Review: After the Funeral

After the Funeral, Agatha ChristieNo one in the Abernethie family can throw cold water on a moment quite like Cora Lansquenet. She’s always been in the habit of speaking uncomfortable truths at inopportune moments, but no one expected this habit to rear its head the same afternoon as Cornelius Abernethie’s funeral.

“But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Everyone — including Mr. Entwhistle, the family solicitor — dismisses her as a empty-headed old woman. But when Cora is found murdered in her home the next day, Mr. Entwhistle begins to wonder if she really was telling the truth.

Cora was definitely murdered, but was Cornelius Abernethie as well? Only one man — the now-retired Hercule Poirot — can uncover the truth.

The master of Whodunit

There’s a reason Agatha Christie is the most widely-published author of all-time.

After the Funeral is — like all her other books, I’m told — fabulously written, full of fun characters who are all equally likely to have committed the crime. And yet at the end I’m always surprised. It’s amazing.

The novel is quintessential British literature, so it’s a little slow and there’s not a lot of what most people would call action, but true mystery fans will appreciate its twists and turns.

Now it’s time for me to branch further into Christie’s novels with a Miss Marple mystery!

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Review: The Legend of Eli Monpress

The Legend of Eli Monpress, Rachel AaronEli Monpress is a thief, a talented one. Who else would dare kidnap a king? It’s true he’s got the best swordsman in the world as well as a demonseed on his side, and yes, one might consider his abilities just the littlest bit magical, but that’s all details. Eli Monpress is the world’s greatest thief, and he’s on a mission to make sure his bounty matches his prestige.

Miranda Lyonette is a wizard, and she’s got a thousand better things to do than chase Eli across the kingdoms. Yet here she is, combing through backwaters and godforsaken swamps to bring the upstart to justice.

In a moment of incredibly inconvenient timing, a new foe arises — one neither Eli nor Miranda can defeat alone. Together with allies found in the least likely places, the intrepid adventurers and outlaws must become heroes.

So much fun

Rachel Aaron’s The Legend of Eli Monpress series was recommended to me by a friend, and boy howdy was it spot-on. I blitzed through The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater in just a few days, and the only reason I haven’t read the rest of the series is because they don’t have copies at my local library.

Monpress is interesting, of course, but the books actually focus more on his companions (Josef and Nico) and enemies (Miranda and the bad guys). They’re all great multi-faceted characters, each with their own marvelous and terrifying secrets.

The coolest thing about the series is the worldbuilding. Like in the world of Disney’s Pocahontas, everything in Monpress’ world has a life, a spirit, and a name. And I mean everything — including rocks, doors, torches, and paper. Wizards can enter into agreements with spirits, but only Monpress seems to have the ability to talk with everything.

The series is fairly bloody, and the bad guys dark, so I wouldn’t recommend it to kids under 12 or so. It’s a great series, full of adventure and scary parts and nicely-placed doses of humor. Any fantasy fan will enjoy it.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book that’s set in the future, on another planet, in another dimension, or in an unknown world.)

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Review: Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy WoodheadHumanity has been trading money for goods and services for centuries, but the shopping experience we know today can be attributed directly to one man: Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Selfridge began as a stock boy at the legendary Marshall Field, and over 25 years climbed the ranks to junior partner. His creative marketing efforts put Chicago on the shopping map, and in 1909 Selfridge hopped the Pond to begin his own empire on London’s Oxford Street.

England was a cultural hub, but the typical shopping experience was high-pressure, rushed, and for the wealthy only; Selfridge’s changed everything.

From the moment it opened, Selfridge’s aimed to make the shopping experience as pleasurable as possible, for every customer who came through the doors. One could find the basics — clothes, linen, dishes, cosmetics — as well as pricey luxuries and incredible window and floor displays. Customers could enjoy lunch accompanied by a live orchestra, then take an elevator ride to the rooftop garden for a spin around the ice skating rink.

Yet for all his brilliance, Selfridge had a notorious weakness for gambling and pretty women. The Gilded Age could not last forever, and when it came to an end, so would Selfridge’s empire.

Just riveting

Have you heard of the twice-yearly sale? Have you noticed that fragrances and cosmetics are always situated right in front of every Dillard’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom? Don’t you love feeling the cashmere sweaters or silk shawls on display tables in stores?

You have Harry Gordon Selfridge to thank for these things. They simply did not exist before Selfridge. He did for shopping what David Ogilvy did for marketing, and the world has never been the same.

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge is a fascinating look at Selfridge’s business and personal life. He was a genius of sorts, changing forever how people shop and how stores are organized and run. But he was also a gambler, easily seduced by both cards and a pretty face.

