Miss Bates’s 2020 Year-End “Review”

Sky_Dec_31_2020Dear readers and friends, if there’s one quotation that ran through my mind this annus horribilis, it’s Fitzgerald’s, “It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence, or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well” (The Great Gatsby). And we have lived it every single day since March, when the subtle rumbling of the covid avalanche came to our attention. Then, lockdown … and a strange, united elation of singing from balconies and applauding health care workers and a kind of strange peace for those of us staying home that took the form of bread-baking and staring out windows. And, what I thought would be “reading time”, despite WFH. It wasn’t. Not the reading time part: instead a length of days, lost, in dream and lethargy. Of the books I did read, few stood out. Here they are. Continue reading

Katherine Reay’s OF LITERATURE and LATTES

Of_Literature_and_LattesMy initial response to Katherine Reay’s Of Literature & Lattes was: “this book is a mess”. Structurally, it’s all over the place. It opens in fictional-small-town Winsome, Illinois, from the point of view of the local bookstore owner, Eve Parker … whom we barely meet again. At first, I thought she was the heroine, given this is labelled a romance. She isn’t. A plethora of troubled and/or sad small-town characters show up. It was hard to keep track of what made them sad/troubled. Then, all of this within the first 20 pages, we’re catapulted to Palo Alto, CA, where one Alyssa Harrison is being investigated by the FBI because the company she worked for took clients’ medical information, ostensibly to predict future illnesses as a preventative exercise, but sold the info. Alyssa, her FBI interview still pending, gets into her car to make her way home, a journey and destination holding nothing but dread and failure. Home is, of course, Winsome, and there await her mother, Janet, an artist who works at the book shop, and father, Seth. Janet and Seth are divorced because Janet cheated and Alyssa, never sharing an easy mother-daughter relationship, has blamed Janet for her parents’ break-up. But Janet and Seth are dating again, forgiveness is in the air … and Alyssa walks right into it and hates it. We leave Alyssa and her troubled relationship with her mother to meet the new owner of the town coffee-shop, Jeremy Mitchell. He moved to Winsome and invested everything he owns in the town, sharing business responsibilities with his friend, Ryan, because he wants to be closer to his seven-year-old daughter, Becca. His marriage broke up soon after Becca was born and his ex-wife, Krista, is hell to deal with. His coffee-shop is not the success he’d hope because he doesn’t have the community spirit, as Ryan tells him over and over again.    Continue reading

Michelle Douglas’s REDEMPTION OF THE MAVERICK MILLIONAIRE

Redemption_Maverick_MillionaireI adore a reunited-lovers trope and Michelle Douglas has given us a gem of a treatment in Redemption Of the Maverick Millionaire. She has penned a betrayal story that is NOT a sexual betrayal and yet, is viscerally compelling. With my beloved category romances at a minimum of goodness and telescoping my category reading to a handful of authors, a great category is always welcome. Redemption Of the Maverick Millionaire is a great category romance, well-written, tightly-paced, and driven by character and sentiment.

Damon Macy encounters Eve Clark at a moment when he cuts a deal to buy property in her beloved town of Mirror Glass Bay. What she doesn’t know is that he’s motivated by one sole desire: to make up for how he hurt her four years ago and gain some measure of peace by redeeming his then godawful actions. Hence, the title. What he doesn’t know is that Eve wanted that property to be developed, not to keep it pristine. Mirror Glass Bay can’t afford that: to keep their town’s essential services, like an elementary school and clinic, residents like small-business owner Eve need to drum up investment. For a few minutes, Eve believes Damon has foiled and upended her life again … and Damon is mortified. He swiftly moves into Eve’s beachfront hotel, the only deal in town, and goes about ensuring that Eve gets exactly what she wants: investment, development, and the revivification of her beloved home, where she’s lived since his betrayal, with her gran, having left Sydney and the corporate world behind. Continue reading

Reading Scarcity … if not for a few great books …

Little_StrangerAs I make my way towards this coming winter of discontent, my reading is as slow and endless as February. Here I am, in early December, and I’ve read one book this past month. One. Sad. On the other hand, it’s a GREAT book. I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, what you’d get if Shirley Jackson had written Downton Abbey, crossed it with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”, and tossed in a touch of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

The Little Stranger is one of the most compelling and disorienting novels I’ve ever read and I kind of loved it. At times, I resented it, felt it was built only on relentless plot that remained impenetrable. Yet I couldn’t put it down and resented work, family obligation, and mundane household tasks keeping me from sitting down and reading through to its end.

