The Invention of Murder (CBR6 #60)

It’s been ten days since I put this book down. I haven’t really figured out what to say about The Invention of Murder, since it wasn’t really what I was looking for as far as research and was a bit too slow for a pleasure read, but it deserves to be reviewed, and I really wanted to make 60 reviews.

So here we are.

This is an interesting study of how the 19th century laid the groundwork for our own ‘ripped from the headlines’ world. Judith Flanders chronicles the major murder headlines of the Victorian Age, and shows how the newspapers and writers of the penny dreadfuls (including my non-nemesis Charles Dickens) chronicled the stories in the public eye.

So I think you should make the decision for yourself about whether or not to read this one. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

Murder in the nineteenth century was rare. But murder as sensation and entertainment became ubiquitous, with cold-blooded killings transformed into novels, broadsides, ballads, opera, and melodrama—even into puppet shows and performing dog-acts. Detective fiction and the new police force developed in parallel, each imitating the other—the founders of Scotland Yard gave rise to Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, the first fictional police detective, who in turn influenced Sherlock Holmes and, ultimately, even P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell.

In this meticulously researched and engrossing book, Judith Flanders retells the gruesome stories of many different types of murder, both famous and obscure: from Greenacre, who transported his dismembered fiancée around town by omnibus, to Burke and Hare’s bodysnatching business in Edinburgh; from the crimes (and myths) of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, to the tragedy of the murdered Marr family in London’s East End.  Through these stories of murder—from the brutal to the pathetic—Flanders builds a rich and multi-faceted portrait of Victorian society in Great Britain.  With an irresistible cast of swindlers, forgers, and poisoners, the mad, the bad and the utterly dangerous, The Invention of Murder is both a mesmerizing tale of crime and punishment, and history at its most readable

With this I’ve taken a break from reading, and will start fresh after the new year for CBR7.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

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The Season for Love (CBR6 #59)

I’ve got another holiday related collection for you, this time instead of holiday short stories its holiday romance novellas. The Season for Love is a collection of three Shannon Stacey works all tied (loosely) around the holiday season.

In another review of Ms. Stacey’s works I’ve commended her ability to ground her characters in the real world, while still letting them play in Romance Novel Land ™. That is still true, and perhaps why when looking for something to download onto my nook before flying home for Christmas I chose this collection to go along with the two novellas by Diana Peterfreund. These are no Milan, but they are enjoyable stories that I happily read in two sittings.

So what about the stories themselves?

Holiday Sparks explores the Romance Novel Land ™ standard of a short term fling that turns into love from both sides. Added in is the fun balance of boy from high school getting a chance with the girl of his dreams. He’s going to rewire her parents’ house which leads to extended time together. Two very likeable and relatable leads, not the strongest of stories, but a good read.

Mistletoe and Margaritas was probably my favorite of the bunch. Claire is a widow who has a strong friendship with her husband’s best friend Justin. He’s had more than friendly feelings for her for many, many years. This story explores what happens when it’s time to possibly move beyond friendship.

Snowbound with the CEO is burdened with the worst title, and the shakiest backstory. The CEO in question, Adrian Blackstone, is stuck at a hotel with his executive assistant, Rachel Carter, whom he finds distractingly attractive, both in body and personality. Luckily for him she feels the same. This story really got going when these two had to figure out if they could possibly continue to work together after their weekend in the mountains.

If you are in the mood for a little light, holiday themed contemporary romantic reads, these might hit the spot for you.

This collection was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

How the States Got Their Shapes (CBR6 #58)

My work has a book exchange as part of our Christmas party every year. The only rule is that the book needs to be related to history in some way. Last year I picked up Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes and was pretty excited about it since I really enjoyed the History Channel show of the same name. The show is quick and witty and I thought surely the book would be the same. And have some additional information that the show did not.

Not really on both counts.

Is it a bad book? No. What it really is, is a reference book. At a certain point you don’t need to keep reading, since each state’s border generally appears in at least two different chapters. The states are rundown in alphabetical order, as opposed to grouping them thematically, so there is really no reason to read the book from cover to cover.

I ended up reading this book as a palate cleanser in between other books, or when something would make me think of a certain state. A couple dozen pages here, a couple dozen pages there. Read one, skip a few, you get the idea.

