Friday, April 2, 2010

Janespotting: North by Northanger by Carrie Bebris

This is the third in the series of "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries" that Carrie Bebris has written, inspired by various Austen novels. I thought the first, Pride and Prescience, handled the characters and the mystery quite well, while the second, Suspense and Sensibility, was less successful as a mystery, although it made good use of a couple of minor characters from Sense and Sensibility. I'm happy to say that North by Northanger (another clever title!) is my favorite in the series so far.

The novel opens with Elizabeth settling in at Pemberley, awaiting the birth of her first child and trying to figure out how make her new role as mistress of Pemberley her own. She is constantly reminded of her husband's late mother, Lady Anne, by both the house itself and the servants, and worries how to measure up. When she moves an old writing desk and discovers a letter written from Lady Anne to her future successor, it is the beginning of a mystery involving a missing family heirloom.

First, however, the Darcys head to Bath to interview a doctor who will attend the baby's birth. This gives us some good Bath scenes—filled with lots of repartee between the spouses—as well as chance to introduce Capt. Frederick Tilney into the story. Tilney sees Darcy's name in the Pump Room book and invites him to Northanger Abbey, claiming that their mothers were friends and wanting to renew the connection. The Darcys agree, but upon arriving at the Abbey find conditions very strange. There is a lack of servants—and their own attendants mysteriously disappear, and are later discovered to have been drugged—their host doesn't show up for their substandard supper; when they do meet Tilney, they find him severely injured but in good spirits, asking strange questions about their mothers and hinting at the search for a family secret.

Tilney's behavior seems especially peculiar, considering that when the Darcys mention they have found personal belongings in the late Mrs. Tilney's rooms where they have been lodged—a set of diamond jewelry, to be exact—Capt. Tilney doesn't seem interested. The reason seems clear when the Darcys cut their visit short, and within hours are accused of stealing the Tilney diamonds. The jewels are found in a clever replica of Darcy's walking stick, and Darcy is charged with the crime by an overzealous magistrate who won't consider the possibility he has been framed. He is especially disinclined to release Fitzwilliam after Henry Tilney shows up and says that Capt. Tilney died some time ago, and he never heard of the housekeeper the Darcys met.

The Darcys are forced to call on Lady Catherine de Bourgh to get him released, and she returns with them to Pemberley. Elizabeth must deal with her constant disapproval and interference, even as she goes through Lady Anne's old letters to see if there really was a friendship between her and Mrs. Tilney, and thus find some clue as to why their visit to Northanger Abbey went awry. She finds the friendship was real, and is somehow connected to Lady Anne's missing family heirloom, and she and Darcy manage to unravel all the mysteries (and thwart Lady Catherine) whilst preparing for the new baby as well.

I thought this was the best mystery of the series so far; there were no supernatural elements to cloud the mystery (Elizabeth thinking she feels Lady Anne's spirit had little to do with the mystery plot), and the connections between the Darcy family and Tilney family seemed logical. I thought Henry Tilney's character was different than how Austen portrayed him in NA—he showed none of the quirky wit that made him interesting—but then, he's introduced in a very tense situation. Other Austen characters are involved in the mystery in a very organic way, and the Darcys' relationship continues to show affection and witty banter, so that's a minor quibble. The scenes in Bath and at Northanger Abbey have much the same feel as the original Austen, as well. So I'd give this sequel—one of the very few to NA—an unqualified thumbs up.

Next up: Mansfield Park. (And yes, I meant not to use an exclamation point. Sigh.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Book Report: First Quarter

I'm determined to do better this year at wading through my reading list; I want to hit the magic 100-book mark, an average of two books a week. Let's see how much progress I made during the first quarter.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; V: Verse novel; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^read for work.

01/02/10: Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (YA, F, 4 or 5)
01/04/10: Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (YA, F, 4 or 5)
01/10/10: Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (YA, F, 4 or 5)
01/17/10: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (classic, 4 or 5)
01/23/10: Carrie Bebris, North by Northanger (M, 1)
01/27/10: Tanita S. Davis, Mare's War (YA, 1)
01/29/10: Naomi Novik, His Majesty's Dragon (F, 2)
01/31/10: Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade (F, 2)
02/15/10: Ann Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho (classic, 1)
02/20/10: Sara Lewis Holmes, Operation Yes (MG, 1)
02/21/10: Elizabeth M. Hemingway, Road to Tater Hill (MG, H, 1)
02/28/10: Matthew Lewis, The Monk (classic, 1)
03/03/10: C. J. Omololu, Dirty Little Secrets (YA, 1)
03/04/10: Robert Russa Moton, Finding a Way Out^ (memoir, 1)
03/04/10: Cissy Houston, How Sweet the Sound^ (memoir, 1)
03/08/10: Art Rust, Jr., Confessions of a Baseball Junkie^ (memoir, 1)
03/13/10: Naomi Novik, Black Powder War (F, 1)
03/14/10: Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (classic, 1)
03/16/10: Jane Gillespie, Uninvited Guests (H, 1)
03/19/10: Madeleine George, Looks (YA, 1)
03/23/10: Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory (F, 1)
03/27/10: Michael Lewis, The Blind Side (NF, 1)
03/31/10: Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography^ (NF, 1)

