East Enders: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

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This edition of Call the Midwife is kind of a cheat- it’s the television tie-in version. Still, I cannot think of a better review to post on Thanksgiving than this celebration of life.

Jennifer Worth’s full memoir is three volumes accounting her years as a midwife in post- WWII London’s working poor East End. The stories in this edition are all as she wrote them in the original text, but selected based on their use in the excellent BBC/PBS series. I went with this version for the new book club I formed so we could discuss the themes without intimidating members with three volumes.

Call the Midwife is nothing short of wonderful. Literally. Filled with wonder. Jenny’s experiences are full of so much joy, mixed with pain and loss. As a young, privileged woman from a middle class family, Jenny’s training has not prepared her for the reality of the East End. Jenny, and a few other midwives, work with the nuns of Nonnatus House serving the neighborhood. The religious base of her work heightens the spiritual sense running through her accounts. That is not to say this is a preachy, religious book, but Jenny goes through a lot transition with her experiences. There are also a lot of facts about current medical practices that she brings in to contrast the still limited options they had as midwives. Particularly interesting were Jenny’s reflections on the women they lost to preeclampsia- which was untreatable then- but can be managed now. Also, the astounding drop in births once birth control and family planning were available in the East End was almost unbelievable.

Jenny is joined on this journey by Trixie and Cynthia, both young midwives from similar backgrounds as herself. They are later joined by Chummy, a woman from a more affluent background who surprises many with her hard work and ability. Rounding out the crew of Nonnatus House are stern Sister Evangelina, Sister Julienne, and (my favorite of the whole group) Sister Monica Joan.

I did listen to the audiobook and have to give credit to Nicola Barber’s pitch perfect narration. She captured Jenny’s joy, awe, heartbreak, and frustration perfectly.

Call the Midwife is ultimately about life. Not every family has a happy ending. Jenny’s life itself does not go as planned. It is not a “downer” though. This memoir is the only book I have honestly ever felt the phrase “heart warming” could truly be applied. I am now seeking out the full three volumes to read the full range of her experience and spend more time with these amazing women.

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A Quickie: The Guilty Pleasures of Amanda Quick

Amanda Quick’s romances are a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. Like a Lauren Willig novel, Quick writes romances with just enough action and mystery in the plot to make them an overall fun read. Her heroines are independent women for their time (usually Regency or Victorian eras) and the men often have some flaws to keep them from being too perfect. Also, unlike so many romances, the conflict always comes from an outside force, not frustrating miscommunication between the main characters. For a little break from reading for work, I recently read two Quick romances. One was good, the other not so much.

The first Quick novel I read was The Mystery Woman and I slugged through it. What was supposed to be a quick read (see what I did there), took months because I put it down- something I have never done with any of her books. The mystery plot was weak and relied too much on one character’s “psychical talent”. I was also really disappointed in the lack of chemistry between the main characters. I made myself finish out of principle, but do yourself a favor and skip it. For the record though, I would recommend Crystal Gardens, the first of the Ladies of Lantern Street series if you like supernatural romances.

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Onto Otherwise Engaged! I didn’t realize it, but it’s been YEARS since Quick has written a non-supernatural romance. I kind of missed ones like this.

Amity Doncaster is an independent, world traveling woman of the world (well, by Victorian standards). On a boat trip through the Caribbean, she happens on a wounded man in an alley. Benedict Stanbridge hands her a letter and tells her to make sure it makes it off the island as he believes he has been fatally wounded. Amity, the daughter of a doctor, does not give up on Benedict so easily and safely transports both the letter and him to the ship. Over the next couple weeks while sailing to New York, Amity nurses him back to health and they grow closer. Once they reach port, Benedict leaves for California with a promise to find her again in London- her final destination.

Weeks go by and Amity still has no word from Benedict, but those who move in polite society have a lot to say about them. Somehow word of the time they spent alone together on the ship is making the rounds among the town gossips. Though not bothered by her slightly tarnished reputation, Amity is worried about Benedict. Her fears for him are only put aside when she is attacked in a carriage. Benedict arrives in London just after the attempt on her life and wonders if it is connected to what happened in the Caribbean. They decide to investigate together under the guise of an engaged couple to excuse all the time they will spend together. Of course, Amity and Benedict have great chemistry so maybe it isn’t just pretend. Before they can really explore their feelings though, they need to figure out who wants them dead.

