The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m still trying to pick out and read the books I’m not sure I want to keep–ones that got a lot of buzz but may or may not actually live up to them. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one such book.

The premise is that one day, Iris Lockheart gets a call from Cauldstone Hospital asking for her decision about her great-aunt Esme Lennox. The mental hospital for women is closing, and after sixty years of staying there Esme is deemed harmless enough to transition back into the real world.

the vanishing act of esme lennoxThe trouble is, Iris never knew Esme existed. Her own parents are dead, and her grandmother Kitty, who always claimed to be an only child, is in a nursing home herself with Alzheimer’s. Iris also has her own troubles to deal with–her relationship with her step-brother Alex and her affair with a married man–but somehow she finds herself drawn to her new-found relative.

O’Farrell writes the story from both Iris and Esme’s perspective. Esme isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but her viewpoint is wandering and sometimes fragmented. She recalls things incompletely and revisits them later, especially concerning her early life, which makes the book more suspenseful. Even with Iris’s own story, O’Farrell carefully chooses what to reveal and when.

We learn a lot about Esme and Kitty’s childhood in India and eventually Scotland. Esme is a dreamy child who rebels against conventions. She has always been thought of as just a little strange, which a traumatic experience does nothing to help, but she is intelligent and could have gone to college if she were allowed. Instead she is stifled by what is expected of an Edwardian young woman, until a final desperate act causes her family to lock her away.

The bulk of the book is so sad–Esme’s experiences growing up, her empty life at the hospital, and what Iris learns about how all-too-common this plight was. I almost don’t want to think about the fact that things like this probably really happened to flighty daughters or mothers with PPD. As much as I like historical fiction, there are many advantages to our modern world. On the other hand, Iris’ part of the story feels unnecessary at times, an extra drama that detracts from the mood of the main threads. I also dislike when books have ambiguous or unresolved endings.

Overall, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-written, but incredibly haunting rather than enjoyable. It’s one I see myself remembering instead of rereading. Even if this book goes to the sale pile, which it still might, I highly recommend it.

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Masque of the Black Tulip

Can I admit that modern romances are a guilty pleasure I occasionally indulge? Most of the time I read them on online writing sites that I’m still a member of from way back in the day. My biggest problem with the “chick lit” genre is that the heroines aren’t always appealing, or that the first person perspective gets to whiny. After finishing The Masque of the Black Tulip, I can confirm that Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series really does have it all. Smart, flirty females who can trap both French spies and paramours, and look good in the process.

the masque of the black tulipWhile the Pink Carnation is continuing work in France, and Richard and his wife have begun their school for spies, Richard’s best friend Miles has just received news via the War Office that dangerous spy The Black Tulip is back on English soil. The trouble is, no one knows the spy’s identities or intentions, though recently-arrived Lord Vaughn certainly fits the dastardly stereotype. Richard’s younger sister Henrietta is determined to prove her worth to the organization, and sees no better way than to capture the spy herself. If Amy can do it, so can she. Of course, the couple’s latent attraction to each other might provide just enough distraction to be their downfall.

Ms. Willig writes the interactions between Miles and Hen perfectly. They are filled with witty repartee and fond longing at the same time. Though they get themselves into a fair number of scrapes, overall they have intelligence to survive and the grace to laugh about it afterwards. The book satisfies equally on all fronts: romance, suspense, and humor. I laughed aloud more than once, especially at Turnip Fitzhugh, who seems to have migrated from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Eloise’s modern day story is still brief compared to the historical narrative, but I was much more invested in it this time around. She came off as too much of an idiot in The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Now, however, I dying to know if anything ever happens with her and Colin.

There are enough incidental characters planted that the series seems like it still has a long way to go (good thing I own the next three books). I also want to reread The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is the second book I finished from my February reading plans, even if I didn’t actually read it until March. And Lauren Willig’s series was on my radar long before then–I own the first five in the series from various book sales. It was the perfect book to take on my weekend trip to Boston.

The premise of the series is that the famed Scarlet Pimpernel not only was real, but had several followers who assisted and later succeeded him in subverting the French revolutionary government. A few have been unmasked like Sir Percy Blakeney, but others remain anonymous. American doctoral student Eloise Kelly has been obsessed with these dashing heroes for as long as she can remember, and upon following a chance lead to England she finds her holy grail in Mrs. Selwick-Alderly: descendant of the Purple Gentian and possessor of a trunk full of diaries. The kindly old lady tells her to begin with the papers of Amy Balcourt. Eloise is ready to sell her soul to get her hands on them. However, she’ll have to convince the nephew Colin Selwick that she’s not a threat to his family history, and that could take some work.

