Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side – Agatha Christie

  Summary (Amazon):The quaint village of St Mary Mead has been glamourized by the presence of screen queen Marina Gregg, who has taken up residence in preparation for her comeback. But when a local fan is poisoned, Marina finds herself starring in a real-life mystery—supported with scene-stealing aplomb by Jane Marple, who suspects that the lethal cocktail was intended for someone else. But who? If it was meant for Marina, then why? And before the final fade-out, who else from St Mary Mead’s cast of seemingly innocent characters is going to be eliminated?

My Review (Spoilers!! For real, it’s a mystery!)

Executive Summary: suspenseful

I have read exactly 1 Agatha Christie novel prior to this (Murder on the Orient Express). My mother has read approximately all of them (some of them aren’t in print any more but aside from that). Recently, a podcast I follow, Stuff Mom Never Told You, did an episode on female detectives, and one who came up in book form was Miss Marple. The podcast discussed how Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote was based off of Miss Marple. As I had never read any Miss Marple (Murder on the Orient Express was Hercule Poirot), I asked my mom for a good Miss Marple suggestion, and this was the book that she chose. I really enjoyed the book, and maybe once I get through some more of the books on my To Read list, I’ll fill in with a few more Agatha’s.

As I’ve never reviewed a true “who done it?” type of mystery, I’m going to try setting it up as “crime scene”, “potential suspects & testimony” and “solution”. We’ll see how it goes. So if you want to read the book eventually but don’t want to know the ending, don’t read the “solution” section!

The book begins by discussing some general information about St. Mary Mead, the town where Miss Marple lives. The quaint little town is changing now that a new housing area has been built called “The Development”. A lot of the other older ladies are a bit skeptical of The Development and the people who live there, but Miss Marple thinks you have to keep up with the times as human beings are always the same as they always have been. She even goes so far as to evade her annoying but well-meaning maid, Miss Knight, by sending her on a long shopping trip, and sneak off to see The Development by herself. While there, she gives some advice to a girl about getting not married to the man who she is with (he is a loser, so I supported Miss Marple butting in!) but as she is leaving, she falls. A nice lady from one of the nearby houses comes out to help, takes her inside, and gets her a cup of tea. Mrs. Badcock and her husband introduce themselves. Mrs. Badcock brings up the new favorite gossip topic of the town–Marina Gregg (a famous actress) and her husband are moving into Gossington Hall. Mrs. Badcock tells about how she once met Marina despite being sick, sneaking out against doctor’s orders.

Crime Scene:

Marina Gregg and her fourth husband, Jason “Jinks” Rudd, were hosting an event at Gossington Hall for the St. John Ambulance. An eclectic group of people were invited to this event including the Ambulance group volunteers, Marina’s friends and associates, and Mrs. Bantry, Miss Marple’s friend and also the previous owner of Gossington Hall. A greeting line for the VIP attendants was assembled at the top of the stairs to meet Marina Gregg and her husband. Just in front of Mrs. Bantry in line was the Councillor and Mrs. Allcock, and behind her, the vicar followed by Mr. and Mrs. Badcock (Mrs. Badcock is the secretary of the Ambulance committee.) As Mrs. Badcock meets Marina, she spills the story of how once in Bermuda, she sneaked out despite being sick, to meet Marina and get her autograph. In the meantime, Mrs. Allcock and Mrs. Bantry were discussing how the house had changed and convinced Jason to allow them to view the bathrooms. Marina had dazed off during Mrs. Badcock’s spiel and when finally finished, offers her a drink. Jason suggests a daiquiri, Marina’s favorite, and brings one for both of them. Mrs. Allcock and Mrs. Bantry mosey off to explore. As they are on their way back to the main party, commotion arises as Mrs. Badcock has taken ill with a seizure or something, and before anything can be done, she has died.

