Friday, October 28, 2022

The Housekeeper's Little Grey Cells

My mother was a huge fan of Agatha Christie. I grew up around those novels—often in multiple copies, because the publishers changed the titles over the years, and it wasn’t always clear which novels were new and which recycled, so to speak. Although my personal favorite was always Dorothy L. Sayers, especially after Harriet Vane joined Lord Peter in Strong Poison, I happily devoured every one of Christie’s classics that I could get my hands on.

I wasn’t quite sure, when Kensington Books pitched me on an interview with Colleen Cambridge, that a new series based on Agatha Christie’s fictional housekeeper was really a good idea. How could the new books compete with the old?

But having read two, I can say that they do. In some ways they even surpass the originals by redirecting their focus to the “downstairs”—that is, the servants, whom Phyllida manages with the sometimes assistance/sometimes animosity of Mallowan Hall’s butler, Mr. Dobble. It all gives the story a modern twist that is very refreshing. So don’t just indulge yourself. Listen to our interview at the New Books Network to find out more about this project before diving in.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Agatha Christie hardly needs an introduction. The Queen of Mystery has reigned since the 1920s, and the recent release of films based on her books shows that her popularity is in no danger of waning anytime soon. It takes a certain audacity to create an amateur detective who, while managing Christie’s household, outpaces her employer in solving crimes. But Colleen Cambridge pulls off this task with aplomb. In a nod to one of Christie’s best-known and most highly regarded novels, the series opens with a body in the library at Mallowan Hall, the rural estate where the author lives with her second husband.

Phyllida—who admires Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous creation—seeks to apply his principles of detection to that dead body in the library, and she succeeds admirably. When the second book, A Trace of Poison, begins, Phyllida is organizing a village celebration aimed at raising the necessary funds to repair the roof of an orphanage run by the local Catholic church. Four famous mystery writers—Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, and Christie herself—have agreed to sign copies of their books and to award a short-story prize guaranteeing international publication to one lucky local writer. But at the reception on the first evening, someone is murdered. The stolid but unimaginative police are called in, and again it is up to Phyllida to find out what really happened.

There can be few things more fun to write than fiction about other writers, and it’s clear that Cambridge is having a blast with every tongue-in-cheek reference. The crimes are inventive, the solutions satisfying, but at least as interesting are Phyllida’s interactions with her staff and the villagers of Listleigh. She has her flaws, and we learn early on that she has secrets. At the same time, she is observant, caring, perceptive, and daring, and watching her figure out the clues that befuddle even the police is pure joy.

Friday, October 21, 2022

New Friends

As hinted in my previous post, the composition of our household has changed since I last wrote. This was a planned expansion, and a happy one. In fact, we’ve been waiting six weeks for the latest additions to our cat family to grow to an age where they could leave their mother. But on Saturday, Sir Percy and I drove south to collect them. It was a beautiful fall day, the leaves just starting to turn, and once we left the highway, a lovely drive along quiet country roads. We met the breeder and her cats—until then, Covid and distance meant that all contact took place through text messaging and video calls—and an hour or so later were back in the car, heading home with two silent kittens in a carrier.

Now, those who follow my Instagram and TikTok posts will know that I am currently enjoying a mystery series featuring a large orange tabby named Max, who with his friends solves a series of crimes and has the capacity to communicate with some of his humans (as well as many other gifts not shared with most cats, such as the ability to read and even to surf the Web on a touch screen). It’s a delightful series, however improbable, and one of the books features a trio of kittens left in a box on Max’s doorstep, to the great dismay of him and his pals. Kittens are so cute, you see, and so rambunctious and unruly and disrespectful of older cats and their body parts, especially those delightfully twitchy tails. Of course, by the end of the novel, Max has made his peace with these tiny invaders. What happens beyond that, it would be unfair to reveal.

