Archive | May 2016

Review: Picture Miss Seaton by Heron Carvic. Ferrago, an imprint of Prelude Books Ltd.

I was very kindly provided with an advance copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a review, which follows.

A laugh-out-loud murder mystery? You bet! Picture this: Miss Marple with the Keystone Kops as staged by Mel Brooks with a hint of Beatrix Potter.

That would be this story, featuring Miss Seeton, respectable spinster art teacher. She is having a lovely evening. After hearing “Carmen” at Covent Garden. Bizet’s beguiling tunes are running through Miss Seeton’s head even as she bewails Don José’s unseemly and “unnecessary” stabbing of Carmen. Miss Seeton is looking forward to a nice stay in the country at her newly inherited cottage, “Sweetbriars.”

Walking down an alley on her way home, she is displeased to encounter a young couple, the girl exclaiming in French, and the boy striking the girl. This is too much for Miss Seeton, who prods the ungentlemanly boy in the back. From there, the story is a lively dash for Miss Seeton, her “battling brolly” and her ever-useful sketchpad.

Our story is set in English country settlement of Plummergan, and stocked with a cast of memorable characters. Of course there is the vicar, Arthur Treeves who Does His Best, and his sister Molly who runs him; Sir George, Lady Colvedon, and their son Nigel; Miss Nuttel and Mrs. Blaine, dedicated to providing the latest, though perhaps not the most accurate, news to the village; Mrs. Venning, successful author of children’s stories featuring Jack the Rabbit, and her daughter Angela; Mrs. Bloomer, who “does” for Miss Seeton; and of course the Scotland yard men: Superintendent Delphick (The Oracle), whose admiration of Miss Seeton’s abilities grows throughout the book, and of course his stalwart sergeant, Bob Ranger.

In other words, a fairly typical English village murder mystery–but with an important difference. The author is a gifted storyteller. I started reading, and soon found myself chuckling at the literate, spot-on descriptions of these characters and their foibles. Miss Seeton sails serenely on, encountering numerous events that would unsettle most people, meeting each obstacle with her unique but effective resources.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and enthusiastically recommend it.

Review: Tea Cups and Carnage by Lynn Calhoun. Kensington Books: Lyrical Press Underground.

“Is family defined by blood or it is more than that?”

Thus does this story begin, featuring Jill Gardner, whose shop Coffee, Books and More is a popular gathering place in the “perfect tourist town” of South Cove. California. As I live near the mid-California coast, I felt immediately at home with this setting.

Jill’s world centers on her coffee/book shop and also importantly on her relationship with handsome police detective Greg King. At the start, this story seems to be a study of daily life in a quaint, bustling seaside town. But ripples soon appear in the charming pool, starting with the addition of blonde Texas beauty Kathi Corbin to the South Cove business community. She immediately charms a business gathering (particularly the men) with her plans to start a new tea shop called Tee Hee. (OK, the title’s a little cute, but typical of businesses in this particular tourist-friendly setting).

More ripples soon appear: problems with bank deposits and the new bank teller, the sudden absence of antique shop owner Josh on undefined personal business, an unidentified motorcyclist who repeatedly tears through the little town causing noise problems and ruffled nerves before speeding away. Circumstances soon rises to another level when Jill’s aunt Jackie sprains her ankle in her haste to avoid a collision with the speeding cyclist. Soon after, a body is discovered at a local motel, and now we have a murder mystery.

Ms. Calhoun skillfully builds her story. Kathi’s family and history appear to be involved in the emerging problems, but how? Why are relations between Kathi and her sister so strained? Who is this rampaging motorcycle rider? What happened Jill’s large bank deposit? Why is Josh so secretive about his actions?

Jill’s becomes engrossed in finding answers to these questions; Greg deals with the police side of things while trying to keep Jill away from harm. But Jill’s curiosity does not stop, and she keeps pressing forward for answers, which ultimately brings her into a dramatic confrontation.

In Memory: Margaret Frances Hunter Stucke, October 2, 1910-May 24, 1993.

