Review 1401: The Muse

In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien has been making her way with difficulty. Although she is well educated, her race and origins in Trinidad are keeping her from getting a job. Then she gets a break. Marjorie Quick hires her as a secretary in an art institute and makes friendly overtures.

Odelle finds Quick mysterious. She asks Odelle about herself but tells her nothing. She does, however, encourage Odelle to write.

Odelle has also met Laurie Scott, a young man who is interested in being more than her friend. His mother has just died, leaving him only an unusual painting. To support himself, he intends to try to sell it. Odelle encourages him to bring it to the Skelton Institute, her workplace. When Quick sees the painting, she has a strong reaction to it.

In 1935, Harold Schloss, an art dealer, has fled Vienna with his family. Unfortunately, he has chosen Spain, which will soon be little safer, to flee to. His daughter Olive has been accepted at Slade, but she hasn’t told her father. He believes that women can’t be artists, just dabblers.

Olive meets Isaac Robles, an artist, and his sister Irene. Both are servants for the house the Schlosses are renting. Olive is struck by Isaac’s good looks and begins painting in a new style with vibrant colors.

The novel follows these two time threads as it explores the mystery of the painting. Who painted it, and how did it end up in London? How does Quick know about it?

I was struck by Burton’s weird and wonderful The Miniaturist, so much so that as soon as I finished reading it, I bought this book. I found The Muse to be a bit more mundane, with few surprises. For a long time, I was much more interested in Odelle’s section than Olive’s, particularly because Olive makes a decision about her art that I found shocking and unbelievable. In theme, this novel is similar to The Blazing World, and in an action taken by an artist, but with a crucial difference.

Also, like some other bloggers, I am wearying of the dual time-frame format. I am beginning to think it is a little lazy. After all, it seems easier to write half a book about two historical time periods (or one depending upon the time chosen for the more recent period) than a whole book about one. One of the delights of The Miniaturist was how it immersed me in the period. This novel doesn’t really do that.

Mind, it’s not a bad novel, and many people will like it. I just found it a disappointing follow-up to Burton’s first book.

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Review 1394: Mothering Sunday

It’s a warm day in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday, a day when servants are released from their duties to visit their mothers. Jane Fairchild is a young maid in the home of the Nivenses, but she has no mother. She plans to curl up with a good book until she receives a phone call from her long-time lover.

Her lover is Paul Sheringham, the only son left after World War I to a neighborhood family. Although he is to be married in two weeks, he sets up a tryst with Jane in his own home while his parents and the servants are out.

Jane is to revisit these hours spent with her lover for the rest of her life. For something happens that afternoon that changes the course of her life.

This is a remarkable novel. It is very short, but it somehow covers the course of Jane’s entire life while minutely examining one scene, the meeting with her lover. It touches on every action and word, considers them from several sides just as the mind does as it re-examines an event. At the same time, it examines what qualities make a writer and what a writer attempts to do when writing. This is an excellent novel I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1390: End Games in Bordeaux

I had already planned to post this review today, but last week I noticed that September 1 was also the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, where participating readers read mysteries, horror, suspense, and so on between September 1 and October 31. I usually read a fair number of books in those categories anyway, not to mention trying to read something suitable for Halloween. So, here goes. Let me count this book as my first entry!

* * *

Those who select the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize have an annoying tendency to choose books from the middle or end of a series. I read five long Matthew Shardlake novels just to read Heartstone for my project and then felt it wasn’t necessary to have read the other books. I didn’t realize that The Quality of Mercy was the second of two novels until I began reading it, but I found that it was easy enough to figure out what I had missed.

So, when it came time to read End Games in Bordeaux, I reasoned that since it was a mystery, it probably wasn’t necessary to read the preceding three books. That turned out to be a mistake. Not only does the novel check in periodically with a plethora of characters whose relationship to the main character is not explained, but an understanding of the plot relies heavily on the cases covered in the previous books. So, I was fairly well confused the entire time I was reading the book.

World War II is winding down. There are rumors that an invasion by the Allies will come soon. Superintendent Lannes is suspended from duty by order of the Germans for reasons that are not clear.

