I wanted to read Laura Lippman’s Lady In the Lake after I heard an NPR interview with the author. Lippman was knowledgeable and personable about her city’s fractured history, the state of American politics and journalism, its ills and its profound necessity for examining the state of the nation and ensuring free, open democracy. Certainly, her standalone novel contains threads of these ideas. It is, however, unlike Lippman’s expansive personality and openness, a cramped book. The premise held promise: a recently separated late-thirties beauty, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz (née Morgenstern) has left marriage and middle-class comfort behind to pursue a reporter’s beat. In 1966, there was a ceiling still so thick for women that not even Maddie’s sledgehammer beauty and persistence can break it. Living in one of Baltimore’s seedier neighbourhoods, Maddie pursues an affair with a black policeman, whose nightly visits, an inter-racial “romance” still illicit and dangerous to both, are vigorous and all-consuming. Maddie revels in her freedom for sex and solitude. There’s a mild regret at leaving her son Seth with his father. Seth proves a snivelling, whiny character and I never warmed to him. If at first Maddie’s pursuit of a journalistic career seems random and half-hearted, once she gets a clerical job at a local paper, she begins a relentless pursuit to find the killer of the “lady in the lake”, Cleo Sherwood, make her mark, and get a beat of her own.
Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner write one of my favourite historical romance series and Free Fall is their fifth story in it. I love that it’s set in the 1960s, a decade I was born into, but don’t remember much of … other than a vague black-and-white memory of MamaB, in bouffant hair, sitting on the coffee table, smoking, and weeping over Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flickering on our tiny, bunny-eared TV. Barry and Turner’s series avoids America’s many ’60s tragedies and focusses instead on the American race to space. Their novels are peopled with astronauts, space scientists and engineers, and Jello-mold-making wives. There is one marvelous female engineer heroine and her grumpy second, Parsons, the scowling engineer who makes an appearance in this present volume. To us, living in these bizarre times, and without the ’60s’ take-to-the-streets ethos, Barry and Turner give their novels a setting that feels like a more innocent, less fraught one. Yet, just around the corner are the women’s movement that will change the genre and us forever and the loss of whatever hope and possibility our American neighbours wrought in Camelot. What I really liked about Free Fall, by way of introduction, is how it’s a domestic novel and more focussed on the heroine’s growth. Vivian Grace “Vivy” Muller is loud, brash, colourful, big in every way, physically, in her laugh, walk, and taste for “bouffant hair” and “winged eyeliner”: “She laughed too loudly, and she did more than wink at boys, and she was always losing her gloves.” Continue reading
One of the many things I love about Susanna Kearsley’s, Lauren Willig’s, Karen White’s, and now Beatriz Williams’s writing is their fidelity to the HEA. They hybridise various forms, historical novel, romance, gothic novel, mystery, murder or otherwise, social novel, they mash it up and produce novels that never fail to end up among my year’s favourites. Like their closest predecessor, Mary Stewart, they write in the first person (which used to be a romance-rarity but not so these days), creating a young, female protagonist who moves from innocence to experience during the narrative’s course. All this can well describe Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, a novel that had me in its thrall over two days, waking up at dawn today to finish it. Initially, the novel impressed me as convoluted, with a plethora of characters and three historical narrative strands, but the voice of its central character and first-person narrator, Miranda née Schuyler Thomas, offered an Ariadne ball as I made my way through Williams’s labyrinth of love, hate, revenge, and betrayal. Underlying it was the susurration of Shakespeare’s Tempest, not only thanks to the eponymous heroine, but an island with native and visiting denizens, the sea’s ever-present beauty and danger, and a mystical, outside-of-time atmosphere. I would read it, stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and whisper to myself, “Full fathom five thy father lies … ” Continue reading
If there’s one underused trope Miss Bates loves, it’s marriage-in-trouble, which is why she pounced on Barry and Turner’s novella-ish, category-length A Midnight Feast. It centres on the leader and doyenne of the space-race, 1960s-set American astronaut world that makes up Barry and Turner’s Fly Me To the Moon series, Colonel Mitch Dunsford and his wife of twenty-years-and-six-kids, Margie.
Barry-Turner have produced an adept narrative: alternating, especially in the first half, between Mitch and Margie’s present estrangement, set in 1965 Houston, and their courtship, young marriage, and flat middle years of care and children on her part and demanding, exhilarating career-making on his. Barry-Turner adroitly portray a marriage void of friendship, connection, and mutual desire, interspersed with chapters that chronologically fill in the intervening years, starting with a heady, whirlwind courtship set in 1945. In that sense, Barry-Turner tell a whole lot of story with a circumspect page-count; yet, their carefully-crafted snapshots of love, lust, affection to benign neglect and cutting indifference still allow the reader to get to know and possibly like their hero and heroine. The narrative is also beautifully bound together with a holiday sequence: starting with a make-it-or-break-it Thanksgiving for Mitch and Margie’s troubled marriage to a lovely Valentine-Day’s-1966-set epilogue. Continue reading
Miss Bates loved Emma Barry’s The Easy Part trilogy of political romances. Its trio of committed, intelligent, patriotic couples can serve as an antidote to the awfulness of the present election campaign. If you haven’t, you should read it. Though Barry was tried and true for Miss Bates, she had doubts about Barry’s dual writing effort with Gen Turner. Miss B’s wariness was dispelled with the first title in the Fly Me To the Moon series, Star Dust. Earth Bound‘s hero featured there as the shouting, unsmiling, mean engineer Eugene Parsons. Neither Parsons nor his heroine Dr. Charlie Eason are sunshine and light. Parsons hires Charlie as part of the team trying to beat the Soviets to the moon in 1960s America. As a woman in a man’s world, Barry-Turner make real the viscerally painful experience of being dismissed and overlooked even when you’re the smartest person in the room. Miss Bates felt Charlie’s anger and frustration as she would were she right there being smart and ignored. MissB burned up for Charlie on so many occasions while reading Earth Bound. Navigating the male world while playing the beautiful woman card and hiding your intellectual light is all too familiar to women. Except for demanding, insufferable Eugene, with whom Charlie embarks on an illicit and seemingly sordid, anonymous affair. Only to the hypocrites. Charlie and Eugene may at first only give and take bodily pleasure, but the heart and head of two compatible, beautiful loner-outsiders will have their way.
Miss Bates isn’t keen on films, or novels set in the early 1960s. She doesn’t like the bouffant dos, or sprawling skirts. For some – ahem, white males – Americans, however, it was an exciting, vibrant time and remains an unexplored setting for romance. It’s fitting that Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s collaboration, Star Dust (first in the “Fly Me To the Moon” series) is set during America’s “space race” with the Soviet Union. Uncharted territory then, and uncharted setting in romance. Barry and Turner’s Texas-set romance features Lieutenant Commander Christoper “Kit” Campbell, a blond, blue-eyed giant of an astronaut and Anne-Marie Smith, a diminutive divorcée and mother of two adorable children. They meet as bickering neighbours when Anne-Marie, Lisa, and Freddie move next door to Kit. Anne-Marie and Kit become friends over back-porch star-gazing, add benefits to friendship, fall in love, and achieve an HEA.