REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s A ROYAL AFFAIR (Sparks and Bainbridge #2)

Royal_AffairI loved Allison Montclair’s first Sparks and Bainbridge mystery, The Right Sort of Man, and anticipated the second. Is there anything better than a summer holiday, with only a modicum of work obligations, to enjoy an anticipated book?

A Royal Affair takes Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge out of their humble business start and into the highest echelons of royal matters, to the possible engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Someone, however, doesn’t want this to take place. A blackmailer, with damning letters involving the prince’s mother, Princess Alice, and intrigues implicating Greek leftists (anti-monarchist, of course) and those who would restore Greece’s ersatz (sorry, my side is showing) royal family, who, where I come from, are neither royal, nor Greek. This lent a moue of disappointment reading the mystery novel, but it is strictly a personal one and I can still heartily recommend the series and this addition to it. To set the scene, Lady Matheson, Gwen’s cousin, arrives at London-based Right Sort Marriage Bureau with a task for Gwen and Iris: to search out the person, or persons, who seek to destroy the union between the handsome Greek prince and the future queen. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: Esmerald, #33

EsmeraldaWhen you’re in a pandemic, what can you do but pick up your GREAT BETTY NEELS READ from where you left off, victim of neglect and ennui. Sigh. So glad I’m back on my epic quest to read all 134 of her oeuvre. It was such a comfort to be back in a world where the tea is good, the sandwiches are better, there’s always a pudding, the hero is enormous and ethical, as is the heroine, and everyone receives rewards commensurate with their qualities. A warning to readers: our eponymous heroine had a childhood accident, which left her disabled in one foot. The novel’s first half is dedicated to her encounter with the hero, Dr. Thimo Bamstra, a renowned Dutch surgeon, who will “fix” her foot. This may be offensive to some, that Esmeralda needs “fixing” in any way and, indeed, I don’t think the hero feels compelled to “fix” her. It’s Esmeralda herself who has crawled into a hole of shame, aided and abetted by a society that sees disabled people as less than (pub. date is 1976). I can’t say I embraced Esmeralda when I started reading because of this very reason. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it. Continue reading

REVIEW/RESPONSE: C. S. Harris’s WHO SLAYS THE WICKED

Who_Slays_WickedI hoard C. S. Harris’s Regency-set St. Cyr mysteries like a squirrel her winter-nut-stash. But every time, when I have time off, I crack one open to enjoy without interruption. Given it’s a pandemic-summer and stay-home is still the best way to go, I’m happy to say I have TWO St. Cyrs to enjoy! Number fourteen sees Sebastian St. Cyr and wife Hero’s sleuthing hit close to home as Sebastian investigates the murder of his beloved niece’s husband, Lord Ashworth, dissipated, privileged, arrogant, and, as Sebastian suspects, a murderer and defiler of women and children. No one will mourn Ashworth, least of all his wife, Stephanie, who suffered at his hands, but his murder becomes personal when Stephanie is suspected. Like all of Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries, it’s a wild ride: a Russian delegation arrives in London to foil the Anglo-Dutch alliance sprung out of Napoléon’s dwindling/defunct powers. Russian and English nobles, London’s poor and destitute, one notch above-impoverishment servant class mix and mingle in Sebastian and wife’s, Hero’s, attempts to discover who killed the vicious Lord Ashworth. The narrative moves towards a confrontation between Sebastian, with his preternatural detecting powers, and evil. There is, in this volume, evil in Biblical proportions and Seb, more than ever, aware of human frailty, as the people he loves are caught in Ashworth’s depraved vortex.  Continue reading

Summer Reading: A Wow Book

Say_NothingDespite a week of family and work obligations, I spent most of it rushing back from an errand, or logging off a Zoom meeting eager to return to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. (If you read one nonfiction text this year, make it this one.) It’s remarkable and, rare in nonfiction, written with spare, clear, elegant prose. It is, as the subtitle makes obvious, an account of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s conflagrations to present-day; vague images of fires and bombs on the television news as I was growing up. Radden Keefe brought things home: I grew up in a society divided along fraught, linguistic lines; one who, like Northern Ireland, stood on the brink of chronic sectarian violence. (In 1970, as I walked to school, Canadian soldiers manned every street corner: the FLQ kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, ironically Irish-born, and deputy premier Pierre Laporte. Unlike Northern Ireland, though Laporte was killed and Westmount mailboxes bombed, Quebec slid into sullen stability: the English fled; the French stayed; allophones endured; language laws passed; separatist referenda, defeated. Quebec continues playing chicken with Canada and Canadians, for the most part, politely tolerate it.) I compare apples with oranges and ignore the matter at hand, Radden Keefe’s amazing book, my digression a testament to how thought-provoking it is. Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on a Maybe-Reread of Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1961)