Most of the novel is actually Amy’s story. She is a young French ex-pat living with her cousins in England and bursting at the seams to join up with the followers of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is ousted before she has a chance, but soon another opportunity presents itself. She is finally summoned by her brother Edouard who stayed on the continent, so she, her cousin Jane, and their sharp-tongued chaperone Miss Gwen head for the House of Balcourt. During the turbulent crossing Amy crosses swords with Sir Richard Selwick, who is secretly the Purple Gentian, and vows to avoid him in the future. It might not be so easy, because upon their arrival at the house Amy and Jane soon stumble upon a plot and have no choice but to seek out the masked hero. There’s a lot more plot after this but I don’t want to give anything away.

What I should have noticed was that the descriptions usually have the word “romance” before “historical,” and the author blurbs in turn call it seductive and sexy. This is definitely a bodice ripper, and at times Amy and Richard seem more focused on each other than on the momentous tasks at hand. It’s not the first book I’ve read with steamy scenes, and probably won’t be the last. But I wasn’t expecting it, and I had to try to keep from blushing in the middle of a crowded bus.

About 90% of the book is devoted to Amy’s tale, so the parts where Eloise was interrupted by real life were a bit jarring.  Sometimes I thought her purpose was simply to serve as context, lending academic weight to the idea that these people all really existed and emphasizing the suspense of determining their identities. Other times she was simply making a fool of herself. This is why I don’t usually read chick lit. Whereas Bridget Jones had a lot going for her despite her insecurities, Eloise is merely a sweet, studious girl overindulging in woe-is-me’s. Her main flaws are dressing in tweeds, staying up all night reading, ruining her suede shoes, and having a bad ex-boyfriend. By the end of the book I still felt like I hardly knew her, so I’m glad her story continues in the next volume.

There were parts of the book that had me rolling my eyes in disbelief, like when Miss Gwen gives Bonaparte a scolding. She may be a rather unusual governess, but she isn’t (or shouldn’t be) stupid. Amy also got on my nerves somewhat at times with her childike behavior; she is often silly and impetuous, confident about what she wants and plunging ahead blindly in pursuit. Her cousin was much more to my liking because her temperament is similar to mine, or at least I’d like to think so. Jane is calm and collected, astutely appraising all sides of every situation but ready for adventure when it arises. She is a complete foil to Amy. The rest of the cast is entertaining even if somewhat over the top, like Richard’s family. But part of what makes the book work is that Lauren Willig doesn’t take herself seriously. It’s meant to be fun and slightly ridiculous, and succeeds. In an interview at the back of the book she says that the rest of the books will focus on various other characters mentioned in this one as they each take on different roles in their pursuit of justice. I’m looking forward to reading the other stories, especially Jane’s.

Is Lauren Willig the next Baroness Orczy, or Georgette Heyer? Not really, though she may rank above some of the Baroness’s later sequels. Did she keep me glued to the book for a five-hour bus ride? Absolutely. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is very good for what it is, as long as you know in advance exactly what it is.

Published in: on March 22, 2011 at 7:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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Enemy in the House

When I finished The Woman in Black last weekend, I was so spooked I needed to start a different book relatively soon after. Of course, I should know by now that anything with suspense is hard for me to put down. I wanted a mystery, however, and grabbed a Mignon Eberhart at random. Enemy in the House turned out to be right up my alley.

When the book begins, Amity Mallon is in a tight situation. Her Loyalist father escaped to Jamaica from growing pressure in America earlier in the year, leaving Amity responsible for his beautiful second wife China and young son Jamey. Amity is his sole heir, and fears for the family’s welfare if the Continental Army confiscates their home. In addition, her aunt, uncle, and foppish cousin Neville have moved in, ostensibly to protect them. Amity fears in her heart that her father is dead, and knows that marrying a rebel just might save the property.

Her distant cousin Simon is an officer in the American Army, and out of loyalty to her father he agrees to a secret businesslike marriage. The next day she departs for Jamaica to determine the truth. The rest of the family follows her, however, with the disturbing news that both the lawyer and priest who married her have been killed. Meanwhile, her Uncle Groppit seems determined to get his hands on the Jamaica property however possible. It isn’t long before another death occurs. Amity must fight to protect not only her marriage, but also her life.