Potential Suspects & Testimony:

The following day, Mrs. Bantry comes by to see Miss Marple to tell her what has happened, but her housemaid, Cherry, spills the beans first. Cherry is a juxtaposition of the other maid Mrs. Knight, as Cherry lives in The Development and cares much less about how things are “supposed to be” (aka always have been). Cherry informs her that Mrs. Badcock died after having a drink at Gossington Hall despite her being of good health, and the death is suspicious because they are doing an autopsy. When the doctor comes later to check on Miss Marple, he notices that she is in good health and spirits now that she has a murder to solve! The Chief-Inspector in London, Dermot Craddock, is eventually involved in the investigation, and he and Miss Marple share ideas throughout.

Mrs. Bantry: She was at the crime scene, but didn’t witness the actual death. She tells Miss Marple who all was at the scene of the crime–Miss Ella Zielinsky (Marina’s social secretary), Hailey Prescott (Marina’s secretary), the vicar, the mayor and his wife, a reporter with a funny beard, a photographer, 2 Studio people, and the Grices. Mrs. Bantry observed that as Mrs. Badcock was telling Marina the story of their prior meeting that Marina became frozen like the Lady of Shallott “The mirror crack’d from side to side: ‘The doom has come upon me,’ cried the Lady of Shallott.” as she was staring at something beyond Mrs. Badcock–either someone else on the stairs or possibly a picture on the wall of the Bellini Madonna. (I have never read this Tennyson story so some of this was missed on me but obviously it’s where the book title came from)

Arthur Badcock: Mr. Badcock was the husband of the deceased. As the inspector and Mr. Badcock arrive at Mr. Badcock’s home, the inspector is surprised to find a widowed neighbor woman already inside making tea. The inspector asks Mr. Badcock if his wife had ever taken Calmo, the street name of the drug that Mrs. Badcock had been poisoned with, but he did not know of her ever taking any medication. They go over what happened at Gossington Hall, and Mr. Badcock mentions that after his wife received her drink, they moved away and were speaking to some other friends, when someone bumped his wife’s elbow and she spilled her drink down her dress. Marina helped her clean up and even offered Mrs. Badcock her own drink which she hadn’t touched. Miss Marple, based on her initial meeting of Mr. Badcock, does not suspect he would be capable of poisoning his wife although she thinks he will probably marry again soon.

Hailey Preston: Hailey was Marina’s personal assistant. Hailey tells the inspector that Calmo is very common around the household. He takes it sometimes because it calms you down and picks you up. There are bottles in most of the cupboards as Marina and Miss Zielinsky also take it from time to time. Hailey specifies that the reporter with the funny beard was Jim Galbraith, and that one of the “Studio people” was Ardwyck Fenn, a good friend of Marina’s second husband.

Jason Rudd: Marina Gregg’s husband, and obvious suspect #1 because…it’s always the husband! When asked about Marina’s freezing while talking to Mrs. Badcock, Jason doesn’t remember it. He suspects maybe because it’s so tiring hearing stories about people meeting her which to them is a very big deal but to her, it is not. He also suspects that perhaps his wife was the target of the poisoning, but it was an accident that Mrs. Badcock was instead. Marina has always been nervy, and has always desperately been looking for love, children, and happiness. Marina adopted 3 children, but then eleven years ago got pregnant with a child, a boy. (Miss Marple is very curious what happened to the adopted children.) The child was born handicapped and placed in a home. Marina never fully recovered. On the night of the incident, he poured his wife and Mrs. Badcock cocktails from a jug that was premade. While he saw his wife set her glass down for photographs, he did not see anyone poison it.

Miss Ella Zielinsky: Marina’s social secretary who was at the scene. Marina admits that they all take Calmo, and that perhaps it was just an accidental overdose. She claims Marina may have thought a drink was hers when perhaps it wasn’t. Apparently Marina is flitty like that. Working for Marina is difficult as she is prone to extreme ups and downs, and she becomes very sensitive when around children. Ella is also in love with Jason. She also suffers from hay fever

Marina Gregg: the actress. Marina has been married 4 times. First to a realtor, the second was a foreign prince. Third was a film star, and fourth was current husband Jason. Marina believes that she was the target of the poison as it was her drink that Mrs. Badcock had in the end. And she has also received messages. Recently one that said “Don’t think you’ll escape next time”. Another came when they had just moved in which said “Prepare to Die” and one came on the day of the party which said “Today will be your last day on earth”. Marina has no idea who they are from. When asked about her “mirror crack’d” look, she explains it away with just going through the gestures and then getting lost in the repetition.

