Jean at Noon, the second book in Janet Duncan's series, An Apology for the Life of Jean Robertson, is set four years after the end of the first book. Jean is now 18, a housemaid in Laurelbank, the same house where her mother had been a maid before her marriage to Jean's father. The only remaining members of the Simpson family are the two aged sisters, women who are living in the past and cannot bear change. Shortly after her arrival, unable to tolerate the slovenliness and dirt under the current housekeeper, Jean stages a coup and with the help of the sisters' solicitor, takes over the running of the house herself. It is now spotless and the sisters, although they have no idea who Jean really is and what she is doing, call her their Treasure.
This novel is narrated by Charles Simpson, the nephew of the two old ladies, the son of their younger sister who ran off years before with a singer after a Christmas soiree at the house. His parents were not married but he finds his birth certificate, proof that he is the son of Catherine Simpson. He wants to be a doctor but has no money so he presents himself at the door to Laurelbank to plead with his aunts to finance his education. The door is opened by Jean, who decides to take him in to see The Ladies, as she calls them. No one but their lawyer and the piano tuner is allowed through the door so Jean is making a serious decision here.
The Ladies are almost unable to cope with the arrival of a visitor, let alone a visitor who claims to be their nephew. "Impostor," is mumbled under their breath. When Charles is dismissed by them Jean tells him to see The Ladies' man of business, old Mr Guthrie in Glasgow. The moment he meets Charles Mr Guthrie recognizes him as a Simpson and he is delighted to plead his case with the sisters. Before long Charles is living at Laurelbank and being tutored in anticipation of his medical exams for admission to university.
The thread of the plot binds these books together so firmly that I suspect that someone who read this book but had not read the first might be at a loss as to what was going on and why it was of any importance. But perhaps not.
Jean in the Morning is one of those novels that drive librarians to drink. It's a first-person narrative telling the story of Jean Robertson. The title page says the book's author is Janet Sandison who is a character in a series of books by Jane Duncan. The library has Jean in the Morning cataloged under Jane Duncan although that name does not appear on the title page. So it appears Sandison was a pseudonym used by Duncan, which is fine except that Jane Duncan is a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Cameron (1910-1976.) This is the sort of thing that has to be cross-referenced to death.
But any amount of cross-referencing is worth it because this book is a treasure that needs to be found by more readers. It begins in 1911 when little Jean, age 6, begins school in her industrial town of Lochfoot, near Glasgow. An older neighbor helps her enroll and then she is on her own. Jean becomes a leader of sorts among her school's working class students, becoming particularly adept at the sport of ringing door bells and running away while laughing and shouting non-flattering names at the householder.
Jean also becomes a particularly good liar, acknowledged to be the best in the school. This is a useful skill in a bleak world where
"Our only form of communication with the rest of the world and largely, also between ourselves was what was known as 'giving cheek.' We gave cheek to our parents, our teachers and to authority in all its forms.
"Long before I went to school I knew . . . the position of the child vis-a vis the rest of the world. The world held you down in an iron and concrete grip of railings, walled yards and stern discipline . . . the whole world was a battleground where the weak went to the wall, a battleground where the giving of cheek was a puny weapon that made little impression but one went on wielding it because it was the only weapon one had."
School is difficult for Jean but her home life is bleaker. Her mother is a miser to put Silas Marner to shame. "Vulgar was one of my mother's favorite words . . . it means to spend money on anything." Mrs Robertson considers her child "an expense and a nuisance," . . . she is often too busy to even speak to the little girl. Jean is almost always cold and hungry and smiles and kisses are unknown. Love itself is unknown in her house. Jean's father has been worn down by life with his steel-hard wife and is now a silent shadow by the fire who gets drunk every Saturday night. One of the saddest things in Jean's description of her early life is her mother's attitude toward books and education, particularly sad to me because my own mother held very similar views:
"School, which my granny said would stand me in good stead all my life and which my mother said was a waste of time . . . led me into a new sin. . . . Reading was a sin different from all the other sins to which my mother and my teacher said I was so prone, because it was so secret . . . My mother did not approve of people who 'sat about book-reading' . . . I did no reading in the house. I did my reading in the water closet."
