Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

I was working in a bookstore when Tana French's first novel, In The Woods, came out and made a huge splash. It won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It's hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago and she's now published her fifth novel. I've been meaning to read her, so when the publicist asked if I'd be interested in a review copy I gladly said yes. And then the mystery book group I'm in chose it as our October read which made me even more excited to finally dip into the world of the Dublin Murder Squad.
From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.
I had a hard time getting into this novel and almost gave up around page 160. What kept me going was not bailing on my peers in book group, so I gave myself an extra push and keep reading.

It did pick up a bit shortly after the 160 page mark. I wish I could say it became a thrilling read, but the truth is I'm rather lukewarm about my first Tana French novel. Most of the members of the book club felt the same. Some said it was long and repetitious. The harshest comment was that its tedious. We did, however, have a good conversation about the book and I think we all came to appreciate it a bit more due to our shared insights and questions.

Why couldn't I get into it? For one, I just didn't care that about the characters. Good or bad, nothing pulled me in about them. The relationship between Detective Stephen Moran and Detective Antoinette Conway grew on me and this is one of the reasons the book eventually picked up a bit for  me. I can easily see them partnering in a future book to solve another crime. The setting, a private school for girls in Dublin, could've had much more ambiance. Then there are a few scenes where the main group of girls seem to have supernatural powers, but they are not really incorporated into the overall story other than their rival group of girls calling them witches, but there was really no basis for the name calling other than teenage bitchiness. The supernatural elements left us scratching our heads. I wondered if it was a nod to Stephen King's Carrie.

One thing that I think French does very well is to show how the teens in this novel are beginning to experience and negotiate the entrenched ideals of sexism and inequality now that some of them are becoming sexually active. These patterns are reflected in the adult world of the novel and you see exactly where the teens get their ideas of how men and women "should" treat each other, particularly in the philosophy of Detective Frank Mackey who thinks people should keep their mouths shut and go along with the way things are to fit in. According to him, Detective Conway should let male detectives slap her ass and play it cool rather than threatening to break the guy's finger. It's a slap-ass world, in Mackey's book. Conway thinks otherwise and is no doubt a role model for at least one of the girls.

I also enjoyed French's writing. She has some wonderful sentences and descriptions that I read twice for the sheer pleasure. Here's an example, a description of Chris, one of the students from the boys school next door:
"The moonlight changes him. Daytime, he's just another Colm's rugger-bugger, cute if you have cheap chain-restaurant tastes, charming if you like knowing every conversation before it begins. Here he's something more. He is beautiful the way something that lasts forever is beautiful" (348).
Two members of the book group have read all but one of French's earlier books and said that The Secret Place wouldn't be the book they recommend people start with if they want to read French, although they're sure established French fans would enjoy the novel.

In The Woods, they said, is where people should start reading French. My Twitter friend Jennifer Messner (@occassionallyzen) echoed their recommendation, and so I've added In the Woods to my library sale hunting and gathering list.

Something to consider: One book group member said she also listened to the audio version, which is a treat for American listeners due to the Irish accents.

The Secret Place: Dublin Murder Squad #5
Tana French
Viking, September 2014
Source: review copy

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer and the thoughts expressed above are my own.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Spirits at Stowe: An Otherworldly Tour of Harriet Beecher Stowe's House

Last night Laura and I attended Spirits at Stowe: An Otherworldly Tour. I've toured Harriet Beecher Stowe's house before, but Laura had not. She is not a fan of spooky things, but does admire Stowe and went along with me since this wasn't going to be a haunted house experience where people jump out and grab you. The focus on this tour is on Stowe's experience with seances, mediums, and the five people who died in the house, including Stowe. We were intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Do I believe in ghosts and spirits? Kind of. I think there's more about this world that we don't know than we do know, so who knows? Know what I mean?

It was neat to be in Stowe's house after dark. When I did the tour back in February in broad daylight, made even brighter by a snow storm the night before, I was surprised by how open and airy the rooms were for a Victorian home.

