Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Historical Food Fornightly: Challenge 6

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #6

"The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread"

The Challenge: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

I really struggled with this challenge. I was hampered by limited ingredients in the house and being a super picky eater. I tried two different recipes.

The Recipe: Banana Bread
According to foodtimeline.org The "Banana bread" recipe is dated 1849 and describes a West Indian dish. "Banana cakes" appeared in the early 20th century but used sliced banana as either decoration or filling. Cookbooks also referenced Hawaiian banana bread recipes using banana flour. In 1920s the mass marketing of baking powder/soda used in making "quick breads" (breads that did not require yeast) and good companies promoting recipes using their flour and baking soda products flooded the market. It was not until the 1930s that the modern banana bread recipes, using mashed bananas, first appeared on the scene. They were classified as quick breads, tea cakes, or desserts. By the 1960s banana bread was actively promoted to the American public as health food.
Banana tea bread

1 3/4 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening
2/3 cups sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (2 to 3 bananas)
Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Beat shortening until creamy in mixing bowl. Add sugar gradually and continue beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat well. Add flour mixture alternately with bananas, a small about at a time, beating after each addition until smooth. Turn into a well-greased bread pan (8 1/2 X 4 1/2 X 3 inches) and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees F.) About 1 hour 10 minutes or until bread is done. Makes 1 loaf.
Bananas...how to serve them, Home Economics Dept. Fruits Dispatch Company United Fruit Company, Distributors of United Fruit Company Bananas, Pier 3, North River, New York [1942] (Recipe 11, p. 14)


The Recipe: Oatmeal Drop Cakes
During World War I, United States Food Administration, led by future president Herbert Hoover, argued that food was needed to win the war. Food was needed for the U.S. military, and for our Allies in Europe.As America jumped into action to feed our Allies, the government urged Americans to voluntarily stretch the food supply by cutting waste, substituting plentiful for scarce ingredients, eating healthy and participating in the food-conservation program. Americans were told to save meat, save wheat, save fats and save sugar. Old recipes from colonial and pioneer times that used molasses, maple syrup and brown sugar instead of white sugar became popular again. Also popular was the use of Corn Syrup as an alternate sweetener.

Oatmeal Drop Cakes
3/4 cup brown sugar or honey or 1 c. sirup
3 T. shortening
1 egg
2 tsp. baking powder
2 c. rolled oats
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
2/3 c. raisins or nuts

*milk about 3/4 cup enough to make a soft dough (Omit this if sirup or honey is used).

Cream together the shortening and sugar (or sirup) and add it to the beaten egg. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Mix this with the rolled oats and the seeded raisins or nuts cut fine. Add these dry ingredients to the egg mixture, with just enough milk, if necessary, to form a rather soft dough. Drop by teaspoons onto greased tin or baking sheet and bake about 15 minutes in a moderately hot oven.

Wessling, Hannah J., Use of Wheat Flour Substitutes in Baking, Farmer's Bulletin 955, Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1918), 20.

The Date/Year and Region: Banana Bread 1942 New York; Oatmeal Drop Cakes 1918 United States (Also seen in WWII recipe pamphlets).

How Did You Make It: 

I followed the directions but my banana cake batter was a little dry so at the last minute I added a couple of heaping tablespoons of applesauce. The recipe called for milk, but milk was often difficult to get/keep during WWI due to lack of refrigeration. In keeping with the spirit of wartime cooking, I used applesauce. I didn't have one big loaf pan so I used two small foil pans. There was just enough batter for two cakes.

For the cookies, I used dark corn syrup. I crushed up peanuts with a rolling pin tossed them in the batter. I substituted Craisins for raisins. Not exactly historically accurate but I do not like raisins and I thought that sweetened cranberries might add more flavor to the cookies. I didn't use as many as the recipe called for. I made huge cookies because I didn't want 60 potentially unappetizing cookies on hand. I cooked them about 10-20 minutes at 350 degrees. At 15 minutes the big cookies weren't quite done so I cooked them again and some got overcooked. At 10 minutes smaller cookies were over done. 


Time to Complete: The banana bread was very quick- only about a half hour. The cookies took about an hour start to finish.
Total Cost:
I had all the ingredients on hand at the time.

