June Book Club – “Who Killed Janet Smith?”

“Who Killed Janet Smith? – The 1924 Vancouver Killing That Remains Canada’s Most Intriguing Unsolved Murder”

Literary Nonfiction. WHO KILLED JANET SMITH? examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller. Anvil Press is pleased to be reissuing this title as part of the City of Vancouver’s Legacy Book Project. This new edition features a Foreword by historian Daniel Francis.

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Let me preface this mini review by saying that I read a lot of nonfiction. Some of my favourite authors are narrative nonfiction specialists, and as a former history student I am fascinated by the past. Imagine my disappointment, then, when this novel turned out to be a bit of a snoozefest, and a confusing one at that.

The story is indeed intriguing – a Scottish nursemaid is shockingly murdered, and doubt is cast upon some of Vancouver high society’s most influential and powerful figures. At the same time, the appalling institutionalized racism of the era comes into play, as a Chinese servant is dragged ruthlessly into the investigation. Corruption, privilege, cover-ups, kidnappings, wild parties and illicit affairs – this true story has the makings of a exciting period drama. In fact, when I initially read the book’s blurb, I was reminded of American novels such as “In the heat of the night” or “To kill a mockingbird”, where race and justice collide.

Unfortunately, as is all to often the case with nonfiction writing, “Who killed Janet Smith” reads more like a textbook than a novel. This is perfectly acceptable if you’re a student, but less enjoyable if you’re trying to get through the book in time for your next book club meeting. Dry, dry, far too long, and dry…..There is also an incredible array of characters, many of whom are referred to by different names and titles over the course of the book (full names, Christian names, initials, titles…) making for a very confusingly dry reading experience.

It’s always been a bit of a pet peeve with me, as a history fanatic, when people complain about how boring and pointless they found their history lessons in school. History isn’t boring! Uninspired teachers and dry textbooks may be boring, but history is anything but, and in the right hands, it can be as thrilling and engaging as any work of fiction.

For anyone interested in some thrilling narrative true-crime nonfiction, I would recommend the peerless Erik Larson.

The Devil in the White City – Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

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“Erik Larson–author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS–intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.”

Thunderstruck

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“Tells the interwoven stories of two men–Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication–whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London, an era of séances, science, and fog, and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.”

Next month we’re tackling Scandinavian fiction, which is a genre I know little about, so my hopes are set fairly high!

May Book Club – “Silent in the Grave”

I’m the first to admit that I don’t always finish every book I start. There are so many books on my to-read list, I simply don’t have time to waste on books that don’t engage me.

silentI started this month’s book club pick, the Victorian-era mystery “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn, but it just didn’t do anything for me. The characters were pretty dull, I guessed the murder almost immediately, and the writer seemed to have confused “chemistry” and “creepy”, because the love interest showed his interest in the female lead by first threatening to hit her, and then by drugging her as part of an interrogation, without ever doing anything to change the reader’s creeped out opinion of him.

So, I read the beginning, I read the end, I skipped the middle, and I still had enough to talk about at book club.

I wouldn’t recommend “Silent in the Grave” simply because there are so many other awesome books out there that I would recommend!

For fans of female sleuths in historical settings:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie / Alan Bradley

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The first in a mystery series set in 1950s England, starring precocious 11-year-old chemistry prodigy Flavia de Luce.

Cocaine Blues / Kerry Greenwood

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1920s Australia provides the backdrop for the first novel in the Phrynne Fisher series of historical mysteries.

Maisie Dobbs / Jacqueline Winspear

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Maisie is a private detective solving crimes in inter-war years Great Britain.

Mistress of the Art of Death / Ariana Franklin

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Adelia is a “mistress of death”, the medieval version of a medical examiner, who acts in the service of the king to solve mysteries in 12th century England.

Miss Marple / Agatha Christie

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Though originally a contemporary series, Christie’s classic Miss Marple novels range in setting from the 1930s to the 1970s.

April Book Club : “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

Not only do I enjoy cardigans, tea, cats, and knitting, I am also a member of a book club, which probably does little for my “coolness” factor, but seems to fit the profile of a librarian quite nicely. I have been participating in a local book club for several months, and I highly enjoy this monthly social meeting of fellow book enthusiasts.

This month we read “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith, aka, J.K. Rowling, aka the lady who wrote the Harry Potter series.

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

The reviews for this book are mixed at best, alternatively hailing it as terrific (Chicago Tribune), flawed (NY Times), or middling (NPR).

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I actually enjoyed this book considerably more than I thought I would. Full disclosure time – I was never a Harry Potter fan. I know, I know –  a children’s librarian who isn’t a Harry Potter fan?! I read a lot of fantasy, so it wasn’t the subject matter I struggled with, I just never connected with Rowling’s writing style. For this reason I didn’t expect to enjoy Rowling’s foray into adult crime fiction, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” isn’t groundbreaking fiction, but it is an entertaining read, which is sometimes all you’re looking for in a novel.

Would I recommend this book to others? Sure, particularly to fans of traditional gumshoe detective fiction. The characters are likeable, the plot isn’t too complicated, the ending has a bit of a twist, and the story moves along at a good pace. If you’re looking for something entertaining to help pass the time on the train to work, you could certainly do worse.