REVIEW: David Stafford’s SKELTON’S GUIDE TO DOMESTIC POISONS (Skelton’s Guides #1)

Skelton's_Guide_to_Domestic_PoisonsDavid Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons is what you get when you cross a Golden-Age mystery with P. G. Wodehouse, which would be high praise indeed if not for caveats.

Set in a 1929 England ignorant of the economic cataclysm to come, Stafford’s mystery centres on a loveable, of-working-class-stock barrister and his efforts to exonerate Mary Dutton, accused of poisoning her abusive husband; the novel’s blurb offers some further details:

Before propelled to front-page fame by winning the case of the century, Arthur Skelton was a fairly unremarkable barrister. Now, he is enjoying the attention that being dubbed a hero by the press brings – namely practising his distinguished pose and his autograph – much to the amusement of his wife.

But January 1929 brings another high-profile case. Mary Dutton is accused of murdering her husband, although there are few people who dispute her guilt. The case is considered unwinnable; however, despite the odds, Skelton agrees to defend her – a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with her resemblance to a beautiful Hollywood actress …

With an army of flappers set to cast their inaugural votes in the looming general election, both sides of the political divide are keen to secure their support by turning the case to their advantage and begin to lean on Skelton. Aided by his trusty clerk Edgar, Skelton faces mounting pressure to find the truth. But will that be enough to save a young woman’s life?

Stafford’s quasi-comic, quasi-tragic mystery may be divided into disparate parts: the marvelously comic characterization and dubious mystery. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: Neels’s GRASP A NETTLE #38

Grasp_a_NettleThe quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Lisa Kleypas’s COLD-HEARTED RAKE (Ravenels #1)

Cold-Hearted_RakeIf I can say a few things about Kleypas, they would be: she still writes books that made me fall in love with romance in the first place (Derek Craven!) and she’s only gotten better over time (except for the woo-woo books). It’s sad that I side-eye so much romance these days: afraid I’ll find yet another novel with trite, or formulaic ideas; or another trying so hard to do something new that it fails to come alive. But Kleypas still takes joy in the genre and it comes through in the Ravenel series. Though I’d read and reviewed Chasing Cassandra (back when the pubs most likely to decline a small-time reviewing outfit like Miss Bates went into pandemic-sales panic and granted ARCs right left and centre), I’m glad I went back and started the series from the first volume.

The pub-blurb makes Cold-Hearted Rake sound like any other standard-fare histrom, but the sheer delight and reader-joy I took in it was more than most historical romances I’ve tried to read have offered:

Devon Ravenel, London’s most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl’s three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon’s own. Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny-and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her. Continue reading

Somewhat of a Review: Daniel Mendelsohn’s THREE RINGS: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate

Three_RingsIn “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” In Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings, based on lectures he gave at the University of Virginia in 2019, the eponymous “rings” refer to the narrative construction of Homer’s Odyssey, as Mendelsohn defines and understands it, and to both the construction of his narrative and the pattern that helped him escape from a stasis in his life’s journey.

When the narrative opens, Mendelsohn tells us he was in a state of what the Greeks called “aporia,” (a kind of, from my weak demotic Greek, “unknowingness”), “a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem … I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless — the adjective, as it happens, that, in the Odyssey, is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to claim his identity and find his way home”.

After writing two “big” books (one a years-long attempt to uncover how six family members were lost in the Holocaust; the other recounting his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey and relationship with his father, a text and story inundated with fathers, sons, and occurrences of separation and connection) and enduring his father’s loss, being emotional journeys as much as intellectual ones, Mendelsohn found himself, like Dante at the opening of “Inferno”: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Mendelsohn then tells the story of three men, emblematic of the central figure of our time and place, the wanderer, the exile, the DP, Berger’s “seventh man,”: first, Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; then, an eighteenth-century French archbishop, François Fénelon, author of The Adventures of Telemachus (a telling that centres the Homeric narrative on fils over père); and, lastly, W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lived in East Anglia, and wrote strange hybrid tales of memory, history, haunting photography, and journey-logues. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #37: Neels’s THE HASTY MARRIAGE