How Successful Was It?: 
The banana bread tastes OK but I'm not a huge fan. Being a WWII era recipe, when sugar was rationed, it's not very sweet. The cookies are not very tasty. The batter smelled like Cracker Jacks, which was promising, but the corn syrup does not equal sugar! Even the Craisins didn't help and the peanuts and Craisins together were an odd combination.

How Accurate Is It?: Aside from adding apple sauce to the bread and Craisins to the cookies, they're very accurate. 95%?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What I Read in August Part IV

What I Read in August Part IV . . .

The Pigeon Pie MysteryThe Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart -- Victorian Mystery

This Victorian cozy mystery begins with the death of the Maharaja of Brindor. He died in a most scandalous fashion leaving his only daughter, Princess Alexandrina ("Mink") penniless. Mink has orders from the bank to sell her house but she prefers to remain in the home she shared with her beloved father with her pets and her maid Pooki. When she can finally ignore the bank no longer, Queen Victoria offers Mink and Pooki a Grace and Favour residence at Hampton Court. Pooki is reluctant to move in among with catty old dowagers and creepy ghosts, but Mink knows they have no choice. She soon meets her neighbors, a quirky lot if there ever was one, but no ghosts. When the old roue General Bagshott drops dead after eating Pooki's pigeon pie, the Inspector on the case is eager to arrest Pooki. Mink knows Pooki would never murder anyone. While Pooki doesn't behave as she ought, speaking her mind and telling tradesmans' jokes, she has been nothing but loyal and loving to Mink. Mink is determined to find out who killed the General before it's too late. Her search takes her around Hampton Court as she interviews the residents, the workers and tries to dodge the awkward attentions of the local doctor. Could it have been one of the old dowagers eager to keep their secrets and their homes? The weird homeopath who last treated the General? The strange American paleontologist who doesn't seem to have viewed any dinosaurs lately? What about the cranky housekeeper or the maid Alice who was fired from the Bagshotts for stealing?

This story is a little long for a cozy mystery. There's a whole lot of description about the historical background of Hampton Court, the architecture and the backgrounds of the characters. Mink and Pooki travel around Victorian London sharing every detail with the reader. While I love history and historical detail, a lot of this could have been put in an author's note in the back or a list of resources to do research to learn more. While the author does a decent job incorporating the details into the plot or dialogue, they take away from the mystery. The mystery doesn't get started until halfway through and it didn't grab me and make me want to stay up all night. There were so many suspects that it was impossible to know whodunnit. The big reveal of who wasn't too much of a surprise but how and why were shockers. The why ended up as a bit of a let down. The story lacked that heart-pounding moment when the heroine gets into trouble. There's a romance, and it's clean because it's a non-romance essentially. The characters are hardly together and when they are, it's not romantic. I didn't like the love interest very much and didn't find them a good match. While the love story is clean, other parts of the book are not. The way Mink's father died was very crude and some of the doctor's patients have very adult problems. With a little trimming, this book could have been a nice book for all ages 13+ but as is, I'd put it at at least 18+.

The characters are what make this book stand out. They're all so quirky. While they all tend to blend together after awhile, they add a lot of the humor to the story. Some of the ladies and the situations reminded me of Cranford. Mink is a difficult character to like. I wanted to love her because she seemed like a New Woman - physically free and fearless, but she's mostly another bored aristocrat. The story doesn't dig too deeply into her thoughts and feelings. We do learn why she loves Pooki so much and how she came to be very much her father's daughter. The ending of the story leaves her in a position for a possible sequel or sequels (I hope, please?!) so there's more potential for character development. The pets don't play a huge role in the story. I was expecting more but they exist for comedic effect. My favorite character is Pooki. She's so different from English maids. Her feet are huge, her skin is dark and she's superstitious about everything. Pooki is funny, unintentionally, sweet, loving and kind. She also knows Mink better than Mink knows herself and she would willingly die for her beloved employer. I felt for her and I rooted for her to be happy and safe.

I think cozy mystery fans will enjoy this book a lot. I'm hoping for a sequel or two or more... I don't want to let go of the characters.

What I Read in August Part III

What I Read in August Part III . . .