Otherwise Engaged was a fun way to burn a couple hours. If you enjoy romances or even light thrillers (think creepy killers, but maybe not the most literary fare) check this one out.

The Devil in the Details: Libba Bray’s The Diviners

the diviners

Though I am a fan of the YA genre, I have to admit I still underestimate it at times. The Diviners is the perfect case in point. With a busy week ahead of me not long ago I decided to put down a book I had been savoring to read something lighter that did not require as much attention… or so I thought. I picked up my copy of The Diviners from my “to-read” stack as a diversion, despite its length. Well, the joke was on me because I stayed up until the wee hours on a Sunday until I forced myself to put it down and go to bed. Repeat on Monday night. Tuesday night I put it down early- because I had finished it.

Evie O’Neill is forced to leave her hometown in Ohio after another unsettling incident with her powers, which allow her to read people just by touching an object. She is sent to live with her Uncle Will in the roaring New York City of the 1920s. Uncle Will is the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and is far more interested in research than the goings on of a teenage girl. His assistant, Jericho, is not so distracted and definitely keeps an eye on Evie. So too does Sam, a young thief who seems to have a preternatural ability to move around places unseen.

Reunited with her old pen pal from a former visit, seventeen year old Evie seeks out all the marvels of the big city she has heard so much about- from speakeasies to Vaudeville shows. Along the way she meets Theta, a showgirl, and her piano player brother, Henry. The unadulterated fun does not last long before Uncle Will cracks down on her wild behavior. At the same time, the police come to Uncle Will for help with a bizarre murder that turns out to be the first of many. With the use of her powers, Evie quickly discovers her uncle and the police are not after any ordinary madman. Naughty John is an evil she has never encountered.

At the same time Uptown, Memphis Campbell is a young man running numbers in Harlem. His position gives him some status in his neighborhood, but his past as a healer (used as a faith healer) still haunts him. Now his brother is showing signs of a gift as well and Memphis tries hard to protect him. Surrounded by influences like Langston Hughes, all he really wants is to focus on his poetry and writing. Still, something more pressing threatens him and his family. Unbeknownst to him, the evil Naughty John stalking the streets of Manhattan has his origins close to home.

Evie’s and Memphis’ stories eventually intersect. As they do the threads connecting Diviners (though they are not referred to collectively like that in the book) are woven more tightly. To say more would be to give away the end, but it does bode well for more cohesive sequels.

Personally, I loved the rich historical detail in this book. Chances are no one reading this was alive in the 1920s and Bray did a great job bringing New York of that decade to life. She did not just give a great sense of what Broadway must have looked like or talk about a Follies show, she also went into the day to day moments. So much of life today is driven by technology, having the operator used to make a call in the story or discussing how movie theaters were cooled before air conditioning units were widely available was very interesting to me.

The malevolence of Naughty John and the eerie feel of his character and actions throughout the book also drew me in. In contrast to the vibrancy of Evie’s Manhattan and Memphis’ Harlem, Naughty John is a darkness that clouds their youthful exuberance. It is drawn tension that crosses into the other narratives as well and builds at a great pace. I am as pragmatic as they come, but there were a couple times when regular household noises in the middle of the night prompted me to get up and look around just to be sure because the story had me on edge.

At almost 600 pages, Bray gets in a lot and it can sometimes feel drawn out. This is meant to be the first in a trilogy from what I understand, but it feels as though Bray is trying to cram a lot into the first volume. The changes in perspective are great at some moments while very frustrating at others. They are not short shifts in perspective, but long chapters between characters. There was also one twist at the very end with a character I thought might be coming, but was still disappointed when it did. I hope Bray has a good use for it in the rest of the series.

I felt Memphis’ character and the backdrop of the gangsters and Harlem Renaissance would have made a great stand alone sequel to really get into the scene. Maybe Bray was eager to make the characters connect in this book. With more issues being raised about the whitewashing of YA books, maybe it never even occurred to her editors to suggest a book about a young man in Harlem could be a standalone. That is all just conjecture though. It stands as it is and the character is one I do look forward to reading about in future novels. I hope she continues to give Harlem the same (or more) attention throughout the series.

All said, with a vivid historical setting and seriously spooky (sometimes downright scary) tones, this was an enjoyable read. If you enjoy historical fiction, light horror, and/or supernatural mysteries, pick this one up to lose yourself for a few hours in 1920s Manhattan.