Miss Lola Brewster: the other “Studio person” in the receiving line. She was apparently married to Marina’s 3rd husband, and Marina lured the man away. Despite Lola threatening Marina once long ago at a drunken party, there are no hard feelings between the two. Lola has no idea what happened to the adopted children.

Ardwyck Fenn: the “Studio person”. He and Marina have known each other for many years. He suggests that possibly the crime could have been committed by the understudy in Marina’s upcoming film, but the problem is that she wasn’t at the party. He has no real useful information.

Margot Bence: the photographer. She took photos of all the people in the receiving line at the party, and she managed to snap a photo of the exact “mirror crack’d” face that Marina was making. As Dermot continues interviewing her, he realizes that she is one of the missing adopted children! She took the job as a bit of a gag because she wanted to see if Marina recognized her (she didn’t). She and the other children were sent away with decent stipends and new families once the biological baby was made. She lost track of the others but assures Dermot that she has no reason to kill Marina.

Marina continues to be watched. Some coffee at her movie set seemed off, and after a sip, her husband took it and threw it out (saving just a bit to test). It came back poisoned with arsenic which is tasteless. She continues to get threatening notes. Ella Zielinsky is up to something. Mrs. Bantry sees her twice making phone calls from the public phone. First she tells Mrs. Bantry that the phone at Gossington Hall is out, but Mrs. Bantry phones there, and their line is just fine. She returns to the house, still suffering her hay fever, and takes cyanide-laced medicine just after telling Jason that Giuseppe has left for London. The Inspector receives a call from Ardwyck Fenn who says that he was being blackmailed by Ella–he recognized her sneeze.

When Giuseppe returns from London, he heads to his bedroom where a window has been left open. He is shot twice.

Miss Marple discusses the case with Cherry the next day, when Cherry reveals that her friend Gladys, a seamstress, was going to meet Giuseppe. Gladys had told Cherry something “funny” that she wanted to ask the butler about. Gladys had said that “she did it on purpose” to which Cherry asked “spilt the cocktail on purpose?” to which Gladys replied yes. When the inspector goes to speak to Gladys later that day, she is gone.

Marina continues to despair about the situation surrounding her. First the cocktail meant for her, then the coffee and the notes, and then the additional deaths of Giuseppe and Ella.

Solution:

Miss Marple requested again that all of the people who witnessed Mrs. Badcock’s story to Marina tell again what she had said. Comparing the stories, Miss Marple realizes that Mrs. Badcock had been sick with German measles when she went to see Marina. German measles apparently causes or birth defects. (I didn’t know this.) So as Mrs. Badcock is telling Marina her story, Marina sees the picture of the Virgin Mary and realizes that the reason that her child was born with disabilities and she is unable to have any more children is because of this woman who gave her the measles. So she poisoned her own drink, bumped into Mrs. Badcock forcing her to spill hers. Marina then offers up her own poisoned drink for Mrs. Badcock. Ella and Giuseppe were killed to cover up loose ends, and in the end Marina poisons herself, possibly with her husband’s help.

Verdict: 4 stars

I understand why Agatha is so well esteemed. Her story offers up just the right amount of clues and red herrings to keep you guessing until the end. I did guess it, but I wasn’t certain. I enjoyed Miss Marple as she had just the right about of sass and pessimism for my taste! I’ll definitely read another Agatha in the future.

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Orphan Train Discussion Questions

Since Orphan Train was my book club choice for the year, I had to provide the discussion questions. Luckily, there were some provided in the back of the book which I have listed below. We didn’t talk about all of them, but we did hit on most of the main ones. Everyone liked the book overall, but as we began to delve into the questions, a lot of issues arose with certain parts of the book. Everyone liked Vivian’s story a lot better than Molly’s. Molly’s seemed a lot more fake and “stuck in” than Vivian’s and Molly’s native American ancestry was not explored in enough detail.  Everyone also agreed that the author made a poor choice writing Vivian’s child’s adoption into the story. No one thought that was in any way realistic. I really wonder why the author thought that was the right direction to take the story. I think maybe next year I should go back to the sci-fi/fantasy category. I think I did a better job with that one!!

