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Happy Captain Blood Day!

September 19, 2016

On this day in 1685, a fictional version of this guy was an asshole to Peter Blood, who then told him he was going to die. It was great. You should read about it.

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The Pleasuring of Susan Smith

July 13, 2016

Yes, this book is really called The Pleasuring of Susan Smith. It’s by Helen Maria Winslow, and it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds.

I mean, it’s not bad. It’s one of those stories where all the right things happen, it’s just that they happen in an unsatisfying way. Susan Smith is a middle-aged spinster from Maine. When the elderly relative she cares for dies and leaves her his money, plenty of people have ideas about what she ought to do with it, but Susan wants, for once in her life, to have fun. She ends up in New York, where she moves in with her young cousin John James Smith, otherwise known as Jack. She then proceeds to solve Jack’s romantic and financial problems, give herself a makeover, casually start in a Broadway play, and find someone nice to fall in love with. And that’s all great, but it doesn’t feel like anything.

Books like this are, to some extent, about vicarious self-indulgence for the reader. Susan is getting to do all these cool things, and triumphing in all the predictable ways, but what’s the point of the author won’t wallow? Just saying what happened doesn’t count. What’s the fun of the shopping spree if we don’t hear about the clothes? What’s the point of telling us that the love interest finds Susan interesting is we don’t get the content of their conversations? Winslow’s got the plot stuff down; all she had to do was make us feel it. The Pleasuring of Susan Smith is cute, but it’s all at surface level.

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The Vanderlyn Silhouette

July 9, 2016

I seem to be incapable of writing a review of Flaming Youth, so here’s another by Augusta Huiell Seaman. The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals was my favorite of her books so far, so to go next to The Vanderlyn Silhouette was a little disappointing. This one is a proper historical novel, set around 1820 in lower Manhattan. Varick and Charlton Streets are pretty far downtown now, but back then the area was far enough north that it wasn’t in the city at all. 13-year-old Dosia Watkins, the central character, lives on the grounds of Richmond Hill, an estate occupied at various times by some pretty important historical figures, including Aaron Burr, who lived there with his daughter. By the time this story starts, it’s passed into the hands of John Jacob Astor, who rents it out as a summer home. Dosia’s grandfather is the caretaker and her mother is the housekeeper. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals

June 17, 2016

The other day I went to the library and read The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals. It’s from later in Augusta Huiell Seaman’s career than anything else of hers I’ve read — it was published in 1940 — and I think it might also be my favorite. Marty, the teenaged heroine, lives in relative isolation with her grandmother and a mysterious parrot. Twelve year old Ted, a piano prodigy, comes for a visit, along with his father and his music teacher, and his interest in the mystery prompts Marty to start investigating.

I love mysteries, but I also love people not hiding things from each other. I do wish Marty and Ted’s friendship was fleshed out a little more (Seaman tells rather than showing, here) but they have an ease and confidence with each other from the beginning that I really enjoyed. And that would be good in itself, but they also don’t keep secrets from the people around them. Ted’s father, Mr. Burnett, is involved in the investigation from the start, followed by Ted’s teacher and, eventually, Marty’s grandmother. Everyone works together, except for one antagonist who eventually turns out not to have been particularly important. The plot is good, too — a mystery with not too much urgency and proper clues, some exciting weather, and Seaman’s trademark trick of linking the past to the present in concrete ways.

I love everyone working together on a common problem in books almost as much as I’m bored by it in board games. And I love books about nice people who like each other, but I can’t quite love Seaman. Her books don’t tend to be very emotionally compelling — she seems unwilling to devote much time or space to developing relationships — so there’s a level that her books never seem to rise to, and I tend to finish them feeling a little unsatisfied. This one resolved some of the emotional threads nicely, but left more hanging. Still, even if there’s not enough there, what there is is really solidly good. The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals made me want more — more of this story and more of her books. It even made me want to reread things of hers I’ve already read. And that’s a pretty good sign.

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Aunt Olive in Bohemia

June 10, 2016

I thought unemployment was going to be so great for my blogging, but as it turns out I’ve only read two new-to-me things since I quit my job at the beginning of May. And I liked them both, but somehow I haven’t been able to get much down on paper, so I’m trying for something a little shorter-form here.

Aunt Olive in Bohemia, by Leslie Moore, is pretty much perfect in outline. It’s about a 60 year old spinster who inherits a bunch of money and moves to London to fulfill her lifelong dream of being an artist in a studio. She makes friends with the young men in the neighboring studios, adopts a precocious model, and generally makes the lives of the people around her better. And the execution is pretty good, but…it starts out very good and gets perceptibly worse. I loved a lot of the early parts, but not I find myself dwelling more on my disappointment later.

It’s a tonal thing, I think. The story gets very serious and agonized about romance, and the gaudy stuff — people giving up everything for Love with a capital L — drown out the more delicate parts: the friendships and the artistic styles adopted by the characters and the people figuring out where they belong. Also, a grown man declares his intention of marrying a child, so. You know. Automatic deduction of one letter grade.

To sum up: I spent a while thinking Aunt Olive in Bohemia was a great book, and it’s not. But it does have some great stuff in it.

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The “Polly of the Hospital Staff” series

April 27, 2016

Do you ever realize, halfway through a book, that you’ve read it before? That happened to me this week with When Polly Was Eighteen, by Emma C. Dowd. I assume that means I’d also read Polly of Lady Gay Cottage and Polly and the Princess before. Probably I raced through them just as fast last time, and that’s why I don’t remember.

Let’s backtrack. I talked a bit about Polly of the Hospital Staff when I first read it. It’s a totally average story about a sunny orphan making a home, except that it’s more than averagely enjoyable. It’s also got the most typos I’ve ever seen in a Project Gutenberg text, so, you know, be warned. It’s followed by Polly of Lady Gay Cottage, which covers Polly’s transition to life as the adopted daughter of Dr. Dudley and his wife. She gets to meet some of her biological family, but her found family turns out to be more real. Dowd is a little bit obsessed with adoption, but in a nice way.

Next comes Doodles, the Sunshine Boy, which isn’t a Polly book, but has Polly in it. I didn’t read this one last time around, I’m pretty sure, but I dug deeper this time. I don’t really know what to say about Doodles. He can’t walk. He can sing. His family is poor, and various nice things happen to them. Another average but enjoyable book.

Doodles also appears in the next book, Polly and the Princess. There is no princess; the book is about Polly’s involvement with a nearby…I don’t know what to call it. A home for women without any outside means of support. It’s a particularly satisfying book, in that certain characters are victims of injustice and then eventually they’re vindicated.

When Polly Was Eighteen skips ahead about five years to find Polly home from college for the summer, and wrestling David Collins’ jealousy. David is one of Polly’s oldest friends, and was always the obvious future love interest. Emma Dowd does a good job of laying the groundwork for his jealousy in the earlier books, and of showing how unromantic it is in this one.

So, yeah. I like this series a lot. There’s very little you wouldn’t expect, but Dowd makes a virtue of predictability–call it trustworthiness. If you like orphans and found families and an improbable number of disabled children learning to walk again, I thoroughly recommend her.

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9th Blogiversary catch-up

March 4, 2016

Oh hey. It’s been another year.  Thanks for sticking around for nine years (!!!) even when I continue to do things like post half a dozen times in two weeks and then go the next two weeks without posting anything at all.

Anyway, it seems like a good day for a catch-up. Read the rest of this entry »