Upstairs and Downstairs with Fay Weldon’s Habits of the House

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I know I am not alone when I say am addicted to Downton Abbey and, to a lesser extent, the recent reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs. Period dramas have always intrigued me. If any story- television, movie, or book- has rich period details, I am easily hooked. At the same time, it is easy to romanticize a period when all you see are wealthy people having parties in fancy clothes and even easier to forget what life was like for the lower classes at the very same time. Weldon presents a more troubled reality for both her upstairs and downstairs characters in Habits of the House.

When I saw the advanced reader’s copy of Habits of the House I picked it up without even reading the description because it was written by Fay Weldon, who wrote the pilot of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. With the show in mind as I read, I was both pleased and even surprised by the book itself.

Habits of the House begins as the London season of 1899 is winding down. Lord Robert, the Earl of Dilberne, has lost a considerable amount of the family fortune in African mine speculations as what we now know would become the Second Boer War is beginning. He turns his attentions- and hopes- to his son, Arthur, as the possible solution to their financial troubles. Lady Isobel, with the unappreciated aid of her maid Grace, susses out a newly arrived American heiress. Minnie might be an unsophisticated American in their eyes, but she has what so many British ladies lack- a fortune.

I picked this one up after a series of “strike outs” with books I could not quite get into. Weldon writes in short, snappy chapters that give you all the detail you need to imagine characters and places, but is not verbose. Two hours quickly passed when I first sat down to read and I could have kept going if I had not been pulled away by a social obligation.

No one character in Habits of the House is truly good, but none of them are truly bad either. They all, upstairs and downstairs, have their character flaws but develop enough through this fun read that I am eager for the second in the series to spend more time with them.

If you come to this book expecting prim and proper historical fiction, be warned Weldon does spice it up with descriptions of visits to prostitutes, trysts, and even the marriage bed. After the initial surprise, I was glad for these scenes. Stories from the Victorian period are often told with a nice varnish on them and it was refreshing to read a book that acknowledged human sexuality is not diminished just because it is not socially en vogue.

Fans of Downton Abbey who are at a loss after the end of the third season last week or anyone who enjoys a fun historical read will enjoy Habits of the House. Two more in the series are expected in summer and late fall of 2013 to keep fans sated until next season.

Ghosts from the Past: The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

Anymore when someone talks about Scandinavian noir or Swedish mysteries, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy almost always figures prominently in the discussion. It was an excellent series of thrillers worthy of conversation. That said, my own love of the sub-genre began years before in the form of Kurt Wallander, an aging, borderline alcoholic Swedish police detective.

My introduction came one warm Memorial Day weekend when I settled in to read Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, the first in the Wallander series. Mankell’s stark descriptions of Swedish winters chilled me to the bone, while his insightful writing kept me reading. Since then, I like to intersperse a Wallander, or any of Mankell’s standalone thrillers, with new authors and other favorites.

The Fifth Woman begins with the murder of four nuns and a visiting tourist. Mankell sets it aside and turns his attention on a gruesome murder in southern Sweden. A retired used car dealer has been found impaled on a stake in his own yard.

Wallander, fresh off a vacation in Rome with his father, is called in. The scene rips him from his relaxed state of mind back to harsh reality and forces him to recall another horrible crime months before. Just like the previous case, Wallander senses this will be the first victim for the killer with more to follow. He jumps right into the twisted investigation, ignoring issues in his own personal life.

Told primarily with an eye to police procedure, Mankell does offer the reader glimpses into the killers actions and thoughts. It is a chilling juxtaposition to the dogged, exhausted detectives investigating, eventually, both the crimes.

Mankell also does not shy away from including commentary about Swedish culture in his books. The Fifth Woman most definitely takes aim at misogyny and abusive of women. His observations are not preachy, but used to further the plot. While the topic can almost be overdone on American TV, when he wrote this book in 1996 Mankell most certainly was casting light on the issue. It is still relevant today.

Anyone who enjoys contemporary mysteries and/or thrillers is sure to like Mankell’s well written Wallender series. Enough backstory is provided book to book you can really jump in anywhere.

