Day 1283: The Husband’s Secret

Cover for The Husband's SecretCecilia Fitzpatrick is a super organized woman who volunteers for things and executes them perfectly all the while keeping an immaculate house, running a Tupperware business, and caring for her husband and children. One day, she accidentally finds an envelope addressed to herself from her husband, John Paul, to be opened in the event of his death. She asks her husband about it, and he gives her an unsatisfying answer and asks her not to open it.

Tess O’Leary thinks her marriage to Will is a happy one. She does, that is, until Will and her best friend and cousin, Felicity, come to tell her they are in love.

Rachel Crowley has been depressed ever since the death of her daughter, Janey, as a teenager. Only since the birth of her grandson has Rachel been happy. But now, her son and daughter-in-law are planning to move away to New York.

The lives of all these people are going to change with the revelation of John Paul’s secret.

I just gave this novel three stars on Goodreads but not because I wasn’t deeply involved in it. Rather, Moriarty presents us with some situations that aren’t easily resolved, but some of the choices she makes to resolve them make me uncomfortable. There is sort of a cruel quid pro quo that feels like it minimizes the acts of some of the characters. Further, it is put across in a jarringly flippant tone.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1199: Salt Creek

Cover for Salt CreekBest of Five!
Ten years after she left Australia in 1862, Hester Finch recollects the seven years her family spent in the Coorong, at Salt Creek, southeast of Adelaide. Her father brought the family there after all of his other business ventures had failed.

Originally from genteel stock, Mrs. Finch is appalled by the rusticity of the station, as are her children. Mrs. Finch, who moved to Australia for the sake of her husband, is depressed and apathetic, so Hester, the oldest girl, must take her place doing the housework and educating the younger children. Mr. Finch considers himself a godly man who must do his duty by bringing the natives to Christianity, so they take in a mixed race boy named Tully.

Life is difficult, and it slowly gets worse. Although Hester falls in love with Charles, a young artist doing a survey of the area with his father, she decides that she will never allow her fate to be determined by another.

As Hester tries to figure out a way to leave Salt Creek without abandoning her younger brothers and sisters, events occur that make the family understand the kind of man their father is.

Some readers may need patience for the beginning of this novel, as it is mostly setting the stage for events to come. I found the plaintive tone of the novel at first a little depressing. However, just before the halfway point, events get going, and the novel becomes absolutely gripping.

Although Treloar states that the novel is based very loosely on her family’s beginnings, the characters in the novel are completely fictional except for four of them. Those characters make up a subplot that involves an actual murder.

I felt the novel lacked descriptions that would give ideas of the appearance of the place (references are made to its beauty, but I was unable to form a mental picture), but the daily existence of the characters is fully realized. This is at times a harrowing read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it is certainly worth it.

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Day 1170: The Black Opal

Cover for The Black OpalWhen I was a teenager, I enjoyed Victoria Holt’s gothic historical romance novels. At some point, however, I felt that she was just churning books out, so I quit reading them. When I ran across The Black Opal in a used book sale, I decided to see what I think of her now.

Carmel was found as a baby under an azalea bush at Commonwood House, owned by the Marlines. She is believed to be a gypsy child. Although Mrs. Marline wanted to send her to a foundling home, Dr. Marline insisted on keeping her. So, she stayed in the nursery with the Marline children, although she was not treated like the others.

Mrs. Marline’s brother, Toby, captain of a sailing vessel, is one of the few people who are nice to Carmel. Another is Miss Carson, the governess. Things begin to improve for Carmel when she meets Lucian and the other children at the Grange, a neighboring estate.

But Mrs. Marline dies, and Carmel is thrilled to learn she is going on a voyage with Uncle Toby to Australia. On the voyage, she learns something about her parentage. When they arrive there, they get news that the Marline household is broken up. There is nowhere for Carmel to return to, so she stays with Uncle Toby’s wife.

Ten years later, Carmel returns to England. There she finds that more was involved in Mrs. Marline’s death than she knew. There was a tragedy, and Carmel believes an injustice was done. She decides to find out what really happened.

I remember Holt’s books as being fairly tightly plotted, but that was not the case with this novel. It is all over the place. Although the earlier scenes when Carmel is a child are necessary to the story, the scenes in Australia seem unnecessary, as if they are needed for padding. Characters are poorly developed, and some characters seem to fill no particular function.

Maybe some of Holt’s earlier novels are better. It’s hard for me to say at this distance of years. But there are better gothic romance novels around. This one seemed to be about 100 pages of novel expanded out to nearly 400.

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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 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 1079: Murder in the Dark

Cover for Murder in the DarkOne of our pleasant discoveries since moving is to find that the local PBS station schedules lots more murder mysteries than Austin did, including our favorite, “Midsomer Murders.” On another channel, we also discovered the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” based on the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood being reissued by Poison Pen Press. When I saw that Netgalley was listing three of the series, I promptly requested them.

Phryne Fisher is a sort of flapper detective in this Australian series set in 1920’s Melbourne. Murder in the Dark is the 16th in the series. For those of you who have been watching the TV series, I have to warn you that this novel bears very little resemblance to the episode of the same name.

Christmas is nearing when Phryne begins to receive threats related to the Last Best Party, a house party given by siblings Gerald and Isabella Templar. Someone does not want Phryne to attend and even sends her a Christmas present of a poisonous snake. Of course, this makes Phyrne determined to attend.

When she speaks to Gerald about it, he admits that someone has sent him death threats. Soon after she arrives at the house, Gerald’s adopted son, Tarquin, disappears, as Isabella’s adopted daughter, Marigold, has already done. Although they thought Marigold had run away, Tarquin seems devoted to Gerald. Phryne also begins a sort of scavenger hunt, as she receives clues, supposedly from the murderer, that each lead to the next.

Phyrne soon finds out from her sources that someone has hired a hit man. Unfortunately, the description of the man is so vague that it could apply to most people.

In the sybaritic atmosphere of the party, Phryne tries to find the clues and locate the hit man before he kills someone. Since the guests include members of the upper classes, polo players, musicians, hashish smokers, the acolytes of the hosts, and even a goat lady, there are a lot of characters roaming about.

This novel was a pleasant enough light reading experience. The culprit wasn’t readily guessable because there was so little information about the plethora of characters. And indeed Greenwood cheats a bit by having, count ’em, three different culprits. I did glancingly guess the identity of the person who hired the hit man but dismissed the idea because it didn’t seem to make sense.

link to NetgalleyOne character who doesn’t appear in the TV series (oops! not until after I wrote this) is Phryne’s lover, an elegant Chinese man named Lin Chung. In this book, at least, he seemed to be completely unnecessary, perhaps only around to make Phryne’s behavior at the party seem more scandalous. But maybe he is more important in some of the other books. In any case, the TV show centers around a flirtation between Phryne and the police inspector, Jack Robinson, that does not seem to be present in the novels. Or maybe I’m talking from too little exposure to Phryne’s world.

Normally, I would avoid mysteries like this that go into great lengths to describe Phryne’s clothes and are too detailed about her love affairs. I have two more to read, so we’ll see how well I can stand it. In any case, these novels are like popcorn, light and fluffy.

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