I read this novel twice during the six weeks of waiting, as a way of mentally preparing myself for the possible effects of introducing two newcomers to my adorable but aging matron, Mahal. Would she welcome the arrival of the kittens she had never had the chance to have? Or would she feel threatened? Either was possible. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought a kitten into my family, but the last introduction was Mahal herself, almost fourteen years ago. And I’ve lived with enough cats over the years to know that each combination is different.

What I hadn’t quite counted on was that these two kittens are nothing like their unruly fictional counterparts. They are certainly lovable and cute as the proverbial buttons, and as each day passes they are warming up to us a little more. But they are not rambunctious, and they don’t act as if they own the place—at least, not yet. They are brothers, the only two in their litter, and within moments of their exit from the cat carrier I realized that from their perspective what happened on Saturday was an unmitigated disaster.

One can hardly blame them for seeing it that way. They woke up that morning with their mother and another female cat who acted as a second mother, as well as a human they had known since birth. Then two strangers showed up, and before long they were stuck in a cage, heading who knew where. And when the cage door opened, there they were, in a place they didn’t recognize. No mother, no second mother, no familiar territory, no people except those two strangers. They had only each other, and until this morning, when the seal point ventured out of the small room that has housed them since their arrival, each of them has stayed within sight, sound, and (mostly) touch of his twin. Meanwhile, Sir Percy and I have made frequent visits, done our best to ensure their comfort, induced them with little success to relax enough to play, and supplied as much petting as they will accept. We can guess that at night they come out and run around, because the food gets eaten and toys mysteriously change their locations between midnight and morning, but we don’t hear them or see those nocturnal activities. (Cats are, of course, nocturnal by nature.)

What they don’t know is that at the place they left their second mother has given birth to another litter, and their own mother, after a couple of days of calling for them, has turned her attention to the new batch of babies. But since we don’t speak cat, as Max’s human does, that bitter truth will remain forever hidden from them.

Mahal, so far as we can tell, doesn’t yet know that her three years of solitude have ended. We’ve kept them apart because the kittens have enough to deal with—although if Mahal accepts them readily, she can offer the kind of comfort that only another cat can provide. And she may, because she spent her first eleven years with our sweet Jahan and has shown signs of loneliness ever since his passing. That bridge has still to be crossed, but we can hope that the introduction, when it inevitably occurs, will go well. Siamese love to snuggle together, and that’s exactly what the little ones need right now.

So stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, I will continue to follow the adventures of Max and his friends—even as I monitor the very different situation developing in my own home.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Christmas in October

Many people have heard of Christmas in July, a neat bookend to the traditional December holiday. But for the commercial publishing industry, Christmas starts in October. That’s when holiday-themed titles begin to be released in time for early-bird shoppers—or at least in the hope of establishing enough buzz to generate sales.

My first comment is that things seem to be getting off to a slow start this year. In 2021 at this time, I had at least twice as many feel-good Christmas books on my bookshelf and my phone. This year, I have beautifully written novels releasing in late fall and early winter—Nicola Cornick’s The Winter Garden, for example—but only two that explicitly reference the holidays. A delayed effect of the pandemic, maybe? The last few years haven’t exactly been sunny and bright.

But that said, here’s a quick look at the Christmas-connected books that have crossed my desk so far—with hopes there may yet be more to come.

Vanessa Kelly, The Highlander’s Holiday Wife (Zebra Books, 2022)
This latest addition to the author’s Clan Kendrick series pairs Braden Kendrick, a doctor set on working among Edinburgh’s considerable slums, and Lady Samantha Penwith, a young widow set on avenging her husband’s death—a quest that takes her, dressed as a man, to the same murky areas of the city. It’s November 1826 when Braden runs into trouble in a dark alley and Samantha rescues him. Of course, he has no idea who she is, but he makes it his mission to find out. Hers, naturally, is to elude pursuit.

Braden is a good-hearted and appealing hero, although to me Samantha is the more complicated and therefore the more interesting half of the prospective couple. But lovers of historical romance will revel in this fast-moving tale with its exploration of the highs and lows of Scottish society under King George IV and its snappy dialogue. By the time you reach the end, you will not only be rooting for Braden and Samantha to get together but will also feel quite ready for fir trees, Hanukah candles, presents, and anything else you normally do to celebrate the great turn of the Earth and the prospect of more sunlight for the next six months.

