‘Still Life with Murder’ by P.B. Ryan

114029Rarely have I been as captivated by a mystery as I was by P.B. Ryan’s Still Life with Murder, the first in her Nell Sweeney series. Combining a few tropes familiar to readers of historical fiction with a willful, wonderfully flawed heroine and gorgeous trappings — as well as a tightly-knit plot — this novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in quite some time.

The premise is simple: Nell Sweeney, a physician’s assistant, is hired as a governess-cum-nursemaid for the infant Gracie, the daughter of a chambermaid in a Boston Brahmin household. In a move that surprises and shocks Boston society, the matriarch of the family adopts the little girl as her own. The woman has lost two of her four sons to the Civil War, and tells all who will listen that she’s always wanted a daughter, so why pass up this one?

Nell, however, infers that it’s not the whole story. Raised in the Irish-Catholic Boston slums, she knows that when a chambermaid hasn’t seen her husband in a year and a half, the baby she just gave birth to definitely isn’t his. And since the baby was so readily accepted by this high-brow family, Nell knows the baby must be one of the sons’, somehow.

Turns out, she’s right — but that’s not all. The son in question, William Hewitt, was thought to have died during the War, but he is actually alive, addicted to opium and charged with murdering a man in a boarding house known for card games and prostitutes. Amazing. On behalf of her employer, Nell is sent to determine Will’s innocence and somehow keep him from being hanged. (more…)

April 19, 2016 at 12:48 am Leave a comment

‘The Collector’ by Nora Roberts

18668066You guys must think all I read is trash, at this point. Nothing could be further from the truth. I came to Nora Roberts’ The Collector after whipping through Margaret Atwood’s entire ‘MaddAddam’ trilogy within two weeks. I was desperate for a compelling story that I could enjoy without having to think too much about it, and the premise of this one seemed intriguing.

The story starts with Lila Emerson, a professional house-sitter and writer of young adult novels, who is watching a New York City penthouse when she witnesses a murder outside her window. The woman who is pushed out a plate glass window to her death turns out to be a model and the girlfriend of antiquities dealer Oliver Archer, who is also found dead. After giving a statement to the police, Lila encounters Oliver’s brother Ashton, a brooding artist determined to find his brother’s killer. The pair team up to solve the crime, falling in love in the process.

See? Compelling. (more…)

April 12, 2016 at 12:03 am 1 comment

Three Things I Learned After Organizing My Books By Color

My view on living with (and without) books has shifted drastically in the last few years as I’ve gone from being a total book packrat to someone actually advocating a minimalist approach to book ownership.

Just in the past two years, I’ve been forced to live without the vast majority of my books and found that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’ve had to move so many times that actually owning every book I read isn’t just impractical, it’s unappealing. I’ve come to love using the public library — a side effect of leaving New York and thus having readier access to libraries than expansive used book stores — and, to my utter shock, I’ve come to feel more at ease in spaces that aren’t brimming-to-overflowing with books.

As I continue along this strange path, I recently stared at a haphazard bookcase of fiction in my childhood bedroom. Once upon a time, it had been meticulously organized by author’s last name. But, since I hadn’t lived near home for over a decade, the bookcase had become rather neglected, the victim of previous raids and casual additions, with books hoisted into the general space they were supposed to be and others just piled up vertically, plus stuff added for extra chaos.

Before Reorganization, or what happens when you more-or-less abandon a bookcase for 12 years.

Before Reorganization, or what happens when you more-or-less abandon a bookcase for 12 years.

It made me cringe to look at it and, the more I thought about it, the more radical I felt. Finally, I had enough and decided to pull the trigger on the most dramatic reorganization I could think of: as an experiment, I would organize these books by color.

At such a departure, past versions of myself would have, in no particular order, screamed, swooned, and tried to bodily restrain me. Whenever I saw books organized by color before, I would sniff and wonder how such people ever found anything. What nutters! You can’t look up a book under “blue”! (Did I mention I come from a family of librarians?)

After Reorganization

After Reorganization

But I went for it anyway. I had somehow become someone who no longer found clutter cozy and preferred neatness to shelves overflowing with a mixture of books, bric-a-brac, and fanciful bookends. A few short hours later when I was done, I couldn’t believe the change — and not just the visible one. I’d discovered three big things about my books, myself, and what “organized” can mean. (more…)

April 7, 2016 at 6:22 am Leave a comment

Kushiel’s Legacy series, Jacqueline Carey

kushiels_scionIt’s taken me a few days after finishing Jacqueline Carey’s second trilogy to process precisely how I feel about it. On its surface, it’s…fine. It follows the legacy of her original “Kushiel’s Dart” trilogy, and therefore is full of daring deeds, passionate romance, and travels and adventure that fling her characters across her fictional Europe and into the Middle East.