Set in post-WWII Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is narrated by a country doctor, Dr. Faraday. Of humble origins, Faraday’s parents (long dead when the novel opens) gave up everything to educate him and yet, now he is “risen” above their station, he remains at most a modest success, treating his small-town patients’ ordinary ills and keeping an uninspired bachelor apartment above a store. In his late thirties, his life is circumscribed by his practice and the occasional dinner with his partner’s family. All is stodgily quiet until he is called to Hundreds Hall, a Downton-esque estate where his mother worked as a maid when he was a child, to treat the ailing servant-girl, Betty, who, in the end, may or may not be the “little stranger” and whose part in Faraday’s and the Hundreds’s family’s, the Ayreses’, tragedy may have played a part, or not. That is the most maddening and brilliant aspect of Waters’s novel, even reaching its final words, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, or why.   Continue reading

Scarlett Peckham’s THE RAKESS

RakessScarlett Peckham’s The Rakess is an interesting experiment in reversing the rake figure in historical romance. I’m not sure it succeeds. We’re familiar with the rake-“anti”-hero, who remains “anti” until he meets the heroine: dissipated, carousing, given to sin and excess and focussed solely on pleasure, two of my favourites being Hoyt’s Duke of Sin and Balogh’s Notorious Rake. The rake is inevitably confronted by a good woman, a woman of purpose and substance who unearths his deeply-held desire for connection and an abandoning of his soul-destroying dissolute ways. Peckham’s heroine, with the unfortunate name of Seraphina Arden, exhibits the trappings of rakedom: she uses sex as an anodyne, drinks, and gads about town with unsavory characters. When the novel opens, she’s returned to her Cornish childhood home to write her memoirs, a much-anticipated double-volume of salacious deliciousness. There, she meets and has an affair with the upright, hard-working Scot architect, widower, and single father of two, Adam Anderson.
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The Great Betty Read: THE EDGE OF WINTER, #34

Edge_Of_WinterOn the Betty Neels scale of perfection to meh, The Edge of Winter falls closer to perfection, except for one great big ole blip near the end. In the dramatic opening, our heroine, with the unlikely name of Araminta Shaw, is rescued from a treacherous Cornish cliff (she descended the ramparts to save a stranded child) by a mysterious sailor, who … behold, shows up as Dutch visiting Dr. Crispin van Sibbelt at the hospital where Araminta is employed as a nurse. Like my favourite Neelses, Araminta and Crispin do NOT hit it off: he’s arrogant, overbearing and teasing; she’s annoyed and peevish. She hates him and especially herself for finding him attractive. One night, after a particularly harrowing hospital day, Crispin shows up at Araminta’s flat, with supper … from Harrod’s. Is there anything to compare to a hero who appears when the heroine is too tired to deal with supper? They eat companionably enough and Crispin kisses Araminta. She’s half in love with him and in total denial, giving rise to one’s of Betty’s finest peevish-heroine passages: “He had invited himself — and he had behaved very strangely; she had been kissed before, but somehow this time she had felt disturbed by it, and that was strange in itself, because she didn’t like him. She would take great care to treat him with polite aloofness when next they met. She entered the Accident Room, carrying on a mythical conversation with him in which he came off very much the worse for wear” (40). WARNING: spoilers ahead. Continue reading