On this tour the main light was battery operated candles, the kind that shimmer, which created a spooky ambiance. The tour started in the front parlor which was set up for a seance. It is also the room where Stowe had been laid out for viewing after her death. The tour continued from room to room where we heard stories about the family and the strange sounds, sightings, and feelings guides and guests have experienced.

Stowe's adult twin daughters shared a bedroom on the second floor. I thought the twins' room was creepy the first time I was there in daylight and being there after dark certainly didn't help matters. I'm not sure if it's the dark, red rose patterned wallpaper or the two twin beds with ornate and pointy head and foot boards that made me feel a sense of anger in the room. But the room has made me feel unsettled both times I've been there and other people on last night's tour, including Laura, also felt something in that room.

We had a K-2 Meter along with us, a tool used by ghost hunters to track energy levels when investigating paranormal activity. Although it didn't light up in the twins' room, it did light up a few times throughout the tour. The strongest reading came from near the coat rack in the front hall where some calling cards, original to Stowe and the house, lay on a silver tray. It also reacted in the guest room where a young visitor from England died unexpectedly in his sleep.

Spirits at Stowe was an interesting experience and I recommend this tour and the regular daytime tour as well. Our tour guide last night could've been a bit more commanding and presentational. Perhaps conducting this tour is a new experience for her or perhaps the Stowe Center isn't exactly sure what they want this tour to be. I can imagine they're trying to walk a line between respecting Stowe and going too commercial with Halloween.

What was weird is that after we left the house I turned back to take a picture of it as the dim lights were still on inside. I snapped the picture, looked at it, and it was too dark. I walked a bit further away from the house (toward Mark Twain's house, which is across the yard) and raised my iPhone to take another picture only to discover my phone was off. Fully off and it wouldn't turn back on. My battery had been half charged when we started the tour 45 minutes earlier. The guide had asked us to turn our phones off or put them on airplane mode so as not to interfere with the K-2 Meter. I had put mine on airplane mode. It worked fine for that first picture.

My phone didn't turn on for the remainder of the night. I connected it to a charger when we got home and it did turn on this morning. After being plugged in for almost eight hours it was only 28% charged. And that first picture I snapped of Stowe's house? It's gone.

Next Friday is Halloween and the last night for this tour. If you're in the area check it out. Here's the info about the tour from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center:
Only in October:  Halloween and Friday and Saturday nights at 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 PM  
Moon Over Stowe HouseDid you know that Harriet Beecher Stowe attended séances and visited mediums to communicate with departed family members?  Like many 19th-century Americans, she had an open mind about connecting with those who were no longer living. 
Explore Stowe’s involvement with the paranormal and learn about investigations by the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters at “Spirits at Stowe: An Otherworldly Tour” Halloween night and every Friday and Saturday in October at 6:30 p.m., 7:30 pm. and 8:30 p.m. 
Stowe’s interest in spiritualism helped to ease the pain of losing four of seven children during her lifetime. The paranormal occasionally showed up in her writing as well; she included a ghost story in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her most famous work written in 1852.
During the “Spirits at Stowe” tour, an interpreter will share stories about the famous author and describe unexplained events from past and present, all conducted in the dark by flashlight.
Visitors will learn about the five reported deaths in the 1871 Gothic Revival home where she lived for 23 years. Stowe herself died in an upstairs bedroom in 1897 at age 86.  
In one small room off the main hall, battery-operated candles will illuminate photos of Stowe family members, as if a séance was about to begin. 
A “planchette,” which pre-dates the ouija board, will be set up to show what Stowe and her fellow spiritualists used to receive what they believed were messages from the dead.
The tour uses a K-2 Meter to measure electromagnetic fields as well as a digital voice recorder to capture any paranormal activity.
“Spirits at Stowe” is a 45-minute tour and is recommended for ages 12 and up. Cost is $15 per person and reservations are required.  Find out more by visiting or calling 860.522.9258 x317.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Library Visit: Chester Public Library (CT)

I first drove past the Chester Public Library a couple years ago when we were visiting CT from IL,
looking at houses. Since we've moved to the area I've driven past it several more times, but always when it was closed or when we were on a mission. Earlier this week I dropped my dog off at the vet for a teeth cleaning a town or two over and decided to drive on to Chester and visit the library since I knew it was open.