Footsteps in the DarkFootsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer -- Historical Mystery

Siblings Peter, Margaret and Celia, and Celia's husband, Charles have inherited an old priory in the English countryside. Celia tells Charles it's like getting a country house for nothing, but Charles, a lawyer, is skeptical : the house is huge and rambling and lacks electricity. Then there are the rumors of a mysterious and dangerous ghost known as "the Monk" who haunts the Priory. Their aunt, Mrs. Bosanquet, is convinced The Monk is an actual ghost,Charles and Peter are skeptical. When they hear footsteps in the dark, they're determined to get the bottom of it. They suspect a stranger, Michael Strange, whom they've seen wandering their grounds, or perhaps an eccentric neighbor who claims to study moths. Despite repeated warnings, Charles won't leave until he solves the mystery.

I had a hard time getting to the story at first. The characters are really bland and boring. I didn't care much about any of them. Mrs. B provides some chuckles but other than that, they're all pretty flat. Then, as they kept getting closer to solving the mystery and yet not coming any closer, I got sucked in. I couldn't put the book down until the mystery was solved.

It seemed a little fake that the characters were so shocked by the big reveal. They were also surprised by the true identity of someone else that wasn't much of a surprise. I figured out the identity of the Monk pretty easily. The romance was dreadful. It seems to begin and end out of nowhere and is mostly off-page. I found the story rather too gothic for my tastes. The characters are not as well drawn as her Regency characters and the story just wasn't her typical witty style. 

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid -- Contemporary Fiction

If you know Jane Austen's original story, you know the plot for this book. The differences being a modern setting, in which Cat Morland, a home-schooled vicar's daughter, goes with neighbors to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. She's excited to her boring village and finally have adventures. At first she finds herself being dragged along with Susie Allen into the exhausting and not super fun social whirl, but when she meets Henry Tilney at highland dance lessons, she finally begins having fun. When Henry disappears from her life, she tries to forget about him, though it's hard. When she's introduced to the Thorpe family, she immediately finds a friend in Bella. Bella introduces her to the Herbridean Harpies series of novels and her boorish brother Johnny. When Henry Tilney finally returns, he brings his charming sister Ellie with him and Cat is eager to make the acquaintance of her crush's sister. Cat finds Ellie a good friend in her own right and is eager to hear more about the Tilney family home Northanger Abbey. When she's invited to visit Northanger, Cat is thrilled, except for when she finds out it's off the grid. What reason do the Tilneys have for being shut off from the world? Why is there no trace of the late Mrs. Tilney? Why are the Tilneys so obsessed with the weather and not going out when the sun is strong? Do they actually have reflections? Could it be... are the Tilneys vampires? It's either that or General Tilney is some kind of cruel monster who abused his wife and could be keeping her locked in a tower! OMG! Cat is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery but her curiosity may jeopardize her friendship with Ellie and her growing relationship with Henry.

Out of all of Austen's books, I think this one is the most easily translated into modern times, except that's where the book fails. The author took each scene and tweaked it and rewrote the dialogue and references to fit the modern setting. I think that created a lot of problems, such as: why would the Morlands let their teenage daughter go off to visit strangers they've never met? My parents would never have allowed it without first speaking to Gen. Tilney. It makes more sense in the smaller social setting of the 18th century when the Morlands would be looking to make an advantageous match for Catherine and probably would have been aware of the Tilneys and Northanger Abbey. Also, why is a grown man with a job still under his father's thumb? I get his and Ellie's sympathy for their father, but that doesn't mean Henry has to put up with his father's martinet ways. Ellie has an excuse, still being dependent on her father for financial support and making her dream come true. Another problem I had with the book is the relationship between Henry and Cat. He's a young adult in his 20s, an up and coming lawyer and he's interested in a 17 year old? It happens but it's a little more icky today than it was in the 18th century when Jane Austen wrote her original story. The reason Gen. Tilney gives for kicking Cat out of the house came as a huge surprise. It was so completely out in left field and didn't make much sense with the rest of the story.

This story also lacks the beautiful language and witty dialogue that marks Jane Austen as a master. It's funny at times, and I especially liked the dialogue between Cat and Henry when they were alone, but it's not completely at the level of Jane Austen. She poked fun at the craze for novels and created a whole new genre of literature. It's hard to match that. I don't feel the story quite manages to poke fun at modern teens but instead serves up a mild message at the end.

