Day 1147: The Light of Paris

Cover for The Light of ParisEleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was just original enough to keep it interesting. Sadly, The Light of Paris is all too predictable.

Madeleine has never felt comfortable in her privileged life of debutantes and charity committees. When she was in high school, all she wanted to do was paint, but her mother considered her painting trivial. She finally married Phillip to please her mother and lives in a cold, sterile Chicago condo with a husband who insists on having everything his way.

Madeleine decides to take a break from Phillip, so she goes to visit her disapproving mother in Magnolia, her home town. She finds her mother preparing to sell the house. In helping her, Madeleine discovers her grandmother Margie’s diaries from her youth.

Margie is a naive, romantic young woman who is also a failed debutante in 1924. Her family considers her an old maid, and when she refuses the unromantic proposal of her father’s middle-aged business partner, they send her off to Paris to chaperone a difficult acquaintance, Evelyn. Evelyn almost immediately abandons her to go off on her own, but after some hesitation, Margie decides to get a job and stay in Paris.

While reading her grandmother’s story, Madeleine begins to work through her own issues, all the while wondering how the Margie from her diary became the distant woman she remembers.

Madeleine’s family secrets are fairly guessable, as is the resolution to the novel. That didn’t bother me so much as some other issues. A small point, perhaps, but in those days no one would have sent a 23-year-old unmarried girl to chaperone an 18-year-old. If Margie was 40, maybe.

A larger issue is my utter lack of sympathy with Madeleine’s problems. Many people seek the approval of their parents, but to think that Madeleine could see no alternative but her Junior League upbringing and marriage to Phillip is ridiculous in this day. I’m sure there are a few women in pearls and twinsets still around, but Brown has set this portion of the novel in the 1990’s, not the 1950’s. I had no patience with this heroine. She needed to grow a backbone when she was 16, not when she was in her 30’s.

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Day 1115: On Canaan’s Side

Cover for On Canaan's SideBest Biweekly Book!
I just wanted to comment that this is the third book in a row I’ve reviewed that has a title starting with “On.” That has to be unusual.

While I was reading On Canaan’s Side, I kept comparing it to Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. I think that’s because, although it approaches its subject matter much differently, it has one goal similar to the trilogy’s. It covers events in almost the same period, only in terms of one woman’s life span. But it does so in a mere 256 pages and with a limited number of characters, as opposed to Smiley’s three large books and a plethora of characters.

Lilly Bere is almost ninety years old. Her beloved grandson Bill has just died, and Lilly has decided to follow him. Before she goes, she writes an account of her life.

Lilly grew up in Dublin, but shortly after the First World War, she has to flee to America. The army mate of her dead brother has become her fiancé, Tagh. But after he takes a job as a Black and Tan, Lilly’s father hears he is on a hit list, and she with him.

Lilly’s cousin is no longer at the address she has in New York, so she and Tagh travel to Chicago to try to find her second contact. They are just settling down when Tagh is murdered at an art museum.

Lilly must flee again. In her subsequent life, she finds friends and love, but she also has mysteries in her past that Barry skillfully spins out.

The point of view is kept at Lilly’s, and we feel we get to know her and share her joys and sorrows. This novel’s prose is quite beautiful, and I was touched by events in Lilly’s life. Whereas I felt distances from Smiley’s trilogy, I was pulled into Lilly’s story. This was another excellent book I read for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1058: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Cover for The Second Life of Nick MasonI’ve read and enjoyed several of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight detective series, so I thought I’d give his new series a try. A big part of the appeal for me of the Alex McKnight books is their setting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whereas Nick Mason is set in Chicago. Another big difference, though, is that Nick Mason is a criminal.

Nick has been released from a 20-year sentence in prison after making a deal with Cole, a lifer who still controls much of Chicago’s underworld. Nick gets a fancy place to live, a car, and a job on paper, and all he has to do is whatever he is told.

Nick’s main reason for wanting out is Arianna, his nine-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife doesn’t want him to see her.

Slowly, Nick finds out that Cole wants him for very dirty jobs. He also finds out that he and his friends were set up and betrayed by the guy who talked them into doing the job that Nick has been serving time for.