Jean is not defeated. She visits her grandmother occasionally, and there she finds peace and warmth and granny, although undemonstrative, clearly loves the child and this helps Jean as she grows and learns until she comes to understand her mother if not to forgive her.
This is the first of four books collectively called An Apology for the Life of Jean Robertson. In future volumes we learn more about Jean's mother and we follow Jean as she grows and leaves home and makes her way in the world.
Duncan's books are discussed in an excellent article about Cameron in The Scotsman on Sunday. These Jean Robertson books are considered weak in comparison to Duncan's "My Friends" series. All of the books are difficult to find in the US although as the article indicates, some volumes are being reprinted in England.
Seventh-grader Sierra Shepard is an all-A student, chosen for the school's elite choir, a student leader, beloved on the principal, Mr Besser. So when she discovers she has brought her mother's lunch to school instead of her own and that there is a paring knife in the bag to cut the apple her mother has included, she immediately takes the knife to the head of the cafeteria and explains that she has accidentally broken a school rule. No knives.
The inflexible cafeteria head takes Sierra and the knife to the principal's office. And Mr Besser comes down on Sierra as if she had intentionally brought to school a butcher knife with intent to attack somebody. The school has a Zero Tolerance policy and the penalty for bringing a knife to school is expulsion. Sierra is in shock. She agrees with zero tolerance but this is inadvertent, an accident by a student who is clearly not intent on harming anyone.
Nonetheless, she is put in the limbo of in-school suspension until a hearing on her case can be held. And there to her surprise she becomes friends with Luke Bishop, the school bad boy for whom suspension is commonplace. And she finds she has rather a lot in common with him and he's not such a bad sort after all.
Meanwhile her father, a hard-charging and very successful trial lawyer, is putting together a case to present at her hearing. He knows something about Mr Besser that may make him change his mind about recommending Sierra be expelled. Her friends, indeed half the student body and four teachers have signed a petition demanding that the case against Sierra be dismissed, but Mr Besser continues to maintain that zero means zero and intent doesn't matter.
So we move toward the hearing with Sierra pining for a boy in the choir on whom she has a crush, becoming fond of a juvenile delinquent, and the choir itself choosing to boycott a state-wide performance in protest at Sierra's being excluded.
A great story with the reader - at least this reader - being sympathetic with both the Zero Tolerance policy that has turned the school around and made it one of the best in the district and with Sierra, who has done nothing wrong and is being punished because her mother accidentally grabbed the wrong lunch bag.
One problem. All the adults are pompous, flaccid, misguided, or hypocritical with the exception of an assistant in the principal's office who is sympathetic with Sierra but weak. Her mother is a talentless artsy type and her father a Type AAA. Mr Besser is a hypocrite and the choir director is a wimp. And while the moral -- or one of the morals -- of the story is the importance of using common sense and having concern for others, the book also teaches that students know better than adults and disobeying rules intentionally (as well as accidentally) is also to be viewed with tolerance.
But none of this is heavy-handed and the characters are interesting and sometimes amusing. The book is intended for students in grades 3-7, ages 8-12.
The Ian Rutledge mysteries are unique and not just because the pseudonymous author is a mother/son collaboration. In this first in a series, A Test of Wills (1996), it is immediately post World War I and Rutledge has returned to his pre-war job as a detective at Scotland Yard. But like so many men, he came back from the war changed in fundamental ways, the primary way being his hallucination, Hamish MacLeod, a soldier in his company whom he was forced to execute shortly before the end of the war for refusing to lead yet another hopeless charge "over the top." Hamish comments continually on what Rutledge is observing and thinking. It is a classic case of post traumatic stress disorder, then called shell shock.