Would I suggest the book to you? Maybe is about as firm as I’m willing to go. But I do suggest watching the show, for what it’s worth. (How often do you get a TV recommendation on a book review site? Probably not that often.)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (CBR6 #57)

I haven’t read any Dickens. Ever. What at first was an oversight had turned over the years into a point of silly pride. Sometimes you just don’t want to read a classic author, you know? I’m sure part of it was that for many years one of the holiday events I worked was based on A Christmas Carol.

The story is ubiquitous. Almost everyone knows the story of Scrooge being visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, getting himself scared straight and vowing to keep the spirit of Christmas the year round. This year I had a change of heart and thought – okay, let’s see what the fuss is about with the source material. So, I went to my handy dandy online library catalog and put in a request for A Christmas Carol and waited for it to arrive.

Boy was I surprised when Brett Helquist’s (who illustrated the A Series of Unfortunate Events books) beautifully illustrated and adapted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol showed up for me. This wasn’t what I expected, and I still haven’t officially read a work by Dickens, but this version was lovely and I whole heartedly recommend locating it and reading it aloud to young persons in your life.

On a more grown-up theme, while watching A Muppet Christmas Carol the other night one of my friends commented that the one of the themes Dickens was playing around with was what we call therapy today. Showing the character of Scrooge go back to his earliest days and walk through the events that made him who he was, and what the eventual outcome of those choices is very much what happens in many a psychologists office. Food for thought, certainly.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

My True Love Gave To Me (CBR6 #56)

I am not one, normally, for short story collections. Inevitably there are some which are too long, and some which are too short. And some that are just, well, terrible. My True Love Gave To Me is no exception to these general rules of short story collections.

I should backtrack to say that I enjoyed the majority of the stories in this collection. The authors in question are generally well liked and reviewed (as best I can tell/remember I have only read one of the authors before) and the collection is buoyed by their collected strength. Here’s what I thought of the individual stories, and why I give the collection 3.5 out of 5 stars:

Loves:

The Lady and the Fox by Kelly Link – a story of what happens with a little holiday magic, a little good luck after lots of bad luck, and a boy seemingly caught in time and space. This one leans towards Fantasy and is exquisitely well paced.

It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown by Stephanie Perkins – My favorite of the bunch, this story tells the tale of one evening with Marigold and North as they fall for each other while literally unpacking Marigold’s baggage. A laugh out loud funny story.

Midnights by Rainbow Rowell – Rowell is the only author I’m sure I’ve previously read. This short story is very much like her novel length works. We experience four new years’ eves with two teens who are clearly in love with each other and don’t necessarily know what to do with those feelings. This one is another outing of pitch perfect characterization for Rowell.

The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – perhaps the least Christmassy of the twelve stories in this collection, it is however the most romantic. In a post-apocalyptic future (I think) Neve is about to come of age and the tradition is that suitors leave tokens for their chosen wife during advent and marriages are made on Christmas Eve. In fear of her suitor, Neve calls out to the old gods, and awakens the Dreamer, who in turn falls in love with her spirit. This one is absolutely fantasy. The language is gorgeous and sumptuous, much like the Dreamer’s gifts.

Likes:

Angels in the Snow by Matt De La Pena – Our protagonist, Shy, is trapped in a blizzard with next to nothing to eat, leaving him with nothing but time to dwell on his issues. Luckily for him there’s an interesting girl in the apartment above, but she’s not going to let him off easy. The pacing came and went, but this is a good story.

What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth by Gayle Forman – the Hannukah tale of the bunch, Sophie Roth has ended up at college in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and its making her feel very much the big city fish out of water. Until, she meets someone else who may just be the fish she needed to meet. I really like Sophie as a character, and I liked that she screwed up as much as she got things right. I just didn’t love it.

Your Temporary Santa by David Levithan – When his boyfriend Connor asked him to dress up as Santa Claus to convince Connor’s younger sister that there is a Santa Claus for one more year. But in the process he learns more about his boyfriend’s family and his place in his life. This one was good, but left me wanting more.

Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus by Myra McEntire – Vaughn has a reputation for causing trouble, and its just one of those instances that lands him serving community service helping to repair the Christmas Nativity that he (accidentally) burned down. Hilarity, hijinks, and love, ensue.