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s HID FROM OUR EYES

Hid_From_Our_EyesI have come to the most recent “end” of Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series with a sigh of satisfaction and anticipation for the next book, underway but by no means on the pubbed radar. One reason I love this series is Spencer-Fleming’s ability to deliver the familiar with something fresh, new, and surprising. In Hid From Our Eyes, she continues Clare and Russ’s great love and now adorable parenthood, offers ample glimpses into the ensemble cast who surround them, but also introduces new characters, fleshes out beloved, well-known ones, advances, but barely, to my great chagrin, a secondary romance, and depicts three murders occurring in different time periods, 1952, 1972, and present-day. She links them by the murders’ similarity: a dead young woman is found on a Millers Kill roadway, the autopsy failing to establish cause of death, and three police chiefs, Harry Neil (1952), Jack Liddle (1972), and Russ Van Alstyne (present-day), committed, intelligent, ethical, try to find the murderers. (Spencer-Fleming lobs a gasp-worthy revelation when one of Jack’s 1972 suspects is a newly returned military vet, angry, wild, and oh-so-sad, barely out-of-his-teens Russ!)  Continue reading

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS

Through_the_Evil_DaysIn January of 1998, I made my way to work amidst broken power lines, felled trees, and the ping-ping of ice pellets on the roof of my trusty Corolla. By the next day, Quebec, Ontario, and sundry US north eastern states, with whom we share a winter-affinity, were encased in ice, road crews, police, firefighters, and hydro crews working day and night to bring safety and light to 1000s, eventually millions. It was the first mass disruption to my daily work routine (the pandemic, the second) and reading Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days brought it back. Only someone who lives their winter like Canadians do, in this case Spencer-Fleming lives in Maine, close enough!, can render an ice storm as vividly as she did in this Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery, her eighth. It is one element among many that Spencer-Fleming does well in a novel I consumed in a 24-hour period, following fast upon my too-leisurely read of One Was A Soldier. If you’re new to the series, be warned, spoilers ahead. If you’re a fan and all caught up, read on. Continue reading

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s ONE WAS A SOLDIER

One_Was_A_SoldierThere are books I hoard until I know another one is imminent. But the wait for another Russ Van Alstyne/Clare Fergusson mystery was seven years in the offing. I kept One Was A Soldier and Through the Evil Days piled on the night-table, winking and beckoning and giving me the come-hither-reader. But I resisted. Now, with, finally, after a seven-year wait, a new Russ/Clare novel, Hid From Our Eyes, I decided to go whole hog and catch up on all of them. With covid-work and sundry tasks, reading-time has been at a premium, usually consisting of three sleepy-eyed pages and then oblivion until the alarm chirps. Nevertheless, I was glad, even piecemeal, to sink into One Was A Soldier, though it was as unlike the previous books in the series as I’d ever expected. Oh, I liked it, loved it for Russ and Clare, but it did come as a surprise. For one thing, Spencer-Fleming played with her narrative timeline and frankly, for another thing, I barely recognized Clare and Russ, their personalities usually running along the lines of serene wisdom to street-smart a-whole-lot-o’-mess respectively, suddenly turned on their head. Reverend Clare was a hot mess and Russ, an island of calm and reasonableness … until I started reading Through the Evil Days, but that’s for another post. (Be warned, what follows contains spoilers, so continue if you’re already a series fan and have read up to the present volume.)
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Review of C. S. Harris’s WHO SPEAKS FOR THE DAMNED

Who_Speaks_For_the_DamnedWhen you review the 15th installment of a beloved historical murder mystery series, your review is inevitably about where the volume fits in the series’s scale of goodness to weakness. Because I have no perspective when it comes to Harris’s Regency-England-set Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, read no further if you haven’t read the series, just start reading it – from the beginning to the present volume.

In this 15th installment, Harris sees her nobleman-hero, Viscount Devlin, affectionately known as Seb for us in the series’s thrall, seek the murderers of a disgraced nobleman, Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the deceased Earl of Seaforth. Years ago, Hayes was convicted of the murder of an exiled French aristocrat’s wife and, having stayed the noose, was sent to Botany Bay, an equally devastating, but protracted death sentence. Hayes’s return to London, with an Asian child, purported to be his son, shakes many privileged lives, not least of which is the present Earl, a distant cousin. But no sooner does the ton whisper speculation about Hayes’s return than he is found dead in Pennington’s Teas Gardens, with a sickle in his back. What brought Hayes back, though he would be captured and executed if caught by Bow Street? Was it revenge? Vindication? Continue reading