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Erle Stanley Gardner and 5 Things That Made Me Happy Today


Over the weekend, I read four Perry Mason mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner. I think I needed to de-tox from reading so much about the “roaring twenties” and Warren G. Harding’s infidelities and his lack of common ethical sense. Perry Mason only flirts and skirts the edges of legality, unlike Mr. Harding who was apparently juggling multiple mistresses while he was in the Senate and while he occupied the White House.

What did I read?
The Case of the Nervous Accomplice. Sybil Harlan hatches a plot to bring her wandering husband back to the fold by throwing a monkey wrench in the business deal he and his paramour are working. But then another party to the deal ends up dead, and Sybil is the obvious suspect. This one was pretty good, and I didn’t see any obvious holes or issues.

The Case of the Careless Kitten. The behavior of a kitten is the main clue that resolves the murder mystery. This story is OK, but there is a a minor character, used as a red herring, who is a Japanese (or possibly Korean) “houseboy.” He is written as a stereotypical “sinister Japanese” character, which since the book was published in 1942, right after Pearl Harbor, is not surprising. It’s a wonder he wasn’t made more sinister–even portrayed as a spy or something worse. But the racist treatment of the character is rather jarring to this contemporary reader’s ear.

The Case of the Vagabond Virgin. At the end, the denouement, of this story the solution is either wonky or I didn’t understand. The murderer uses the victim’s car as a getaway car, drives it to Vegas, leaves it there, and flies back to LA. But neither the police nor Mason seem to have noticed throughout the entire book that the victim’s car was missing. That doesn’t make sense to me.

The Case of the Crooked Candle. Too technical for me, with not enough emphasis on characters. The case hinges on a complicated timeline and high tide and low tide and the burning of a candle in a leaning boat. But I don’t know why anyone would leave a candle burning on a table in a houseboat containing a murdered man.

So, I took a break from true and sordid history to read about not-so-true or even true-to-life murder mysteries. Now I think I’m ready to go back to the twenties and see how Florence Harding manage to deal with her husband’s death and his loss of reputation afterwards.

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Per the ever-inspiring Melissa Wiley, here are five things that made me smile today (Thank you, Lord, and thanks, Melissa, for the idea.):

1. Listening to Read Aloud Revival, Episode 10, with Heidi Scovel of Mt. Hope Chronicles. It’s just so encouraging to hear people talking about their love of books and reading and classic literature.

2. Chocolate-covered cherry Bluebell ice cream.

3. Reading Gulliver’s Travels with my almost 16-year old and discussing as we read. What was Swift trying to say about England in his story about the tiny Lilliputians of his imagination? And why is his story filed with scatological references that will fascinate and amuse the high school students (boys) in her homeschool literature class?

4. A new family joined my library.

5. Reading half of the book Happy Pig Day by Mo Willems to one of the children in that new library family, and then getting a hug from the child as the family went out the door. Happy Pig Day to me, too.

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Briefly Noted, Fiction

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett. The main character’s attitude toward casual sex (“bliss because she didn’t care what it meant”) was sad and made the entire book feel tawdry and cheap, in contrast to Jane Austen’s more elevated, intellectual, and thoughtful prose and her insightful approach to even flawed characters. Also some dropped plot points and discontinuities marred the otherwise serviceable story.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Everyone and their dog recommends it. I found it fascinating, but mostly because I kept hoping that the protagonist, Theo, would learn something, or grow up, over the course of the novel. He sort of did? But not really. The book should come with a warning label: lots of drugs, lots of illicit (and boring) sex, and then lots more drugs and violence. Theo actually finds “somewhere safe with somebody good” after a traumatic and neglected childhood, but he’s too traumatized to enjoy and appreciate the one person who actually loves and cares for him, Hobie, the antique dealer and friend to the friendless. Theo is a mess, and the “happy ending” seems forced in light of Theo’s choices throughout the novel. I was reading Careless People about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of The Great Gatsby after this one, and Gatsby and Fitzgerald both ended up about the way I would imagine someone who made the choices they did would end up. Theo, in contrast, gets to travel the world and make restitution on his own timetable. Lucky for him.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon. Father Tim Kavanagh and his lovely wife Cynthia, not to mention Dooley and Sammy and Lace Turner and all the other inhabitants of Mitford, return in a safe but enjoyable novel that reads just like cozy, warm cup of tea with the reader curled up in a homey old quilt on a cold winter day. The questions in the novel—Will Father Tim come out of retirement in an emergency? Does Mitford still take care of its own? Will Sammy grow up and forgive and overcome his past?—were intriguing enough to keep me reading and comfortable enough make me smile as I did. It’s well worth your time if you’re a Mitford fan, and if you’re not, you should be. Start with At Home in Mitford, and you’ll be hooked.