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Margaret Stucke, 80th Birthday 1990

Blog GrandparentsShe was born Margaret Frances Hunter, on October 2, 1910, in Gage Oklahoma, the second child of Cecil and Martha Hunter. Cecil Hunter was a college-educated man. Margaret said later that her father left Iowa and his chosen profession of school teaching after the death of his beautiful fiancée of diphtheria.

Cecil moved to Oklahoma where he met and married Martha Hunter. Cecil decided to try his hand at farming, and the family eventually settled in Missouri. Margaret later said that although her father was an intelligent, gentle and kind man, his talents did not lie in the direction of farming, although he himself never seemed to realize this. She had an older brother, Tom, a younger sister, Florence, and two younger brothers, Paul and Bob.

Margaret attended a series of small country schools, typically one-room schools where all levels were taught by one dedicated teacher. Margaret enjoyed school and always regretted that she was not allowed to complete the eighth grade, her mother deciding that she was needed at home to help with the harvest. Margaret developed excellent skills as a seamstress and seemed to have a natural knack for making pretty things. When she was about eighteen, she decided to try living in the big city for a while, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she lived with her aunt and uncle. She found work in a tailoring shop. She felt she benefitted from the tutelage of her city relatives, who provided her with the social skills they deemed appropriate for a young lady.

MargaretHunter1930 copyMargaret returned home about two years later and married John Stucke, whom she had known for several years, in 1930. John was a skilled mechanic. They settled in Pineville, Missouri, and had a son, John Calvin, in 1934. Economic times were hard in the Midwest in the early ’30’s, and John felt he could do better for his family by looking elsewhere for employment. Temporarily leaving his wife and young son in Pineville, he went west to California where he found a good job at Bethlehem Steel in South San Francisco. He soon sent for Margaret and John Calvin, and the family settled in Millbrae in 1938. In 1941, John and Margaret had a daughter whom they named Merrilee.

Margaret was a traditional homemaker, centering her attention on being a good wife and mother. She encouraged her children in their schooling, starting their education at home at an early age. Margaret liked to read, and her children became interested in books because of their mother’s interest. During the years that the children were small, it was wartime and it was sometimes challenging to provide for the family, even though John had a good job working in a civilian job considered vital to the nation’s war effort. Margaret was very creative at using available materials (rationing was in effect) to provide for her family. She sewed clothes for herself and her children. She planned meals carefully and always tried to include something that was a “treat.” Dinner for the family meant all four sitting down together at the dining table, with Father at the head of the table. Dinnertime was when the events of the day were discussed together. Reading at the table was not allowed.

 

Margaret loved music; she had a lovely natural singing voice and often sang familiar hymns and popular songs of the day while she was doing her housework. She managed to obtain a piano and started taking lessons. But when her young daughter also displayed an interest in music, Margaret provided a music teacher for Merrilee, although it meant that Margaret had to give up her lessons. Her children always came first.

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John and Margaret Stucke, “Silver” 25th Wedding Anniversary

Margaret was always hospitable. During the years of World War II, with her two younger brothers in the Service, her home became a stopping place for young soldiers and sailors. She loved family gatherings, delighted in planning social times for friends and family. In those days before television, an evening of fun might mean making homemade ice cream or popping corn over the stove in a long-handled wire popper. Or maybe there would be charades, word games, or board games like checkers. There might be something good on the radio, maybe something silly and funny like “Fibber McGhee and Molly” designed to lighten the tensions of wartime.

Margaret was ever supportive of her children. John Calvin went into retail sales after serving in the Navy Air Force. His five children were a source of great joy for Margaret, who spent endless hours helping granddaughters dress their dolls, telling stores to her grandson, and making clothes for all of them.

Margaret and her daughter Merrilee shared an interest in music. Thanks to her parents’ support and financial sacrifice, Merrilee attended San Francisco State College, acquired a degree in music, and taught music to children for several years. She married to Warren Gibson in 1984, and decided to become a therapist working with disturbed children, completing a Master’s degree in 1995 and obtaining clinical licensure in 1998. Typically, Margaret enthusiastically supported her daughter’s plans, creating wonderful items for use in play therapy: a family of hand puppets, some pretty picture books, several dolls and teddy bears. Partly to honor her parents’ memory, Merrilee earned a Doctor of Psychology degree in 2011.

