Downton-esque

The House at
Riverton
by Kate Morton
Well, that was lucky.
I wouldn’t’ve read this book except that it was assigned reading.
And I’m actually glad I read it. It’s one of those.
The happy coincidence to the timing of my reading this book is
that I (like half the planet) just finished watching the second season of Downton Abbey, which is also set in a humungo English country house
in the early 1900s. 
One of the things people either love or hate about this book is
that it actually starts in the current day, with an elderly woman named Grace
remembering back to her days as a lady’s maid at Riverton. So there are
flashbacks. I actually love the whole flashback thing in a book, especially
when it’s one of those end-of-life flashback situations (like in Penelope
Lively’s Moon Tiger and Susan
Minot’s Evening).
It’s clear from the start that all hell broke loose (are you listening, Elmore?) at
some point way back when, because there was a big honking scandal, and now a
filmmaker is making a movie about it. So Grace is forced to face the ugly old truth
again for the first time in eons.
So then we flit back in time to the days just before WWI, when the
rich and entitled (and titled) were
toodling around their grand estates, and poor young Grace was a clueless new
housemaid. And it’s a pretty darn good little story, as long as you can
tolerate all those young, beautiful, entitled sorts. (They can be a bit hard to
stomach.) It helps a lot that we’re hearing the story from the perspective of the former maid, because she’s more down with the people, you know?
I actually liked the last page best. Not because the book was over
(I’m not being snide!) but because of the way it reveals the way everything
went so very wrong… and how things also turned out so well for Grace. 
Recommended as a remedy for Downton withdrawal. 

Hired guns of the old West

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick
DeWitt
My first book of the fall Read-a-Thon, and it was a doozy.
Ann of Books on the Nightstand positively raved about this book,
which is what helped me get past a couple of things that otherwise would’ve prevented
me from reading it: This is historical fiction, and it’s got a horrible cover.
Yes, I know I’m doing that Historical Fiction reading challenge,
but that’s only because I’m in a genre study these days, so I’m reading the
stuff by prescription already. Otherwise, I don’t really favor it.
Then a book like this comes along, and I have to wonder if a
re-think is in order.
The Sisters brothers are hired killers, and these dudes kill
people the way the rest of us swat mosquitoes: without mercy and without remorse.
…Until Eli, who narrates the story, starts to think he’s ready to
be All Done with killing. He’s kinda thinking he’d like to open a trading post. 
Well, his brother Charlie doesn’t plan to quit his day job anytime soon, but
he’s OK with Eli taking off as soon as they finish their current job. And of
course, the current job’s a nightmare and a half.
Plenty of things about this book put me in mind of True Grit, and that’s high praise. It’s a Western that’s got all kinds of good stuff going on. The
only thing that’s missing is the tough girl character; this book’s mainly
grown-up boys.
And they are boys.
Here’s evidence:
“‘What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel and
you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling, but then began
to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s
wrong, and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit
all the slights I offered you in childhood.’” (p. 46)
Guys, that’s funny. The
tone of the whole book is like that, which, combined with the endless string of
killings, is what makes it possible/desirable to read this book all in one big
gulp. 

Just stoic enough

English Creek by Ivan
Doig
I’m a total sucker for a first-person narrative told in a really
engaging voice. And in this book—the voice is perfection.
For years now—years—I’ve
been thinking someday I’d read something by Ivan Doig. 

Why did I wait so long?      (for more about me being a numbskull, here you go)
(photo credit: Library of Congress)

Fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill narrates this story, and he is a
completely likeable young fellow. And the world sometimes mystifies him, the
way the world does when a person’s fourteen. His older brother is defying their
parents by working at a land baron’s ranch and then getting himself engaged,
and that’s stirring things up. Plus Jick is starting to get the sense that his
parents are actual people, and that
they had lives before he showed up on the scene. And that’s always a
revelation.