  1. On the surface, Vivian’s and Molly’s lives couldn’t be more different, but in what ways are their stories similar?
  2. In the prologue, Vivian mentions that her “true love” died when she was twenty-three, but she doesn’t mention the other big secret in the book. Why not?
  3. Why hasn’t Vivian ever shared her story with anyone? Why does she tell it now?
  4. What role does Vivian’s grandmother play in her life? How does the reader’s perception of her shift as the story unfolds?
  5. Why does Vivian seem unable to get rid of the boxes in her attic?
  6. In Women of the Dawn, a nonfiction book about the lives of four Wabanaki Indians that is excerpted in the epigraph, Bunny McBride writes: “In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions. Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender. How does the concept of portaging reverberate throughout this novel? What fears hamper Vivian’s progress? Molly’s?
  7. Vivian’s name changes several times over the course of the novel—from Niamh Power to Dorothy Nielsen to Vivian Daly. How are these changes significant for her? How does each name represent a different phase of her life?
  8. What significance, if any, does Molly Ayer’s name have?
  9. How did Vivian’s first-person account of her youth and the present-day story from Molly’s third-person-limited perspective work together? Did you prefer one story to the other? Did the juxtaposition reveal things that might not have emerged in a traditional narrative?
  10. In what ways, large or small, does Molly have an impact on Vivian’s life? How does Vivian have an impact on Molly’s?
  11. What does Vivian mean when she says, “I believe in ghosts”?
  12. When Vivian finally shares the truth about the birth of her daughter and her decision to put May up for adoption, she tells Molly that she was “selfish” and “afraid”. But Molly defends her and affirms Vivian’s choice. How did you perceive Vivian’s decision? Were you surprised she sent her own child to be adopted after her own experiences with the Children’s Aid Society?
  13. When the children are presented to audiences of potential caretakers, the Children’s Aid Society explains that adoptive families are responsible for the child’s religious upbringing. What role does religion play in this novel? How do Molly and Vivian each view God?
  14. When Vivian and Dutchy are reunited, Vivian remarks, “However hard I try, I will always feel alien and strange. And now I’ve stumbled on a fellow outsider, one who speaks my language without saying a word.” How is this also true for her friendship with Molly?
  15. When Vivian goes to live with the Byrnes, Fanny offers her food and advises, “You got to learn to take what people are willing to give.” In what ways is this good advice for both Vivian and Molly? And in contrast, what are some instances when their independence helped them?
  16. Molly is enthusiastic about Vivian’s reunion with her daughter, but makes no further efforts to see her own mother. Why is she unwilling (or unable) to effect a reunion in her own family? Do you think she will someday?
  17. Vivian’s claddagh cross is mentioned often throughout the story. What is its significance? How does its meaning change or deepen over the course of Vivian’s life?

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Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

  Summary (Amazon): Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: heartwarming

So this is the book that was chosen for my pick for this year’s book club list for the literary fiction category. Unfortunately I wasn’t wowed by it. I found it a little bit overly predictable, and it felt more like reading a movie than it did reading a book (aka everything wraps up neatly at the end). However, on the other hand, it exposed me to a part of American history that I was unfamiliar with. I just wanted more from it. A lot more.

The book juxtaposes two story lines that obviously intertwine–Molly, a teenager in modern time, and Vivian, and old lady in modern time, who was obviously the one on the orphan train. The problem is Molly. Molly’s sections are contrived, unrealistic, and so cheesy young adult, that I nearly almost stopped reading it. And I hated that the book began with Molly instead of beginning with Vivian.

Molly is the most stereotypical angsty teenager of all times. She’s a goth vegetarian “orphan” (technically her deadbeat mother is still alive but she’s in and out of jail) who stole a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and now she is apparently about to go to juvenile detention unless she finds some community service to do instead. Her boyfriend, Jack, pulls some strings with his mother to allow Molly to do her community service helping Vivian, Jack’s mother’s employer, sort through years of boxes. (Is that what community service looks like these days?)