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“Golden” 50th Wedding Anniversary

Margaret Hunter Stucke and John Newton Stucke celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary in 1980. Margaret lost her beloved husband John Stucke in 1984.

Margaret’s Christian faith was strong. Although she discontinued attending church services when her ailing husband needed her attention at home, she read her Bible faithfully first thing every morning. Over the years she completely wore out at least three Bibles. Several times, her children tried to replace old ragged Bibles with nice new ones, but she would cling to the familiar one, underlined and annotated, until it was just impossible to use any longer.

Some of Margaret’s favorite Bible verses were concerned with faith and trust. She especially liked Hebrews 10:35-39,the whole eleventh chapter of Hebrews, a great treatise on faith, and Hebrews 7:25-26. Some of her favorite verses on trust in God were in the Psalms: 71:1-3; 37:3-5; and Psalms 23 and 91 in their entirety. Three other favorite verses were: Philippians 4:6-7; Romans 8:28-39; and finally Revelations 22:18-19.

 Margaret Stucke, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, left us on May 24, 1993.  We loved her dearly.

 

In shady, green pastures, so rich and so sweet,

God leads His dear children along;

Where the water’s cool flow bathes the weary one’s feet,

God leads His dear children along.

Some through the waters, some through the flood,

Some through the fire, but all through the blood;

Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,

In the night season and all the day long.

“God Leads Us Along,” by George A. Young, 1903.

 

Review: In the Clearing by Robert Dugoni. Thomas & Mercer.

Thanks to the author and publisher, through NetGalley, I have been provided with this book in exchange for a review. I was attracted to the book by the description of the lead character’s life experience, losing her sister to murder. As my family also lost a member from homicide, I felt an immediate kinship.

I have since learned that this is Mr. Dugoni’s third book featuring the character of Seattle detective Tracy Crosswhite. Having finished reading the book, it is easy to understand the acclaim that has greeted this series. This is a fascinating story of Tracy’s determined pursuit of the truth in a 40-year-old case, of the death of a young Native American woman, attributed at the time to suicide. The step-by-step process followed by Tracy in finding meaningful information forty years later is set forth partly through flashbacks reconstructed from rediscovered files, old newspaper stories, and other sources. We also meet Buzz Almond, an ex-marine employed in 1976 as a Klickitat County deputy sheriff. His diligence and intelligence reflected in the files he left are Tracy’s guides in her quest for the truth of what befell Kimi Kanasket.

We meet an array of characters involved in 1976 incidents and gradually learn how their lives and relationships have been affected by what happened in a clearing in 1976. This clearing, Tracy learns, is a place where many years ago an innocent man was hanged from an oak tree in the clearing. Subsequently, the oak tree died, the nearby town was nearly destroyed by fire, and nothing grows in the clearing. There is a time-travel aspect to this book involving the hanging in the clearing, Kimi’s death in 1976 in this same clearing and by a 2016 homicide case that Tracy’s partner Kinsington Rowe is investigating.

Tracy’s process in solving a 40-year-old crime story is riveting, and made believable by the wealth of supporting detail offered on the process she followed. This is an expertly woven tapestry of events and people that ultimately finds resolution in a satisfactory conclusion.

Dolls of Early Childhood: 1940s

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Baby. My mother told me that this was my first doll, given to me Christmas, 1941, when I was 6 months old. I think now that must have been a memorable time for the grown-ups in the family, as Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. I was too little to know anything about that, or to remember it. “Baby” is a Mama doll with composition head, arms, and legs on a stuffed cloth body–a typical play doll of the time, and so named because it said “Mama” when turned over. I guess this doll did that at one time, but I don’t think the crier mechanism still works in the 21st century. Mother said I carried this doll with me all the time, so that the face paint wore off. She repainted the eyebrows and lips. I have no idea what the original clothes were. Mother left a suitcase full of doll clothes from the 1940s and the original dress may be in there. There is a hand-smocked baby dress, very fine, that I would like to put on the doll. I would suspect that my mother made that dress for me.

