Saturday, February 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Coffin Scarcely Used by Colin Watson

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Farrago Books is re-releasing the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Book 1, Coffin Scarcely Used, was first published in 1958. Set in a small village in England, this detective story is a delight.

The first death, that of Harold Carobleat, a wealthy local businessman, was suspicious only in that the funeral was so understated as to be a non-event. However, months later, the bizarre possible suicide of Harold’s neighbor triggers an investigation by the low-key detective, Inspector Purbright. Aided by an eager (and naive) young policeman, Purbright doggedly pursues leads that don’t add up, convinced that things will eventually fall into place. He’s certain the "suicide" was a murder and is determined to prove it. Although others in Carobleat’s circle are either frightened, threatening, or both, and although it’s clear more deaths will follow, there isn’t the building tension of "catch the villain before he strikes again." Purbright is methodical. And very entertaining. His patience and gently paced investigation swept me along.

The character sketches are ironic and the tone of the book is humorous, despite the underlying violence. It isn’t gory and sadistic. It’s almost. . .quaint. But not quite cozy.

Although I don’t think it was written as a historical mystery initially, it belongs to its time period and, being more than fifty years old and dated in a good way, I’m counting it as historical.

If you enjoy clever writing and puzzle solving, Coffin Scarcely Used is a terrific introduction to this series. I’m eager to read Book 2.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve never read anything by or about Jack London, one of the most famous writers of the early twentieth century. I knew him primarily as the author of the novel Call of the Wild. Although I’d never felt particularly curious about his work, I was nevertheless eager to read a historical novel based on his wife.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg gives a fictional first person account of the life of Charmian Kittredge London. Devoted to her husband, Charmian acts as muse, secretary, editor, and enabler. The once athletic, handsome adventurer is now a gouty alcoholic suffering from kidney disease. Their once-passionate love life has faded into a near platonic literary partnership. Jack plays warped psychological games, pushing her towards other men then becoming furiously jealous, possibly in order to experience emotions that he can then use as inspiration for his writing.

Charmian is getting a bit tired of it all.

Nevertheless, she works tirelessly to maintain both the marriage and Jack’s career, even though the commitment stunts her own ambition. Charmian is strong, healthy, adventurous, and smart. The novel gives one the sense that Jack is dragging her down.

A turning point occurs when she and Jack meet Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess. Both being strong-willed women married to celebrities, Charmian and Bess bond, striking up a true friendship. Jack and Harry don’t hit it off as well. Their egos clash and they constantly engage in macho one-upmanship. It’s a bit one-sided though, since Houdini is at the top of his game, while Jack is fading into a caricature of his past self. But within the foursome, the strongest attraction is between Houdini and Charmian.

As her relationship with Jack suffers one too many traumas, Charmian takes comfort in the cautious, intriguing advances of Houdini. But what kind of relationship can she ever expect to have with a man in the world’s spotlight–a man married to a friend?

This is a beautiful book that takes us deep into the heart of a very conflicted woman, yearning to be loved and desperately in love with her husband, though with eyes wide open to his flaws.

Monday, February 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

I received this book from Netgalley for free. This did not influence my review.

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith is a richly layered historical novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with interwoven tales taking place during multiple time periods. Each individual story is unique with a well-developed protagonist and compelling narrative. They come together only because of the setting and occasional references to earlier-living characters by the later-living ones. And yet, each of them has in common a yearning for love (or something) and social advancement (or at least security).

Colonial period: A young Quaker girl at the brink of womanhood has to find a way to support herself, her young sibling, and a slave after the death of her mother and loss of her father at sea. Caring members of her community believe she should marry. An older widower is more than willing to step up and wed her. But she balks at a loveless marriage. She has to come up with a bold plan of her own.

Revolutionary War period: A British solder/spy becomes obsessed with the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. In order to have her (not to marry), he is willing to behave dishonorably despite his position as an officer, to lie, even to murder. Clearly dealing with a sociopath, this narrative grows increasingly unpleasant, a counterpoint to the poignant, sometimes disturbing, but generally gentle progress of the other stories. I always cringed during these sections and was glad to get back to the others.

Civil War period: A young Henry James embarks on a mission to train himself to be an observant recorder of the beau monde in Newport as a prelude to a writing career. However, he starts by observing a beautiful, free-spirited girl and, before he knows what’s happening, he is drawn into an unexpected friendship. As the friendship turns toward romance, he wants nothing more than to flee, to the consternation of all involved.