The characters aren't really new. Cat is at times a ditzy teenager and a typical young woman of the modern world: constantly on her phone checking Facebook and e-mail, gossiping about hot male celebrities and loving the Twilight movies. She doesn't have any ambition or thoughts beyond the present. I kept groaning and thinking "Oh my god! How can she think that? She's so stupid!" Yet, I kind of liked her because she's polite and she is mildly interested in good literature. She references Jane Eyre (and The Wide Sargasso Sea) and has access to other classics like Dracula. She's intelligent enough to know vampires aren't real, but can't resist letting her imagination run away with her. I liked her character development and how she grows up and learns to think about her future. I especially like what she had to say to Henry Tilney at the end when he comes to apologize. Unfortunately, what she says next made me annoyed with her again. Overall, she's a bit more appealing that her original counterpart.

The Tilneys are slightly different from their original counterparts. I really liked Henry. He's funny and fun to be around for the most part. He's intelligent and well-read, but sees the value in popular literature. I always thought the original Henry was gently poking fun at Catherine but this Henry and this Cat manage to match wits and she understands his teasing. He's a good big brother, an excellent lawyer, yet I disliked how he allowed his father to control him. I wanted him to go for his dreams. Ellie is a sweet girl. She's not well developed but has potential to be the heroine of her own story. I felt sorry for her because Gen. Tilney is almost exactly the same as he was in the original. He belongs in a Jane Austen novel. Freddie is also as Austen described.

The Allens are unappealing characters. Susie is the type Jane Austen liked to make fun of and Mr. Allen isn't much better. They very shallow people and shallow characters without any depth. The Thorpes are exactly the same as they are in the original. Isabella or Bella, as she prefers, is incredibly annoying and self-centered. Johnny is worse and pretty much as Austen wrote him. They're the characters you love to hate.

This book is best read by young adults who can't or won't read Jane Austen. There's some mild swearing but nothing most teens haven't heard or said before.

What I Read in August Part II

What I Read in August Part II . . .

Dear Mr. KnightleyDear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay -- Contemporary Fiction/Romance

This book is an update of the classic novel Daddy Long-Legs in which an orphan is given a scholarship by a mysterious benefactor in exchange for writing him about her progress. That much remains the same, but in the modern world, the reality of the main character's life is much grittier and she's much more deeply scarred. Sam Moore has spent her whole life in and out of the foster care system. She's been badly betrayed and abused by those who should care about her. Now she's finished college and about to age out of the group home where she's been living. Then, a foundation offers her a scholarship to study journalism at Northwestern University's prestigious Medill School of Journalism. For Sam, an English literature nut, this is tantamount to torture. The kindly Father John and the mysterious benefactor she knows as "Mr. Knigtley" push her to leave her comfort zone and try journalism. Sam's love of literature is not just a comfort zone, it's her safety net. She retreats into her favorite characters to keep from revealing her real self and getting hurt. Journalism school is tough with the professor constantly on Sam's case about not connecting. Story of her life. She tries though, at least to make friends with girls she sees at first as Emmas. She even manages to find a boyfriend and connect with a teenage boy who is new to Grace House. She also has the opportunity to get to know her favorite contemporary author, Alex Powell, and through him, his loving surrogate parents Professor and Mrs. Muir. Father John encourages forgiveness and the Muirs encourage finding Jesus. Through it all she writes to Mr. Knightley, her anonymous benefactor, about what's truly in her heart. Will she make survive journalism school and can she do it without her walls?

I didn't realize this was a Christian book from the few reviews I read. It's clear right away from the name Grace House and the character of Father John. I didn't find the book super preachy but it does get a bit preachy towards the end and I was forced to skim parts. I think the author may have been going for a Mr. Knightley=priest/God idea. Sam confesses everything to someone who can't/won't reply. That's kind of a little too weird for a novel for my taste. The overall message is one of trust, forgiveness and letting go but it doesn't quite come out that way in the end.

The plot gets rushed at the very end and it's awkward and there's no good reason for Sam to forgive that person. I think more emphasis should have been placed on forgiving her parents as Fr. John wanted her to. The story drags on too long with too much going on. The subplot about Kyle isn't all that necessary. Sam could have found her voice without him. I knew right away where she could find her passion. That much was obvious. Some of the parallels with the original 19th century novel, especially the end, were just too much of a coincidence. I didn't find the love story icky, it's a parallel to Daddy Long-Legs and Emma, though not as paternalistic.

