sometimes it’s necessary to break the literal meaning of a promise in order to keep the spirit of it.

Caleb is Amish, but he has never been baptised in the faith. In other words, he has always had plenty of doubts, and those doubts have kept him from becoming a full member of the community. He promised his brother that he would raise his children in Middle Grove, but he did not promise to make any religious commitments of his own to the community.

Caleb has always had a foot in both camps. He lives in Middle Grove, but he works for the English in nearby Grantham Park, as the lead horse trainer for the Budweiser Clydesdales as well as other big, beautiful horses. And he does accounting on the side.

Much of the clash of cultures in the story is about the clash within Caleb’s heart. He wants to leave. He’s always wanted to leave. A big part of this story comprises the circumstances that finally make him realize that he needs to leave, both for his niece and nephew’s sake and for his own.

It’s often a hard choice, and it’s one that we see Caleb struggle with every step of the way.

Reese’s problem often seem much easier, but that doesn’t mean that her difficulties aren’t real or that we don’t feel for her as well. Because we do.

There is a romance at the heart of Between You and Me, but this is not a romance in the genre sense. The story here revolves around Caleb’s and Reese’s separate journeys to find themselves and the truth of their own hearts – not in the romantic sense but in the finding true purpose sense.

The happy ending is their reward for taking the difficult path. And it’s the reader’s reward for following them on their journey.

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Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann MahThe Lost Vintage by Ann Mah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, family saga, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sweetbitter meets The Nightingale in this page-turning novel about a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II

To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.

As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

My Review:

This book is every bit as delicious as the wines produced by the region that it celebrates. And the history that it uncovers has just as many top notes, undertones and hidden flavors as the wine.

The Lost Vintage combines two different fictional varietals, the contemporary second-chance at love story with a heartfelt exploration of the history of the Burgundy region under the Nazi Occupation, along with the excesses enacted after liberation. And it is a story about one family finally coming to terms with all the beautiful and terrible secrets hidden in its past.

This is Kate’s story. The present we watch is her present, and it is her determination and blind luck that uncovers the hidden past.

Kate’s family are wine growers in the Burgundy region of France. Kate has always planned to have a career in the wine industry, but not as a grower. Her plan was to study, become a sommelier and eventually take the prestigious Master of Wine test.

And that’s where she’s stuck.

She’s failed the test twice, and is preparing herself to tackle the test for the third and final time. (It’s a three-strikes and you’re out kind of test). But Kate has a blind spot that is ruining her chances of achieving her dream. She just can’t seem to taste the wines from the region that her family calls home.

A place that she once, almost, made her life.

So she goes back to confront the family history, and her own. She goes back to help her cousin bring in the harvest, and to avoid as much as possible the man she almost married.

And get to the heart of everything that is holding her back from her dream. In the process, she discovers the secrets that her family has buried for 70 years – along with more than enough wine to recover their fortunes.

But first they have to resurrect the past, and begin to forgive while consciously choosing not to forget. And so does Kate.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely marvelous book, whether you love family sagas, wine culture, French history, World War II history or even second chances at love stories, because The Lost Vintage is all of the above.

It’s so easy to fall into this book, and especially to feel for Kate on the horns of her many, many dilemmas. She’s been driven to pursue her dreams, and she’s unconsciously following the example of her mother, a woman who pursued her own dreams at the cost of her family.

At the same time, the history that Kate uncovers eats her up, and consumes her family on multiple levels. The Burgundy region was infamous for its collaborators during the Occupation. The young woman who Kate first discovers through a yellowing high school diploma and a box of old science textbooks seems like a woman Kate would like to have met – until she discovers that her great-aunt was punished as a collaborator after the war. Sickened by the discovery of her family’s history of bigotry, at the same time she uncovers the fruits of their lost labor – a hidden collection of famous pre-war vintages, enough to save the family fortunes several times over.

But the discovery comes at too high a cost, as her Jewish cousin discovers that she has married into a family that sent others just like her to the concentration camps. And as their great-uncle creates rifts in the family by refusing to discuss the history that his own parents made him promise never to reveal.

Kate is caught between her need to learn the truth about her family, her need to learn as much as she can to pass her test, and her desire to avoid at all costs the man she almost married. A man whose family holdings are next door to her own, and whose life is interwoven with those of her cousins in France.

There’s history, mystery and romance woven into this story. We feel both for the characters in the present who desperately need to know, and those in the past who just as desperately need to conceal that knowledge.

Even though I guessed some of the history, I was still surprised by the twist at the end. And pleased to be so surprised.

The Lost Vintage is a story to savor. Preferably with a glass of wine. Or several. And some tissues.