The historical setting was the perfect context for this mystery. As a female heir Amity is treated like a pawn, and must fight to provide for herself and her brother. She risks losing her South Carolina home because her father was a Loyalist and the Jamaican sugar plantation because her husband is a rebel. I don’t think I realized that Jamaica was a British colony at the time. (I should have; it’s mentioned in 1776). In addition, Mignon Eberhart introduces the tension between Amity’s relatives and the Jamaicans who work on the plantation, especially the regal obeah woman Selene.

The plot is somewhat complicated (I had a hard time summarizing), but she handles it deftly. Though similar to some by Phyllis Whitney, it felt much less predictable. I was turning pages eagerly to see what happened next. I’d have to rank this as one of my favorite Mignon Eberhart books so far.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Sherwood Ring

I can’t quite recall what first drew me to The Sherwood Ring when I was at the October book sale. The title seemed to promise adventure, while the cover featured colonial costumes, and I recognized Elizabeth Marie Pope as the author of Newbery Honor book The Perilous Gard. Then I read the description, and immediately knew I would love this book.

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries–and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled. History has never been so exciting!

Ghosts, the Revolutionary War, and an old-fashioned romance? Those are three of my favorite fictional elements, and the mystery/espionage mixed in only made a great book better. I think I was smiling the entire time while I was reading. I enjoyed this book so much, and if I had known about it at a younger age it probably would have been read several times by now.

Technically this is a children’s book, but it doesn’t read like one. Though Peggy is referred to by her uncle as a child, she seems to be at least 16, and the eighteenth-century characters are certainly old enough to be in the army and get engaged. I would put the intended audience as about on par with Mabel Esther Allan’s young adult books, in that the plots are basically romantic suspense but the characters are young enough to be interesting to a teen audience.

The book was originally written in 1958, and even the modern-day scenes have a sort of wholesomeness about them that you don’t always seem to find in current books; I could sense it even before I looked back at the copyright page. My only complaint is that we didn’t seem to see enough of the contemporary side of the story until the end. I was definitely caught up in the escapades of Peaceable Sherwood, but I wished Peggy had been less of a frame tale. For a while she seems to function mainly as a response and reflection of events in the past. For example, all her actual visits to Mrs. Dykemann’s boarding house are pretty much skipped over except for a mention, but could have helped round out the story a bit more.

I’m a little ashamed to say that I never actually read The Perilous Gard; I had acquired several used Newbery books all at once but was already starting to move to adult books. I believe it’s set a little earlier, during 16th-century England, but still seems to promise adventure and fantastic elements.  I’ll be keeping it in mind for next time I’m in the mood for good historical fiction.

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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This Dame for Hire

“Even though I looked like any twenty-six-year-old gal ankling around New York City in ’43, there was one main difference between me and the rest of the broads. Show me another Jane who did my job and I’d eat my hat. And I wouldn’t relish that because my brown felt chapeau had a bright red feather sticking up from the left side of the brim, and I knew the feather would tickle going down.”

If Amanda Matetsky’s Paige Turner was working for Daring Detective ten years earlier, Faye Quick would have been her idol. This Dame for Hire is the first in the series by Sandra Scoppettone, who also apparently writes about a modern-day female New York detective.

When Faye’s boss was drafted and she went from secretary to P.I. most of her cases were routine investigations. That changed when she stumbled over the body of Claudette West. Now Claudette’s upper class parents want her to find the killer, but it seems there were many more young men in her life than they knew about. In addition, Mr. West’s insistence on being involved just may push Faye off the case. At a time when societal roles and acceptances are beginning to shift, Faye must rely on her perseverance and on-the-job training to track down the killer.

In general the most hard-boiled books I read are Perry Mason, so I can’t comment on how this compares to Sam Spade or other such P.I.’s. But what I like about Faye is that she’s scrappy without being too tough (my issue with V.I. Warshawski)–it kind of plays into the whole WWII mentality that this might not be the most pleasant or traditional job but everyone has to do their part to see justice done. She cares about those around her, likes music and books, and gets nervous when she has to carry a gun.

Nevertheless, this isn’t a sugar-coated society. Girls get murdered and men have affairs. Scoppettone also shows the contrasts and underlying similarities between the upper crust and the more vibrant life of the Village. In terms of detail and locale she captures the atmosphere of 1940s New York.