Reading about Selfridge’s slow — and then suddenly rapid — descent into penury was interesting, but inevitably depressing. As a marketer myself, I enjoyed much more author Lindy Woodhead’s descriptions of Selfridge’s marketing strategies and campaigns, and his simple but revolutionary approach to shopping.

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge has been one of my favorite summer reads, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys history, marketing, and the intersection of the two.

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The Long Drive: Recent Audiobook Reads

I’m nearly over the shell shock of new job and new town, but the only thing keeping me from snapping like a twig during my work commute is the blessing of audiobooks. I’ve had some time to explore my new local library system, and now have a healthy list of “aural reads” to keep me (mostly, kinda) sane. Here’s some highlights.

Rebel Belle, by Rachel Hawkins
(read by Amy Rubinate)

Harper Price is an achiever: SGA President, head cheerleader, Homecoming Queen. But after a seriously weird 15 minutes at the dance, Harper’s life is forever changed. She’s a Paladin, charged with protecting the most irritating person on the planet from a force neither of them can comprehend. Can Harper keep it together long enough to save the world, and possibly survive Cotillion?

This book is the first in Hawkins’ Rebel Belle series (YA, should have known), and it’s a fun if slightly uneven read. One can only suspend so much disbelief, and once you’ve accepted the whole Paladin concept there’s just not enough room to take a suddenly-heated romance seriously. I fell in love with Harper immediately, and would continue with the series just to find out what horrible things happen to a couple loathsome characters.

At first I found narrator Amy Rubinate’s southern accent a little grating, but it grew on me. She read very well, and pulled me into the story completely. 4/5 stars.

Rebel Belle, Rachel Hawkins
The Butler: A Witness to History, by Wil Haygood
(read by David Oyelowo, Forest Whitaker, and Oprah Winfrey)

When Washington Post writer Wil Haygood had a premonition that Barack Obama would become the country’s first black president, he decided to write an article featuring someone who had lived in a time in which segregation was so entrenched that it made the momentous events of 2008 seem utterly impossible. While digging up names of African-Americans who worked at the White House before and during the anti-segregation movement, Haygood met Eugene Allen — butler to eight US presidents. Haygood’s article on Allen spread like wildfire, eventually leading to the 2013 film Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Fascinating, but surprisingly short — a mere 2.5 hour recording. Anyone who worked at the White House for so long and under so many presidents is bound to have some amazing stories, but The Butler didn’t actually include much. It didn’t end up seeming much longer, or have any more detail, than Haygood’s original Washington Post article. 3/5 stars

The Butler: A Witness to History, Wil Haygood

Time to head back to the library! Got recommendations for great audiobooks and/or narrators? Drop ’em in the comments!

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Review: Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls WilderLaura Ingalls Wilder is best known for her Little House books, which tell the semi-autobiographical story of her pioneer family. These tales did not sprout fully formed from Wilder’s head — in fact, she originally penned them all together in a single autobiography she called Pioneer Girl.

Wilder’s daughter Rose — a published author herself — tried throughout the 1930s and 1940s to have Pioneer Girl published, but could never find a buyer. Eventually Rose convinced her mother that a series of children’s books based would sell better.

The Little House series became incredibly popular, but Pioneer Girl languished unpublished for almost a century. In 2014 the South Dakota State Historical Society Press and the Little House Heritage Trust collaborated to finally publish Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography.

New, yet familiar

In my review of Willa Cather’s My Antonia I mentioned that the novel was like a grown-up version of Wilder’s books. Little did I know that just a few years later I’d be reading the grown-up version of Wilder’s books — written by Wilder herself!

If you’ve read the Little House books, you’ve read most of the stories Wilder tells in Pioneer Girl. What’s fascinating is comparing the two. Critics of Wilder’s books enjoy saying that Wilder herself couldn’t write, that it was Rose who edited the books and added enough to make them great. But it’s so obvious in Pioneer Girl that Wilder always had the talent — she just needed to develop a voice and stronger storytelling chops.

Pioneer Girl is annotated beautifully by Pamela Smith Hill and a dedicated team of researchers. I learned more about Wilder, but I also learned more about her parents, siblings, extended family, neighbors, and friends.

There are still things we don’t know about Wilder, such as why she chose to fictionalize some parts of her autobiography. But Pioneer Girl gives amazing insight into her life and her writing. The prefaces offer larger context on Wilder’s life, as well as a peek into the editing and research it took to get it ready for publishing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to re-re-re-reading Little House on the Prairie.

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