Continuing Spooky Season

Truly Devious is the first book in a YA mystery series. Be forewarned that only two of the planned three books are out (the last one is scheduled for release in January 2020).

Stevie (short for Stephanie) Bell is a new student to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that was founded in the 1930s. Shortly after the founding, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and possibly killed. A culprit was found, but no one believes that he did it. Stevie wants to be the real Sherlock Holmes, and her mission at Ellingham Academy (in the present time) is to solve the mystery.

The past mystery is nicely mysterious, the setting of a secluded school without parents is handled in the best hothouse-for-bizarreness way, there’s a romance story that is very much not the point, and while there is also a current murder, it does get solved. So even though the past mystery is going to take three books to solve (probably), there is a sense of resolution and completeness to this book.

I enjoyed Truly Devious and have put the second book in the series on my hold list at the library.

A short review of a mystery that was… fine

The Chatelet Apprentice is a fine first mystery novel, doing a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene of mid-1700s Paris (Paris is important because it puts our detective into glancing contact with King Louis XV), and generally easing you into a new mystery series.

That said, I had a terribly hard time getting into this book. It was a slow read the whole way through, and while it wasn’t bad, it was maybe more laid back than I wanted? I don’t know. It is translated from the French, and so, since it was written for the French market, maybe moves at a different pace? Or maybe I’m just not used to reading cozy mysteries and as a result am not used to them anymore.

Regardless, if you’re looking for a new mystery series or fiction books about historical France, try out The Chatelet Apprentice.

A mystery in translation

For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.

So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.

The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.

The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.

I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.

#actuallyOCD

Someone I love was recently diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, aka OCD. This is a specific kind of anxiety disorder, less about being neat and tidy, and more about not-so-fun things like sometimes disturbing thoughts randomly popping into your head and being convinced something bad is going to happen if you don’t do x. Whatever x happens to be, and it’s specific to the person.

John Green has OCD. (This is a lovely podcast where he talks about it.) Turtles All the Way Down is about a teenaged girl with OCD. So I read this book not from an enjoyment standpoint, but from a help-me-learn-what-it-feels-like-to-have-this standpoint.

For me it did a good job, especially showing Aza’s deterioration because of her refusal to regularly take her medication. (Seriously: TAKE YOUR MEDS, KID. Love, a mom) It’s all handled with a deft and loving touch and explains so, so much.

Turtles All the Way Down helped me, the story was enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what living with OCD is actually like.

Sometimes entertainment is good

If you are looking for entertaining brain candy, The Royal Runaway is your book. Princess Thea gets caught up in an international investigation when her fiancé just doesn’t show up at the altar during their wedding. Well, he doesn’t show up at all – they don’t make it to the church. Everyone thinks he’s a cad, she nurses a broken heart, and four months later she’s getting on with things. Until someone starts investigating exactly what happened to her former fiancé.

It’s got old-school James Bond style investigative fun and intrigue and it’s all told from Princess Thea’s point of view so there’s none of that icky misogyny.

Recommended for when you need something to escape from the real world.

Noir, but science fiction

The City & The City is for the Venn diagram of people who like Raymond Chandler and science fiction. It’s a mystery, a police procedural, that involves two cities that exist in the same space but in different dimensions. Sort of. The bureaucracy that governs the two cities is Kafka-esque.

The mystery could stand on its own, but would be way less intriguing without the  odd Eastern European dual-citied setting. It allows for twists and turns and part of the intrigue is figuring out how the two cities coexist. Allow for some mind-twistiness with this one.

Why are all detective stories based in the 1930s?

Murder at the Flamingo was a promising start to a murder mystery series. There’s enough set-up so that you understand who the protagonists are and where they’re coming from. (Maybe too much? It could have done with being slightly faster paced.) But the mystery is still intriguing. I stayed up too late one night because I just wanted to know who did it already.