On the other hand, Scoppettone seems to believe that a P.I. must talk primarily in slang throughout this first person narrative. I understand that this is meant to provide authenticity, but a little goes a long way. I felt overwhelmed after the first few pages and almost abandoned ship! The dialogue is even worse–Faye and her peers use “ya” instead of “you,” and don’t believe in “g”s at the end of participles. It’s an added foil with the well-bred characters but still a bit much. This was by far by biggest complaint about the book, though it became a little less noticeable once I became absorbed in the plot.

To it’s credit, This Dame for Hire did not seem as clichéd as a lot of cozy mysteries; romance takes a definite back burner, and the idiosyncratic best friend (a psychic) only plays a small part in solving the mystery. So I guess despite all the slang Faye herself won me over. I won’t rush out for the next book in the series but I’ll keep it in mind for when I need a light read.

Update: I was cleaning out my TBR list and this  book was on there, from a while ago. I have no idea where I heard about it, but that kind of legitimizes the read and makes it seem less of a splurge…

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Simon the Coldheart

“If he laughed it was a short, dry sound, somewhat sardonic in sound and quickly gone, but when he smiled there were two ways he had of doing it; one when he was crossed, that one more terrible than his frown, the other when he was in a smiling humour, a singularly sweet smile, this, with a hint of boyishness at the back of it.”

Simon the Coldheart was my first foray into Gerogette Heyer’s historical novels and it was not nearly as intimidating as I had feared–in fact it was downright enjoyable and a surprisingly quick read.

With no father to acknowledge he calls himself Simon of Beauvallet; he will gain many other names before long. Simon starts out as a page to the son of a lord in early fifteenth century England. He rarely if ever entertains any type of passion, and his plans for greatness are confident rather than ambitious. Yet his  strength of character when commading men on and off the battlefield soon earns him the respect and loyalty. His closest friends wonder if he will ever meet his match–and then he is ordered to bring the French castle of Belrèmy under English control. Lady Margaret has no intention of surrendering, especially to a coldhearted soldier like Simon!

Georgette Heyer’s period flavor is impeccable. On the first page I reminded myself that Medieval times aren’t always my favorite era. On the tenth I wondered it the authentic dialogue might become annoying after awile. By the third chapter I had forgotten any qualms, as well as what page I was even on. One review I stumbled across on LibraryThing hit the nail on the head by noting that Heyer does not succomb to the “elaborate descriptions” of much historical fiction. Instead she mentions details much as would be done in a contemporary novel–no more or less than necessary, but with complete accuracy. This feat seems to require the greater skill, for she must know the period completely in all possible scenarios. In addition, her writing is not just peppered with “thou”s but manages to capture the syntax and vocabulary of the time without becoming confusing, prose as well as dialogue.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which focuses on Simon’s making his way in the world. We spend time getting really getting to know the characters through their actions, but they are spread out over time. Just as I found myself thinking that the narrative lacked suspense, however, I found myself thrown headlong into the siege of the castle and a new level of excitement and tension that didn’t let up until the end. I think this was partly because Lady Margaret was thrown into the mix, but also because the action had a greater sense of immediacy.

I wondered why I recognized some of the names like Henry of Bolingbroke, and Northumberland, until a mention of the former king Richard II reminded me of Shakespeare. We read the play in my honors class freshman year of college. I recall little of the plot other than the speech I had to memorize where he surrenders the crown (“I give this heavy weight from off my head…”). The knowledge is not necessary for Simon the Coldheart (other than to confirm her accuracy), but it might be nice supplementary material to revisit it. Of course, that might mean I’d have to tackle the present king Henry IV as well, which I’m not sure I feel up to.

I have one small criticism which in no way diminishes the read. Many minor characters from the first half reappear later on, but Roger the squire who had a prominent role is absent. It seems to me he should have been one of the men present with Simon at Belrèmy rather than nobodies. The reason this seems glaring to me is because of how strong the sense of continuity is otherwise.

Overall this was a highly enjoyable read and reminded me all over again of why I love Gergette Heyer. It was a treat to rediscover her in this third genre, which she herself viewed as her favorite. All of the elements that characterize her Regency romances–strong characters, accurate period detail, and plenty of witty reparté–are here as well. Luckily I have four more on the shelf waiting for me!