Bonnie MacBird, What Child Is This? (Collins Crime Club, 2022)
If you haven’t already encountered Bonnie MacBird’s take on Sherlock Holmes (Art in the Blood, Unquiet Spirits, The Devil’s Due, and The Three Locks), I wholeheartedly recommend them. I had a great time interviewing her last year about the series for the New Books Network, and I was impressed by how well she balances respect for the Holmes canon with her own take on the characters.

What Child Is This? follows through in both respects. Specifically labeled as a Christmas Adventure, it includes delightful illustrations by Frank Cho. In short, the premise is as follows: Holmes, perhaps unsurprisingly, adopts a gloomy stance toward Christmas, eschewing all forms of holiday glee. Watson, also running true to character, loves every snowflake and strand of tinsel. As the two of them stroll down a London street—one complaining, the other filled with seasonal joy—they interrupt an ongoing kidnapping, restoring the child to his mother.

Shortly thereafter, Holmes gets a new commission: to find a marquis’s missing son. He accepts, to pass the time until the world stops celebrating, but his interest lies more with the kidnapping: what lay behind it, whether the villain will make another attempt, and how to protect the innocent child, who was born on Christmas Day and bears a birthmark resembling the Star of Bethlehem.

How these two cases intertwine—or don’t—makes for a delightful and ultimately touching read, one that at 225 pages can easily be fitted in around bouts of shopping and preparations for entertaining family and friends.

For the other, non-holiday-themed titles on my bookshelf, check back toward the end of the month. Next week is reserved for a forthcoming change to my household (hint below). More on that soon.


Friday, October 7, 2022

The Glory Days of Hollywood

As you can probably tell from all the book-related posts, I am, first and foremost, a reader. I enjoy movies, and there are even films I love and watch over and over, but I tend not to read reviews and I certainly haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the early days of Hollywood. On the contrary, most of the little I do know comes, paradoxically but predictably, from novels such as Joy Lanzendorfer’s Right Back Where We Started From, featured on this blog in July 2021.

I was interested, though, when Graydon House proposed Bárbara Mujica’s Miss del Río for a New Books Network interview. The star here is not only a Hollywood actress but part of the Mexican community of actors who left their homeland to make their careers in Los Angeles in the 1910s and 1920s. Moreover, having fought to break out of clichéd starlet roles, del Río then went back to Mexico and played a role in the establishment of that country’s film industry. And that’s just the fictionalized real-life story. Another, wholly fictionalized mirror story proved to be even more compelling. Read on to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Miss del Río
explores the biography of a real-life actress, Dolores del Río, who became a silent movie star in Hollywood, navigated the transition to talkies, and eventually played a role in the establishment of the film industry in her home country of Mexico. The story plays out against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, which influences the lives of the characters in ways both direct and subtle. Add to all this a dramatic tale of the fictional María Amparo (Mara)—Dolores’s hairdresser, confidante, and wry chronicler—and you have a novel that breaks new ground in interesting ways.

The novel opens with Mara late in life, remembering a friend whose commemoration Mara herself is too old and frail to attend. From there, we move back to the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, with Mara a small child being dragged through the streets by her caretaker, a rough woman known as Tía Emi throughout the book. Through Mara’s eyes, we see her first encounter and budding relationship (whether it is truly friendship is an ongoing theme) with the child Dolores, whose background is very different from Mara’s.  Mujica then follows the lives of both women as they interact, overlap, and at times separate throughout Dolores’s career.

But Mara has a story of her own: to find out who her mother was, what happened to her, and how Tía Emi became Mara’s caretaker. It’s a tale even more compelling than Dolores’s fight to be taken seriously in her chosen career, and through it, Bárbara Mujica pulls us along to a dramatic finale and a satisfying conclusion.

Images: Dolores del Río in Joanna (1925), her first starring role, and with her mother (1930), both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.