Chester Public Library
21 W. Main Street
Chester, CT 06412

There has been some form of a library in Chester since 1789. The Chester Library Association was created in 1875. In 1906 S. Mills Ely proposed building a memorial library to honor his parents. The town accepted his offer and the current library opened on August 6, 1907.

The current building's days as a library may be numbered as the Town of Chester has applied for a $1 million CT State Library Construction Grant. As you'll see in the pictures below, the library is well organized, but in serious need of more space for books, computers, study space, and even bathrooms.

It was mid-morning when I stopped in and there were several people coming in and out, returning and checking out books. Everyone was smiling and chatting. The place has a great vibe. It was such a pleasure to talk with both Patty and Pam who were on duty. They were not only very welcoming, but obviously proud of their library and it's history, architecture, and mission.

Although this is a memorial library, there are no plaques or names making a statement. I recall reading that Andrew Carnegie didn't want his name on the library buildings he funded, but some towns did add his name or put up a sign.
My favorite view of a classically inspired facade.
I'm in love with these beautiful red front doors. A screen door to let in fresh air on warmer days.
Window detail.
Ghost of the old book drop built into the door.
The new book drop.
Of course I gave my email to hear about upcoming events. They're also have a book sale in January.
The foyer. New fiction and new nonfiction bookcases flank the entryway.
This is what you see when you walk in. Such warmth!
To the right is the adult nonfiction section. There's work table in there at which someone was working. Notice the floor tile.
To the left is the children's section. Cheery with bright light from the large windows. Notice how high the ceilings are.
Straight ahead when you walk in, behind the circulation desk, is this beautiful fireplace.
The painting above the fireplace is by a local artist (whose name I failed to write down). The colors are vibrant and made me wish I had a better camera with me so you could see.
Small windows let in light where it's needed. Notice this small window matches the larger front and side windows.
Workspace detail. More colorful local art atop the bookcase.
The teeny-tiny original bathroom is back behind the circulation desk. In case you're wondering it is a one seater, which has to be a challenge on busy days when folks are hanging out reading/studying.
The stairway down to the YA and mystery sections (among other sections).
Some Chester Library history.
Small rectangular window lights up the staircase and opens to catch a cross breeze.
Downstairs. There are more sections behind the wall of shelves to the left/front.
I'd put that bumper sticker on my car!
The mystery section.
Work tables. Fiction in the background.
Cather on the shelf!
I know computer systems are much more user friendly, but I still get a warm feeling in my heart when I see a card catalog.
You want to open it, don't you?
I had to look inside for old time's sake.
Bulletin board and staircase leading back upstairs.
Why, yes, I am missing Downton Abbey! (Season 5 premiers 1/4/15)
Access to the stairwell is through the children's section.
October is Connecticut Archives Month.
Front window detail.
Looks like original gutters to me.
Peeking into the lower level. Again, notice how even this little square window in the back of the building, a window most people won't see from the outside or notice on the inside, matches the grandeur of the larger windows on the front and side of the building. It's rare to find such attention to detail and/or expenditure made for a window not in public view (now or back in 1907).
Back door. As on the other side the rectangle windows are unadorned, but look like they open.
Benches for outside reading or, I suspect, a smoke break.
Strong corner. From here it looks like this building can stand for another hundred years.
The view from the library steps.
View of the library from across the street.
I didn't ask what will happen to this building after the new library is built. It may be too early for anyone to know, but let's hope it is re-purposed and enjoys an active second life.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

When TLC Book Tours asked if I'd be interested in reading Gutenberg's Apprentice I was in the midst of planning a road trip in Germany. The book arrived a few days before I left on my trip, so I took it along. It was a fabulous experience to read this novel, set in 15th century Germany, at night in bed after spending the day driving through Germany and strolling around medieval cities. The sense of time and place Alix Christie captures in her novel helped me imagine the lives that were lived in charming or innocuous looking medieval buildings in cities like Rothenburg, Bad Mergentheim, and Landshut.

