Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

In early February I reviewed Laura Thompson's biography of the Mitford sisters, The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. I had mixed feelings about that book, although I learned a lot about the whole family, including the parents and their brother, Tom. But I felt like I could benefit from another look at the subject. 

To briefly describe the Mitford family:

The parents were David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sidney, née Bowles. The daughters were Nancy (b. 1904), Pam (b. 1907), Diana (b. 1910), Unity (b. 1914), Jessica (b. 1917), and Deborah (b. 1920). Tom, the only son, was born in 1909, between Pam and Diana. Some of the sisters were very notorious. Diana was a fascist and married Oswald Mosley, who founded and led the British Union of Fascists. Unity was a huge fan of Hitler and visited Germany regularly prior to World War II. Nancy was a successful author of both fiction and nonfiction books. Jessica eloped with Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, became a Communist, and moved to the US; she was also a successful author, of memoirs and nonfiction. Pam had the most normal life, preferring rural life. Deborah was the youngest, apolitical, and married to Andrew Cavendish, who became the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

In Thompson's book, she spent a lot more time on Diana, Unity, and Nancy. I wanted to know more about Jessica, Pam and Deborah. So I started reading Nancy S. Lovell's biography, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, published in 2001. It was over 500 pages long and had much more information about all members of the family. Only Tom Mitford got less coverage in Lovell's book; he was killed in action during the Second World War. 

I think the only sister that got less coverage in the Lovell book was Nancy. There was less information about her fiction books, and more about her nonfiction books, which were also very successful. There was also more detail on her relationship with Gaston Palewski, a close associate of Charles de Gaulle during and after World War II.

I was very interested in knowing more about Jessica Mitford, and Lovell's biography covered her life in great detail. Both books were somewhat confusing because they often referred to the sisters by their nicknames. Especially in Lovell's biography, Jessica was referred to as Decca and Deborah was called Debo. But I got used to that after a few chapters. There was also more information about the girls' childhood, which translates into more about the parents early in their marriage.

Several reviews, including the review at The New York Times, are critical of Lovell for apologizing for the attitudes of Unity and Diana towards fascism and Hitler. I did not take her statements that way, but clearly that is the impression conveyed to many readers.

I enjoyed this book a lot, although it took me a long time to read. There were lots of footnotes to either explain or elucidate a passage or cite the source of the information and I did spend a lot of time going back and forth between text and footnotes. 

I was attracted to the story of the sisters partly because they lived through the years leading up to and including World War II. I learned much new information about the UK and other European countries during those years. 

I first learned about the Mitford sisters at Moira's Clothes in Books blog. I recommend this post for more about the sisters and some of the books they wrote.


Publisher:   W. W. Norton & Company, 2003 (orig. publ. 2001)
Length:       529 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK, US, France.
Genre:        Biography
Source:       I purchased this book in 2020.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: ''Citadel" by Stephen Hunter


Almost exactly two years ago I did a Short Story Wednesday post on The Big Book of Espionage, edited by Otto Penzler. I read two stories in the book and enjoyed them both. Since then I haven't read another story in the book. This week I returned to the anthology and read three additional stories.

This time, the stories I read were set in the years leading up to and during World War II. The first two stories I read were "The Army of the Shadows" by Eric Ambler and "The Courier" by Dan Fesperman. These were both very good stories by authors I have read and enjoyed. But my favorite read was a novella, first published as a part of the Bibliomystery Series by The Mysterious Bookshop in 2015.

''Citadel" by Stephen Hunter

This story is a good deal longer than the other stories I have read in this book. In this anthology, with larger pages formatted with two columns, the story is about 44 pages long. In the paperback edition published by The Mysterious Bookshop, it is 147 pages (per Goodreads).

The story opens with a Lysander [a Westland Lysander, an aircraft known for its short-field performance, good for clandestine missions] taking off from somewhere in the UK; the objective is to land in occupied France just long enough to deliver a spy to a small village not too far from Paris. 

From that point the story goes back and forth between the planning for the mission to France, the explanation for the mission, the drop-off in France, and the complicated execution of the mission. The main character is Basil St. Florian, who has carried out other missions in the past. There is plenty of time spent revealing the background of the character, and fleshing out the German soldiers and officers that he has to deal with along the way. 

I enjoyed this story. Generally I prefer Cold War spy fiction, but I have read all kinds. This one kept me entertained and intrigued. I know very little about this author, but I liked his writing and I will look into his other books.

I first learned about The Big Book of Espionage at George Kelley's blog. George gives a good overview of what the book has to offer and lists all the stories and authors, so be sure to check out his post.

The book has four sections with a total of 55 stories: The Great War (19); World War II (6); Other Terrors, Other Battles (19); and The Cold War (11). The book is large format with over 800 pages. Some of the authors are surprising, at least to me (Sara Paretsky, Erle Stanley Gardner, Brendan DuBois).

Saturday, April 15, 2023

#1940Club: The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes


This book is my second submission for the 1940 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. This was Dorothy B. Hughes first mystery novel.