I’ve been focusing on nonfiction this month, and I plan to continue to do so. However, I can’t resist slipping in a few novels, now and then. I’m especially interested in reading a really good historical fiction book set in the “roaring twenties” since I just finished the book about Scott and Zelda and the Great Gatsby, and I’m now reading a biography of Florence Harding aka “the Duchess”, wife of Warren G. Harding, who became president in 1920 and presided over the beginning at least of the Jazz Age. Suggestions, anyone?

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs


A middle grade murder mystery set on the moon. What more need be said? You either think it’s a genius idea for a middle grade author to write a mystery novel for kids set in a moon colony, Moon Base Alpha, in the year 2041, or you’re not interested in astronauts and NASA and science fiction stuff. If you are a person who’s “thrilled by space travel”, as the author says he is, you would probably enjoy this book. It’s a classic murder mystery wrapped inside a bunch of details about life in space, space stations, and the possibilities of what might happen if and when humans begin to colonize the moon. It’s fun, well-researched, and well-plotted. I didn’t like the reveal of who the murderer was and why he “done it”, but that’s personal preference.

That said, I’m going to discuss a very minor aspect of Mr. Gibbs’ vision of the future: his depiction of race and race relations. In describing some nasty characters who are residents of Moon Base Alpha, the narrator goes off on a tangent about the state of racial categories in the future:

“You see, Patton and Lily are virtually the only pure white people my age I’ve ever met. Everyone else I know is a blend. Me and Violet, for example (black mom, white dad). Or the Brahmaputra-Marquez family (Indian mom, Latino dad). Or Kira (Asian mom, black dad). Or Riley Bock, back on earth (Korean-Italian mom, Irish-Sri Lankan-Peruvian-Choctaw dad). The Sjobergs, however, are pure northern European Caucasian stock, with blond hair and blue eyes and skin so pale it looks like the belly of a fish. Mom and Dad have some friends like that from their generation, and my grandparents say it was pretty common when they were young, and I’ve been told that back when my great-grandparents were kids, people of different races couldn’t even marry each other in America. I know that’s true, but it still seems impossible.
Every kid I’d ever known was some shade of brown.”

This scenario for the future is quite plausible, and I used to think that such a state of affairs, where every one was so “mixed race” that no one could tell who was what anyway would be the solution for all the divisions and prejudices that exist in our country. If what we call “race” becomes so intermingled and interbred that we can no longer tell black from brown from white because almost everyone is sort of brownish, which is by rights what should happen in a world where communication and transportation are so accessible, then racism as we know it would cease to exist, right?

Or maybe not. Now I’m not so sure. I’m a bit more pessimistic about the future of peace on earth (or the moon) among all mankind. We are by nature sinful people who are full of fear and hatred and pride and who are prone to violence. If we can’t divide people up by skin color, we’ll find something else. Look at the Tutsis and the Hutus of south central Africa:

“The antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi is not a tribal conflict. It is not, properly speaking, an ethnic conflict. By all the most common definitions, Hutus and Tutsis are the same people, which makes their violent history even more tragically incomprehensible to outsiders. . . . Despite the stereotypical variation in appearance – tall Tutsis, squat Hutus – anthropologists say they are ethnically indistinguishable. The oft- quoted difference in height is roughly the same as the difference between wealthy and poor Europeans in the last century (an average of 12cm).” The Independent, November 1996