The biggest problem with this story is that is doesn't translate well enough to make the characters appealing. What I love about orphans like Jerusha in Daddy Long-Legs and Anne Shirley and even Freckles, is their eternal optimism and goodness despite horrible childhoods. Sam's life is far grittier and darker than any of the 19th century classic characters could imagine, except perhaps Jane Eyre. Sam has built up walls and retreats behind her favorite characters and that gets very annoying very quickly. I wanted to shake her and get her to not be so cold. She has trust issues but when her trust should be given, she retreats. When she shouldn't trust someone (that total cliche I saw coming a million miles away. It was so obvious a 12 year old figured it out and Sam choose to ignore that fact) she does trust that person. When Alex opened up to her and showed he trusted her, she should have trusted him back. End of story happy happy, but no... she doesn't and she continues to block her emotions. She turns into a weepy basket case at the most inopportune (and might I say boring and pointless) moment. I felt for her but I wanted her to be happy and knew she could be happy if she trusted Alex. She blew it and I wanted to smack her.

I loved Alex. He was very charming. I would be almost head over heels in love with a man who could match me literary quotation for literary quotation so I'm sort of biased. Alex's lack of trust makes no sense. I'm tired of the once burned, twice shy heroes. Are men really that stupid? Alex's backstory is never fully revealed. He has one big secret he's keeping from Sam and that is obvious if you've read the original. I think I could forgive him eventually but he should have at least dropped enough clues to make her figure it out at the end. It was obvious in Daddy Long-Legs though Jerusha didn't quite catch on either.

I liked Sam's friends but don't know why Ashley is all of a sudden Sam's therapist. I had Ashley pegged right away. She's the poor little rich girl stereotype. I found her more interesting and easier to relate to than Sam though. The Muirs are so kind and loving, I couldn't help but like them. At least until they got preachy and pretty much forced Sam into a situation she wasn't quite ready for.

Overall, this book just really didn't thrill me. It doesn't compare to the 19th century counterparts it tries to mimic. It's too gritty and the characters too flawed to really work well. Skip this novel and go straight for Sam's reading list, include Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost and of course, Daddy Long-Legs. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #6

Seasonal Fruits/Vegetables

The Challenge: Seasonal Fruits/Vegetables

I knew exactly what I wanted to make for this challenge too. I had a request from my family: my grandmother's famous blueberry pie with crumb topping.  My grandmother always used fresh blueberries, stocking up during a sale. She would make the topping and freeze it and used prepared pie crusts. In in the interest of making this a true challenge, I made my own pie crust.

The Recipe: 
Pie crust recipe from my Nonnie (paternal grandmother) with help from The Lily Wallace New American Cookbook c. 1947:

3 heaping cups full of flour
1 handful equal to one stick shortening
1 pinch salt
3/4 c. ice water

Mix flour, salt and shortening by hand. Slowly add ice water and combine by hand. Press into a ball and divide into two parts. Chill and roll out until 1/8" thick. Flour rolling pin and roll dough back onto rolling pin and into pie tin. Gently press dough into pie tin and prick all around with a fork. 

Nonnie's Best Blueberry Pie

2 c. flour
1 stick butter, softened
1 pinch salt 
3/4 c. sugar (mix white and brown or use dark brown)
dash cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
Mix with fingers and knead until crumbly

1 1/2 qt. blueberries
3/4 sugar
1 T. butter 
1 drop lemon juice
flour (opt.)

Wash and dry blueberries and place in a large bowl. If very dry you can add 6 T. flour. Add sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix. Double tinfoil in pan so pie doesn't leak. Squeeze a drop of lemon juice on the blueberries. Put a pat of butter on top and add crumb topping. Bake at 350 degrees. Check after 15 minutes. Give it another 15 if not done. Bake until crumbs are golden brown. (You will smell it when it's done!) 
The Date/Year and Region: 1950s/60s New England
It dates to post-1920 when my family came to the U.S. from Italy and post-1940s when they opened an Italian restaurant and my Nonnie became the baker. It probably dates to at least 1949 when my Nonnie was a bride. My dad remembers having this pie as a kid each summer on Cape Cod in the late 50s or early 60s. I couldn't document her exact recipe, but I did find this clipping from 1966 that is very close. It's a variation on crumbles, crisps, slumps and grunts that date back to pioneer times, according to foodtimeline.org. 
How Did You Make It: 
Nonnie was one of those old world grandmas who never measured. She had all her recipes in her head. Several years ago I watched my Nonnie make the pie and copied down actual measurements. She used a handful of shortening, a pinch of cinnamon, etc. I followed my own written directions. I originally used half white sugar and half brown from the crumbs but added more brown sugar to the crumbs because they didn't look right with half and half.