It’s all fascinating, as far as that sort of thing goes. The story is that Imriel de la Courcel, Prince of the Blood and foster-son of the main characters in Kushiel’s Dart, falls in love with the heir to the throne, who also happens to be his cousin (apparently this isn’t relevant, though he does make creepy comments regarding being turned on by their shared eyebrows). The problem is, Imriel has already promised to marry a princess of another realm to solidify some diplomatic ties, and besides, his mother tried to seize the throne in a violent coup about 15 years prior, so the people of this kingdom are pretty doubtful about his motives. The trilogy finds Imriel traveling through this world’s equivalent of England, Ireland, France, Northern Africa, Greece, Italy and even into Germany, Russia and (I think) Scandinavia to win the hand of his beloved.

Imriel is, like many romantic heroes, a man written by a woman for other women to fall in love with. He’s gorgeous, sensitive, damaged and broken, a figure — as his lover somewhat ironically calls him — “of great and terrible romance.” There are scars, brands, emotional damage, induced madness. He’s a valiant swordsman, a pretty impressive spy, practically a pirate, and has this vague twist of sadism that somehow makes him more attractive.

But despite it being crafted almost solely to please women, this trilogy ultimately fails them. (more…)

April 5, 2016 at 12:33 am Leave a comment

‘Middlemarch’ Stray Observations

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is generally accepted as one of the finest works of literature in the English language. To see how they felt about this distinction, Kate and Corey tackled this classic within a few months of each other and, after having a lot of feelings about it, decided to launched The Ides of Middlemarch, a month of discussion and celebration here on Literary Transgressions. Click here to see all posts in the series.


Corey: Okay, I have a few stray thoughts for this week, but let’s start by tackling the “twisty subplot” aspects of Middlemarch, particularly that Bulstrode/Will/Raffles subplot!

Kate: I just found this to be sort of 19th-century, to be honest. Dickens does this, I think. It’s kind of annoying, but also…people’s lives do intersect in sometimes strange ways? All of these people must be connected somehow, right, because they’re all in the same book?

Corey: I agree that it was absolutely classic 19th-century novel, but it also seemed quite off-base given the rest of the book’s focus on women and their limitations in the society of the time. So Bulstrode turns out to be a jerk and is run out of town. So? What is the broader purpose of the narrative? Just to make Will an ever-more tragic figure who was denied multiple fortunes in Dorothea’s eyes?

Kate: I mean….probably? I feel more and more that this whole novel was a bit disjointed, that Eliot was trying to do a lot and appeal to a lot of people. Maybe she put that in there to appeal to novel-readers in general? Maybe she lost a lot of them during the political bits? This was serialized, right? Also, I think Bulstrode is a comment on the church, so his being involved with something very scandalous and gothic is somehow appropriate. The “so” is that Bulstrode is a hypocrite and the Church of England is generally corrupt, I would say.

Corey: That said, I actually did enjoy the “we’re all connected!” craziness of it. It didn’t make much sense in the context of the rest of the novel, but it was fun to have such a  “WHAT?! No way!” subplot about missed connections and lost fortunes and all that gothic good stuff. (more…)

March 30, 2016 at 6:26 am Leave a comment

‘My Life in Middlemarch’ by Rebecca Mead


Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself…. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our experience.

— Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (16)

One of my favorite authors, Anne Fadiman, edited a collection of essays some years ago called Rereadings where she asked various authors to revisit a book from their past and write down their impressions. The first time I read Rereadings, I hated it, plain and simple, and felt the essays “ruined” perfectly good stories with their intrusive dissections of literature. I shook my adolescent fist at literary criticism, grumbled about the book, and shelved it.

Inevitably given the title, I ended up rereading Rereadings over the years and, every time I did, I found the essays more thought-provoking (and significantly less ruinous) than I had in my previous reading of the book. How could that be? I started giving other books second chances and lavished long-held favorites with new attention. The very idea of rereading became a fascination for me — books don’t change, in theory, but somehow every time you read them, they’re different.


And, crucially as far as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is concerned, you are different.

As I continue to read and think and reflect, I realize [George Eliot] has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. (266)

Not to beat around the bush, I must now note that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is terrific. It’s a memoir of the best possible kind. It’s a biography researched and presented with vigor, sympathy (in the most Eliotian sense*), and clarity. And it’s the most warmhearted form of literary criticism I’ve ever encountered. No sterile dissections here; no, instead we’re treated to a wonderful entwining of life, books, theory, relationships, and, of course, Middlemarch itself. (more…)

March 24, 2016 at 6:16 am 3 comments

On ‘Middlemarch’ and grown-ups

Every time I put down George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a quote by Virginia Woolf on the back cover admonishes me. Woolf famously lauded Eliot and Middlemarch especially, calling it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Naturally, publishers have splashed this quote on every edition of the novel as a ringing endorsement. It is, in fact, the only quote from a critic that is printed on the back of my version.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s true, and, if so, what it even means. Full disclosure: I have only read to the halfway mark, and so my wondering might be resolved in various ways in the next 400 pages or so (yikes). This is an enormous book with a sweeping scope that encompasses romance, politics, religion and morality while trying to present three compelling plots. (more…)

March 22, 2016 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

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