So there in Montana,
in the midst of the Great Depression, Jick is growing up. “Frankly, high among
my hopes about the business of growing up was that I would get a considerably
more substantial horse out of it.” (pp. 14-15)
But he also finds himself wanting to ask his parents
questions—about his brother and the new tension in the family, about how his
parents met, about their younger years, about the forest ranger who preceded
his father in the job and why he fell from grace—and he hardly knows how to
ask.  
As I read, I kept noting pages that contained stuff I really
liked. Here are two examples:
“We tell ourselves whatever is needed to go from one scene of life
to the next.” (p. 40)   Man, if that ain’t true.
And this scene, in which Jick’s dad is calling the dance at the
town fest:
“I stepped away from Ray, soldiered myself in front of my mother,
and said:
‘Mrs. McCaskill, I don’t talk through my nose as pretty as the guy
you usually gallivant around with. But suppose I could have this dance with you
anyway?’
Her face underwent that rinse of surprise that my father sometimes
showed about her. She cast a look toward the top of my head as if just
realizing my height. Then came her sidelong smile, and her announcement:
‘I never could resist you McCaskill galoots.’”  (pp. 204-205)
How can you not like that boy and his family?
Jick’s narrative voice is so lovely, and the voices of the other
characters are just plain interesting,
too.
When I read the final section of the reader’s guide in the book, I
found out part of the reason why: Doig says that he found it easy to write in
Jick’s voice, and he mentions that he had decades’ worth of file cards of
phrasing and dialogue. In the Acknowledgments, he writes, “Thus it is very
nearly forty years now that I have been listening to Montanans.” (p. 337)
And guys, he listened well. And by writing well, he lets us listen
to their voices, too. The results are splendid.

So *much* not-my-thing

Master and Commander by Patrick
O’Brian
I honestly don’t recall the last time a book made me this darn
annoyed. (Every time I looked at it, I was tempted to snarl. Eventually, I gave
in; this was not pretty.) 
I was railing so much about having to read it that
finally someone said that maybe I could find a summary online
and just stop reading it. I tell you, I was sorely tempted.
The only reason I persevered (sort of) was that this book was
assigned for a genre study. And I agree that it’s the right book to represent
this military/adventure subgenre of historical fiction.
But damn, I hated it.
(hated it, hated it, hated it!!)
And I’m telling you, I’m just plain flummoxed. I have talked with
readers over the years who positively love this book and this series. For
Pete’s sake, Keith Richards loves
this series!
I could barely even read it.
I shall now open the book to a random page and type the first two
sentences upon which my eyes land:
“Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance
concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working
through, and the main is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it
deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere
character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to
this character. James Dillon was a delightful being.” (p. 181)
See?! This is what I’m talking about!
(There are those out there who survived two separate episodes of “I’m now going
to open this book to a random page and read aloud…”)
I tried to skim it, and it’s impossible to skim. But it’s also
impossible to read. (See two-sentence excerpt above.)
In this book, I think there were some battles. And for some reason, at the end,
Jack Aubrey appears to be getting court-martialed, and I have no earthly idea why.
(I know why I don’t know why: because I was skimming
the unskimmable!
)
Patrick O’Brian, we are not going to be spending any more time
together. 
Goodbye, Aubrey and Maturin.
Go and do your thing.
I’m going to go and do mine. (Probably it will involve reading
something plain, stark, and pure. I’m sorely in need of an antidote.)

Glamour

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
OK, I admit it: It was the gorgeous cover that made me need to read this book. Plus, it was getting splashed all over EarlyWord as one of the hot books of the fall. But guys, I started reading it in my pjs one morning, and I’m not going to tell you what time I put on daytime clothes. I’m just not telling.
This is one of those glorious lost-love books, and I love lost-love books. And also, it’s a New York City book, and I love those, too. Plus, it’s one of those blast-from-the-past books (also something I love), in which the narrator starts out in the now (1966 in this instance) and then reflects back on then (1937 and 1938, the heyday of her youth). And there are love triangles, and there is grand ambition and social climbing and the loss of innocence, and all I can say is Wow.
The narrator, Katey Kontent, is a young woman of meager means who gets a job in the city and falls in with a stylish crowd. And we know that in 1966 she’s married and seems to be having a very fine life, but back in the ’30s… she’s falling in love, and then getting her heart broken, and you really don’t know if things are going to go well for her.
This book begs to have its plot told, but I’m not gonna do it because sometimes that just ruins everything. So that’s all I’m gonna say.
Except…
Here’s what I found out, after finishing the book: The author is a man! (All along, I’d been thinking, “Maybe I’ll look at the author photo…”   But I don’t always do that, and then it turns out this one’s male.) It surprised me at first, because the narrator is female, but then I realized that I could believe it. Maybe because of the Fitzgerald-esque feel of the book… I really can’t lay a finger on it.
In addition to a fantastic plot, the writing is stylish. Here’s a nice passage that gives a sense:
“Bitsy looked impressed.
—I’ve never been in a car wreck.
Though from the way she said it, you got the sense she had been in other kinds of wrecks—like in an airplane or motorcycle or submarine.” (p. 183)
OK. So I’m strongly recommending this book. I 5-starred it on Shelfari and everything. If it sounds at all like your kind of thing, place a hold at the library and then wait for the lovely day when it arrives especially for you.