Time to Complete:  It took a lot longer to bake than she said it does. I used an electric oven which tends to be slower and I also had a lot of blueberries. We're a big family and we all love this pie.

Total Cost:
I had all the ingredients on hand at the time. Blueberry prices vary but since they're in season, they tend to be on the less expensive side.

How Successful Was It?: 
Very. We nearly devoured the whole pie in one sitting. My dad declared my pie crust better than his mother's (well yes, she used a frozen pie crust in later years).

How Accurate Is It?: 100% but it never tastes the same as when my Nonnie made it.

Sometimes my Nonnie forgot the sugar and the pie was still delicious. When I asked her why it doesn't taste the same she replied: "I bless it!" and pointed to the flavored liquors she had on hand for baking. She didn't "bless" her pie as far as I can remember though. Her cookies are another story...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What I Read in August Part I

What I Read in August Part I . . .

Midsummer Night (A Lady Julia Grey Novel)Midsummer Night by Deanna Raybourn -- Historical Romance

As Twelfth Night approaches, a tipsy Julia pens a letter to her niece Ophelia, a bride-to-be. Julia describes the days before the wedding and the heady daze she felt, yet the wedding almost didn't happen! There were bickering sisters, a hideous wedding dress, a mysterious fire, a temperamental cook and dire gypsy fortunes. What else could possibly go wrong? How about a visitor from Julia's past?

This is a 5 star read for fans of the series. It's all very light and breezy, even the little mystery isn't much of a mystery and handled with humor. Deanna Raybourn amps up the heat factor in the story. Though Julia and Brisbane are not permitted to be alone, they seize every opportunity they can to be together for "interesting interludes." The interludes are clean but sexy. The story concludes with her feelings on their wedding night and the lead up to Dark Road to Darjeeling.

Julia is her usual irrepressible self and Brisbane is not brooding for once. He's mooning though because he loves Julia and her family won't allow them to be alone together. As usual, her zany relatives provide the comic relief and we even get to meet more of Brisbane's equally eccentric family. I love the way Julia deals with them and how everything turns out. Marigold sounds like an interesting character and I hope there's more Lady Julia mysteries so we can see more of her. She sounds complex and I see where Brisbane gets his brooding from.

The only bad part about this story is that it's short and leaves me wanting more Lady Julia adventures.

Silent Night: A Lady Julia Christmas Novella (Lady Julia Grey, #5.5)Silent Night: A Lady Julia Christmas Novella by Deanna Raybourn-- Historical Mystery

Lady Julia Grey and her husband, Nicholas Brisbane, are spending the Christmas season with her family. She's hoping for a cheerful, joyous celebration like the ones she remembers from her childhood. Instead, she arrives to discover doom and gloom: her father is morose, the house is not decorated and they can't seem to keep staff on hand because one of the maids claims to have seen a ghost! When some jewels go missing, Julia is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery - with or without Brisbane's help!

I wasn't sure what to expect from this story. I was a bit worried about Julia after the end of the last novel and wondered how her relationship with Brisbane was going to be. I needn't have worried about anything. Julia is back in all her glory and Brisbane is still sexy as h-e-double-hockey-sticks. They have some very interesting interludes when she's not busy trying to make Christmas or solve crimes. She's still the same as always, and I'm glad, yet I think she should have matured a bit after her ordeal. The mystery is so simple. I figured out whodunnit right away. For once, it's not gothic or dark. The whole story is so lighthearted, it made me grin the whole way through. I especially like the menagerie of pets that accompany the Marches wherever they go. The story hints at past events but doesn't really spoil too much so it can be read as a stand alone, though is best appreciated by those who have read the entire series. I want more! 

Twelfth Night (Lady Julia Grey, #5.6)Twelfth Night by Deanna Raybourn- Historical Mystery

This story follows more closely on the end of The Dark Enquiry than "Silent Night" does. The tone is also a bit darker. I was expecting to read more about the March family revels but instead found a darker mystery. I really didn't like that the baby was Lucy and "Black Jack's" baby. Julia and Brisbane adopting such a baby would be completely out of the question, even for the eccentric Marches. They would be very worried about inherited characteristics and how the baby was destined to be evil like his father. Victorians weren't really interested in adoption to begin with, let alone adopting the child of a well-known criminal, even if he is one's own brother, would be out of the question.