From the publisher:
An enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany—a story of invention, intrigue, and betrayal, rich in atmosphere and historical detail, told through the lives of the three men who made it possible.

Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corrupt, feud-plagued Mainz to meet “a most amazing man.”

Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary—and to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg’s workshop and he orders Peter, his adopted son, to become Gutenberg’s apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the “darkest art.”

As his skill grows, so, too, does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: copies of the Holy Bible. But mechanical difficulties and the crushing power of the Catholic Church threaten their work. As outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures: the generous Fust, who saved him from poverty after his mother died; and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery.

Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles—a battle that will change history . . . and irrevocably transform them.
Gutenberg may have invented the moveable type printing press and Fust may have financed the operation, but it was Peter Schoeffer who was the creative workhorse and foreman who brought the dream of printing the Bible to life. There were others around this time trying to create moveable type printing presses, but their efforts were poor. Wood carved letters and inadequate ink didn't create the crisp and consistent printing on pages that Gutenberg had in mind or the beauty that Peter Schoeffer would gradually come to insist upon. Gutenberg is portrayed as a selfish creative genius, powered more by inspiration and greed than follow-through. Schoeffer is an artist with high standards who has the discipline (or obsession) to see the project through.

The book opens on September 1485. Schoeffer, now 60, reluctantly tells his story of the grueling four year process of printing the Bible to Abbot Trithemius. The next chapter goes back in time to September 1450 when Peter, 25, is called home from Paris by his father to be apprenticed out to Gutenberg.

Young Schoeffer is a scribe, a lover of "real" books, books that are written and decorated by hand, not soulless creations stamped out on vellum. At first he dismisses the new technology, but his curiosity gets the better of him and he's soon fascinated by the process and the possibilities. Of course what comes to mind when reading this is today's controversy between paper and electronic books.

Alix Christie has written a wonderful piece of historical fiction. I was instantly swept up in the details of the time period, the relationships between various characters, and the political and religious tensions of the day. But I was mainly fascinated by learning how Gutenberg and his team created the various elements of the printing press--from designing letters that looked graceful to finding the right mix of metals to make the letter castings strong enough to keep their form through various printings, to creating the ink. Today we talk about how many trees it takes to make a paper book. It took 170 calves (as in baby cows) to make enough vellum for one Gutenberg Bible. Also of interest is how bookselling worked in fifteenth century Germany. It made me want to learn more about all of the above.

Through all the experimentation and then production of such a large book, the team had to keep their work secret because what they were doing--printing the word of god--could be seen as heresy or the devil's work. Disconnecting letters on the page from the hand and the perfection/duplication of pages was considered by many to be unnatural and therefore evil. It was also an undertaking that threatened the income of the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the cloisters and powerful bishops in money and who may have seized the workshop for their own purposes. Think indulgences and papal bulls. You can feel the Protestant Reformation building in this book. (Martin Luther was born in 1483)

Gutenberg's Apprentice is a must read for those interested in the history of the book and book culture. In an afterword Christie writes a paragraph about the fate of key historic figures in her novel. Peter Schoeffer went on to became the world's first major printer and founded the book event that is today known as the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Gutenberg Bible on display at Yale's Beinecke Library. Photo taken by me in February 2014.
Of the estimated 180 Gutenberg Bibles printed, 48 still exist and only 21 of those are complete. Christie notes that the last time one was auctioned the buyer paid $5.4 million and that was just for the Old Testament. If you want to see if there's a Gutenberg Bible near you, check out the Gutenberg Bible Census by Clausen Books.

Gutenberg's Apprentice
Alix Christie
HarperCollins, September 2014
Source: review copy from TLC Book Tours

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Naval Regulations, 1802 edition

One thing I love about old books is the deep impression left on the page by each letter of the press. Don't you want to run your fingers over this page and feel the letters? Thankfully, this book is behind glass at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum and won't be ruined by the likes of me and my itchy fingers.
Read about Edward Preble here.
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