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Friday, May 23, 2014

Not in Front of the Corgis; Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains

The thing that is the most fun about Not in Front of the Corgis: Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains (#394) by longtime BBC correspondent Brian Hoey is the badly photoshopped picture of a corgi wearing a miniature gold crown on the front cover.  It definitely goes downhill once you open the book.

Brian Hoey appears to be so mindful of his access to the Royal  households that he reduces the contents to a dull (and I do mean DULL!) recitation of facts and statistics concerning the staffing and upkeep of the various Royal establishments.  I'll bet you were just dying to know that one of the top sellers in the Royal Collection of souvenirs on sale in palace gift shops is the Queen Victoria Tankard at 30 pounds apiece, or that the starting salary for a footman or housemaid is 13, 634 pounds per year, from which 17.5% of their take-home pay is deducted to pay for their room and board, as they are required to live in.  (It used to be free!)  Since in Mr. Hoey's estimation the opportunity and prestige to be gained by working for Royalty is incalculable, anyone hired at these below average wages should be suitably grateful. 

And of course, each of the employees who have been with the Royals for any length of time is uniformly devoted to the Royal family, diligent and unstinting in the performance of their duties and otherwise eligible for sainthood.  The exception to this is the former Head of the Royal Collections who was a third cousin of the late Queen Mother, and, oh yes, a Soviet spy.  But he did know how to dress and behave properly at social functions since he was "one of THEM", so all was forgiven until the Queen was finally forced by circumstances to revoke his KCVO (Knight Commander of the Victorian Order - given solely by the monarch at his or her own discretion for exceptional personal services to the Crown) and pull his cherished Club memberships. 

The only other people that Mr. Hoey is snarky about all seem to be Americans. Of the few motheaten  anecdotes we're actually treated to in this "tell nothing" book, a disproportionate share seem to be about Americans.  We make easy targets because nothing will personally redound on Hoey  would be my guess.  We're very boorish because we don't know the proper etiquette for meeting Royalty.  Quelle surprise!  You'd think someone would have mentioned to this Brit that we formed a democracy awhile back.  He complains particularly of the "hundreds" of Secret Service agents who absolutely overwhelmed the Staff dining hall at Buckingham Palace during the Obamas' State Visit.  He says they "refused" to stand in the cafeteria line to pick up their food because it was not the "American way".  Has Mr. Hoey ever seen a scene in a movie or American TV series that featured that American mainstay, the school cafeteria?  Guess not.  And this after he spent numerous pages on how the Buckingham Palace staff was in an uproar when the 5 Staff Dining Rooms with their downstairs hierarchy and clubby atmosphere for the senior staff were melded into the single facility in a Draconian cost cutting move!  Apparently it's not the British Royal Household way, either!

Mr. Hoey's idea of a huge secret revealed is to note that when the Duke of Kent's chauffeur of 18 years died, the Duke himself attended the funeral, instead of the normal Royal custom of sending a personal representative instead.  Too bad the recipient wasn't around to appreciate this singular honor.

The corgis themselves hardly rate a mention although they do apparently create quite a bit of work and annoyance to the staff due to their nasty habits.

In short, even if you're a Royal fan, like me, don't waste your time or money here.  Pick up something juicy by Andrew Morton instead.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg has done it again.  In her latest book, The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion (#393), she tells the story of Sookie Poole, mother of four, who has just successfully married off the last of her three daughters (one of them twice!) and is ready to relax into a well-deserved retirement with her dentist husband.  If only she could put the kibosh on all the plans her domineering mother Lenore has for running the community and her life.  The day Sookie finally gives in and answers the phone to get rid of a pesky and persistent out-of-state caller her life will be changed forever. 

Woven into this tale is the story of a young immigrant who escapes from World War I Poland to come to America to be with his brother.  Stanislaw Jurdabralinski settles in the Polish community of Pulaski, Wisconsin.  His life becomes the fulfillment of the American dream when he buys a gas station as cars just begin to become popular and turns it into a successful business, complete with a family willing to pitch in and help with it.  When his son Wink enlists the day after Pearl Harbor, the four Jurdabralinski daughters rally together to run the station. Eldest daughter Fritzi gives up the life she loves as a barnstorming pilot and wing walker in an aerial circus, but it doesn't take long for her to respond to a call from the US government for women pilots to free up male pilots for overseas duty.  Eventually, three of the four Jurdabralinski girls become WASP fliers. 

Just how the paths of Sookie Poole and the Jurdabralinski family cross is a funny, inspiring and heartbreaking tale, and a great read.  Not only is this book entertaining, it is also educational, the very best combination as far as I'm concerned.

Do you know anything about the WASPs?  I didn't until I read this book.  WACs and WAVES and even SPARS, yes, but not this branch of service women who flew for just over two years, ferrying every kind of military plane from factory to military bases all across the country.  If you haven't heard of them, it's hardly surprising; the records for the WASP program were sealed when the program was shut down during the war.  It wasn't until 1977 that President Carter signed a bill giving the surviving WASPs military benefits.  (Can you believe that the families of the 38 women who lost their lives flying in service to their country were required to make their own arrangements to bring their girls home and bury them at their own expense?!!!)  In 2010, the Congressional Medal of Honor was given to the eighty plus WASPs still alive, a long overdue honor.  I sure wanted to know more.  If you do, too, check out their official website:  WASP - WWII Women Fliers  There's plenty to look, listen, watch and interact with on this site, including a photo gallery of each of the more than one thousand women who served.  Memorial Day is the perfect time to acknowledge their unique contribution to the World War II war effort.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Long Lost

If you received a call out of the blue from an old flame summoning you to Paris, would you drop everything and go?  Myron Bolitar does in Harlan Coben's Long Lost (#392).  The fact that the woman he thought was "the one" has just broken off their relationship might have had a lot to do with it. But if he had known the secrets Terese Collins was keeping, and that he would be in serious danger almost as soon as he arrived on French soil, would he still have gone?  You bet he would!  (Well, Win did try to warn him...)