Griselda Satterlee currently lives in Hollywood, where she had a brief and successful acting career, then moved on to fashion design. She has returned to New York for a visit, and is staying in her ex-husband Con's apartment. Shortly after she arrives in New York, she is accosted by two beautiful young men while she walks home alone after dark. They call her by name and insist that she knows them. They are twins, almost identical, one with blue eyes and blond hair, the other with black eyes and black hair.  

The men, David and Danny Montefierrow, enter Con's apartment, ask about a blue marble, and demand that she give it to them. They are menacing and scary but don't really harm her. The man in the apartment across the hall knocks on the door and they leave, telling Griselda that they will see her again. At that point her nightmare begins.

The Montefierrow brothers insinuate themselves into Griselda's life. She learns that their mother was a friend of Griselda's mother. Griselda's younger sister Missy, only sixteen years old, is friends with them and has also recently arrived in New York. Her older sister Ann is impressed with anyone in society and doesn't see the brother's malicious side. Everything moves so fast it is hard to keep up.

This book is unlike any other book by Dorothy B. Hughes that I have read. In a Lonely Place and Ride a Pink Horse are noir novels, with a much more serious tone. This one is also on the noir side but more fantastical, and requires a good bit of suspension of disbelief. In some ways this one reads like an espionage novel. You never know who to trust. There are several deaths and they are pretty gruesome, but not dwelt upon. Con, the ex-husband, does return to his apartment, but he is working with the police, and hints at some connection with the government. Everyone keeps asking where the blue marble is. The reason Griselda doesn't reveal what she knows to the police is to protect Con; she is sure that he will be harmed by the evil Montefierrow brothers. 

I love the way Hughes writes; this is a strange story but her writing sucks me right in. She also is very good with creating memorable characters. In this book there are a lot of characters and it can get confusing. The focus is on Griselda; she is the point of view character and is the only character the reader gets to know well. 

I especially liked the contrast between the three sisters, and their relationship. 

Griselda is the middle sister, independent and talented and successful at a very young age. Yet in this situation she is in over her head and doesn't know who to turn to.

Her older sister, Ann, is very different. Married to a business man with plenty of money, mother of two young children, she is self-centered and not interested in anyone else's needs and does not approve of Griselda. She is oblivious to the bad side of the Montefierrow brothers; they can be very charming when they want to be. 

Missy is the younger sister, eight years younger than Griselda. She went to live with her mother in Europe at six and Griselda and Ann have never spent much time with her. She is only 16, beautiful and well-dressed, but she is a horror in the true sense of the word. She is in league with the Montefierrow brothers. Scary and spoiled. 

The setting is New York City primarily, although the characters take some trips out to the country. There are glimpses of the night life and ritzy restaurants in New York. 

My copy of this book is the Pyramid Green Door Mystery edition. I collect Green Door Mystery paperbacks when I can find them. 

There is a sequel to this book, The Bamboo Blonde, published in 1941. It may or may not be as good as this book, but I will certainly give it a try.

See other reviews at Clothes in Books, A Hot Cup of Pleasure, and My Reader's Block.


Publisher: Pyramid, 1965 (first publ. 1940)
Length:     157 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Griselda Satterlee #1
Setting:     New York 
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     On my TBR pile since 2010.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: Stories by Mick Herron, Part 1

In the last few days I read six short stories from Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron. The book was published in 2021 and features 11 stories by Herron published between 2006 and 2019.

From the flyleaf of the hardcover edition:

Five standalone nerve-rackingly thrilling crime fiction stories are complemented by four mystery stories featuring the Oxford wife-and-husband detective team of shrewd Zoë Boehm and hapless Joe Silvermann. The collection also includes a peek into the past of Jackson Lamb, irascible top agent at Slough House.

 I have now read 6 stories in the book, and I have enjoyed them all. This is not a surprise because I am a big fan of both of Herron's series, The Oxford Investigations and the Slough House series. 

Sometimes short stories are hard to describe without revealing too much, so my comments on some of the six stories will be very brief.

"Proof of Love"

Joe Silvermann is a private investigator and he works with his wife, Zoë Boehm. Joe sees himself as a traditional P.I.; his motto is "What would Marlowe do?" Zoë is more realistic; she knows that credit checks and reference checks pay the bills. Joe is offered a job by a very rich man. He hires Joe to deliver a blackmail payment and receive a package in exchange, but also to tail the person he meets and find out the blackmailer's identification and address. There are two twist endings and both surprised me.

"Remote Control"

This story is about a man who suspects his wife of seeing another man and follows up on it, with unfortunate results.

"Lost Luggage"

This was a very good story with a surprising twist. A couple sit in a restaurant off the highway, trying to guess the background of another diner. A bit gruesome and unsettling in the end. Only 10 pages long.

"Mirror Images"

The second Zoë Boehm and Joe Silvermann. It was very, very good and very funny. I am not even going to try to describe it. All the descriptions I read spoil the surprises. 

"Dolphin Junction"

This is the longest story in the book, at 53 pages. It borders on a horror story (at least for me). A man's wife apparently leaves him, with a note written on the back of a postcard. The husband insists that she was abducted and forced to write the note. The police can only find evidence that fits in with her leaving voluntarily. He refuses to accept that conclusion. This one was in the nerve-racking category.

