Under The Covers and Reading

March 7, 2012

The Bedlam Detective

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 11:12 am


Stephen Gallagher’s new book, The Bedlam Detective,  proved a surprisingly delightful read.  It’s a historical novel characterized as a “literary thriller” set in 1912 rural England.  Sebastian Becker, American and former Pinkerton Detective, has moved to England with his family and now investigates wealthy eccentrics to discern if they are still fit to manage their own affairs.  Becker is asked to investigate a wealthy land owner in the southwest of London,  Sir Owain, but upon his arrival Becker discovers two young girls have been brutally murdered.  Becker quickly learns this is not the first time a pair of girls has been attacked in the area.  Sir Owain’s questionable sanity (he describes monsters that may or may not imaginary), and his provocative account of a trip to the Amazon that killed his family and crew,  prompt Becker to suspect his involvement in the murders.

In order to learn more about the murders, Becker must find the now grown women who were victims of that first violent childhood attack.  One has remained in the small community barely sustaining herself as a caregiver for abused horses; the other is a young career woman and suffragette working in London.  The two have divergent memories of their attack, yet together their stories can reveal the identity of the real monster in their community.


This novel was not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Thanks to Crown Publishers I received an ARC and dove in.  I remain a sucker for this time period in England and the dark male detective.  That got me into the book, but Gallagher’s writing kept me there.  I was really intrigued by the idea that there might actually have been investigators checking on the sanity of the wealthy to ensure their competence.  The investigative and psychological possibilities drew me in quickly– especially with the murder of two young children.

The surprise was the length to which we learn about Sir Owain’s disastrous trip to the Amazon through excerpts from his own writing and Becker’s interviews with the sole survivor of the expedition.  Gallagher has developed a complex character in Sir Owain–his demons may or may not be real, yet they come to haunt everyone with whom he comes in contact.  The novel deals with issues of England’s drive to explore and conquer the world, its changing class system, family struggles, the line between sanity and insanity, grief, poverty, the early woman’s movement, and even special education.  Each a fascinating topic well woven into the fabric of the novel.

My one issue with the book is a wish for a better and fuller exploration of the female characters.  Grace was an especially one-dimensional figure as the “wild child” victim grown up damaged and angry.  The contrast to the more privileged, intelligent, (and amnesic) Evangeline was stark.  Gallagher posits them as foils– almost a madonna / whore pairing that could have been far more nuanced and still effective.  Becker’s wife, Elizabeth, was similarly afflicted as an “angel to the poor,” suffering her own economic difficulties, yet literally fighting for those in the welfare hospital in which she works.  My feminist sensibilities bristle at these portrayals but I admit they didn’t both me until after I finished the book!

Overall, a unique and compelling adventure/mystery/thriller that will be enjoyed by fans of historical fiction.


August 20, 2011

Miss Timmins School for Girls Takes Me Back to the 70’s

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 2:37 pm

I received this book from Library Thing earlier in the summer and have been slow to review it, although I read it immediately and thought this was a fantastic first novel– well written and executed. If this is Currimbhoy’s first attempt, I can’t wait to read her next.!

The story was compelling– a who-done-it set in 1970’s small town India at a private English run boarding school– and well drawn. The characters are numerous but intriguing. I did not expect to like the 1970’s time period but it was compelling as well.

The main character, Charu, is a new teacher away from home for the first time, who becomes involved with some shady locals (hippies) and an increasingly unpopular rebel English teacher, Miss Prince,  from the school. Charu’s taste for love and adventure expands beyond anything she ever imagined but she finds herself torn apart after the death of her lover, Miss Prince. There is an array of suspects from the school and community and yet no easy or particularly obvious answer.

I savored this book. It’s an unexpected gem! A 4 star book for sure.

What Twilight Should Have Been…At Least for Grownups

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 2:35 pm

If you haven’t already read (and I’m betting you haven’t due to it’s too steep cover price– more on that later) A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness then hie thee over to a library or used bookstore and find yourself a copy.  It’s about an intelligent (read Academic) adult female witch and her journey of self discovery.  Yale professor Diana Bishop resists her powerful and highly regarded magical lineage to pursue a career as  an academic.  When the book opens Professor Bishop is working in Oxford’s Bodliean Library studying the history of Alchemy.  To her surprise she encounters a dashing and slightly scary Vampire , Professor Matthew Clairmont, after her discovery of an extremely old manuscript that everyone in the magical world seems to want– Mathew included.  The only problem is that Diana doesn’t understand the ramifications of her discovery nor does she have any interest in other-worldly rivalries.

While Diana is an intelligent and accessible character, Matthew is one of the sexiest male characters I’ve ever read.  He makes the whole “Team Edward” thing a joke–especially for readers over the age of 14!  He’s gorgeous, witty, brilliant, and can’t keep away from Diana (even and especially since Witches are forbidden fruit to vampires).