Prime_Jean_BrodieIn a single sitting, I recently read (reread? I’m not sure, I might’ve read it years ago, but have no memory of it, so it might as well be a first read) Muriel Sparks’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Sparks’s satiric take on the cult of personality. Said personality is, of course, Miss Brodie, and yet, by the end, though Sparks pokes, prods, and lampoons her eponymous anti-heroine, might there be a hint of redemption, a nod to Miss Brodie’s transformative power? I’m not sure. In many ways, Miss Brodie is detestable: arrogant, self-important, snobbish, a fascist. This final Brodie fact indicts her and is her downfall. (BTW, if you’re keen on not reading about Brodie with spoilers, I’d stop here.) Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Sarah M. Eden’s THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN

Lady_HighwaymanI was pleasantly surprised at the complexity and page-turning élan of Sarah M. Eden’s The Lady and the Highwayman. Eden is a new-to-me author and I’m glad I’ve discovered her romances; this first read won’t be my last, thanks to her robust backlist.

Victorian-set among the humble and working-class, Eden’s thriller-melodrama-romance boasts a former-“guttersnipe” hero, now successful penny dreadful author, and girls-school headmistress heroine. Fletcher Walker struts the streets of 1865-London with the swagger of a man who brought himself out of the gutter and into success. But Fletcher is not an advocate of the every-man-is-an-economic-island making his own way in the world. He is the defender, rescuer, and fighter for the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of London’s invisible people, the widowed, fatherless, and orphaned; the sweep’s agony, the harlot’s cry come under Fletcher’s protection and his penned stories tell of their pathos, endurance, and spunky survival, the importance of helping one another, and defending those who cannot defend themselves. His author’s income isn’t for himself alone, but largely given to the poorest of the poor. Continue reading

Vivian Gornick’s FIERCE ATTACHMENTS and “Urban Peasants”

Fierce_AttachmentsVivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, I hoped, when I picked it up, would be a “fierce” rallying cry for the feral spinster. But Gornick disappointed me: there she is, growing up in a Jewish-American working-class Bronx, one generation ahead of me, writing about the “making of” a feral spinster and certainly no celebration of it. Primarily, Gornick’s memoir recounts the antagonistically loving relationship she had with her mother and another woman in their shared building, Nettie, who served as her mother’s alternative “voice”, to Gornick reaching her true calling, the life of the solitary. It is neither celebration, nor fulfillment, nor acceptance, but there are glimmers of what will come to mean most to her. I read Fierce Attachments‘s first two-thirds desultorily, wanting so much to like, but hating every moment of it. At a mere 200 or so pages, I persisted and ended up, in the final third, devouring it in one sitting and loving every page. My notes and mark-ups and solitary-reading-couch chuckles resonated through my solitary apartment. 
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REVIEW: Mary Balogh’s SOMEONE TO HONOR

Someone_to_HonorIt is good to be in Mary-Balogh-world again (and apropos to reading-pair her with Betty Neels; see my previous review on The Moon For Lavinia): a world of grace, depth, and beauty, brought like a well-sprung carriage to a believable HEA-conclusion. I haven’t read the Westcott series before, but was over the moon, Lavinia’s, to read and review Someone To Honor (Wescott #6); it tropishly-ideal marriage-of-convenience narrative was mere icing on the Balogh-wedding-fruitcake.

No one can write deeply-felt, quiet characters, somewhat melancholic, like Balogh can and Someone To Honor‘s Abigail Westcott and Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Bennington, “Gil,” are so. Someone To Honor is more Gil’s story than Abigail, but Abigail is the key to Gil’s changes. Gil experiences the greatest inner changes; yet Abigail too finds closure in all that she has realized in the past six years. They’re ideal for each other, but marry for pragmatic purposes with a dose of strong physical attraction, typical to Balogh. Continue reading

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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