Hamish MacLeod is not visible to Rutledge. He seems always to be just behind him, so close that Rutledge is afraid to look behind him. But his voice accompanies the detective wherever he goes reminding him of the trauma he has undergone during and just after the war, criticizing him, and reminding him of what he and Rutledge have lost. Hamish occasionally observes subtleties and correlations that help Rutledge to solve the murders.
In this first book Rutledge's much-disliked (and with good reason) boss at Scotland yard suspects something is not right with the detective and sends him off to Warwickshire to solve the murder the purportedly popular Col Charles Harris. Rutledge suspects the victim is not so benign a figure as the village presents him to be. And there are plenty of suspects.
A wonderful start to a high quality series.
Bordeaux is the home of the great red French wines and the Medoc region is where Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion are produced. What better place to set the saga of a French winemaking family?
Francoise Bourdin has put Fonteyne, the Laverzac family winery, northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Aurelien Laverzac is passionate about his grands crus, the first-rate wines that his family hs been making since 1800. Fonteyne produces a Margaux with Second Growth ranking in the Bordeaux classifications of 1885.
But the members of this family are passionate about a number of things besides wine. Aurelien's oldest son, Louis-Marie, is devoted to journalism and his second son, Robert, is a dedicated surgeon. Alexandre, the third son, loves the family winery and the vineyards. The youngest son, Jules, who was adopted, is the most devoted to the grapes and the winery and has been slowly taking responsibility for the management of Fonteyne.
As the novel begins, the family is all together at Fonteyne for the first time in six years. Robert, who is in love with Louis-Marie's wife Pauline, has been staying away, but this year he has joined the rest of the Laverzac's for the harvest. Jules, whose 30th birthday is being celebrated only days before the harvesting begins, is very much in love with the daughter of a neighboring vintner, Laurene. But in the most convincing love/hate relationship since Eliza and Mr Darcy, the two spar with one another, fear they will never get together, and worry about the reaction of old Aurelien if they do.
There is much to fear -- or at least to worry about -- in this story, beginning with the rain that comes every day in this crucial time when the grapes need sun. As one of the characters says, "You know, wine is mostly about water." If the storms don't let up the grapes on the lower slopes will rot. And a bad thunderstorm with hail could be ruinous.
Also disturbing these September days that should be idyllic, is concern about Aurelien's health. He has had a heart problem and he is in his 60s. Pauline has lured Robert to Fonteyne and she has begun a dalliance with him which she isn't trying overly hard to keep from her hsuband. Alexandre's father-in-law, the owner of Mazion, a small nearby vineyard, has been ill and he and others are worried about what will happen to the harvest there without the old man to run things.
And quietly lurking under everything is the fact that Jules was adopted and no one except Aurelien (and the reader) has any idea who he is and where he comes from. Eventually Jules has to face the questions about his past.
This family is unusual in fiction in that they love one another. They fight, sometimes physically, and they argue and they complain and they get into impressive shouting matches. But underneath is a profound feeling of family, despite the worry about their father, about the harvest, and about their entanglement in love triangles (which sometimes seem more like octagons.)
One complaint. The translator has chosen to put everything in English, including M as Mr and chateau as castle. And the English slang she has chosen to represent the French (Gee and kiddo for example) would in my opinion much better have been left in French. An English-speaking writer would have used much more French.
But this is a matter of taste. The interactions of the members of the Laverzac family and their love of their land, of the grapes and wines, make for an engrossing story. And it would make a terrific movie.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, 1915, is a rondeau inspired by the death of a friend in the Second Battle of Ypres.
The Boyle family of Boston is used to relying on family to help out. The Boyle men are cops and young Billy Boyle has just made detective on December 5, 1941. He didn't do very well in school, being too interested in hanging out with his friends in South Boston, so when it was time to take the detective exam Billy wasn't sure he was going to pass. Until some pages of the exam showed up unexpectedly in his locker, complete with answers. There are real benefits from having a father, uncle, and older cousins already on the force.