One of the things I can’t read about

The Jackdaws by Ken Follett
Here’s what I was wondering throughout this audiobook: Can I really count it, in good faith, as a “book I’ve read” if I skipped about 5 tracks of the CDs? Because I had to skip 5 whole tracks in order to avoid hearing scenes of torture (which I completely can’t handle as a reader/listener*). That’s a lot of torture, guys.
If I’d’ve known, I’d’ve picked a different book for the genre study, but I got partway in (and this already was my 2nd choice book, so time was a-wasting) and then discovered that one of the main characters was a Nazi who specialized in “interrogation.”
Yeah.
The plot: A team of women spies have to sneak into a Nazi stronghold to take out the phone system in the days before D-Day. A tough, but (of course) beautiful, woman named Flick leads the team, which runs into all kinds of horrible obstacles. Blah blah blah.
So I already knew I couldn’t handle torture scenes, but I’ve learned from this book that I really just don’t like Ken Follett. His characters seem flat to me, and I’m not all that jazzed by the plot.
Same thing with Night over Water, which I read some years ago.
Yeah, I know The Pillars of the Earth is said to be his best work, but you won’t find me reading it. I am moving on…

* Other things I can’t read about: prison, mental institutions, medical procedures, cruelty — especially cruelty to children (the first time I started a Harry Potter book, I had to put it down — that cupboard under the stairs was too much), and animals dying. I also detest “heartwarming.”

It’s good to be wrong

The Alienist by Caleb Carr
I’m ornery sometimes when it comes to choosing books. So if everyone’s raving about something, I’d apt to avoid it. At all costs.
This was the deal with The Alienist back in the mid-90s. It was all the rage among mystery readers and even non-mystery readers. So I said no, no, no. (Oh, Amy Winehouse. What a crummy deal.)
Just last week, I also saw a rave review on Entomology of a Bookworm. (I read only the first paragraph before I finished the book, then went back after I was done with the book to read the full review. I’m skittish that way.)
The only reason I read The Alienist now is that it was assigned for a genre study. And I was all not wanting to read it.
OK. So I was wrong.
Turns out, this is a darn good little (big!) mystery.
It’s got a neato team of unconventional detectives who are trying to determine who is killing boys in New York City in the 1890s. And they’re interesting, and so are their methods. It’s still early days for things like fingerprinting. And psychological profiling (which is what they end up doing) is pretty much unheard of. So as you’re reading, it feels like you’re witnessing something new that’s just coming into being.
And the way people rave about how Carr captures the place and time period? True.
My best recommendation is: Read a copy that was published since 2006. There’s an amazing Afterword by Carr, written in 2006, in the paperback I read. And reading the Afterword like attending the best kind of author presentation—where the author tells you the story behind the story. And this one is a really, really good one. It gladdened my heart.

Two marriages

The Still Point by Amy Sackville
Here’s how we know how big of a liarhead I really am: I say I detest historical fiction because people back then lived in such discomfort, and I Don’t Want To Experience That.
But… I’m nothing but a sucker for the arctic exploration books. Those puppies are filled with suffering, and I mean lots of it.
(image credit: Library of Congress)
This book has that arctic exploration thing happening. And, to add to the suffering… it also has a current-day troubled marriage storyline.
I was entranced.
It doesn’t hurt that the author trots out sentences like this: “She has pegged the washing out on the line, so that the sheets billow fresh white at the edge of her vision like the sails of a ship; she is afloat in the summer morning.” (p. 26 of the eBook)
And, in addition to beautiful sentences, there’s a plot! With two storylines, actually—past and present. Yet the whole story is set up within a single day in the here and now.
The present day has that troubled marriage couple I mentioned: Julia and Simon. She’s the dreamy descendant of a semi-famous failed arctic explorer from the turn of the last century, and she and Simon have moved into her family’s house, which is also home to explorer Edward’s artifacts and journal. Simon’s thinking he just might have an affair.
While he’s contemplating this possibility throughout the day, Julia’s casting back to great-grand-uncle Edward’s life—and his gorgeously romantic marriage to Emily, who waited for his return all her life.
So we get excerpts from Edward’s journal and the story of his ill-fated mission to the Pole, plus the story on the homefront in 1900, as Emily waited.
And deceptions are revealed, and it’s good because you know something’s gonna happen, but you don’t know what. (At least I didn’t.)
And since I love this kind of thing, I’m gonna throw you some read-a-likes:
Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur—has an Antarctic (rather than Arctic) thing going on, but it also features a current-day woman researching a tragically-fated polar expedition. 800+ pages of goodness
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett—a gorgeous novel about a Victorian Arctic expedition and the women who waited for the explorer’s return. (Love that homefront stuff)
Exiles by Ron Hansen—has a tragedy (a shipwreck) at its heart, but also has the sensitive soul (a poet) who is haunted by it. Has the same sort of emotional pull as The Still Point
On a completely different note, here’s one way the Nook Color may be improving my brain: I actually use the built-in dictionary function (Just touch the word and then touch “dictionary”!) to look up words I don’t know, rather than skimming over them, figuring I’ve picked up enough context clues to get the meaning. In this book, I looked up “nacreous,” “alembic,” and “ambit.” I’m wondering: Am I simply dense not to know those words?