That's 23 books for the quarter; not quite enough to keep me on pace for my yearly target of 100 books, but pretty good, considering how much time Mysteries of Udolpho sucked out of my life. (And yes, "sucked" is the appropriate word.) I also read quite a few books for work, but only listed the ones I read all the way through.

So what was my favorite new read of the quarter? Michael Lewis's The Blind Side was just as fun as the movie—with the added bonus of more football background—and Tanita Davis's Mare's War was a really fascinating historical YA about African American women serving in WWII. But I think my favorite was Naomi Novik's Empire of Ivory, the fourth volume in her "Temeraire" series. While the series presents a really fun concept—the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragon air forces—it's great when you get further into a series and the author keeps expanding the world in ways you couldn't foresee. That's what Empire of Ivory does, taking the dragon Temeraire and his crew into Africa and presenting a really interesting variation on dragon-human culture, at the same time keeping the adventure and character development coming.

Will the fifth Temeraire book be my favorite in second quarter 2010? I guess you'll have to check back in three months to find out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cookie of the Month: Irish Lace Cookies

Last month I initiated this new feature on my blog with the Lemon Snowflake cookie, the very tasty treat I had been given for Christmas. When it was time to come up with a recipe for this month, I thought since it was almost St. Paddy's Day, and I'm just a wee bit Irish, that I would look for an Irish cookie recipe. After searching around and discarding numerous regular-cookie-dyed-green recipes, I found this traditional recipe for Irish Lace Cookies. It's pretty simple:

½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
2 T. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1¼ cup old-fashioned rolled oats

Cream the butter with the brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy and beat in the flour, the milk, and the vanilla; then stir in the oats.

As you can see, the very small amount of flour produces a very gooey dough. You drop it onto the sheet in spoonfuls, and bake 10 to 12 minutes in a preheated 350F oven. After you take them out, you end up with something that is very flat and a little bit crispy:

Now, I pulled the recipe from the internet (usually a good source of recipes) and read through the comments. Many people had observed that these cookies were really difficult to remove from the cookies sheet, but a couple said they had used wax paper and had no trouble at all. So I topped my super-big fancy cookie sheet with some wax paper and plopped the cookie dough on top. Ungreased sheet, the recipe said. Bake until golden, the recipe said. Thus I did, and I got the following:

You probably can't tell from the picture just how devilishly the cookie is sticking to the wax paper, but it was so bad it resisted all attempts to scrape the cookie off, let alone "quickly turn the cookies upside down and roll them into cylinders." I ended up with bits of paper in my cookie, so I put the sheet back into the cooling oven to keep the cookies warm, and then scraped off crumbs a bit at a time. I took the crumbs and molded them into something resembling a cookie cylinder, and you can see the pathetic results below.

Now, these ugly-looking not-quite-cookies were actually very tasty: as you might expect, they had a strong, buttery caramel flavor from the butter and the brown sugar. But they were definitely not worth all the trouble I went through. I suppose I should try again and use a stone baking sheet instead—then I could scrape away until I had every single crumb—but April is coming soon and it's time for another new cookie. I wonder what's good for Easter...?

Final rating: nom nom (two of five noms)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Photo of the Week--3/29/10

In this installment of "Boy Terrorizes the Pigeons of Europe" ... Córdoba, Spain! It was January, 2001, and my parents and grandmother joined us again for a week-long tour of southern Europe. This time it was Spain. Imagine the six of us in a minivan—a rarity for any country in Europe—driving around some of the twisty, tiny roads of the Andalusian countryside. In Córdoba we spent time seeing the Mezquita, or great mosque, with its hundreds of columns, as well as the Roman bridge leading into the city. But we also spent time just enjoying the Mediterranean weather and torturing these pigeons, who look like they expected to be fed, not chased.