This novel is a straight action thriller, but unlike, for example, the Jack Reacher series, Nick’s morals are not so clear-cut. Even though Hamilton has Mason going after drug dealers and dirty cops, I don’t think I can overlook this characteristic of the series. Although Hamilton somehow manages to make Mason a sympathetic character, I’ll take Alex McKnight any day.

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Day 989: Night Train

Cover for Night TrainNight Train is one of those novels that is hard to rate using numbers or stars. My husband was reading it and remarked that it was interesting but that the writing style irritated him.

I certainly found that to be true. It is a very short book, written from the point of view of Mike Hoolihan, a female detective in Chicago. It is written using a lot of slang and jargon, and my impression is that this British author has not gotten it right. For example, Hoolihan goes on for a bit at the beginning that she is “a police,” that that’s what police call themselves. Really? I’ve never heard an American cop use that term. Of course, I don’t know that I’m not wrong, but I do know that no American ever referred to something as being in a “glassine envelope.” The only place I’ve ever heard of glassine is in British fiction or television. In short, I don’t know why Amis set his novel in Chicago, but at least he should have gotten the language right.

That being said, the story itself is compelling. Mike is asked by her former commander, Colonel Tom, to find out whether his daughter Jennifer really committed suicide. Beautiful and intelligent, with a kind lover, she seemed to have everything to live for.

This novel doesn’t quite go in any of the expected directions and spends time musing on the nature of suicide, but that’s all I want to give away. I did find it a compelling book, even though I have a high degree of skepticism about the likelihood of its conclusions. I have another book by Amis to read for the Walter Scott Prize list, and now I am very curious about it.

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Day 782: Literary Wives! The Silent Wife

Cover for The Silent WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Although The Silent Wife is billed as a psychological thriller, if that is actually its intent instead of marketing hype, it fails. I see it as more of an in-depth exploration of a dysfunctional relationship and particularly of the character of one unusual woman.

Jodie’s husband Todd of 20 years has just been through a depression, but he seems to be improving. On the surface, their marriage is fine. She is a highly educated woman who enjoys making a perfect home and working part-time with her therapy clients. Todd’s remodeling business keeps him out of the house a lot, and he enjoys drinking after work with his buddies, but she doesn’t seem to mind this and is always glad to see him come home. Although he is a serial womanizer, she has long learned to live with this fact and ignores it.

This information is the first odd note in the novel, because we have learned that Jodie’s father was also a womanizer, and Jodie was a witness to the havoc it created. We wonder immediately how she can accept this situation in her own marriage.

What Jodie doesn’t know is that Todd has embarked on a more serious affair. He is sleeping with the 20-something daughter of his boyhood friend Dean. Although he doesn’t remember proposing to her, suddenly he has a fiancée and a baby on the way, and Natasha is pushing him to tell Jodie.

When Jodie learns about the affair, it is through the furious Dean. Todd hasn’t mentioned a thing, so she doesn’t take it seriously. Even when he tells her he’s moving out, on the morning of the event, she still thinks he’ll come back.

Although I didn’t find this novel to be a thriller, we know from the first sentences that a crime is involved, and the novel is an effective psychological portrait of a woman who can ignore anything she doesn’t want to see. Combined with a man who avoids anything confrontational, this is an explosive mixture. While Todd allows himself to be pushed into one untenable position after another, Jodie continues to disregard what is happening.

The novel is effective and it kept my interest, but it indulges a little too often and too long in its deep discussions of psychology. Perhaps this is supposed to be a reflection of how Jodie thinks, although it’s not always presented that way, but these passages could have been more succinct and effective. Added to that, the novel is only moderately well written. Still, the plot keeps you engaged.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife? In what way does the woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Literary Wives logoI think that this novel is too particular to this couple to make any broad statements about being a wife. But Jodie has definitely created her own image of her relationship to Todd. She has prided herself on making the perfect, calm, immaculate home, on providing beautifully cooked, delicious meals, on leading her own life and letting Todd lead his. But this life does not seem to consist of any sharing on an emotional level. In fact, it survives by keeping secrets.

Her reaction to Todd’s cheating seems inexplicable at first, considering her parents went through the same thing. Instead of it being a deal-breaker, she decides not to let it bother her. She puts it away from her. This is the character trait that I found fascinating. Her father’s unfaithfulness made her mother unhappy. So, she decides not to let it make her unhappy. She continues not to even acknowledge the truth of other things that might make her unhappy, and she pursues this course through one unpalatable event after another. But then, we find she has plenty of practice in hiding things from herself.