Dysfunction Junction

…what’s your function? (yes, I am a child of the ’70s)
Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
Guys! A historical novel I really, really liked! Seriously! Even sat in the car for way too long because I didn’t want to leave the story (on audiobook, obviously; book-reading while driving is not advised, I’m told).
The story is divided primarily into 3 time periods, which made me think of the 3 layers of the quilt Dolly and the Ladies’ Aid are quilting.
Dolly’s 1950 world is one layer. Dolly’s a young bride, and her (clueless) husband Byron’s hauled her off to a small Wisconsin town where he’s working at a car dealership with a war buddy. Dolly’s so lonely she joins the quilting group even though she doesn’t know how to quilt.
And man, do they got the gossip, them quilting ladies.
Dolly’s fallen in love with a big old deserted house on a hill, and the ladies say all kinds of nasty things about the Mickelson family who lived there. (Given that the Mickelsons don’t live there no more, you kinda figure early on that Something Happened. And did it ever. This thing’s got the melodrama turned On.)
The other 2 layers are the years of World War I—when the older Mickelson boys go off to war, and the years of World War II—when all hell breaks loose in the Mickelson family.
We get to jump back in time and see the Mickelson mess as it slowly simmers and then boils over.
And then we hop back to 1950 to see Dolly’s horridly unsatisfying housewife life. (Betty Friedan must have talked with Dolly, I’m thinking, when gathering material for that first book of hers.)
The key turning point in the book (and it happens fairly early on, so I don’t think I’m totally ruining anything here) is when Dolly, who has begun to sneak into the Mickelson house to clean it and restore it to its former glory, gets discovered by the prodigal Mickelson grandson, who’s been drinking himself into a stupor since the war’s end.
So the whole cast of characters… they just run into trouble at every turn. It’s glorious fun to read and will work for readers who need a galloping plot and also for those who read for character.
Audiobook notes: 16 ½ hours, read by Christine Williams. It took me a disc or two to get into the voice, but then it all meshed. And trapped me in my car.

Tough old (*young!*) girl

True Grit by Charles Portis
So I hear there’s a movie by this name…


…which makes sense. This is a rip-roaring good story.
And one of the things that makes it even better is the young female narrator who’s almost too tough to be true. But since she’s telling the story from the later years of her life, as a tough old gal, it becomes completely credible that this crusty old woman would have been one tough cookie as a girl.
It’s the 1870s, and Mattie Ross, age 14, is out to avenge the death of her father, who was shot in cold blood by their hired man. The law ain’t doing nothing about it, so Mattie decides to take care of business.
One of my favorite parts is this: Mattie visits the sheriff and asks who is the best U.S. marshal. (She’s going to hire herself a marshal by offering a reward for the capture of the killer.) The sheriff ponders it aloud, describing the attributes of several marshals, including: “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.” He goes on to describe a fellow named Quinn and concludes that Quinn is the best there is. To which Mattie replies, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (pp. 25-26)
So it comes to pass that Mattie, Rooster, and another fellow named LaBoeuf ride off after the killer and his band of miscreants. While this is a great adventure story, it’s the language—the sharp dialogue—that caught my attention.
While Mattie is looking for a man with true grit, of course she’s the one who’s really got what it takes. But those two fellas—Rooster and LaBoeuf—were not half bad in the end.
This book stands out because of Mattie’s voice. That’s it, pure and simple.