Recent Summer Reading

Even though I’m on summer holidays, it’s been a busy two weeks, catching up on various appointments and cleaning and decluttering house. I never have time for spring cleaning, so it’s always put off to the summer. Nevertheless, as the city empties and days shorten, despite the hot weather, snatching a half hour on the deck with a book is my go-to relaxation time. Recently, I read two books, one distinctly unrelaxing but worthy and the other, most relaxing, the 4th in a Victorian murder-mystery series: Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance and Jennifer Ashley’s Murder In the East End.

Light_of_DaysI read Batalion’s Light of Days because I assigned it to my senior AP students, among other titles you’ll hear about here. It’s hardly light summer fare, but an excellent account of Jewish women essential to the hard-fought resistance the Polish-Jewish community put up and not only within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto now-famous uprising. To my surprise, when I read the introduction, Batalion has a Montreal connection, having been born and raised here, as I was, which, when my parents arrived saw many Jewish businesses and shops in the area. (Batalion grew up in Côte-des-Neiges while I grew up in Mile End, Mordecai Richler territory). I remember trotting off to the local elementary school and stopping at Rifka’s to buy a 5-cent bag of chips, or a chocolate bar. Rifka was dour and silent, but as she handed me my change, I always noticed the number tattooed on her forearm; Mrs. Fuchs, who sold us our-then-blue-tunic school uniforms (soon to disappear with the coming of the sock-and-Birkenstock-wearing cool new principal, Mr. Herman), smiling, cheerful, welcoming, though riddled with arthritic contortions (I was mesmerized by her white orthopedic sandals, which she wore year-round, with white hose) as she too carried those mysterious numbers. I didn’t know what this meant, until our sixth grade teacher, Miss Ostroff, assigned The Diary of Ann Frank and we completed a unit on the history of the Holocaust. 

Despite Miss Ostroff’s best intentions, there wasn’t anything in her fine instruction that taught me of what Batalion writes: brave Jewish women using every and any means to save people and fight Nazis. These women’s history and what they accomplished when their own lives were one second away from annihilation is remarkable and yet, Batalion’s account, harrowing in its details, inspiring in others, is a strangely constructed one. I thought her opening, where she recounts her family’s Holocaust history, and her conclusion, where she recounts what happened to the survivors, and her process and journey to gather her material, utterly fascinating and brilliant.

The accounts of the women were devoid of authorial intrusion. I think, and I may be wrong of course, Batalion wanted to write a straight chronicle of what they did, who they worked with, and how they accomplished remarkable feats of courage and strength (be warned, however, that the accounts of torture and death are difficult to read, though important to recount, obviously). Batalion leaves their stories without commentary, or analysis. In the end, it’s understandable, what could she offer by way of commentary: she has to let their witness stand because these aren’t her stories to tell. And yet, when her voice intrudes, as it does at the start and end, I found it compelling and wished there’d been more of it.

My second read was pleasant and escapist. The further adventures of Kat Holloway, Victorian cook, her downstairs friends, and mysterious friend-suitor, Daniel McAdam, always make for a good read. In this case, Kat tackles the board of a foundling hospital when children disappear, the appearance of a foster brother for Daniel, the study-in-contradictions vicar, Errol Fielding, and the artist, Miss Townsend. Kat’s voice is as sympathetic as ever and her intrepid adventures are, as in previous volumes, infused with a strong sense of justice.

Ashley is particularly good at secondary characters, though I love Kat and Daniel no less, and her creations of Bessie, the bad-tempered-heart-of-gold maid of all work at the foundling hospital, or the Reverend Errol Fielding, seemingly charmingly and handsomely pious hiding a steely anger and depths not as respectable as they appear. As with all the murder mystery series I follow, Ashley’s satisfies what I look for: strong characterization and atmosphere. Ashley also does great work when it comes to a good old-fashioned chase scene: one in particular as Kat is chased by thugs into Seven Dials and another, where Daniel, Kat, and Bessie spend hours rescuing prisoners from an attempted prison escape explosion. I follow way too many mystery series, but if you’re up for adding another one to your list, I would recommend Kat Holloway and friends.

15 thoughts on “Recent Summer Reading

  1. I also follow way too many mystery series. In this one, I am hoping for some progression in the relationship between Kat and Daniel.