Truly this book is Twilight but better for adults (it’s the first in a series, to boot!).  The characters are in their 30’s (unless you count vampire years) and it’s not all sparkles and repressed sexuality.  The dialogue is intelligent and even witty.  There is intrigue, history, wine, travel, adventure, family issues, and plenty of romance.  The European settings are to die for.   I can’t say enough good things about this intelligent page turner.  I await book two!!

An addendum….

Dr. Harkness has written a fantastic book and deserves all praise and royalties, but I think her publisher is doing her book a grave disservice by pricing the Kindle version at $14.99.   In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I won’t buy an e-book over $9.99 on principle so I got my hands on this book via the public library (God Bless them!).  I think I was the first in my community to get it and I had to speed read through it to finish in time (no renewal).  No problem!  I am recommending it to everyone I meet.  I could sell hundreds more if it were just cheaper.  The paperback may help drop the price a bit (it comes out in December), but I fear they will only drop the e-book to $12.99 ten.  This book could totally be on the best seller list if it was just a bit cheaper!  Please, publishers, don’t be so stupid!  The book’s been translated in several languages already….perhaps it will be NEXT summer’s big book! Sigh.

A Cozy but Wicked Autumn

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 2:09 pm

I received Malliet’s book, Wicked Autumn through my friends at Library Thing. I have not read any of her previous works, but am a recent convert to the cozy mystery genre (I especially enjoy Louise Penny’s books).   I’m still not 100% convinced I know what a “Cozy Mystery” is, but apparently this fits the bill– a murder without gore and blood and the focus not on the crime itself so much as the personalities involved.

Mailliet’s book is the first in a new series she’s developing about a former MI5 agent turned Anglican priest, Max Tudor. We learn from the book that Max has sought out the priesthood for honorable reasons but some nagging issues about his work for MI5 and he remains guarded about interpersonal relationships. He wants an uncomplicated life and has moved to a very remote area to be the village Vicar. When the much-feared head of the local Women’s Institute is murdered, Max appears destined to help local law enforcement solve the crime.

It was an enjoyable read with a compelling cast of female and male characters. I have to admit I enjoyed the supporting cast of female characters even more than Max. I can’t say I had a really strong attraction to him despite his description as being handsome and intelligent. He presents as a man of intellect, honesty, and faith, but I found him oddly aloof for one who has committed his life to the service of God and community (residue from MI%, no doubt). I suspect Malliet is holding things back to see how he develops as the series progresses. I’d definitely read another book (or even re-read this one!) to learn more. We are certain to learn more about Max and his MI5 past. ( )

May 11, 2011

Is Pintoff the Next Caleb Carr?

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 11:05 am

Thanks to the fine folks at LibraryThing I received a copy of Stefanie Pintoff’s third Detective Simon Ziele novel, Secret of the White Rose to preview.  I was excited to read it, having enjoyed her first novel, In the Shadow of Gotham.   I have not read book two, A Curtain Falls.

White Rose takes place in 1906 New York City and features Det. Simon Ziele working to  solve a series of murders committed during the sensational trial of accused anarchist,  Al Dryson.  The media frenzy of the Dryson case (he’s accused of attempting to blow up a Carnegie wedding party but instead kills an innocent child) and increasing tension surrounding the budding anarchist movement highlights the class consciousness of the period.    Det. Ziele is normally assigned to work cases in the gritty Tenderloin district, but his associate, criminologist Alistair Sinclair’s upper-crust connections soon unwillingly embroil him in the Gramercy Park murder of a prominent judge.  Ziele must rely on his own burgeoning investigatory instincts and Sinclair’s unorthodox methods to find the killer despite pressure from the police commissioner to pin the death on anarchists.  Along the way Ziele is pulled among his working-class roots and appeals for much needed social reform, his tenuous outsider status in the good old boy police department,  and the reality that the power and money of the elite drive New York’s legal, political, and social machinery.

I was not expecting to like Pintoff’s book once I realized how much of it would be devoted to the anarchist movement; I’m not really very interested in Emma Goldman or the Black Hand.  It’s a tribute to Pintoff’s skill as a writer that I kept reading despite my disinterest in the political and social movements.  She drew me into Ziele’s world and made me see the relevance of the anarchist movement to the Simon’s past (despite his success as a detective he’s still a young man from very humble beginnings) and turn of the century New York.  Pintoff made me think not only about her plot line but about historical similarities between the past and our present.  The disparity between rich and poor is as heightened now as it was in Gilded Age New York

Is Pintoff the next Caleb Carr as hinted at by a blurb from the Huffington Post on the back of my ARC?  I’m not ready to hand the mantle over just yet.  While I can see some similarities (turn of the century New York setting, new methods in crime solving, a serial killer), the grittiness of Carr’s New York just isn’t present in Pintoff’s prose.  She’s a good author with intriguing characters but I feel like we’re still just scratching the surface.  I kept wanting to know more about what drives Sinclair and Isabella.  Pintoff seems to be holding out on the reader here.  I wish she had more confidence in her characters and would flesh them out.   It would only strengthen my interest in them and their work.