I also had issues with Jane, the Younger. There's a 10 month old infant living in my family's house right now. He is not aware enough to drop his food on purpose (though the dog is eagerly awaiting this trick). He drops his toys but not on purpose yet, though I have known other children his age that did. He is not yet aware enough to cry when he doesn't get his own way. Portia doesn't know what she's doing, but no new mother does. They would wonder about the aforementioned inherited characteristics. Jane, the Younger's father was a bit of a wastrel, if I recall.

The mystery was solved too quickly and there wasn't enough detail in the plot.There's still a bit of humor, especially in the opening scene. I loved Perdita and I wished for more about her. How did she discover what she did about the oysters? The comparisons to her Aunt Julia vs. society's expectations for women was a bit heavy handed. The introduction of the boys who idolize Brisbane was very cute. The one major thing this book is lacking is the actual play. That would have been fun to read about.

What I Read in July Part VII

What I Read in July Part VII . . .

Elizabeth Street: A novel based on true eventsElizabeth Street: A novel based on true events by Laurie Fabiano -- Historical Fiction

Life in southern Italy post-unification is supposed to be filled with promise but unfortunately that turns out not to be the case for Giovanna and Nunzio. The two are cousins and sweethearts and are finally able to marry after Nunzio finishes college in the north. However, there are no jobs for an engineer in the south so Nunzio must go to America, the land of dreams. The women of Scilla see the Statue of Liberty as a puttana (whore), stealing their men from them. Giovanna waits and waits for Nunzio to return as she learns to become a midwife and help women in their village. When tragedy strikes, Giovanna heads to New York. Life in New York isn't any better and is sometimes worse with extreme prejudice against Italians and wicked extortionists from their own 'hood threatening anyone who doesn't obey. When one of her own flesh and blood is threatened, Giovanna will risk her own life and hard-earned success to rescue her loved one.

I really liked some of the details in the story, especially Scilla and Coney Island. I thought the strongest sections of the book were Anna's memories. The writing really shines in those sections. It seems like the author wanted to write a memoir but couldn't without more information. I didn't care for the writing style. It seemed very detached and matter of fact for most of the book and I couldn't connect emotionally to the characters. I finally found myself interested in the story when the action started. It seemed so improbable and I thought for sure it was fiction after I looked up The Black Hand, but the author claims it's true. I learned a lot about crime and all the gritty details of life in New York in the early 1900s but I just didn't really enjoy the story. It was too depressing. I'm colored by my own family's experience which was very positive. The characters in the story are a generation or two older (closer to my great-great grandparents) than my grandmother and my family settled in central Massachusetts. My grandmother's family went from farmers to restaurant owners and much loved and respected members of the community. My grandfather's parents and grandparents probably would relate to Giovanna and her struggles a bit more. My family became almost fully Americanized but maintained allegiance to their traditional Neapolitan foods and went to Mass every Sunday.

I had a hard time relating to Giovanna and Angelina at first. I come from a long line of strong Italian women who did what they had to do to survive and held their heads up. I don't see my great-grandmother or her mother collapsing like Giovanna. They got along without their husbands OK but I know my great-grandparents didn't marry for love and I doubt my great-great grandmother did either, so perhaps they would have reacted like Giovanna. I liked Giovanna much better towards the end of the book when she pretended to be a strega (witch). THAT I can see my ancestors doing. My great-grandmother's mother looks very formidable in the one and only picture we have of her. I liked Nunzio much more and felt bad for him that he was so looked down on because of where he was from. I didn't care for Rocco much at all. Like his wife, I thought he was a bit stupid, but I also thought they were both stupid for letting it go so long. She should have at least told the lawyer. He would know which cops were crooked and if anything could be done. I didn't like Angelina in Anna's memories at first. Anna had the opposite relationship with her Nanny that I had with my Nonnie, I just couldn't believe her. She didn't seem like any of the Italian Nonni I know. Once I found out what happened to her, I understood why she was like that.

This book was just too dark and depressing for me. I'd like to see an uplifting story about an Italian immigrant family!