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  2. Oh yes, I hear you about following a lot of historical mystery series. I’m not sure I would say ‘too many’ as there are sooo many to choose from!
    I’m another who follows the Kat Holloway series and I’m eagerly awaiting ‘The Secret of Bow Lane’. I was happy to see that Andrea Penrose has decided to keep going with her Wrexford and Sloane series after giving us their wedding. I’m also waiting for ‘The Man in the Shadows’, Alys Clare’s third book featuring Victorian investigator Lily Raynor. And those are just the few due out in the next month or two! (We won’t talk about the ones due out later in the year or early next year–the ones the library doesn’t yet have on order. Those would fill another page)

    I’m still slowly catching up with Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series, btw. Next up for me is #5–A Murderous Relation. I see that #8 (due in March 2023) has a title: ‘A Sinister Revenge’. Now, that sounds intriguing!

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    1. We’re almost in sync, Barb. I also have #5 of the Veronica Speedwell series coming up next and I’ve preordered The Secret of Bow Lane. Plus I’ve got library holds for the next Bainbridge & Sparks mystery(Allison Montclair) and the next Electra McDonnell book by Ashley Weaver, But while I was waiting for those I started Ashley Weaver’s earlier series set in 1930’s England. It has a bit of a Nick and Nora vibe. And I got hooked on a great mystery series set in early 20th century Singapore, by A.M. Stuart. The first book is Singapore Sapphire. I definitely recommend it.

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    2. Did you say Victorian investigator???? Going on the wishlist for NOW b/c with the front lawn awry chez moi, deliveries aren’t easy…

      I have to “catch up” on Penrose’s series and the Kat Holloways, which is a good thing because no anticipation for those as yet!

      ARGH, Raybourn’s: it was quite the cliffhanger she left us on. I’m keen to hear what you’ll think of #5-7! Given how 7 ended, “a sinister revenge” is MOST intriguing.

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  3. Karin, I’ve already read the second Electra McDonnell, and Ashley Weaver’s first series (with Avery Ames and Milo). See remarks below–
    I have also discovered the A.M Stuart books and have the second book on hand from the library.
    Kay–Alys Clare’s Lily Raynor books are great fun, with a slightly gothic vibe. (Her publisher has tagged the series ‘The End of the World Bureau’, but not to worry! No doom and gloom, I’m also following her Gabriel Turner series (A Rustle of Silk is the first), which reminds me a bit of Imogen Robertson’s fabulous Crowther and Westerman books.

    Re: Ashley Weaver’s first series. I wouldn’t call that series Nick and Nora Charles-ish as it is never light-hearted enough. The first book starts with their marriage in deep trouble and it takes a while for that to smooth out. So if you are looking for witty banter, you will be disappointed. But the mysteries are good and the series ends at a very upbeat and satisfactory place.

    I had great fun with Maggie Robinson’s 1920s England Lady Adelaide series. Frothy, not to be taken too seriously–there is a ghost and he’s a hoot! The series wraps up very tidily in 4 books, with a very marvelous ending.

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    1. Well, let’s just add MOAR to the TBR, shall we?

      Duly warned, I have all the Weaver first series in paper and plan on reading them. I’m okay as long as the characterization is well done!! I never remember the mysteries much…;-)

      I have those Robertson books too!! I accumulate more than I can read, needless to say, I’m not alone??

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      1. Oh, you are definitely not alone!
        Yes, there is very good character development between Avery and her husband Milo in Weaver’s first series. That was the reason I stuck with the series.
        Gah, I do wish WordPress let you edit your comments. I am a poor proofreader–I catch all of my typos after the comment is published. Alys Clare’s hero is Gabriel Taverner, not Turner.

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  4. Am looking forward to the other books your AP students have to read.
    I actually prepared one a year ago to AP French (which is actually quite difficult), and I was so proud of her she got 5.
    (And this year one of my students got 7, the highest grade, at the French IB).
    Most of my French students are adults, but I do have younger students from time to time

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    1. Oh, good for your student to get a five and I’m sure part of the reason was your teaching! It’s quite fulfilling to bring students to that point, isn’t it?

      My AP English students read one non-fiction and two fiction over the summer and they’re challenging reads, I hope!

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    1. An excellent strategy, to know what you’re getting. I’m starting the lastest Sparks and Bainbridge, greatly anticipating its goodness, a series that has yet to let me down.

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