Anyway, that’s not what the book Space Case is about. But it is one thing it made me think about. Read Space Case for fun and entertainment. Pray for Ferguson and for New York City and for all the places that are filled with division and hatred and all the people in the world who are experiencing fear and injustice and persecution and violence. Pray for peace on earth, goodwill to men, through the only Solution who has ever brought true healing to our broken planet.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Setting: Wintertime, almost Christmas, in an old four-story smugglers’ inn at the top of Whilforber Hill near the village of Nagspeake. Each floor of the inn has a beautiful stained glass window, and the guest rooms also have greenglass windows and old-fashioned, but comfortable furniture. There’s an attic full of treasures and junk, and the inn has outbuildings and a garage to explore, too. Plenty of room for mystery, treasure-hunting, and clues.

Characters: Milo Pine, the innkeepers’ adopted son, Mr. and Mrs. Pine, Milo’s parents, and several mysterious, unexpected guests.

Plot: Milo and his friend Meddy attempt to solve the mystery of Greenglass House and its history by taking on roles as players in a role-playing game. Milo is a blackjack, and Meddy is his scholiast.

Almost every review I read of this little gem of a book compared it either to The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin’s Newbery winner and mystery classic, or to Agatha Christie. And without having read those reviews beforehand, I also thought of The Westing Game and of Christie’s The Mousetrap or other books where the cast is snowed in or otherwise isolated (And Then There Were None). Greenglass House is not your typical children’s mystery story. In fact, you can read about three unspoken rules that author Kate Milford breaks in her novel, to the betterment of the story IMHO, in Betsy Bird’s insightful review at A Fuse #8 Production

I noticed, and enjoyed, the loving and involved adoptive parents. Mr. and Mrs. Pine are very busy with their inn and their unexpected guests, but not too busy to check on Milo and to do things with him and for him to make his Christmas special. I also liked the fact the the story is set at Christmastime. And it feels like an old-fashioned Christmas with a Christmas tree, a Christmas Eve gift for Milo, father/son sledding, hot chocolate by the fire, and story-telling. The setting is indeterminate, sort of Victorian with no cell phones or computers in evidence, but also modern with an electric generator for back-up electricity and up-to-date speech patterns and behavior. So that gives Christmas at Greenglass House a timeless feel.

Milo is a great protagonist, too. He’s very conscientious; he does all of his homework on the first day of vacation so that he can have the rest of the holidays to play. He’s resistant to change, but also intelligent and adventurous. He and Meddy make a good team since she inspires and encourages him to step out and use his imagination to solve the mysteries that the two of them encounter.

Greenglass House would be a lovely Christmas read-aloud book for a class or a family in the holiday mystery mood. I recommend it.

Nagspeake Online: The Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I really enjoyed certain aspects of this murder mystery set in 1932 among the rich, royal, famous, and impecunious of England. It had the flavor of I Capture the Castle mixed with Downton Abbey mixed with a little P.G. Wodehouse. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Ranoch, aka Georgie, finds herself unmarried, without funds, and without a real goal in life. She decides to leave the drafty castle in Scotland that belongs to her older brother the duke, aka Binky, and try her luck in London, unchaperoned and completely unsure about her future plans.

“I reminded myself that it is the 1930’s. Young ladies were allowed to do more than embroider, play piano, and paint watercolors. And London was a big city, teeming with opportunities for a bright young person like myself.”

Georgie, in addition to being of the aristocracy, is also a (very)minor royal, thirty-fourth in line to the throne. The title and the relations don’t get her much in the way of money, but she does get a summons from the queen (Queen Mary, wife of George V) and a commission to do a little bit of harmless spying on Prince Edward and the American woman he seems to have become involved with. However, Georgie finds that surviving on one’s own is more difficult than she had imagined, and spying on a prince comes with its own hazards.

Georgie is a wonderful character, intelligent but innocent. I liked her, and I liked seeing her navigate her way through the perils and amusements of a certain segment of London society. However, the minor characters are not so delightful. Georgie takes up with an old school friend whose constant advice is that Georgie must lose the dreadful “burden” of her virginity as soon as possible. Georgie doesn’t take her friend’s advice, but she is sorely tempted. And she never really mounts any kind of a moral or philosophical defense against this promiscuous and shallow idea of what life is all about.