Hasty_MarriageThe Christian edict that “the last shall be first” comes true in many a Neels romance. Such is The Hasty Marriage (1977). The waif. The mouse. The mousy-haired. The too-small, too-plump, too-plain heroine. And, horrors, on the shelf too. Pushing thirsty. An *gasp* old-maid-in-the-making. The heroine who declares her un-attractiveness on every page. Is there a more self-deprecating one than The Hasty Marriage‘s Laura (do we ever learn her last name?).

A ward sister at St. Anne’s in London, she comes home to visit her father and finds her Dutch godfather with his colleague, Dr. Reilof van Meerum. Drama ensues, as we learn from the blurb:

Laura had always been used to taking second place to her pretty younger sister, Joyce. If Joyce wanted something, she got it! It was, therefore, no surprise to Laura that when she fell in love with the attractive Dutch doctor Reilof van Meerum, he chose Joyce instead. But when Joyce walked out on him to marry another, richer man, Reilof asked her to marry him. He needed a wife, and Laura, it seemed, would do as well as anyone. So she accepted–but could she really expect to be happy with a man who did not love her?

For the most part, and thank the good Neelsian gods, Joyce is absent from the narrative. When she appears, at the start to lure Reilof and at the end to put a canker in the rose of Laura’s marriage (stilted and unconsummated as it is, it’s hers and she loves Reilof enough to be willing to live with this compromise). Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kearsley’s, Huber’s, Trent’s, and Harris’s THE DEADLY HOURS

I never have been, nor will I ever be a fan of the genre novella. The reader-deliciousness of romance and mystery is in the sinking-in for a long, luxurious, fully-developped read. (Despite its spareness, I would say that a great category romance accomplishes this very thing as well.) BUT two of my favourite authors were featured in this inter-connected anthology of novellas and I couldn’t resist. I was especially lured by the promise of Kearsley and Harris goodness, even though Harris’s narrative isn’t Regency-set, nor features my frisson-inducing favourite hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, but I’ll take what I can get. I thought the premise and historical arc, linked by this “cursed” pocket-watch, intriguing:

A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.

From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.

The four novellas are inter-connected by the watch, as well as the four elements: the watch must endure a test by air, earth, fire, and water before the curse can be broken. The anthology had everything necessary to make for a great read: mystery, a hint of mortality and fate in the cursed-watch motif, and rich historical detail. And yet, while I enjoyed the individual efforts, I can’t say it ever came together … and maybe that is just the nature of the beast. I felt the same way about Willig, Williams, and White’s All the Ways We Said Goodbye. I liked the bits, wasn’t keen on the whole. Kearsley’s and Harris’s efforts, however, were quite enjoyable
Continue reading

Mini-Review: Cara Bastone’s CAN’T HELP FALLING (Forever Yours #2)

Bastone is as much at the top of her romance-game in Can’t Help Falling as she was in Just a Heartbeat Away. I may have enjoyed the latter a smidgen more than the former, but it doesn’t stop Can’t Help Falling from being one of the best romances I’ve read this year.

Falling picks up where Heartbeat leaves off and includes lovely cameos from the first romance’s hero and heroine, hero’s son and pooch, Seb, Via, Matty, and Crabby. While Heartbeat tells Seb and Via’s romance, Falling is about the road to love and commitment for Seb’s and Via’s best friends, Tyler Leshuski and Serafine “Fin” St. Romain:

Serafine St. Romain doesn’t need her psychic powers to know she’s no longer in Tyler Leshuski’s good graces. True, she did tear him to pieces when he asked her out, accusing him of being shallow and selfish. Despite the energy crackling between them, the gorgeous sports writer is a no-strings, no-kids kind of guy. And Serafine, raised in the foster system, intends to be a foster parent herself. She won’t compromise that dream, even for a man as annoyingly appealing as Tyler.