December 17, 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 6:18 pm

The Anatomy of Ghosts was my second Andrew Taylor novel and I enjoyed it even more than the first (Bleeding Heart Square).  Taylor vividly captures Cambridge in 1786 from the perspective of of insiders and outsiders associated with the (fictional) Jerusalem College.

The book’s mystery centers on bookseller/author John Holdsworth’s attempt to find young Frank Oldershaw and return him to his wealthy mother’s home in London.  Lady Oldershaw’s request would seem unremarkable except that Frank’s whereabouts involve a home for the mentally ill, Frank’s confession that he has seen a ghost, and the promise of great financial rewards if Holdsworth is successful.  Holdsworth doubts the veracity of this story immediately, but is soon drawn into the strange circumstances surrounding Slyvia Whichcote’s death, and one of Cambridge’s most selective and secretive societies.  Along the way Holdsworth encounters scholars, street prostitutes, English gentry and household servants all interested in protecting secrets of their own.

Taylor’s writing is both luxurious and readable and it immediately transports the reader to late 18th century Cambridge.  I could see, smell, and taste the excesses available to the scholars in contrast to the simplicity and even squalor reserved for the serving class.  Taylor’s plot was well developed and had enough twists and turns to keep me interested throughout.

I admit I was left wanting more from all the main characters- especially Holdsworth/Carbur, but I’ve decided that’s a good thing.  John Holdsworth is a terrific protagonist and I could only wish Taylor were in the business of writing a sequel.

I’ll be checking out even more of Taylor’s extensive catalog in the future!

February 22, 2010

Why I Drank the Kool-Aid and Promptly Spit it Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 12:59 pm

So I did it.  I broke down and actually read Twilight.  I’m being honest here.  I expected to hate it.  I didn’t love it afterward, but I didn’t hate it.I felt compelled to find out what all the fuss was about– so many moms reading it and loving it(?!) and figured at some point my own two girls will read the Twilight reading stage so I should know what it’s all about.  I’m still not sure I “get” it.  Here are my questions after reading it:

What’s up with the ‘dazzling’ thing?  What does it add?

Why is Bella so oblivious to her own good looks and obvious abilities?

Why DOES Edward want to be with her? What do they have in common?  He asks all these questions about her, but it seems he’s just consuming her, not relating to her.

What’s up with Vampire baseball?  The single dumbest literary conceit EVER.

Why does Bella have to be clumsy?

Edward is just a pretty face, no?  What else is redeeming about him?

What’s the deal with such amazing emphasis on chastity?  No wonder parents love these books, but what an unrealistic portrait of young love.  They don’t really deal with temptations because one of them will DIE– that’s not realistic.  I’m not willing to equate premarital sex with a death wish no matter what some hyper-moralists might say.

I have NO desire to see the movie.  I hated it that I knew who was in it because I couldn’t ‘recast’ it in my own mind without seeing Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.  Neither of whom seems appropriate to me.

Glad I read it.  Not sure if I want to keep reading them.  I have New Moon next to my nightstand but it is NOT calling my name….  I honestly don’t get why anyone over the age of 18 would find these compelling reading.  Remind me to write a post about the kind of romance books I would or do read.

Captivity Narratives– Two Page Turning Historical Non-Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 12:39 pm

My fabulous bookclub decided to delve into the world of biography by reading a new book, The Blue Tattoo, by Margot Mifflin.  While technically this book fits better in the category of  a ‘scholarly’ book on American women’s history, it is a page turner and one that our group unanimously LOVED.  It’s the account of young Olive Oatman who was captured by members of the Avapai indian tribe during her Morman family’s ill-fated attempt to reach California in the 1850’s.  Most of her large family was murdered but she and her sister Mary Ann survived and were taken captive as slaves for the Avapais.  How they survived the massacre and their subsequent year as slaves is fascinating but sometimes difficult reading.  In a surprising true life twist, the Avapais are willing to sell the two young girls to Mohave indians and their situation improves immeasurably.  Olive and Mary Ann believe their whole family dead (unbeknownst to them, a brother, Lorenzo, also survived) and appear to have assimilated into life as Mohaves.   The book’s title comes from the blue Mohave tattoo on Olive’s chin and jawline that forever mark her time among the Native people.   It is only some 5 years later, that Olive is ‘ransomed’ and brought back to live in white culture.  The second half of the book recounts her life after captivity and the ways in which her story was ‘sold’ across the county and the people who profitted from her experience.

The writing is excellent, the research thorough, and you can take or leave the footnotes as you wish.  They are helpful but not distracting.  This is honestly a fabulously written book with more discussion topics than you can cover in a single book club meeting.

