The Great Betty Read: A STAR LOOKS DOWN, #30

Star_Looks_DownAfter the magnificence of Henrietta’s Own Castle (the cat alone sent me into paroxysms of reader-joy … Henry in his tea cosy), I was ready for a gentler, quieter Neels and found it in A Star Looks Down. It’s so quiet and gentle, there’s an absence of OW (Other Woman, for those not used to rom-lingo) and the villain is a hardly-villainous ten-year-old. But there is really something quite lovely about the story of heroine Beth Partridge of the plain face and violet eyes and the laconically mild-mannered, patient Dr. Alexander van Zeust. Indeed, if there’s a nasty, it’s Beth’s brother, who takes advantage of her good nature, impeccable house-keeping, generous heart and hand, as he’s constantly asking for a fiver. He’s in medical training and Beth is paying his and her way on her nurse’s pay. But a generous offer comes from Alexander, who recognizes Beth’s nursing and personal worth and offers her a great sum to nurse his sister while she recuperates from an appendectomy and to care for her four young ones (while their father is away).  Continue reading

A Few Comments on Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

We_Have-Always_Lived_In-CastleI went seeking feral spinsters in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women when they were denizens of Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle. I was agog reading Jackson’s novel: what was this combination of nightmarish cozy domesticity, thrilling misandry and misanthropy, allegory of sin and propitiation? The story of two sisters living in isolation in their “castle”, a mansion in the Vermont? woods, one of them had been on trial for their family’s murders and the other had committed the crime. They live with their doddering, elderly Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, spending his time pouring over notes about the family tragedy in hopes he can make sense of events. The girls (for girls they are and girls they remain no matter their ages), 28-year-old Constance and 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood live lives of careful routine: Merricat ventures into town, on designated days, to exchange library books and pick up groceries. She is hounded, harrassed, and ridiculed by the townspeople. Constance tends her garden, preserves its produce in pickles, sauces, jams, etc., and cooks three gourmet meals a day, also baking cookies and cakes. Constance is a parody of domesticity. Their lives, at first, are eccentric, but evolve to surreal by the novel’s conclusion. As I read Castle, I was struck by its brilliance and how difficult it was to penetrate its claustrophic nightmare: one part domestic life parody and three parts weird. (Without meaning to, I’ve read two short, dense novels, penned by two very different writers, about sisters and households. Huh.) 
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What I Read This Week … So Far

Blessed with several weeks of summer holiday, a spinster’s solo, quiet apartment, and stacks of great books in the TBR, this week’s reading was inhaled pretty much nonstop for the past few days. I read David Sedaris’s Calypso and Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, utterly unlikely companions, but enjoyable and compelling in their unique ways.

CalypsoI’ve been a Sedaris fan ever since I read one of his accounts in The New Yorker, oh, eons ago. It was a hilarious story about one of his first flights in first class. He was excited about the ice cream they would serve and the roomy seat from which he’d watch a selection of movies. His delight in these indulgences is foiled by his sobbing seatmate. This poor guy, it turns out, was on his way to Poland for his mother’s funeral. I totally understood Sedaris’s childish pleasure in small luxuries, the guilt that took over when he realized his seatmate’s situation, and the resentment at his fun’s ruination. I loved him on first reading. Sedaris is unfraid to expose his pettinesses, our pettinesses, certainly my pettinesses. Most of us like to imagine ourselves replete with magnanimity, smiling beatifically, eyes swimming in sympathetic tears … but, truth be told, impatient, time’s wingèd chariot ruining our fun, how long do we have to be sympathetic before we can eat our ice cream and watch our film in peace, sympathetic murmurs and “there, there”‘s done with? I love Sedaris because he’s not just off the empathy train, he was never on it to begin with.  Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jody Hedlund’s A RELUCTANT BRIDE

Reluctant_BrideI haven’t read a Hedlund romance in a long time, not since 2013’s Rebellious Heart, a loose telling of Abigail and John Adams’s courtship and marriage (which I loved, btw). The Bride Ship, Book One, has a compelling historical context: a bride ship, in 1862, headed for Vancouver Island and British Columbia with poor women on board preparing to become the wives of the sparse-of-women British colony. One of them is heroine Mercy Wilkins, an angel of “mercy”, a gem, a flower, from the London slums. When we meet Mercy, she hurries towards the Shoreditch Dispensary with an ill child. Instead of the kindly, but getting-on Dr. Bates, a new, handsome doctor (more of him later) is ministering to the poorest of the poor, like Mercy, like the baby in her arms, like everyone in this wretched neighbourhood. When Mercy’s family has to eject yet another of her mother’s many children, Mercy, in hopes she can help her sister Patience leave the workhouse and at Patience’s urging, agrees to board the bride-ship. Continue reading

A Few Comments on Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING

HousekeepingI find it difficult to read a book when I can’t discern the author’s purpose in the writing of it. Reading Robinson’s Housekeeping was reading “through a glass darkly.” It wasn’t so much that it was “purposeless”. I never had that sense, but only of my own reading failure. At times, I glimpsed a phrase of such piercing brilliance that I’d gasp and then it would elude me again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read literary fiction and it was hard going, especially with prose as dense and elusive as this. I admired it, but I didn’t enjoy it. Like most litfic, there isn’t much plot. Two sisters, Ruthie (really more the main character) and Lucille are left in the town of Fingerbone (creepy name, memento mori-ish) by their mother, who drives her borrowed car over Fingerbone’s bridge and into its lake. The girls are raised by their grandmother, then by their grandmother’s two sisters-in-law, then by their eccentric, dream-ridden maternal aunt, Sylvie. Much of what I have to say will consist of what the novel is not rather than what it is. It’s not a coming-of-age narrative. (You can’t really spoil a novel without much plot, but be warned, I’m not careful about discussing whatever struck me in what follows.)  Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH IN KEW GARDENS