DeLuca has chronic anxiety – not something you normally see in a dapper 1930s detective – and Van Buren is a lovely heiress who’s decided she wants something more from life than being a lady who lunches. She is definitely a bit stereotypical, but I still liked her.

I’ll look for the next one when it comes out.

Is lying always bad?

Is it ever ok to lie to someone?

A little white lie or a big fat lie, either one, I won’t judge you. Sometimes we do things during wartime we can’t or shouldn’t admit to later. Sometimes we’re not allowed.

Sometimes, it’s just a little white lie, to spare your feelings or to make ourselves feel better about why we did something. Sometimes we make up huge stories to hide completely from – well. If we told you that wouldn’t be hiding now would it?

Recommended, though I do prefer the audio version of these books.

Mystery-lite

Maisie Dobbs

I’ve read other books in the Maisie Dobbs series, but never the first one. So, it was a pleasure to get her backstory, to learn where she came from and what a truly extraordinary woman she is.

The Maisie Dobbs series takes place in London in the 1930s. She’s a private detective, well-read and thoughtful, who solves crimes, mostly murder, amongst a certain class of people. (They may not all be a certain class, but they are all filtered through that certain class’s lens.) Maisie has humble origins, but has worked hard to grow out of them.

In Maisie Dobbs, we learn that she went to work as a maid for a progressive wealthy woman who caught Maisie working her way through the library before her morning shift started. Instead of firing her, she found her a tutor and sent her to college; Maisie dropped out to go be a nurse during WWI. It’s a characterization that is at once intelligent and practical and will appeal to anyone who wants to put their world in order.

It’s a slim book, and the mystery takes up only about a third of the story. The rest is devoted to the backstory and setting up the relationships as they are now. It is a book designed to kick off a series. It’s done its job well.

Mystery and grace and glamour

While I get caught up on my reading for Cleopatra, I’m going to interject a couple of non-chronological posts. First up: glamour.

I know I keep beating this over the head, but it can’t be overstated: the major sources that we have for Cleopatra are all Roman. She was on the losing side of the Antony-Octavian civil war. History is written by the winners, and she lost.

But she is a queen. And her intelligence and glamour comes across in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for example, describes her meeting with Antony:

…she sailed up the river Cydnus on a gold-prowed barge, with sails of purple outspread and rowers pulling on silver oars to the sound of a reed-pipe blended with wind-pipes and lyres. She herself reclined beneath a gold-embroidered canopy, adorned like a painting of Aphrodite…

So what does it mean to be glamorous? Virginia Postrel, in her wonderful book, The Power of Glamour, explains that glamour has three main qualities: mystery, a promise of escape or transformation, and grace.

First, the mystery. We don’t know Cleopatra very well. There are only a handful of ancient sources about her. So we take what we know: she was well-educated and an able governor. Julius Caesar was at least in lust with her, and Antony was definitely in love. But beyond that, we don’t know much. So our minds tend to fill in the details. We don’t fill in details we don’t like or inconvenient truths. We fill in the details with even more luxury or decadence or hard work or intelligence… whatever we want to see.

Which leads us naturally into the promise of escape or transformation. It’s easy to daydream about how awesome being Cleopatra would be. To live in a cosmopolitan place like Alexandria, with the best tutors at your fingertips, with amazing food and luxuries around you all the time. Wouldn’t it be great to live like that? You can pick and choose the details you want. In the early 1900s, the decadence was emphasized. In Stacy Schiff’s book, the intelligence and hard work is. How we see Cleopatra is very much how we see ourselves.

And then the grace. She isn’t always described as beautiful (on her coins she has quite a large nose), but she is universally described as an intelligent, witty conversationalist. She was well-educated, spoke nine languages, could raise armies and managed her country ably. Not to mention that all her official propaganda packaged her as Isis – a goddess. She knew how to present herself with elegance and style.

Cleopatra is definitely glamorous, and exploring that glamour is one of the things I enjoy about her.