Guide to a New Era: The Chaperone and the Jazz Age

While working at my local indie bookstore, I picked up the ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy)for The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty several times before I finally decided to take it home. ‘Downton Fever’, as I call the sudden interest in WWI and the early 1920s, has made me leery of new books about the period. Don’t get me wrong, I love Downton Abbey and several books from and set in that era, but I am always suspicious of media fads.

I decided to take it with me to New York to read if I could not sleep on my flights. As it turned out, I tore through the first 45 pages before they announced boarding for my first flight. Moriarty is a top-notch storyteller and kept me reading through both flights and my layover. Instead of taking a nap in my down time once I arrived, I was compelled to finish The Chaperone.

Cora Carlisle is, for all appearances, an average housewife in Wichita, KS. As the story opens, Cora hears through local gossip Mrs. Brooks needs a chaperone to accompany her daughter, Louise, to New York City while she attends a summer dance school. The word on the street is Louise will be nothing short of a nightmare to the unlucky soul who accompanies her. Despite this warning, Cora contacts the Brooks family and is hired on the spot.

In 1922, most women would have been forced to use great persuasion to convince their husbands to allow such a trip. Cora has something on her husband which allows her to essentially tell him she is going. The secret is not immediately divulged, but if you are like me you will figure it out before it is revealed.

From the moment the train pulls away from the station, Louise proves to be as unmanageable as predicted. Interlaced with her misadventures on the train, pieces of Cora’s personal history are slowly revealed, allowing the reader a glimpse behind her perfect facade.

On arrival in New York both women (though 15, Louise can hardly be described as anything else) doggedly pursue their goals- Louise to make the touring dance troupe, Cora to investigate her past. Along the way, Cora finds her blind adherence to societal norms challenged by what she discovers in New York, especially from her ward. The government crack down on bootleggers suddenly has a very human face. Concern over immodest hemlines pales in comparison to revelations of a far more lasciviousness threat in her own backyard. Black and white morals become far more gray.

By the end of the trip, both are successful in their pursuits and change their lives in unforeseen ways.

Wisely, Moriarty does not end the book there. With a new outlook on life, Cora returns to Wichita, but with bold plans for her future. Through brief glimpses and allusions, rather than lengthy narrative, a complete life takes form. Moriarty does not deprive the reader though. The choice moments tell more of who Cora becomes then a drawn out story could.

There are no edge of your seat dramatic moments in The Chaperone. That is not to say there are not revelations, joy, and tragedy, but Moriarty allows them to play out naturally. It was this pace which caused me pause at the end, trying to decide if I really liked the book or was just entertained by it. Upon reflection, I have to say, I really enjoyed it. The Chaperone is a good example of historical fiction done right, compelling female narrative, and just great writing.

To Defend USSR… Domestically

I have a great love of Russian Lit. The “Russian Soul” is one of the great cultural gifts from the nation. For this reason, I regard anything written about Russia by a non-Russian with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, when I read reviews of British born William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series comparing him to Martin Cruz Smith, I was intrigued, but hesitant.

From the very first page of The Holy Thief, Ryan captures the feeling of a USSR gripped by fear of Stalin’s Great Terror and the NKVD (precursor to the KGB). Citizens fear Soviets in any uniform, and the men in uniform fear their coworkers. One report, real or invented, could send you to Siberia or worse- if there was a fate worse than the frozen prison labor camps. Trust is almost nonexistent.

Under this fog, Korolev is brought in to investigate the brutal and grotesque murder of a young women found in a former church. From the onset, the case attracts the interest of higher ranking Soviet officials, which means great accolades if he is successful or a very likely trip to the Zone if he fails. When it is revealed the victim was an American and the CIA enters the picture, the stakes become much higher.

As the pressure mounts on Korolev, the oppressiveness of Stalinist Moscow becomes even more stifling. For me, it was difficult to read at times. Having read numerous personal accounts of Russia at this time, it was easy to imagine what his neighbors were experiencing and what happened to the unlucky who were shipped off the Zone.

Korolev finds himself looking outside official channels for answers. It is the Thieves, the dons of Moscow’s underworld, who offer him information vital to the case. The Church and the Thieves are both undesirable in the new Soviet era, a fact the secretly faithful Korolev must come to grips with throughout his investigation.

In the end, cliched as it sounds, no one is who they seem to be. Ryan reveals the duplicity in such a way that the final dénouement is not an all encompassing but a slow revelation through certain events.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, mystery or general, and lovers of complex mysteries.