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 #38: Neels’s GRASP A NETTLE

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

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: Deanna Raybourn’s AN UNEXPECTED PERIL

An_Unexpected_PerilAn Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.

That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: Esmeralda, #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 a comfort to return to 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. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Lisa Kleypas’s CHASING CASSANDRA

Chasing_CassandraLisa Kleypas’s romances were some of the first I ever read upon returning to the genre after 30 years away. Derek Craven remains one of my favourite heroes and Devil In Winter, one of my favourite romances. (On the other hand, there were those Kleypas woo-woo books I’d rather forget.) Kleypas went the way of contemporary romance, I started reading a variety of new, interesting romance writers and somehow, our paths never again converged until the pandemic saw a certain publisher largesse and I scored an e-galley of Chasing Cassandra. I thought I’d encounter the usual Kleypas fare, overprotective hero, heroine in peril, intense love scenes … and, Chasing Cassandra has some of that, but they’re not what stands out. Instead, I found a deeper, funnier, more relaxed Kleypas, a narrative richer in humour and characterization and less inclined to melodrama.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Tessa Arlen’s POPPY REDFERN AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDERS

Poppy_Redfern_Midnight_MurdersI have droned on and on, to your great boredom, about how I love romance and how my second love is the mystery-romance-historical combo, like Deanna Raybourn, or Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Jennifer Ashley … *sobs* and the no-longer-writing-new-Renegades-of-the-Revolution Donna Thorland. Let’s face it, I love the hybrids as much as I love romance, so let’s let that second love thing die. Now, with Tessa Arlen’s first in A Woman of WWII series, I’m adding another much-anticipated series to the beloved list. Given the stay-at-home state of things, Arlen’s Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders made for the perfect comfort read: with a Christie-Foyle’s-War-inspired English village + eccentrics setting and intrepid, engaging, loveable heroine, the eponymous Poppy, a too-charming-for-his-and-Poppy’s-own-good American Army Air Force hero …  and no less than a Midsommer Murders corps of village-body-count! While I toiled away at WFH and dabbed lipstick for Zoom meetings, I enjoyed, in the time-interstices, my reading of Poppy, her American hero, and their joint sleuthing. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ann Cleeves’s THE LONG CALL

Since my last review, life has changed, everyone’s life has changed, a hundredfold. My work moved online, but I still have it and am able to pay my bills. My family is well and the pantry, well-stocked. As an introvert, staying at home is the easiest thing our Canadian government could ask of me. Nevertheless, the changes to our society are cataclysmic and it is surreal and difficult to process what we’re living, especially as families lose loved ones. As someone who has readily lost herself in a book daily since I learned to read, I have, at best, read sporadically and listlessly, punctuated stabs at the Kindle with endlessly watching the news and scrolling through Twitter. I grappled with the idea of continuing with this review blog. Am I, like Nero, fiddling as Rome burns? In the end, I decided to forego the Nero metaphor and go with the Titanic musicians who continued to play as the ship went down until they went with it. I continue to teach poetry online and respond to my students’ writing. I check in with them for questions and discussion and I read and write reviews. I am neither a “front-line worker” nor possess any skills beyond the ones exercised here. I continue to do as my government asks of me (wash my hands, stay home, and social-distance) to ensure my family’s, friends’, colleagues’, and fellow citizens’ well-being and I offer these humble opinions to readers. I don’t know where the ship is headed, but we’re all on it and will go down with it … and we need to keep making whatever music we have in us.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading Ann Cleeves’s The Long Call, first in a new series, “Two Rivers.” It wasn’t lurid, or tense, or anxious; it was well-written, methodical in its movement towards revelations of truth and justice and, for the most part, with a few quibbles, I loved reading it … when I could immerse myself in it.  
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REVIEW: Mimi Matthews’s THE WORK OF ART

Work_of_ArtI always approach a new-to-me author with trepidation; like Captain Wentworth, I am “half agony, half hope”. Matthews did not disappoint, however; au contraire, I may, with a heavy heart for my least favourite rom-heat-designation, “closed-bedroom-door,” have discovered another historical romance autobuy.

Reading Matthews’s The Work Of Art, I was pleasantly surprised, often delighted, definitely engaged, and intellectually stimulated. In a nutshell, for the most part, I loved it. The play on the heroine as a “work of art,” the “My Last Duchess” allusions, and the tropish-goodness of marriage-of-convenience drove me to request the title. What kept me reading, however, was everything Matthews did with it. The premise in and of itself is compelling: zoophilic, penniless, and orphaned heroine, Miss Phyllida Satterthwaite, is brought to London by her uncle and heir to her beloved grandfather’s estate, Mr. Edgar Townsend, to début and put on the aristocratic Regency ton’s marriage mart. A generous gesture on his part, perhaps. But Philly is a deeply introverted young woman who prefers walking her dogs (various injured and decrepit strays she rescued over the years), reading, playing pianoforte, over balls and gossip. She finds a kindred spirit in one of her uncle’s guests, the hermetic former soldier, Captain Arthur Heywood, beloved second son, who keeps his own counsel, and still suffers physical and emotional war wounds.
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The Great Betty Read: COBWEB MORNING, #32

Cobweb_MorningBetty Neels’s Cobweb Morning reaches peak Other Woman over-the-top-ness. And in reaching this apex of romance-tropish-goodness, our Betty spotlights Neelsian values with an intensity borne of ethical conviction. Oh, it’s all typical enough: Nurse Alexandra Dobbs happens to be on duty when an amnesiac is brought to emergency by Dutch doctor Taro van Dresselhuys. Sparks fly: Taro is arrogant, officious, and cruelly teasing; he provokes Alexandra into fits of temper. Despite bringing out the worst in each other, he’s as good a man as she is a woman. I especially loved Taro’s remark when he sees Alexandra in a temper and notes, ” ‘ … you walked down the street as though you hated – er – whatever his name is. You have a very eloquent back.’ “Isn’t that “eloquent back” marvelous? Taro asks Alexandra to help him care for the amnesiac, “Penny,” first at his aunt’s house in England, then, in his own home in Holland, and she accepts. Penny is manipulative and meretricious, playing pathetic, hurt victim to Taro and simultaneously Delilah-like in her come-hither-babe routine. Alexandra nurses Penny with gentleness care, but sees through her damsel-in-distress act. While the romance is typical-Betty enough, aloof, mysterious, impenetrable hero and gah-all-feelings-out-there heroine with no hope of their return, it was Betty’s contrast between the two women I enjoyed most. (Be warned, dear reader, there be plenty of spoilers beyond this point.)
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