In a simpler world, Tyler would already have gotten Serafine out of his system. For him, women equal fun. Not this kind of bone-deep, disconcerting desire. Life gets even more complicated when he becomes the guardian of his much younger sister. Suddenly, he’s way out of his depth. Serafine’s the only person who can connect with Kylie. He can’t jeopardize that for a fling. But maybe…just maybe…he’s finally ready to risk everything on forever.

The blurb, however, makes the romance more lighthearted than it is. While Bastone can write great comic scenes and with great wit, neither Tyler, nor Fin start the narrative in a particularly good place and they experience anguish, doubt, and heartache. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jackie Ashenden’s HOME TO DEEP RIVER

We can add Jackie Ashenden to the queendom of the small-town contemporary romance duo of Maisey Yates and Caitlin Crews/Megan Crane to make a triumvirate. Which means you get more of the same if you’re a fan of Yates, or Crews-Crane. I’m not a fan anymore. I’m tired of the formula: former military heroes are now suspect, small-towns are scary “off the grid” loony-territory, and tough-talking heroines hiding lonely vulnerabilities aren’t quite believable when “they doth protest too much”. If these characters turn your crank, then you’re the reader for Ashenden’s first “Deep River, Alaska” romance, Home to Deep River.

Ashenden establishes her series setting with a romance that sees hero Silas Quinn return home when his best friend, RIP Caleb West, the town owner, bequeaths him, well, the town. It’s been thirteen years of bad memories of Deep River, except for Silas’s love for Hope Dawson:

Deep River, Alaska, boasts a fiercely independent though small population. The people who live here love it, and they don’t much care what anyone else thinks. Until the day Silas Quinn comes back and tells them an oil reserve has been found below the town and now it’s neighbor vs. neighbor. Some want to take the money and run, while others want to tell the oil company to put its rigs where the sun don’t shine.

Hope Dawson never expected to leave Deep River. Her mom needs her. Her grandfather died and left her the local hangout to run. Her dreams of college and adventure died long ago. Until Silas comes back to town, holding the key to set her free. But freedom means she loses him again, and he’s the one she’s really always wanted.

As a matter of fact, no oil company shows up, there’s no neighbour vs. neighbour and the oil reserve is a minor plot point in this day and age of climate change and alternative energy to bring Silas and Hope together. Does it matter? Not really. Because the town shenanigans and oil reserves and what the town will decide are the background to Ashenden’s purpose: her protagonists waffling on about their tormented feelings while having a lot of sex, lotso’ sex and lotso’ internal distress and denial.  Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #36: Neels’s A MATTER OF CHANCE (1977)

A_Matter_Of_ChanceAh, beloved Betty, your Matter of Chance took me through many a bathtub reading session and kept me annoyingly flipping pages. You broke the bank with your hero’s inscrutable meanness and heroine’s puckered-brow peevishness. I admit to an eagerness to read my Betty #36 because of the sheer delight I took in your protagonists’ names, as evidenced from the blurb:

Cressida Bingley needs a fresh start, so moving to Holland for a new job seems perfect. Until she finds herself lost in Amsterdam and accepts help from a charming knight in shining armor — who turns out to be her new boss’s partner! Dr. Giles van der Tiele can’t forget the alluring young woman he rescued, and longs to make her his bride. But Cressida refuses to marry for anything less than love.

Hmm, the blurb is deceptive because Giles doesn’t propose to Cressida until near the end and the blurb moves this into the preamble to MoC territory, which it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I hate to say this, but Giles spends most of the novel being so incredibly unkind that I came as close to being mad at precious Betty as I ever have. I loved Cressida: she’s smart, competent, beautiful, and hard-working. So what gives, Giles, why you gotta be so mean? Continue reading