After Pearl Harbor Billy realizes he is going to have to join up and his mother begins figuring out who in the family can help get him a stateside desk job. There's her second cousin, Mamie, who is married to a general. Maybe she can help.
Indeed she can, and his uncle requests that Billy be sent to officer candidate school and then be posted to his (the general's) office, The War Plans Division in DC. OCS is tough for Billy because there's no family there to slip him the answers but he makes it through without embarrassment and gets his orders. To US Army Headquarters, Grosvenor Square, London. Uncle Ike has been promoted to commander of the US Army European Theater of Operations.
General Eisenhower's staff doesn't know what to do with him. The brass finally decide to assign him to use his detective skills to find a spy at Beardsley Hall where the Norwegian government in exile is stationed. He is to work with a British WREN, Second Officer Daphne Seaton, and Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz. Kaz, whom Billy describes as looking like Ronald Colman in a tux, has a serious heart problem but as he is Polish nobility he has been given a commission. But like the Americans with Billy, the Poles don't know what to do with him, so he is sent to assist the Yank in his spy quest.
Unlikely detective duos interest me, Holmes and Watson and Lord Peter and Bunter being obvious favorites. I read a mystery recently, Ruin Value, where the two were an American and a German officer, distrustful of one another but forced to work together in post-war Nuremberg. Here we have a bumptious Yank and a suave European attempting to cope with American, British, and Norwegian obstruction as they poke around looking for clues to their mystery.
And then someone is murdered and Billy is on firmer ground. He knows how to conduct a murder investigation. But what is he to do when one of his witnesses is King Haakon, another has been transferred to another base, and a third has shipped out for a secret operation in Norway?
And how should he react when he finds out the real reason he was assigned to this case?
David Rosenfelt has again written a book that combines Paterson, New Jersey, a golden retriever, and a murder mystery and again that is a fine combination. The first book in the series, featuring defense attorney Andy Carpenter was Open and Shut. If you have not read that book, don't read any further in this review as it will reveal some things from that first story.
Ok, in the first book Andy successfully defended a man on death row in a new trial and he is now representing him in a civil suit against the people who actually did the murder he was sent to jail for. Andy has inherited 20 million dollars from his father, money he had no idea he father even had. But as First Degree opens the civil suit is the entirety of his practice. He doesn't want to defend anyone who is guilty and so he turns away most of the people who want to hire him. He does have an office and a secretary who has nothing to do, which is just as well, because she is addicted to NY Times crossword puzzles and wouldn't have time to type or answer phones.
He also has a girl friend, Laurie Collins, a private investigator, formerly a Paterson cop, and his life is settling down nicely. He spends most of his time with his dog, Tara, a golden retriever he rescued from the pound. Then his and Laurie's world is turned upside down when Alex Dempsey, a former Paterson cop, a dirty cop who was responsible for Laurie's resigning her job, is found dead. Well, most of him is found. His torso is headless.
The next morning a man shows up in Dave's office and asks him to represent him. Edna puts aside her puzzle long enough to fill in the standard retainer form and the man signs. Now he can tell Andy anything but Andy cannot tell anyone else what the man has said. What the guy says is that he killed the cop and he provides convincing evidence.
Andy refuses to defend him and when the police arrest a small-time drug dealer for the crime he goes to the public defender's office and volunteer's to represent the man. He knows the guy is not guilty and feels a responsibility to help him. But it isn't long before the case evolves and it becomes clear that man didn't kill Dempsey. And the police turn their attention to Laurie. It becomes increasingly clear that she is being framed. But by whom, and who actually did the murder?
Andy again call on his sometime assistant, a lawyer who for complicated reasons has no formal practice but runs a laundromat and hands out free legal advice while his clients' clothes are tumbling. Along with a computer-savvy accountant and some pals inside the police department Andy and Lauri begin putting together a defense. Everything he will present in court is true, but will the jury believe him?
A clever and complicated plot with a golden dog weaving in and out and a lot of hilariously sardonic quips. A fine combination.