Gilded Age: A social climbing charmer of less than modest means recognizes that he will soon age out of his pretty-boy, jester persona and be dropped by the society that now finds him amusing. He must marry up. Fortunately, he has been adopted as a project by Mrs. Belmont, the former Mrs. Vanderbilt, who rules supreme in Newport society. He is paired with a wealthy widow and is surprised to discover he can respect and even like her. But, he is gay–a fact that must, at all costs, be hidden.

And modern day: An aging professional tennis player, an almost-was, is making a living as a tennis pro at a Newport resort, but is dissatisfied with just about everything. He’s a nice guy, but that has been identified as his weakness. He’s taken up by a wealthy married woman, then has a fling with an artist who lives in the same mansion. He learns that their world revolves around a young woman who is the sister-in-law to his mistress and the employer/friend of the artist he thinks he would prefer to be with. The sister-in-law has cerebral palsy and depression and calls herself the crazy heiress. He’d rather avoid her at first, but slowly his world begins to revolve around her as well.

The author does a fine job turning the spotlight on love, lust, and money–and the interplay among all three. He also does a fine job of defining each character and making them distinct. Almost too fine. This is one of those multi-charactered books that jumps abruptly from story to story. At the beginning, it’s annoying. Just as I’m being drawn into someone’s world, I’m yanked out and have to start over again. Along about the third narrative, I was irritated enough to consider giving up. By the time I got back to the first storyline again, I was wondering if I cared enough to read such a disjointed book. But I found I did care enough. And the writing made me keep going. Eventually, I became more pleased to return to each character than I was annoyed to be jolted from a storyline.

This is one of those ultimately very satisfying novels that rewards a little bit of patience.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh

I’ve read a few of Mary Balogh’s Regency Romances and find them uniformly enjoyable. Most recently, I’ve been following the Westcott Novel series: Someone to Love and Someone to Hold.

The third book dealing with the extended Westcott family is Someone to Wed.

Alexander Westcott, the new Earl of Rivendale, has inherited a title and a sprawling, poorly maintained estate. Being a caring, responsible individual, he feels duty-bound to act as a true lord and benefactor to the tenants in his care. He is well-off, by dint of a previously modest inheritance and long hours of conscientious effort, but nowhere near wealthy enough to take on the new responsibilities. He feels he has no real choice but to marry for money. It shouldn’t be difficult since he’s titled and extremely handsome, but it isn’t what he’d hoped for out of life and the mercenariness of the endeavor appalls him.

Wren Hayden, his new neighbor, happens to be an heiress. Her adopted uncle, who made a fortune as the owner of a glassworks, had introduced her to the business and taught her to be an extremely capable businesswoman. She became extravagantly wealthy when both her aunt and uncle died. But she has found she can’t simply bury herself in the work. She wants a husband and family. She assumes no man would ever marry her for herself because of a prominent birthmark on her face. Luckily, she has money to buy a husband.

Wren settles on Alex after a short meeting. (She’d already met and dismissed two neighbors/candidates.) She believes he will treat her with respect.

Alex is intrigued but also put off, not by the birthmark but by her cold demeanor. He recognizes it as a defense mechanism, but isn’t sure why the birthmark has affected her so cruelly. (Of course, it isn’t just the birthmark. She had a horrific childhood.) He cannot outright refuse her frank marriage proposal. It would not only be cruel but, also, her money would be useful. Instead, he decides to get to know her as a person and see if they would suit.

Their courtship is difficult, which is not unusual for Romances, but the reasons for the difficulty are rather unique and not simply due to avoidable misunderstandings or poor behavior. It’s more complicated. Alex and Wren are very thoughtful protagonists who belong together. It’s easy to be pulled into the storyline. The frequent references to and appearances by relatives who populated the previous books help to pull the reader into a world that feels familiar.

At times, the dialogue has a bit of an infodump feel. Characters will embark on monologues that recap and explain to the point that it doesn’t come across as real conversation. But other interactions are more natural. Overall, the distraction of the improbably lengthy narrations by one or another of the characters can be overlooked.

The Westcott Novels are wonderful Romances and this newest is as charming as the first two.