With a glamorous setting, the French police, international terrorists and a girl who uncannily resembles Terese mixed up in the whole nasty business, Long Lost makes for an exciting read.  It's good to see Myron Bolitar, agent extraordinaire back in action with the backing of his friend Win, partner Esperanza and his parents.  Myron seems able to mine even the bleakest situation for nuggets of wit and humor.  That's what makes these stories doubly enjoyable to me.

Mr. Coben sure does know how to put the thrill in a thriller.  I just have one piece of advice: do NOT pick up this book until you've cleared your schedule.  You probably won't be able to put it down.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Charm of Powerful Trouble

I must admit, I wouldn't think of giving my husband a murder as an anniversary present, but then again, I'm not Emmie Reese.  In the latest installment of Robert Bruce Stewart's amusing Harry Reese mystery series, A Charm of Powerful Trouble (#391), that's just what she sets out to do on a tourist-trap tour of  a fake Chinatown set up in a warehouse far from the real Chinatown.  Little does she know that the amusement she's planned for her small family outing will turn out to be real, and that one of Harry's relatives will be involved in the mix.

Is it any surprise that if Emmie Reese plans something, it rarely turns out as expected?  Her perpetually bemused spouse Harry has just learned to follow the clues Emmie turns up to solve the mysteries she uncovers and let her go her own way in investigating matters. After all, Harry is an insurance fraud investigator, so he knows a thing or two about criminal activity and he is perfectly capable of following up on his own angles.  In A Charm of Powerful Trouble, the vaudeville circuit, Chinese tongs, cricket farmers, white slavery, a Utopian religious commune, a policeman sleeping on their couch and a missing academic manuscript are all involved.  Plus much riding of streetcars, railroads and ferries by all parties to ferret out the clues.  Absurd?  Definitely; but somehow in Emmie's world, it all does manage to make sense.  Somewhat.  Entertaining?  Absolutely!

I started this series in the middle and read backwards, and up until this point that worked out just fine.   With A Charm of Powerful Trouble, though, I would have missed much of what was going on between the characters without having read the previous books.  For maximum enjoyment of this quirky series, I would recommend reading them in order. 

One of things that Mr. Stewart has done on his website is to provide a Glossary, maps and a series of background articles (with photos) of his source materials.  (See  Street Car Mysteries website )  It's worth a look for some interesting insights into turn-of-the century NYC.  Can't wait for the further adventures of the Reeses!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Valley of Amazement

After I heard Amy Tan being interviewed on NPR about how she came to write The Valley of Amazement (#390), I knew I wanted to read it.  For her, this is personal.  She confirms it in her Acknowledgment section, where she mentions sharing a similar journey with one of my favorite authors, Lisa See.

This novel mainly chronicles the life of Violet Minturn, half-Chinese, half-American daughter of one of Shanghai's most notorious madams in the early twentieth century.  In Hidden Jade Path, Lulu Mimi's first class courtesan house, East can meet West on equal terms.  Deals are struck, politics hammered out, fortunes made and lost thanks to Lulu's skill in matching up the right parties.  Violet has grown up in this atmosphere, thinking she's American.  When she begins to learn the truth about her parentage she is shocked.  As she and her mother are about to leave for San Francisco, Violet is separated from her mother by trickery and sold into a second class courtesan house.  Her struggles to survive and accept what fate has dealt her seem almost insurmountable.  But she clings to the hope that the painting of  The Valley of Amazement from the brush of her father is real, and that she will find it someday for herself.  When she does, it is not the idyllic place she has always pictured in her mind.

Since both Lucia, or Lulu, as she prefers to be known by her customers, and her daughter Violet spend most of their adult years in courtesan houses, the nature of the subject matter of this book may be too graphic for some readers.  If you accept this as a common way of life in many parts of the globe throughout the ages, it can be enlightening to realize just how skilled and psychologically acute many of the most successful courtesans were during their prime.  If they had any business acumen, they were constantly preparing for the day when they no longer had patrons to command.  Love has many guises, but few survive the scrutiny of those whose profession is love itself.  In fact, Violet and Lucia cannot recognize what is under their own noses until it is almost too late.

Six hundred pages that just fly by.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cavendon Hall

Some of my acquaintances claim that they don't read Barbara Taylor Bradford anymore; she's too old-fashioned.  I think that's precisely why I find her so appealing.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent reading her latest book Cavendon Hall (#389).  In her Foreword, Ms. Bradford states that Cecily Swann will be the central character in a new series of novels concerning the fortunes of the Inghams of Cavendon Hall and their loyal retainers, the Swanns.  I've just finished the first book, and already I'm impatient for the next.  That's the mark of an excellent storyteller for me.

This book should appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, or Fay Weldon's recent trilogy.  Like them, this Bradford series promises to be multi-generational.  Like her previous series, it's also set in Yorkshire.  Ms. Bradford's strong female characters generally don't just let things happen to them (although that's the key moment in Cavendon Hall for one of the Ingham women), they shape events around themselves to take advantage of them to boost their careers.  In this case, Cecily's promising future hinges on her extraordinary skills as a designer under her mother's tutelage working for the Countess of Mowbray at Cavendon Hall, along with her four beautiful daughters.  She is only twelve when we meet her, but she's already initiated  as an heir to the secrets the Swanns keep to protect the Ingham family.  All is not well at Cavendon Hall in the days leading up to World War I.   The War will change everything for both the Inghams and the Swanns, but will it break their centuries-old bond?

I can't wait to find out!