Count St.-Hilaire asks him to find a young girl who has run off with a ne’er-do-well, Aurélien Mabire. When Lannes finds Mabire, however, the girl isn’t with him. Mabire is, in fact, gay, and he lured the girl away with a promise to meet her father, long estranged from the family. Mabire was working at the bidding of Labiche, a crooked advocate whom Lannes despises.

The situation begins to deteriorate as people begin changing sides preparatory to the end of the war. Lannes finds himself being threatened and rumors being spread about him.

I had to wonder if I would have liked the book better if I had understood who some of the characters were and what the background was. I’m not sure I would have. The novel is narrated in terse little blocks of text while we skip from one situation to another, which doesn’t give me confidence that I would have found it much more understandable. Perhaps Massie was relying on readers’ knowledge of the other works in the series, but novels need to stand on their own. In the case of a series, therefore, some reiteration is necessary. Furthermore, the writing style makes me not want to go back and read the books in the series that I missed. One quote on the cover says the characters are evoked vividly. Well, maybe they are if you’ve read all the books. I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Review 1379: The Nightingale

I wasn’t impressed by the only other Kristin Hannah novel I read, but my brother recommended The Nightingale so strongly that I decided to give her another chance. I know I’m probably in the minority.

The novel begins with an old lady living in Oregon in 1995 who is moving into a retirement home and is sorting through old papers with her son. Her son finds the identity papers of Juliette Gervaise, a person he’s never heard of. This launches most of the rest of the novel, set in France during World War II.

The two Rossignol sisters are very different women. Vianne is a mother, wife, and schoolteacher. When the Nazis arrive in the village, she is careful to follow orders and try to stay out of trouble. Isabella, however, is a rebellious teenager who runs away from school and immediately begins distributing fliers for the Resistance.

As Vianne fights to survive and protect her daughter, Sophie, she eventually finds that she can’t always follow the rules. In the meantime, Isabella’s involvement with the Resistance becomes more dangerous. Obviously, one of hooks of the novel is to find out which sister becomes the little old lady in Oregon.

It took quite a while, but I did become involved in this novel. It’s an interesting story, based on a real one. I still, however, consider the writing mediocre and trite and the characterization flat except for a few characters. I found the novel affecting, though.

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Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionThings are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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Review 1354: Weekend at Thrackley

Cover for Weekend at ThrackleyOccasionally, I have been reading the British Library Crime Classics published by Poison Pen Press, so I was delighted to find one on the shelves of my local library. I had not heard of the author, Alan Melville, but I was pleased to find the novel one of the most enjoyable of this series that I have read so far.

Jim Henderson isn’t getting ahead in life, but he’s doing it cheerfully. He has a room in a rather seedy rooming house, but he likes his landlady. He hasn’t been able to find a job in years, but he has managed to keep his membership to his club.

One morning, he gets an unexpected invitation from an Edwin Carson, who claims to have known him as a child, for a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim knows nothing about Carson, but when he visits his friend Freddie Upton to borrow evening clothes, he finds that Freddie is invited, too. Freddie tells him that Carson is a jewel collector with an amazing collection, and he has asked him to bring the Upton diamonds so that he can look at them. That doesn’t explain why Jim has been invited, however.

Before the two men arrive at the house, Freddie knocks over a charming girl on a bicycle. That girl, Mary, turns out to be Carson’s ward. Jim thinks things are looking up.

When the men arrive at the house, Jim is even more perplexed about why he is invited. The four other guests have only one thing in common: they all own famous jewels. Jim does not.

The house itself, although luxuriously and tastefully finished, is gloomy and built like a fortress. Jim soon finds that both his room and Freddie’s have been bugged. Just what is Carson up to?

This novel has an engaging hero and is written in a pleasantly jaunty style. It also has some witty dialogue. As is common in the genre, Carson’s plots are ridiculously complicated, and the chapter at the end where the police inspector explains everything seems unnecessary. All in all, though, I enjoyed this light novel.

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Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

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