So, I liked the setting, the plot was OK, and the main character is fun to watch, even if she is a little too easily influenced by foolish and unsavory characters. But the constant drumbeat of propaganda in favor of promiscuous, unattached sexual encounters spoiled the rest of the story for me, even though the actual sexual escapades in the book are limited in number and off-stage. I probably won’t read the rest of the series.

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney

The bus in question is a school bus, and the riders include several fifth, sixth and seventh graders and some “littles.” The story begins with the bus in a ditch in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, and then the rest of the story is a series of flashback chapters told from the point of view of several different bus riders about what happened throughout the school year to get the bus and its passengers to the day of the fateful accident.

Spencer is a genius, just back from a high-powered summer physics camp. Jay is Spencer’s best friend and the kid most likely to play pro-football. Shelley is something of a diva/singer/dancer, already worried about next summer and the performing arts camp in California that she wants to attend. Miranda is the side-kick who latches onto any BFF who will pay her some attention and eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. Bender is the bully, the kid who just might take your lunch money or trip you on a whim if you don’t watch out. Kaitlynn is a blabbermouth, full of ideas. Igor is probably ADHD, always in motion and looking for attention. Alice is the new girl who reads all the time. And Michael—well, Michael is the only African American kid on the bus, and no one knows what he’s thinking because he doesn’t say much to anyone.

I was intrigued and eager to keep reading to see how the author would tie together the stories of all the characters and their interactions with each other. For the most part, all of the loose ends were knotted, which is how I like my stories to be. I believe most kids would agree with me. Ambiguous endings are for literary adult types. This satisfying ending might be a little rushed, but it’s good and not forced.

The only thing that bothered me about the book is that the story is written in present tense. I guess this present tense choice lends some immediacy or nearness to the story, but I sometimes found it distracting. Mostly I tried to ignore it, although my brain insisted on “translating” the story into past tense for me at strategic moments.

Writer’s Digest: The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.

Overall, I highly recommend Ms. Cheaney’s Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous for middle grade readers who enjoy suspense and family/school stories. The plot and the writing remind me of authors such as Caroline B. Cooney (The Face on the Milk Carton) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey), so I would recommend it as a read alike for those, maybe for a slightly younger crowd, say fifth through seventh graders.

The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier

Wow! This one ranks right up there with Rebecca as one of Du Maurier’s best novels of intrigue and suspense, with plenty of twists, turns and unexpected revelations to keep the pages turning.

“Two men—one English, the other French—meet by chance in a province railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pas for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman’s place—as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets.” ~From the blurb on the back of the book.

The initial premise is a little shaky: can two people who are not twins really look so much alike that a switch will fool even their closest friends and kin? However, given that postulation, the story is incredibly insightful as John realizes that he is bound to the past decisions and mistakes of the man he is impersonating in such a way as to make him almost unable to act in any way except the way that the Comte Jean de Gue would have acted in the same situation. John struggles to become Jean—and to keep from becoming Jean. Then, John must decide whether to let himself care about Jean’s family and Jean’s community, thereby running the risk of hurting them and they him, or whether he wants to withdraw and run away from the responsibilities and possibilities that his new life has thrust upon him.

Several questions infuse the plot with significance:
To what extent am I compelled to be the person that others expect me to be?
Can people change?
Is anyone wholly evil or wholly good, or are we all some admixture of both?
To what extent does a person become what he pretends to be?
Do good intentions redeem mistaken actions that hurt others?
Does the past pre-determine the future?

I just found this review by Helen at She Reads Novels in which she says that “[t]here is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity.” I must say that I think I know what she is hinting at, but I hadn’t thought of this alternate theory of what happens in the novel until I read Helen’s review. It’s an interesting thought, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the entire novel to see if it really can be read the way I’m thinking. Enigmatic enough for you?

If you like psychological suspense and the philosophical exploration of sin, history, and identity in your novels, you won’t want to to miss The Scapegoat.