 

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Nancy. Nancy was my second doll, after Baby. Nancy is a little smaller than Baby, but like Baby has a composition head, arms, and legs on a stuffed cloth body. Also like Baby, the original face paint was worn off, and again Mother repainted eyebrows and lips. I don’t remember what Nancy’s original dress was, either. I found some old doll clothes Mother had stored in a trunk, and there were two or three pastel silky baby dresses. I would guess that Nancy’s original dress was one of those. I do know that this dress and bonnet with the autumn leaf print was one that Mother made for Nancy very soon after I got the doll. When I unwrapped Nancy in the 21st century, after her years in a storage box, it seemed very little and frail. Nancy is, after all, nearly 70 years old and almost an antique (75 years is the usual defining point). The hands are very worn, and Mother had left the doll stored with soft mittens over the hands.

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Virginia. Mother’s notes say I got this doll in 1943. That would make this doll the third I got as a child. When I showed this page to my older brother John, he remarked that he was with Mother when she bought this doll for me at the Montgomery Ward store in Burlingame. Virginia, like Baby and Nancy, is a Mama-type doll, with composition head, arms and legs and a cloth body with a crier mechanism inside. I always loved Virginia; I thought she had such an understanding face. Maybe it was those big brown eyes. Virginia is wearing her original blue dress, pink sheer pinafore and blue & pink ruffled bonnet. The lace tights and white shoes are not original. As with Baby and Nancy, Virginia’s original face paint got loved away, and the eyebrows and lips were carefully re-painted by Mother

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Alice Blue Gown. This may have been my fourth doll, after Baby, Nancy, and Virginia. So this doll dates from about 1944 or 1945, and is wearing all original clothes: white organdy dress with blue coat and matching bonnet. I believe the white shoes and socks are original. I named all my early dolls (except Baby), and this one was named for a song. My mother had a lovely voice, and often sang around the house, especially during the day. One song she sang was about “sweet little Alice blue gown.” Now I know that this song referred to the color, reportedly a favorite of a President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt. But as a child, I didn’t know that, so this doll simply became Alice Blue Gown. I guess that by the time I got Alice I wasn’t carrying my dolls around constantly, so the face paint didn’t get worn off and re-painted. The wig did get trimmed in front. Originally there was a roll at the forehead, but it didn’t stay curled very well. She has sleep eyes, and I notice the left one is a little droopy, so it looks a little weary. Well, this doll is at least 70 years old so it is probably entitled to a little weariness. But I think it has held up pretty well, and is still very pretty. Dolls in the 1940’s WERE pretty–it wasn’t until the 1950’s that dolls with more “character” appeared.

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Paulette and Bear. My Uncle Paul gave me this doll and companion bear, which mother’s notes say he bought in Monterey while he was in the Army, stationed there early in World War II.

The doll was named “Paulette” in honor of my Uncle Paul. The bear never got a name—it was just Bear. Paulette originally had a mohair wig with long brown braids. The original dress was a gauzy white sheer material with blue dots. I still have the dress, but it is too fragile to use any more; the mohair wig failed over time. Bear is wearing his original felt vest.

Review: “The Skipper’s Dog’s Called Stalin” by David Black. Thomas & Mercer.

I don’t often read stories of war; my preference tends toward classic mysteries. I was drawn to this book from the description–the story begins in spring, 1941–and so did I. My early childhood is filled with memories of how my family dealt with the experiences of World War II. Three uncles served in the war–in the South Pacific, England, and Australia–while my father, over-age for military service, filled an essential civilian position in the production of reinforcing steel for battleships. My mother opened our home to visiting servicemen who were buddies of her two younger brothers. But I soon found that this book relates a very different experience, and from a different perspective.