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Day 720: Galway Bay

Cover for Galway BayGalway Bay is fiction based on the stories of Mary Pat Kelly’s great-great grandmother about leaving Ireland in the first half of the 19th century to come to America. The novel covers a lot of ground—the iniquities of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish landlords, the Great Famine, early Chicago, the American Civil War, the Fenian Brotherhood—and ends with the Chicago World’s Fair.

Honora Keeley is a young girl living in a fishing village on Galway Bay when she meets Michael Kelly and they fall in love at first sight. They want to marry, but they have to convince Honora’s family, because Michael owns nothing but his horse. However, he earns enough to marry by winning a horse race in Galway.

Honora’s sister Maire, who was married the day Honora met Michael, is soon a widow after her husband dies in a fishing accident. On Honora’s wedding night, Maire saves Honora from the landlord’s droit du seigneur by volunteering in her stead. I’ll say something about this later.

Michael is no fisherman. Honora and Michael have a tough enough time of it farming but are making out okay when the potato blight hits. The behavior of the landlords and the British government during this time is shameful, and Kelly depicts it vividly. After several years of the blight and other misfortunes, Honora finally is able to convince Michael to leave for America, to Chicago, where his outlawed brother Patrick is said to reside.

Although this novel has a fairly good story, there is something about the narrative style that bothered me. It is told in first person, but in a modern style that is not convincing. Many things happen, but I didn’t ever feel as if I understood much about the characters’ personalities. Especially early on, when we are getting to know the main characters, often opportunities for revealing dialogue turn into storytelling episodes, where we hear another Irish legend. Everyone has one or two identifying characteristics, but they don’t feel like real people. I think the novel may have been more successful in the third person.

Finally, I was highly skeptical of whether droit du seigneur would have occurred in the 19th century, as it is usually associated with Medieval times. I’m sure this event is based on family legend, but I think Kelly could have treated this one with a little skepticism, especially as the lord’s behavior is abetted by a priest. I attempted some research on the topic and was surprised to find a lot of discussion about whether it was ever actually practiced at all. But with one exception, the references were to Medieval mainland Europe, not the British Isles. That exception was a Facebook page about Ireland, but I was unable to find the actual reference on the page to see if it cited any sources. I have read several history books about Ireland and took a graduate course in Irish history, and I have never heard anything about this, although the other abuses are well known. (I have since found one source for this alleged practice, Arthur Young, the author of a book called Tour of Ireland in 1780, who stated it was commonly practiced in rural Ireland. He is listed in Wikipedia as an agriculturalist who traveled to observe agricultural practices. Still, with this little information, we have no idea if his statement is based on rumor or fact, and this report is 50 years or so before the time of this novel.)

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Day 584: The Shining Girls

Cover for The Shining GirlsBest Book of the Week!
The Shining Girls is a clever, clever novel, a hybrid of a fantasy novel and a crime thriller. I read rave reviews of it, and it deserves them.

Harper has just killed a man in a Chicago Hooverville in 1931. He is being pursued in the freezing cold when he murders a blind woman for her coat. Inside the pocket he finds a house key, and somehow he knows the way to the house. It is a boarded up old wreck on the outside, but inside it is warm and comfortable, even prosperous looking. When Harper goes into an upstairs room, he finds souvenirs and girls’ names written on the wall. He understands that the house wants him to kill these girls. When he goes back outside, he finds himself in another time.

In 1993, Kirby Mazrachi interviews for an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. She has asked to work with Dan Velasquez, a former crime writer who now covers sports. Her goal is to find the man who attacked her and nearly killed her in 1989. She believes he is a serial killer, and she is planning to use the paper’s resources to find more of his murders.

As Kirby continues her investigation, finding evidence that doesn’t make sense, Harper tracks down his shining girls one by one, visiting them when they are young and then going back for them as adults, over a time period of 60 years. He takes something from each one and gives it to the next.

This novel is completely absorbing, well written, and suspenseful. It is also haunting and unusual, with everything cleverly linked up. In the larger context, it explores the issues of fate and free will, but as entertainment, it keeps you pinned to your seat.