Death_Kew-GardensDeath In Kew Gardens, number three in Ashley’s Kat Holloway Below Stairs mysteries and, at least in its first half, the best one yet (I’d still recommend you read the first two, I loved’em). As you know, I don’t read mysteries for the “puzzle-mystery-solution”, or for the criminal’s motive or psychology, but the detecting main character and, in Ashley’s series’ case, her marvelous detecting team of “below stairs” maids, butlers, housekeepers, and mysterious policeman/detective/government agent Daniel McAdam (man of many roles and disguises) and his friends. Of all the mystery series I read, I love Ashley’s for her protagonists and friends, who help Kat Holloway, an inspired cook by profession, solve crimes and bring justice. Kat is talented, smart, beautiful, and kind. In Death In Kew Gardens, Kat’s kindness sets off the novel’s mystery. As Kat shops with her mercurial, temperamental, and hilarious cook’s assistant, Tess (I loved her!), she accidentally knocks over a passerby, Mr. Li, whom she then helps up. That night, Mr. Li knocks on the Rankin house kitchen door, where Kat cooks for the Bywaters and their niece and her friend, Lady Cynthia, and gifts Kat with a box of aromatic tea. Continue reading

What Else I’ve Been Reading

Benway_WelshCanada Day has always meant one thing: reading time! As I’m released from professional duties for a good six+ weeks every year that very day, I settle in for hours of daily glorious reading, snatching one book, moving to another, reading several simultaneously. This year, I was sadly foiled in my summer reading plans by a necessary PD excursion, a full week of my hols, folks. Hence, why I’m only getting into the swing of reading all the things when it’s nearly Bastille Day.

Willig’s Summer Country, at a wopping 480 pages, took all my attention and two books I’ve been reading since mid-June fell by the wayside. Now that I’ve finally settled into a routine, I finished them and will make a few comments about them here. One was Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, a teen novel, which I read for professional reasons, but which I enjoyed immensely. The other was a historical murder mystery I struggled to like, Kaite Welsh’s The Wages of Sin … and sometimes loved. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Donna Alward’s SUMMER ESCAPE WITH THE TYCOON

Summer_Escape_TycoonAs I read Donna Alward’s Summer Escape With the Tycoon, I realized that I enjoy romance where the main characters are at a crossroads, out of their element/comfort zone, or about to embark on a fresh start. This context makes them more open to love, but also more vulnerable and uncertain. Alward is particularly adept at this theme. In Summer Escape, for example, heroine Molly Quinn has bid on and won her first alone-time vacation in years. At 29, she practises family law in her father’s law firm, thus far, her life dedicated to a career that pleases her parents. Eric Chambault, who carried the burden of his family’s welfare when their father abandoned them, has made financial good, so good his now ex-wife has taken 30 meagre millions in their divorce. He doesn’t care about the money, but the failure of his marriage and his ex-wife’s reasons for it (his absence and workaholism) have left him questioning his choices. Like Molly, he bid on the same silent auction holiday at the same charity event. Months later, when he mistakenly ends up in Molly’s hotel room and glimpses her in the tub, well, it’s a priceless meet-cute. The room issue is cleared up, but their vacation-journey through British Columbia’s natural beauty throws them together time and again, especially as they’re the only singles on the luxury trip. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Lucy Gilmore’s PUPPY LOVE

Puppy_LoveWhile Lucy Gilmore is a new-to-me romance author, some of you may know her under the name Tamara Morgan. (I may even have some of “Morgan’s” romances lurking in the TBR.) Though I’m leery of new-to-me romance authors, I succumbed to the cover puppy’s cuteness. If I were to ever have a dog, it would be a Pomeranian, though in truth, I’m a cat-lady. Reading Gilmore’s first volume in the Service Puppies series, I didn’t regret my venture to new-author territory for a moment. Gilmore’s romance may not break new genre ground, but it delighted me. To start, I loved the premise and meet-cute and recounting them will give you a good idea of what you can expect. Harrison Parks is my favourite kind of hero: huge, grumpy, rhetorically monosyllabic, introverted, and a sentimental softie under the bluster and muscle. He’s also a wildfire firefighter and type 1 diabetic, whose workaholism put him into a diabetic coma. Now his boss, Oscar, wants him to get a service dog to detect his blood sugar — before he’ll let him anywhere near a wildfire again. Harrison loves his work and, grumbling and whinging up a storm, he finds himself at the Puppy Promise kennel staring down at a ball of fluff named Bubbles and a bitty woman in a ruffled dress telling him Bubbles is his new lifeline to getting back to the work he loves.
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MINI-REVIEW: Beverly Jenkins’s REBEL

RebelBeverly Jenkins’s Rebel is first in her Women Who Dare series and Jenkins, a new-to-me author. I was keen to try a new historical romance author. In truth, though, I slogged through it, taking two weeks to reach the end. Though its opening was compelling, I never warmed to the protagonists and found the persistently declarative prose, flat.

It opens in 1867 New Orleans as New-Yorker Valinda Lacy teaches her recently freedmen, women, and their children. We get a sense of a society, barely out of war, trying to adjust to new historical realities, some well, and others, clinging to their place as the dominant class and race. They pose a threat to the characters and Jenkins does a excellent job of conveying what it feels like to live under a constant edge of what ought to be a safe, going-about-business existence. For example, Valinda’s school is soon destroyed. Her path then crosses with a powerful, wealthy family, the LeVeqs, who give her a home and protection and help her re-establish the school.
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