Chief among them:

What is identity? Who is Olive and how does she understand herself at different periods in the book?  Do you think she sees herself as White?  Mohave?

What’s the role of religion in Olive’s life over the course of the book?  How does it help or hurt her?

Why didn’t anyone go looking for Olive after the massacre?  Did her father’s reputation have anything to do with this?

Who was Musk Melon? What was his relationship to Olive?

What did you make of Olive’s Mohave name?

What did you think of Rev. Stratton?  How do you view his use of Olive and her story?

What figures are admirable in the account as presented?

Contrast the role of women in the different cultural settings in the book.   Where does Olive seem most comfortable and least?

Did you relate at all to Olive’s life?  Do you have your own ‘blue tattoo?’

One of the best things about this book is also its relationship to other captivity accounts.  There was a body of American literature from the  that recounted the lives and experiences of people captured by indians.  This was the second book I’ve read on the subject.  The first was, The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos.  It’s the much earlier story of seven year old Eunice Williams who was ‘stolen’ by Indians in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1704.  The daughter of a Puritan minister, Eunice’s kidnapping was legendary because she was captured by French-speaking Catholic indians during the French and Indian war.  Her family sought to ‘redeem’ her for years before learning that she had no interest in rejoining them; she had forgotten English, had married a young Mohawk man.  It’s my understanding that the film rights have been purchased for Demos’ book (it’s also serious history), so it may yet be made into a movie.

I read Demos’ book quite a few years ago and remember it as a more dense read than Mifflin’s, but I may well give it another go after reading about Olive.

January 20, 2010

Why I’m Still Judging a Book By it’s Cover

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 1:14 pm

I hate to admit it, but I had a huge realization today: I DO still judge books by their cover and I’m embarrassed about it.

I had this realization as I was visiting my daily list of the book blogs I read faithfully, Book Club Girl, Book Club Classics, Booking Mama, Literate Housewife, A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore, Book Group Buzz, Historical Fiction.com, Devourer of Books, Books on the Nightstand….. I have a special attachment to each of these blogs because at one time or another I’ve taken their advice and read a book or two (often more!) they suggested.  I like the ways these bloggers think and write.  But that doesn’t change my own shallow behavior and I’m not sure it ever will.

Despite the fact that I’m pretty well educated I do STILL choose books by their covers and that alarming activity has now crossed over into my book blog reading.  Thus, my quandry.  I like these blogs and their authors (I don’t know any of them in person),  but as soon as I hit these sites and see a photo of the book or books they are reviewing I make snap judgments about even reading their posts.   I find myself clicking to the next post almost immediately if the book  ‘doesn’t look good’ to me.

I recognize the wholly subjective nature of this problem and I have no great solution for writers and book bloggers.  I wish I did.  I just know that after all these years of reading books and about books, I still make my decisions to read or not almost in a snap.  If I like the cover posted I read the blog review.  No question.  If I don’t like it, I’m clicking to the next site.  What’s a book reviewer to do?

September 27, 2009

The Aviary Gate

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 10:21 pm

Aviary Gate

Katie Hicks’ novel, The Aviary Gate, was a change of pace for me.  I adore Historical Fiction but tend to read predominately Victorian era novels.  I enjoyed the exotic 16th century Turkish setting of Hick’s novel.  She uses a the convention of juxtaposing a contemporary graduate student (Elizabeth Stavely) doing research against that of an imagined historical ‘subject.’  In this caes, the subject under investigation is a young English woman, Celia Lamprey, presumed drowned at sea but actually alive and well and living as a slave in the Ottoman royal harem.  Her finance, a well to do English merchant/sea captain/scholar named Paul Pindar discovers her alive in the harem and seeks her rescue.  The story is actually told predominately from Celia’s point of view and is rich in courtly/harem detail.  I enjoyed this peek into an a world that was previously unknown to me.  I did not love the ‘modern day’ sections that place Celia’s story within a ‘to be discovered’ mode.  I found the contemporary graduate student rather vapid and was little interested in her failed romance.  I found her distracting and thought Celia’s story was strong enough to stand on its own.

One other issue with this book is that the characters and language in the novel are numerous and a foreign enough to become confusing.  Hicks has a short cast of characters and a glossary in the front of the book and I did find I had to continuously return to it.  There are enough names/ concepts that are new that it was a necessary evil.  I don’t like having to flip back and forth, but I got confused enough to have to paper clip the section for referral.  Don’t let this keep you from reading it, if the topic is of interest.  It’s definitely well written and an enjoyable read.

Despite my criticisms, I actually enjoyed this peek into harem life replete with scheming concubines, palace eunuchs, and astrology, and will happily pass this title on to other readers.
**Special thanks to Library Thing for giving me the chance to review this book!

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