Vivian was born in Ireland under the name of Niamh. She, her parents, and her sister and brothers, moved to America in 1927 and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. Two years after arrival with no real sight of the American Dream, the family perishes in an apartment fire and only Niamh survives. The neighbors, the Schatzmans, take her to the Children’s Aid Society where she is sent on a train to the midwest for adoption. En route, she befriends an older boy “Dutchy” (Hans) who sits beside her, and they promise that no matter what happens, they will find each other later. Dutchy gets picked at the first stop, Minneapolis, where they are put through all but a sale. Niamh boards the train for the next stop, Albans, MN.

in Albans, she is selected by an Irish man and his wife, the Byrnes. Mrs. Byrne runs a clothing shop, which Niamh, now Dorothy, works at. She doesn’t go to school, but she is treated OK until the stock market crashes and she is “returned” and sent to live with another family, the Grotes. The Grotes are a hot mess. The mom sleeps all day. The dad wants to basically live off the grid. (He doesn’t have a job. He just hunts and forages for food.) Niamh sleeps in a pile with the rest of the skinny children. But she is allowed to go to school. There she befriends the nice teacher, Miss Larson. It’s a good thing too because in not too long, Mr. Grote assaults Niamh and Mrs. Grote walks in, blaming Niamh and kicking her out of the house. She walks to the schoolhouse with her belongings, and Miss Larson calls Mr. Sorenson, the Children’s Aid Society worker. He thinks that Niamh was being overly dramatic. Luckily Miss Larson stands up for her, and volunteers to allow Niamh to stay with her in her boardinghouse until a new solution can be found.

Mrs. Murphy, the landlady of the boardinghouse, is Irish as well, and she immediately takes a liking to Niamh who stays at the boardinghouse until Mrs. Murphy finds her a new family, the Nielsens who lost their only daughter to diphtheria a few years prior. They initially want her as some additional help at the shop that they own, but over time, they adopt her and change her name yet again, to Vivian. (Creepily their dead daughter’s name). As Vivian grows older, she takes a real interest in the shop, suggesting designs and changes to make the store better, eventually managing the store upon graduation.

One night, she’s enticed by two of her friends to go with them to Minneapolis to see The Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies!). She doesn’t go out much, as she has been brought up knowing how severe getting in trouble can be (although this is weird that she has this behavior but yet Molly does not??) but her friends were there mostly to party only under the guise of seeing the movie. In the most eye-rolling moment of serendipity, she accidentally finds Dutchy while at a club in Minneapolis. Shortly after that, they get married. All is going well. They move back to Hemingford where Vivian runs the store and Dutchy teaches music at a local school. And then World War II happens. Dutchy is eventually drafted, and while he is in training, Vivian discovers that she is pregnant. They write regularly, but eventually the bad news come back. A plane crashed onto the fleet carrier where Dutchy was. He did not survive.

Vivian makes the hard decision to place the baby, a girl, up for adoption. After the war, she marries Jim Daly, who brings the rest of Dutchy’s things to her. It’s more of a business partnership, but it worked out for both of them.

Molly presses Vivian to investigate what happened to the rest of her family, but Vivian does not want to embrace the technology. As part of a school project, Molly decides to do it herself, finding out that Vivian’s sister indeed survived the fire and was adopted by the Schatzmans. She had children and grandchildren, but had passed away a few years previously. Molly gets in a last fight with her foster parents and goes to live with Vivian who has a big house with many empty rooms. And Molly only has a short amount of time before she’s out of the system anyway. Molly tells Vivian about her sister, and this information convinces Vivian to embrace technology (way more than seems likely) and tracks down her daughter.

The book ends with the daughter and her family coming to meet Vivian.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to love this book. It was my choice for this year, and the topic is interesting. But I just could not get past the clichéd writing. I know I’m in the minority on this (it has a 4+ star ranking on Amazon), but I just was expecting more.

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