Welcome to Christmas, CA by Kiersten White – this one was saved by its ending. Maria lives with her mom and her boyfriend in Christmas, CA. She works at the Christmas Café, and life is pretty miserable. Until Ben shows up as the new cook and things take a turn for the strange.

Letdowns:

Krampuslauf by Holly Black – This one is like the photo negative of The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer. What Laini Taylor go right in bring the fantastical to life Holly Black does wrong in this story which seemingly never ended.

Star of Bethlehem by Ally Carter – This one had such potential, but was given short shrift. Lydia changes tickets with Hulda, a foreign exchange student, and finds herself in Oklahoma instead of New York. She’s running from a big bad thing, but this short story doesn’t give it, or her growing feelings for Ethan, enough time to evolve.

Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me by Jenny Han – this story made me angry. So angry. Santa adopts an orphan from South Korea 15 years ago, and now she’s growing up in the North Pole and falling in love with an elf. There is so much teenage angst and so little payoff. And the ending is sad.

This review was completed as part of the Cannonball Read.

The Importance of Being Earnest (CBR6 #55)

The Importance of Being Earnest

I promised myself that if I finished my full cannonball ahead of schedule that I would get at least one classic that I had not read off my TBR list. That brings us to The Importance of Being Earnest, which I was reminded was on my list by Aamil The Camel’s lovely review.

The best part of reading this play, which I’m sure many of you read in high school although I did not, is that it is still laugh out loud funny nearly 120 years after its first performance. The edition I read clocked in at just north of 100 pages, and I read it yesterday afternoon around baking Christmas cookies, and it had me chuckling along as I went. You really can’t ask for more.

Unless, of course, you do. And that’s fine, because there is more here. Wilde can be seen to be critiquing the social order of his time, thus making this work a satire. Wilde’s form throughout is to catch the reader (or viewer) off guard, by creating a sense of security is created as familiar words roll out of various characters mouths and then suddenly comes the jolt. The final few words are changed, made into something unexpected, and both a laugh and a critique have been put into place. An example of this is in describing an off stage character’s change in her widowhood: “I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger”.

Wilde also turns the expectations of his basic plot on its head. On a surface level The Importance of Being Earnest is a simple tale of two boys meeting two girls and falling in (insta) love. The expectation would be that the ladies will be delicate and the men will be practical and experienced in the ways of the world. Jack’s serious manner and Algy’s slightly cynical, slightly rakish worldliness seem to align with this typical set-up .But, these expectations are completely defied as Gwendolen and Cecily turn out to be hard-headed, cold-blooded, efficient and completely self-possessed and the young gentlemen simply crumple in front of them. In fact, when Jack proposes to Gwendolen she takes matters into her own hands and tells him what to do. Wilde is mocking the idea that Victorian women are to be submissive in their own lives. Wilde is writing The Importance of Being Earnest during the suffrage movement, the rational clothes movement, women in sport, and women at the universities.

I can heartily recommend this one to you, whether you are looking for a quick laugh or a closer look at women and men at the turn of the last century, through Oscar Wilde’s eyes.

This review was completed as part of the Cannonball Read.

The Scarlet Sisters (CBR6 #54)

First, I want to thank ElCicco for reviewing this book earlier in the CBR. Both my roommate and I read it and found it hard to believe that the women The Scarlet Sisters are real, and so were their adventures. But that’s what makes a biography worth reading, right?

So, who are these sisters and what did they do? They are Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin. They were the first women to be stockbrokers on Wall Street. In 1871. Yes, you read that correctly. 1871. They were friends (for a time) with Cornelius Vanderbuilt. Victoria ran for president, twice (and she was the first woman to do so, and on a ticket that included Frederick Douglass as the Vice Presidential Candidate). Tennie was named colonel of the New York’s 85th regiment, the only black regiment in the nation. They were leading Spiritualists, reformers, champions of the 8 hour work day, and suffragists working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Isabella Beecher. And you likely know nothing about them.

My greatest takeaway from this book was the chronicling of the extremes of life in the Gilded Age. This book is subtitled Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age and it certainly covers all three. The middle of the book covers the 19th century’s trial of the century, the adultery trial of Henry Ward Beecher, the famous pastor and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But, the lives of Victoria and Tennie showcase the ups and downs and the haves and have-nots of this era in a way I have not previously encountered.

I rate this a 3.5, because it is fascinating and informative, but a smidge slowly paced.

This review is also available on Cannonball Read.