"An American Fridge"

I was intrigued by the title of this story, and it is a very unusual tale. A man is getting a tour of his new home, provided by the country he has provided important technical information to. The story revolves around the fantastic refrigerator that comes with the house. 

I have five more stories to read in this book and I will be getting to them soon.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

#1940Club: Murder in a Nunnery by Eric Shepherd

Murder in a Nunnery is a humorous story of a death that takes place in a girls school run by nuns and how the crime is eventually solved by Scotland Yard in cooperation with the nuns and some of the older students. 

I read this book for the 1940 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Summary from Ostara Publishers:

In the fictional Harrington Convent one of its more challenging inhabitants, Baroness Sliema is found murdered, Chief Inspector Pearson of Scotland Yard is called to solve the crime. He discovers the Convent is governed by a particularly shrewd and omniscient Reverend Mother and we meet a varied and entertaining cast of characters observed with wit and charm. Shepherd describes the world of a Convent with its colourful, and in some cases unlikely, inhabitants with sympathy and humour making for a gentle and entertaining tale.

The murder victim, Baroness Sliema, was living at the convent in the last years of her life. She is an obnoxious rich old woman, mean to her companion, Mrs. Moss, and her ward, Miss Venetia Gozo, a lay-teacher of languages at the school. She is not well liked by the students or the nuns. When she is murdered in the chapel, the nuns are dismayed but not surprised. Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, and the man in charge is Chief Inspector Andrew William Pearson.

The school has students from many countries, children who have been brought up in different cultures. Mother Trevor even mentions that "it would be rash to assume that none of the children has ever knifed anybody.” This is quite shocking to Inspector Pearson who seems to be very innocent. 

My initial thought was that the story was too light-hearted and almost flippant about the religious school setting, but it wasn't that way at all. It is a cozy read, on the light side, fun but filled with interesting information about the setting and the times.

This is a fair play mystery; all the clues and information that the police gather are shared with the reader. But the mystery is not the strongest part of the plot. The story was more about the nuns and their daily life, and the students, who don't take the murder too seriously. Inspector Pearson finds the setting and the people in the school and the nunnery surprising and enlightening. And we get all of this in a novel under 160 pages in length.

There are some wonderful characters: Verity, a student, who excels in getting in trouble; Mr. Turtle the gardener; the Reverend Mother and Mother Trevor; and Inspector Pearson.

The author wrote only two mysteries, both set in the same convent. The second book, More Murder in a Nunnery, was published 14 years after this first book, but set only two years after the events of the first book. 

It was Constance at Staircase Wit who motivated me to read this book, and I thank her for that. My interest in books set in religious settings has been rekindled. 

Also see reviews at these blogs for more information: Pretty Sinister Books, Clothes in Books, Past Offences, and Classic Mysteries.


Publisher:  Dell, 1957. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     158 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Harrington Convent, #1
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Assassin's Apprentice: Robin Hobb


Introductory description from Goodreads

In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

Fitz is initially cared for and trained to work in the stables by Burrich, who is strict and standoffish. Burrich worked for Prince Chivalry before he abdicated, and he blames Fitz for his "demotion." Eventually the King offers Fitz the opportunity to have a role in the family as the King's assassin. He begins very intense training with Chade, in secret. Fitz is still not accepted by many members of the family.

My thoughts:

I am not an experienced fantasy reader. I have read other fantasy series but not a lot and not this type (I guess it is called High Fantasy). I would have been shocked by the corruption and evil among the members of the court, but the same behavior occurred in actual courts I have read about. With so much corruption at all levels, the reader never knows who to trust. 

The only other fantasy series that I liked almost as much as this one is the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. And that series is a cross-genre blend with detectives, policemen, and crime investigation of a sort so it fits into my standard reading. I have read other fantasy series that I liked, but this is the first one I really got invested in.

Some reviews said that this book is slow and not a page turner. Maybe it is slow, in that it doesn't have a lot of action, but I found it to be a page turner from the beginning. I read the first few chapters just to see if I wanted to get involved in a long book (435 pages). After about 50 pages, maybe less, I knew I was going to continue and hoped it would stay just as compelling throughout. And it did.

I gather that this book uses tropes that are common in fantasy series: the bastard child of royalty; apprenticeships; an unhappy and confusing childhood. But it was all new to me so not a problem at all. 

I thought the characters were very well done. There were many characters that I cared about and a few others that I despised. I got very caught up in the story. I want to read more of the series to see what happens to the characters, the good ones and the bad ones. 

I discovered this book and author via Cath at Read-Warbler. She recently reviewed The Mad Ship, the second book in the second trilogy by Robin Hobb about this world, The Realm of the Elderlings. My son had a copy of the first book in the first trilogy, so I started reading it just a few days later. 

The cover of this paperback edition is an illustration by Michael Whelan.

Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1996 (orig. pub. 1995)
Length:      435 pages 
Format:      Paperback
Series:       The Farseer Trilogy, #1
Genre:       Fantasy
Source:      Borrowed from my son