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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen BrusatteThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dinosaurs, nonfiction, science
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on April 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"THE ULTIMATE DINOSAUR BIOGRAPHY," hails Scientific American: A sweeping and revelatory new history of the age of dinosaurs, from one of our finest young scientists.

"This is scientific storytelling at its most visceral, striding with the beasts through their Triassic dawn, Jurassic dominance, and abrupt demise in the Cretaceous." — Nature

The dinosaurs. Sixty-six million years ago, the Earth’s most fearsome creatures vanished. Today they remain one of our planet’s great mysteries. Now The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reveals their extraordinary, 200-million-year-long story as never before.

In this captivating narrative (enlivened with more than seventy original illustrations and photographs), Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of the field—naming fifteen new species and leading groundbreaking scientific studies and fieldwork—masterfully tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy. Captivating and revelatory, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a book for the ages.

Brusatte traces the evolution of dinosaurs from their inauspicious start as small shadow dwellers—themselves the beneficiaries of a mass extinction caused by volcanic eruptions at the beginning of the Triassic period—into the dominant array of species every wide-eyed child memorizes today, T. rex, Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and more. This gifted scientist and writer re-creates the dinosaurs’ peak during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, when thousands of species thrived, and winged and feathered dinosaurs, the prehistoric ancestors of modern birds, emerged. The story continues to the end of the Cretaceous period, when a giant asteroid or comet struck the planet and nearly every dinosaur species (but not all) died out, in the most extraordinary extinction event in earth’s history, one full of lessons for today as we confront a “sixth extinction.”

Brusatte also recalls compelling stories from his globe-trotting expeditions during one of the most exciting eras in dinosaur research—which he calls “a new golden age of discovery”—and offers thrilling accounts of some of the remarkable findings he and his colleagues have made, including primitive human-sized tyrannosaurs; monstrous carnivores even larger than T. rex; and paradigm-shifting feathered raptors from China.

An electrifying scientific history that unearths the dinosaurs’ epic saga, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will be a definitive and treasured account for decades to come.

My Review:

The dinosaurs may be dead, but the study of the dinosaurs is downright lively, at least according to this book.

Or to put it another way, if your kid really, really, really loves dinosaurs, there’s a chance he’ll become a bit like the author of this book – at least in his enthusiasm for his subject. And that’s a good thing – even if it may be driving you crazy at the moment.

Just as elephants and polar bears are the charismatic megafauna of the 21st century, dinosaurs fill that same space in the popular imagination as representatives of, well, the Jurassic period of prehistory. There are even dinosaur analogs for those two species, with the horned triceratops filling the plant-eater niche while there is no better representative for carnivores than the tyrannosaurus rex – the great lizard king of the dinosaurs.

We all recognize them, and many other dinosaurs, because those great beasts, their impressive rise and their sudden and thunderous fall, have captured the popular imagination.

This book is both the story of one relatively young paleontologist, and to a significant extent the experiences and enthusiasms that made him into the scientist that he is today.

And it is also the story of the rise of the dinosaurs from one species among many all the way back in the Triassic period, through their apex as the dominant species on this planet, to their sudden and catastrophic elimination at the hands – or rather the crash – of a massive asteroid.

It is their demise that eventually led to us. Unlike the fictional world of The Flintstones comics, man and dinosaur never occupied this planet together – but we live with their descendants.

Reality Rating B: Every once in a while I pick up a popular science book, if it is about a topic that interests me. A long time ago I listened to the audio of Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, about another great proliferation of species that are no longer among us. It’s from the period before the dinosaurs begin their long rise, but the books remind me of each other a bit.

There are both written in a popular style, intended to be read by an educated layperson. One doesn’t need to be a scientist, or even an aficionado, to get the point of that book. Or this one.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is an exploration, based on the science that is now known, of the conditions that gave rise to these iconic beasts, the world in which they lived and the contemporaries against whom they fought for dominance.

They didn’t come out of nowhere, and the author does a good job of introducing readers to the evolution that created them, and the evolution that allowed them to become the dominant life on earth. That they no longer are is fate, or chance, or karma, or destiny. Just as Monty Python chanted that “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition”, no one expects the planet to get whacked by a giant meteor – at least until it happens.

There’s a lot to love in this book, especially if you’ve never gotten over your fascination with dinosaurs – as it seems that no paleontologist ever does. There’s plenty of history to sink into, both the history of the dinosaurs and the history of the finding and figuring out about the dinosaurs.

At the same time, there’s also more than a bit of name-dropping about well-known paleontologists and their discoveries. The discoveries are always fascinating, but we don’t get quite enough about the individuals for them to stick in the mind.

In the end, it’s the dinosaurs themselves that stand out. Or fly. The idea that modern-day birds are themselves the last of the dinosaurs is an arresting idea. One that will make non-scientist readers look at our feathered friends in a whole new way.

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

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Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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