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck

Alfred Hitchcock films are some of our family’s favorites. Engineer Husband says Vertigo is a masterpiece. Brown Bear Daughter likes The Lady Vanishes. Betsy-Bee and my sister say they are both fans of Rear Window. I rather like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, only partially due to my crush on Cary Grant.

Author Jim Averbeck harbors a fondness for “Hitch”, too, and he’s made the famous director a central character in his debut middle grade mystery novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont. After his aspiring actress mother drives her car off a cliff, eleven year old Jim Fair is a double orphan. His horrible Aunt Edith, his sole surviving relative, takes him to live with her at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, but when Aunt Edith disappears, Alfred Hitchcock is the only adult Jim can trust to help him find his awful aunt and avoid the social worker who wants to take him to an orphanage.

There are lots of reverences and allusions to the canon of Hitchcock films as Jim and Mr. Hitchcock careen through their own film-worthy adventure. It’s San Francisco, and one chapter takes place at the Mission Dolores. Also a ghost lady lures the crooks out of hiding. (Vertigo) Jim gets a ransom note embedded in a news article titled “Birds Terrorize Coastal Town” (The Birds). Jim and Hitch briefly mull a theory that Aunt Edith might have been carried out of the hotel, dismembered, in several suitcases or trunks, and another part of the action takes place in a building that is a “camera obscure” that the two use to spy on their suspect (Rear Window). Hitchcock talks to the social worker from the shower while pretending to be Aunt Edith shaving his/her leg (shades of Psycho!). In The Lady Vanishes and in North by Northwest, the police disbelieve the witnesses to a kidnapping/disappearance, and the same thing happens in A Hitch at the Fairmont. And Jim and his mentor Hitchcock meet the kidnappers in a church while the congregation is singing a hymn, similar to the Ambrose Chapel scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I’m sure that fans will find several more echoes of Hitchcock films as they read A Hitch at the Fairmont, and middle grade readers who are not familiar with the movies Mr. Hitchcock directed might find this book an entertaining introduction to Hitch. I thought the book was fun and intriguing, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies were.

P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows by Caroline Lawrence

P.K. Pinkerton fills yet another niche in detective fiction for middle graders with a high-functioning autistic detective who is half Lakota Sioux/half white. I haven’t read the first two books in this series, but I want to read them both after having enjoyed The Pistol-Packing Widows. There are a few caveats that might discourage some readers:

1) Some reviewers have lambasted the first two books as stereotypical and offensive in their portrayal of Native Americans. I didn’t find this book to be so, but I may not be as sensitive to this issue as other people are.

2) P.K. is supposed to be a devout Methodist Christian, and for the most part he acts like a Christian. However, there is a brief scene in which P.K. consults his “spirit guide” (who turns out to be a worm?). I wish the author hadn’t included that scene since it’s not really integral to the plot or characterization, but there it is.

3) P.K. also talks about and associates with ladies he calls “soiled doves”, a euphemism for prostitutes. He’s tolerant of their profession, if he really understands what it is they do. P.K. is fairly innocent about the world, and he may be oblivious to the true nature of prostitution.

All that stuff aside, I loved this book. P.K. is an engaging character, something of a savant and quite an astute observer, even if he doesn’t always understand what he is observing. In this particular episode in the career of P.K. Pinkerton, private detective, P.K. is observing the Nevada politicians in Carson City as they give out toll road franchises to the highest bidders and negotiate with one another over the possibility of Nevada Territory’s becoming a state. He’s also trying to save his friend Poker Face Jace from the clutches of a “black widow” named Violetta de Baskerville, and in his spare time, he’s helping his new friend Miss Carrie Pixley keep an eye on her beloved, Mr. Sam Clemens. P.K. has a busy life.

There’s a big reveal about three-fourths of the way through the book, and I didn’t see it coming. For those who have read the first two books, I think the cat is already out of the bag. But for me, it was an adjustment to my thinking. Anyway, it’s a fun read with plenty of action and a thoroughly likable young detective. Reading this one not only made me want to read the first two books in this series, but it also made me interested in looking up Ms. Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series.