This book is my chosen read for the “Body Part” category in the What’s in a Name 2 Challenge.

Published in: on August 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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Tis the Fourth!

Happy Fourth of July weekend! To show my patriotic spirit in honor of the holiday, here are my top five for the Revolutionary War, my favorite time period.

  1. Pretty much anything by Ann Rinaldi: Time Enough for Drums, The Fifth of March, Finishing Becca,…and several more.
  2. Felicity: An American Girl (The American Girls Collection): of course Felicity was the doll I had-she was not only colonial, but a redhead!
  3. The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777 (Dear America): A solid entry in a great series.
  4. Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes: A boy gets caught up in the excitement of revolution in this Newbery winner.
  5. Freedom at Any Price (Liberty’s Kids): One of a few novelizations of the TV show, which spanned the whole war. In fact, my blog image is one of the characters.

I realized everything on this list is children’s or YA that I read when younger, though they are definitely all worthwhile. I haven’t really been able to find much regular fiction set during this period, let alone mysteries. Let me know if you have any suggestions!

Published in: on July 4, 2009 at 5:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Black Elk in Paris

I haven’t quite made up my mind about Black Elk in Paris by Kate Hornsley; perhaps I need to let it simmer in my mind for a while. I grabbed in from the library shelf on a complete whim, barely skimming the summary. I expected it to be a look at “cultures in contact,” and I am trying to broaden my horizons.

I’m still not completely sure what the book is about. On a plot level it is told from the perspective of French doctor Philippe Normand, detailing the strange friendship he and his patient’s daughter Madou form with Black Elk. The setting is Paris on the brink of the 1888 Exposition.

For a lot of the book I was torn with whether or not I liked it. Certainly it was interesting, but I didn’t necessarily feel invested in the characters and something in the writing style kept tempting me to skim. I think part of the problem is that Hornsley tries to say too much, giving the book an abstractly philosophical tone with no distinct moral. She emphasizes the questionable nature of period medical practices, both in efficacy and morality, but also touches briefly on class inequalities. Much is made of the age’s cynicism, with outlets both in hedonism and religion.

In the last chapter, however, for some reason things suddenly clicked for me and I would up feeling mcuh more benevolent towards the book than I intended. She did a nice job wrapping everything up, and even brought a smile to my face.

My distaste for cynicism is at war with my francophone tendencies, but I must admit my interest was piqued.  I think Murder on the Eiffel Tower is set at the same time. I will have to see if the library has it when I return this one.

Published in: on June 6, 2009 at 11:21 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Key to Rebecca

Despite my love of suspense I’m not particularly well-versed in thrillers, and have never made the acquaintance of Smiley or Bourne. I do, however, have a fondness for Helen MacInnes’ espionage stories, WWII settings, and above all the gothic romance novel Rebecca. With all this recommendation I knew that at some point or another I would have try Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. In the future I should probably stick to thrillers written by women. First off, probably any novel could have played the role of the Daphne DuMaurier classic–most likely it was chosen to make a compelling title.

In 1942 Cairo German/Egyptian Alex Wolff is the perfect spy, and British forces are powerless in their searches for him. Captain Vandam especially recognizes this as an iminent danger, and enlists the unsatisfied Elene Fontana to search for information and eventually seduce Wolff.

For some reason, much of this book seemed distasteful to me. I know I should expect some violence in a thriller and won’t complain about that. However, Follett seems to suggest that in espionage the best way to get what you want is through physical relationships, for both sides. In addition about half the story is told from Wolff’s perspective, and he is certainly not a likable character–of course the enemy is never portrayed as such. It seems natural in life to praise the Nathan Hales and despise the Benedict Arnolds.

There are good qualities to this novel as well, namely the fact that it seems thoroughly researched. I knew little of the African continent’s involvement in WWII save vague mentions in history class about Eisenhower. This was truly enlightening as to the scope of battles, and also the general undercurrents of tension between British and Egyptians at the time.

Spoiler alert: Some of my favorite parts are the clues and ruses used by Elene and Vandam near the end, which seemed like they could even be out of a different book. Despite Wolff’s evasive cleverness much of the story seems to brush over quick-thinking, which for me is the only really interesting part of thrillers.

Of course by the end I was reading quickly to find out what would happen, but if this wasn’t for a challenge I probably would have put it down to go to bed a while ago. And I think that pretty much sums up how I felt about the book.

Published in: on June 6, 2009 at 1:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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