Day 1106: Unnatural Habits

Cover for Unnatural HabitsPhryne Fisher meets Polly Kettle, a journalist on the track of a story about pregnant women disappearing from the Abbotsford convent, where they work in the Magdalene laundry. Phryne thinks that Polly is too naive and foolhardy and that she will soon run into trouble. And she is right—almost immediately, Polly disappears.

When Phryne looks into it, she learns that several girls have disappeared from the laundry. She also hears that a shady employment agency is offering actresses parts overseas and that her friend, Doctor MacMillan, has been asked to verify the virginity of a surprising number of young women lately. Could a white slavery ring be practicing in Melbourne? But why would they want pregnant women?

link to NetgalleyI am finding with Greenwood that things that appear to be related usually aren’t. As with the other Phryne Fisher novels I’ve read, there is more than one criminal involved, which I feel is a cheat.

Also, Phryne is beginning to seem a bit cartoonish to me as she battles evil and sexism. For light reading, these novels are enjoyable, but I think I have read enough of them.

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Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1094: The Girls

Cover for The GirlsBest Book of the Week!
Sometimes a novel is imaginative in its approach or subject matter, but The Girls is an imaginative act of empathy. For Emma Cline has drawn a convincing portrait, in her main character Evie Boyd, of the kind of girl who could be attracted to a cult, inspired by the Manson Family.

In the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Evie is insecure and dying to fit in somewhere. Her parents are newly divorced, and she blames her mother for failing to hold her philandering father’s attention. She has just been abandoned by her childhood friend, Connie, as teenage girls will do.

She spots Suzanne at the park. She and her friends are different, dirty and sort of feral, but free. When Evie gets picked up by Suzanne and her friends after her bike breaks down, she goes with them to the ranch.

The ranch is centered around Russell, an older man whom his followers consider a genius. He uses various techniques to manipulate the girls surrounding him, and he befriends famous people in hopes of using them to become famous himself. He organizes the activities at the ranch around some half-baked philosophy.

Evie can actually see through some of this, but she willfully blinds herself to what is wrong at the ranch through a love for Suzanne. When things at home get worse, she ends up with only one place to go.

The novel is brilliantly written, and I was completely enthralled by the description of Evie’s journey. I found the story believable and watched in dread as Evie got pulled ever deeper into the dangerous group.

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Day 1093: Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret TowersSomeone once remarked to me that the Angela Thirkell novels set before or during World War II are the best, and so it seems to me, reading this one. Pomfret Towers is set before the war.

Timid young Alice Barton is terrified when she learns she must accept an invitation for a weekend at Pomfret Towers along with her brother, Guy. Lady Pomfret is home on one of her infrequent visits from Italy, and Lord Pomfret wants some young people around to entertain her.

But she needn’t have worried: almost everyone is kind to Alice. Phoebe Rivers, a cousin of the family, has made sure Alice’s room is next to hers and helps her pick out her outfits for dinner. Alice’s good friends, Roddy and Sally Wicklow, are there, Roddy being the junior estate manager. Gillie Foster, Lord Pomfret’s heir, is extremely kind and fetches her shoes for her from the servants. Even Lord Pomfret, who is known for his rudeness, is kind.

One figure who continues to be terrifying is Mrs. Rivers, a best-selling author. Although Alice’s mother is also an author (a better one, we suspect), she is modest about it, unlike Mrs. Rivers, who constantly talks about herself and tries to arrange things for everyone, as if she were the hostess.

Another egoist is Julian Rivers, but Alice only sees how handsome he is and how wonderful he seems to be. His behavior is sometimes unusual, but he is an artist.

One of the things Mrs. Rivers is trying to manage is a marriage between her daughter Phoebe and Gillie Foster, but Gillie seems to prefer talking to Alice or working in the office with Sally. And Phoebe keeps running off with Guy to look at buildings he and his father are restoring.

Pomfret Towers is another romance by Angela Thirkell, full of delightful characters and slightly winking at society. This novel is one I particularly enjoyed. Alice is a little silly, but she is young and lovable, and we are sure everything will come out all right.

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Day 1091: Raisins and Almonds

Cover for Raisins and AlmondsThis ninth Phryne Fisher mystery is set in the Jewish community of Melbourne. It begins when a young scholar, Simon Michaels, dies in a book shop. He is quickly found to have died of strychnine poisoning, and a bottle of strychnine has disappeared from the shop. Miss Lee, the shop owner, is immediately arrested, but Phryne has been retained by Mr. Abrahams, Miss Lee’s landlord, to find the real killer.

Phryne soon figures out that the death my have something to do with a formula developed by Yossi Liebermann, a gifted chemist, who has been studying alchemy and the Kabala. Apparently, this formula has gone missing, and Phryne has it, but it is in code. No one except Yossi knows what it is for.

In the meantime, unpleasant events are happening. Someone ties up a woman in her house, and there is a break-in at Phryne’s.

link to NetgalleyIt was difficult for me to tell whether the perpetrator was hard to guess, because I saw this first as an episode of the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” and they stuck fairly closely to the book (unlike with Murder in the Dark). On the other hand, the guilty party barely appears in the novel, which is a form of cheating, and as in Murder in the Dark, there is more than one guilty party.

Also, as I mentioned before, I’m not really fond of descriptions of sex mixed with this genre. In this novel, Phryne cavorts with the young Simon Abrahams. Jack Robinson is more of a presence than in the previous book I read, but his bad grammar tells us that he is not going to be a romantic interest, as he is in the television series.

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Day 1086: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Cover for Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in Amy Stewart’s Kopp sisters series, set in pre-World War I New Jersey. Although entertaining, it did not really live up to the energy of the first novel.

Constance Kopp is in limbo in her career with the sheriff’s department in Paterson. Sheriff Heath has wanted to hire her as a deputy ever since the state of New Jersey made it legal to hire women as police. But the sheriff’s office is different, lawyers advise, and until he can hire her as a deputy, he has her working as a matron in the jail.

When a German-speaking inmate claims he needs medical attention, he refuses to describe his symptoms in English. Constance speaks German, so Sheriff Heath has her accompany the deputy and the prisoner to the hospital. When the hospital experiences a blackout, Constance sends the deputy away, claiming she can guard the prisoner, Baron Matthesius, herself. But the Baron escapes.

A law makes the sheriff responsible for escapes, so Sheriff Heath could be imprisoned for Constance’s mistake. Constance is determined to recapture the prisoner.

I didn’t find the plot of this novel as interesting as the last, nor were the characters as vibrant. Like the first novel, this one is based on newspaper clippings from the time. Constance Kopp really existed and had some interesting adventures.

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Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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