A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Red Velvet Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke
This is the latest book in the Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series, which begins with Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. They are set in fictional Lake Eden, Minnesota, where Hannah owns The Cookie Jar, a cookie bakery and coffee shop, frequently finds bodies, and tries to decide which boyfriend she likes best: Mike the detective or Norman the dentist. Her mother and two sisters along with her friend and baking partner Lisa help her solve cases, in between baking and enjoying cookies and other desserts. Recipes are included, but I like to listen to Joanne Fluke’s books on compact disc, so I haven’t tried the recipes yet. There is a cookbook available, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Unlike most mystery series, you can start with any book, as Hannah shows no signs of settling down with either boyfriend, and the main characters continue from book to book. If you’re looking for a light, cozy mystery, Hannah Swensen mysteries are perfect. Appealing characters, small town setting, and a suspenseful scene or two make for enjoyable reading.
Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson
I enjoyed listening to Hattie Ever After, although I’m not sure if I read Kirby Larson’s first book, Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is now 17, an orphan, and working at a boarding house in Great Falls, Montana. Her friend Perrilee wants her to move to Seattle, and her boyfriend Charlie, just back from World War I, wants to get married. But Hattie has a dream, and impulsively takes a job as seamstress to a vaudeville troupe that is heading to San Francisco. Hattie’s big dream is to be a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She gets a job at the paper, but no writing is involved. Her entry-level job seems to pay pretty well, and she’s saving money to visit Perrilee. But then her new friend Ruby Danvers, who knew Hattie’s Uncle Chester, needs the money to visit her daughter. Ruby is quite friendly, but is not what she seems.
Hattie eventually gets some chances to write for the paper, beginning with a bet to get an assignment to cover a baseball game. A minor earthquake, an opera star who want to go flying and a visit from President Wilson provide some more opportunities. But Hattie has to decide just how important her dream is. San Francisco in 1919 comes to life, and Hattie is great company and often funny. I thought the narrator, Kirsten Potter, had a more mature voice than expected for a teenager, but was otherwise excellent. The author spent a lot of time with maps, online newspaper archives, and an old city directory to make San Francisco seem authentic. Now I need to listen to Hattie Big Sky, about her earlier adventures on a homestead in Montana.
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd
When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.
The Murder Room by P.D. James
I was looking for a good audiobook to enjoy in the car, and picked a P.D. James mystery because the morning book discussion group is discussing James’ Death Comes to Pemberley at 10am, October 16. Venerable British mystery author James is now 92, and still writing. The series featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh is lengthy and I’ve just read a few of the books. This title was published in 2003, and was made into a BBC miniseries, which our library owns on DVD. The setting is the privately owned Dupayne Museum, devoted to the inter-war years, 1919-1938. There is an art gallery, a library, and the murder room, which contains exhibits with articles and artifacts from some of the most notorious British murders.
Adam Dalgliesh had recently visited the museum, at a friend’s request. The Dupayne Museum is at a turning point; its lease is expiring and a new lease needs the signatures of all of its trustees. The trustees are the children of the museum’s founder. Caroline is a school principal who keeps a flat in the museum’s building; Marcus has just retired from the civil service, and Neville is a psychiatrist who favors closing the museum.
The first murder is not a surprise, but the similarity to a case from the murder room has the staff and volunteers naturally concerned, especially Tally, who lives in an adjacent cottage on the edge of lonely Hampstead Heath. Dealing with the Dupaynes reminds Detective Inspector Kate Miskin of her working class background, while her colleague Piers Tarrant is being transferred soon. Mostly the mystery centers around the museum and Dalgliesh, who is the sort of man strangers confide in. Dalgliesh is falling in love with Emma, but the demands of New Scotland Yard may have cancelled too many dates for their relationship to survive. The mystery kept my interest, but the memorable characters had me worried for their safety. Charles Keating narrates well.
Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear
Gentle Eddie Pettit, who could calm any horse, is killed in an accident at a paper factory where he ran errands. Psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs is asked to look into the accident by friends of her father. Maisie grew up poor in Lambeth, Eddie’s neighborhood, but education and an inheritance have her moving uneasily between the worlds of rich and poor in 1930s England. When her employee is attacked near the factory and she learns that a friend of Eddie fell off a bridge, her suspicions deepen. Through her lover James Compton she meets John Otterburn, owner of the factory and a newspaperman who is doing his bit to draw attention to Hitler’s rise in Germany. Struggling to see a future with James and being reminded that giving away her money to friends in need isn’t always helpful, Maisie does a lot of soul searching in this mystery, the ninth in a series starting with Maisie Dobbs. As her books are set in England after World War I among the rich and poor, they might appeal to fans of Downton Abbey. I listened to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Orlagh Cassidy. Learn more about Maisie on the author’s website.
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
The sheer variety of topics covered in this books is astounding. We learn about how riots can be avoided, how Starbucks gives its employees the tools to succeed, how the Montgomery bus boycott was sustained, why Alcoholics Anonymous works for many people, and how market researchers can predict our future shopping and buying habits. I listened to the audiobook, narrated skillfully by Mike Chamberlain, and really enjoyed most of the book. There are two sections toward the end that were very disturbing to listen to: how a woman became a compulsive gambler and the steps the casino took to entice her, and how a man committed a terrible crime while asleep. The story about how a brain-damaged man gets through his day by habit was very interesting.