The unfolding saga of young Harry Gilmore, a Scotsman not yet twenty-one that duty calls to unforeseen responsibilities, is engrossing and vividly told, with characters that bring a human dimension to the military events and present a European view of the war that we in America do not generally contemplate.  Despite the depiction of perilous times, the characters we meet bring a flavor of everyday life to the extraordinary events–such as the ship’s dog (indeed named Stalin) and a lively young Creole named Lydia who brings a short-lived but memorable romantic experience to Harry.

Harry, a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, finds himself serving as Liaison Officer (LO) on the Free French submarine Radegonde. His Skipper on this assignment is Gil Syvret, a Lieutenant de Vaisseau, who acquired the status of Captain of the submarine when his former commanding officer found it expedient to disappear just as the Royal Navy was taking over the French submarine after the installation of the Vichy government in France. At first, it is an uneasy alliance between Harry and the captain and crew of the Radegonde. The politics of the situation are complicated by Harry’s dual relationship as LO to Syvret and his responsibilities to the Royal Navy. It is a delicate and ill-defined line that Harry learns to walk, while meantime encountering extraordinary challenges as the ship and crew carry out their assignments.

When the ship is ordered to Halifax, Nova Scotia, along the way something goes seriously awry with the mine laying equipment of the Radegonde, and ultimately it is Harry who undertakes the extremely daunting task of remedying this potentially lethal problem. The author’s knowledge enables him to render the particulars of this complicated task understandable to the reader without his submarine, sea-going experience.

An epic journey unfolds in these pages: the Radegonde’s voyage ranges from Scotland to Nova Scotia and on to Martinique. The story is exciting, hazardous, heartwarming, scary, and brilliantly told. The author weaves the volatile political status of ship and crew with the activities they are directed to undertake and the consequences of those actions. We learn a lot about the life of a submariner, how the crew copes when things go radically wrong. We learn of heroic efforts by dedicated men, how they relate to one another in the midst of trying times, and how their relationships are affected by their shared experiences.

This is a virtuoso performance of storytelling that captures and holds our interest.

Review: “The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester. Poisoned Pen Press

This is a most noteworthy book, due in good part to its significance in literary history. Written in 1864, we are told this is the first appearance of a female detective in the literature. It starts with abundant openers. First, a Foreword by Alexander McCall Smith, addresses the appeal of the female detective as a literary character. Smith has, of course, given us his own memorable example in the redoubtable Mma Precious Ramotswe. Then, the Introduction by Mike Ashley gives us a short but informative literature review of of notable appearances by female detectives.

Bu now feeling thoroughly introduced, we nonetheless encounter yet another introduction in the book’s first chapter, “The Female Detective: Introduction.” Here we meet the book’s narrator, an enigmatic, somewhat prickly person who declines to state her name, offer any personal particulars, or even the precise reason for her writing this volume in the first place. She does make a rather startling assertion that she knows that her trade is “despised.” She describes her role as “police spy” or “eavesdropper,” yet she proceeds with earnestness and near-evangelical zeal to inform us of the value of her profession. FD assumes a public role of dressmaker, and uses pseudonyms such as “Miss Gladden” or “G”. Very well, as she chooses to be so mysterious, I shall henceforth refer to her in this review as “FD”.

Well! Once through all that introductory material, what about the book itself? This is a loosely connected collection of stories, some told by FD, some told by others and provided to us by FD. This is surely a different world that FD reveals to us. The first story, and one of the book’s longest, “Tenant for Life” tells a tale of infants bought and sold for small sums, desperately unhappy and needy women, a substantial inheritance, and FD’s early discovery that things are not as they seem. FD finds herself with a dilemma–she seeks justice, but where, she wonders, is the real justice in the story as it unfolds? Her journey leads ultimately to a conclusion that “it all came right at last, and no man was punished in order to procure justice.”

 

The second story, “Georgy” is a character study of a charming teen-age sociopath. The third, “The Unraveled Mystery” presents FD’s step-by-step examination of a never-solved case, followed by her conclusions. The exhaustive logical process of this chapter in some respects presages the future exercises in deduction of the prodigiously perceptive Sherlock Holmes. “The Judgment of Conscience” relates the unhappy tale of a shoemaker, John Kamp, aged thirty. The theme of the following chapter, “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?” is well summarized in its title. This is an unfinished narrative given to FD, we are told, by a “medical man” of her acquaintance.