Charles Duhigg gives readers the tools to create new habits, and to attempt the more difficult task of changing an existing habit. If you have a habit you want to break, it’s best to substitute a new habit. Identify what cues trigger your habit, such as location, time of day, or mood, and try to figure out what your true reward is. For the author a mid-afternoon craving for a cookie actually turned out to be a desire to chat with his coworkers. Then substitute a new routine for the current one, which will result in a similar reward. Find out more at charlesduhigg.com
Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher
Harry was dead, to begin with. Like Jacob Marley in The Christmas Carol, Harry is sent back to earth as a ghost, to solve his own murder, and because his friends are in danger. Six months ago, Harry was last seen near an island in Lake Michigan, but his body and murderer were never found. Harry, a wizard, protected Chicago, and things have gone downhill since his death. Karrin Murphy, former police officer, is even working with gangster Marcone. Harry’s apprentice Molly may be the vengeful Rag Lady, and it’s still snowing in May. Something is very wrong. While trying to learn the rules and tricks of being a ghost, Harry befriends Sir Stuart, the ghost of an 18th century marine, and Fitz, a young gang member who can hear his voice. Harry’s cat, Mister, ectomancer Mortimer, Bob the skull, and Molly can see Harry’s ghost, but everyone else is reluctant to believe it’s really him. We learn the power of memories to a ghost, retrace part of Harry’s childhood, and relive his anguish at the death of Susan, the mother of his daughter Maggie. Molly, Mortimer, and Dr. Butters have hidden depths, his fairy godmother and an archangel have unexpected advice, and the adventure has plenty of twists and turns. There’s even some humor. This is an excellent entry in the urban fantasy series that starts with Storm Front. If you enjoy audiobooks, John Glover narrates this book very well.
Echoes of Betrayal: Paladin’s Legacy, by Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon is an award-winning, bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, but I find that many readers are unfamiliar with her work. I’ve read all of her books, and really enjoy her memorable fantasy novels. Echoes of Betrayal is her third in a new series of books set in Tsaia and Lyonya. They follow an older book, The Deed of Paksenarrion, originally published as a trilogy beginning with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. Magic, politics, betrayal, adventure, romance, and military strategy are all major themes in her work. Since she writes in the Tolkien epic fantasy tradition, her world may seem familiar, with elves, gnomes, thieves, heroes, and rarely, dragons. Her current series begins with Oath of Fealty, followed by Kings of the North. Paladin Paksenarrion’s main quest was to find the rightful king of half-elven Lyonya. When it turned out to be her former commander, Duke Kieri Phelan, everyone was astonished. Two of his former captains became Count Arcolin and Duke Verrakai.
King Kieri co-rules Lyonya with his elf grandmother, the Lady of the forest. She keeps disappearing at inconvenient times, and is holding back vital information. As Kieri asks his squire Arian to marry him and they prepare for their engagement and wedding ceremonies, his human ancestors begin speaking to both of them, predicting trouble. Estil and Aliam Halveric, old friends of Kieri, play welcome larger roles in this book and in Kings of the North, especially when a poisoner is suspected.
Dorrin, Duke Verrakai, is Constable of the neighboring kingdom of Tsaia, which is unusual because she is a female duke, a mage lord, and one of the otherwise disgraced Verrakaien. When two of her squires run into danger, her reputation suffers. Squire Beclan, cousin of the young king of Tsaia, unwisely leads his squad into a trap and falls under grave suspicion when he is the only survivor.
Two of Arcolin’s captains, Selfer and Burek, wintering in the south, have trouble with a new captain, and are unexpectedly aided by Arvid Semminson, a member of the Thieves’ Guild. Arvid’s life is being slowly changed after contact with Paksenarrion and with a gnome who owes him a debt. Blind Sergeant Stammel has a choice to make, and a dragon comes into play.
Clearly another book or two will follow, which will be welcomed by her many readers. I think readers of Tamora Pierce, Tanya Huff, and David Weber will enjoy her books; I certainly do. They’re also very good as audiobooks.
Restless in the Grave, by Dana Stabenow
Alaskan P.I. Kate Shugak is happy to step down as chair of the Niniltna Native Association. At loose ends, she agrees to help out Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell investigate the suspicious plane crash that killed entrepreneur Finn Grant. Kate and Mutt (only half wolf) go undercover in Newenham and work at Bill’s Bar and Grill as waitress and bouncer. When they’re shoved in a chest freezer stored in Kate’s apartment, she knows their suspicions are correct. Have you met Kate and Mutt before? Kate, a short, indomitable Aleut, is amazing, but Mutt’s even cooler. You could start with the first book, the award-winning A Cold Day for Murder; the darkly funny Breakup; or jump right in with Restless in the Grave. If you are looking for a clever mystery series with plenty of adventure, great Alaskan settings, and quirky, memorable characters, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries are just the ticket.
They’re also great on audio. For more about Kate and Alaska, visit the author’s entertaining website.