The penultimate chapter, “The Unknown Weapon,” relates FD’s experiences with the coroner’s case of avaricious Squire Petleigh. There is some effort made by the author to bring human interest to this tale, unlike the grey flatness that characterizes some earlier chapters. (In those stories I was irresistibly reminded of Jack Webb’s ”just the facts” character, Sgt. Joe Friday, in the 20th-century “Dragnet” series.) Here, we meet a central character, Mrs. Quinion, and Dinah Yarton, a witness subject to fits. Dinah’s testimony is portrayed in a near-incomprehensible dialect, while the busybody Mrs. Green, “the most incorrigible talker” ever encountered by FD, is described endearingly: “She was wonderful, this Mrs. Green.”

The last story, “The Mystery” is described by FD as a grotesque incident that she has consequently portrayed it in “a grotesque, maybe even an extravagant, form.” Be that as it may, what follows is perhaps the most entertaining chapter of the book. We meet 18-year-old Nelly, badgered by her father, Old Bang, to marry a wealthy man who is both unattractive and elderly. But the resourceful Nelly declines to do her father’s bidding–and thus our story begins. The author sees fit to inject humor into this tale by assigning odd quirks to certain characters, reminiscent of Dinah’s fits in an earlier chapter. Thus we encounter Mrs. Bang, who fears an attack of tic-doloreux when her anxiety is aroused, and her servant Mary, who is “subject to staggers.” I have no idea what “the staggers” might be in today’s terminology, unless we are to infer that Mary is over fond of strong spirits? But it seems doubtful that the excellent Mrs. Bang would countenance such unseemly behavior in a maidservant. In any case, the story has an “odd” outcome. Notably, at one point FD makes reference of case similarities to aspects of an Edgar Allen Poe story

 

So, with that quirky tale, the book ends. What did I think of all this? With all its worthiness and historical significance, it was for me a tedious and not very enjoyable read. FD often sounds like an old-time schoolmarm, and while reading the tales I sometimes felt I was being lectured. But I commend Poison Pen Press for bringing it to us. It is after all, quite enlightening to view this first effort of the genre.

 

Review: “The Methods of Sergeant Cluff” by Gil North. Poisoned Pen Press

The Introduction to this book is illuminating, providing a preview and critique of the book as well as background information about the author and the fictional character of Sergeant Cluff. “Gil North” was the pen name of Geoffrey Horne (1916-1988. The book was first published in 1961; the Sergeant Cluff stories were the basis for a two BBC series in the 1960s. The first of these, alas, is lost, but the second still exists in the BBC archives. Time to consider a new production?

 

The story is set in the fictional Yorkshire community of Gunnarshaw, which–we will soon recognize–is an integral part of the story. We meet the rain-sogged Sergeant Cluff and his faithful collie dog, Clive, before we learn of the victim: an attractive young woman, Jane Trundle, lying face down on the cobblestones of High Street.

There is an inexorable quality to North’s writing style: dense descriptions of setting and character set forth in a steady stream of short significant words. Before long, we feel the essence of Gunnarshaw in our very pores, while the story, like Sergeant Cluff himself, trods busily forward, carrying us along with a distinctive cadence that seldom seems to pause. There is a sureness of step and awareness of destination that leads us onward, not always aware of just where we are headed, but secure in the belief that Sergeant Cluff does know the way.

Caleb Cluff enlists the assistance of young Constable Barker, and shakes off efforts of officious Inspector Mole, who views the hapless young Jack Carter as the guilty party. Sergeant Cluff will have none of this. He knows his town, he knows this young man, and is quite certain that he’s not a killer. Sgt Cluff marches doggedly on, arriving at last at the solution–one that is not quite what we expected.

This is an extraordinary book: set apart from more pedestrian detective novels by the irresistible quality and relentless pace of the writing.