Review 1363: Into the Water

Jules has been estranged from her sister, Nel, since she was thirteen. That’s why, when Nel called her asking for help, she didn’t even bother listening. Now Nel is dead, having fallen from the top of a cliff into the river in the Drowning Pool, the location of several suicides by women as well as witch drownings centuries before.

When Jules travels to Beckford to take charge of her fifteen-year-old niece, Lena, she finds a lot of rumors going around. Louise Whittaker, whose daughter, Katie, died in the same place as Nel a few months ago, thinks Nel was responsible for her daughter’s death because of her research into the Drowning Pool. Is there a connection between the deaths, and did Nel commit suicide? Nickie Sage, the local psychic, thinks the police should be looking at an earlier death, that of Lauren Slatter, who died at the Drowning Pool when her son Sean was six.

I have to say that Hawkins is good at throwing in plot twists and keeping your attention. Although this novel is probably classified as a thriller, it is not so much suspenseful as it is complex. It keeps you guessing.

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Review 1362: Begin Again

In the 1930’s, generational social changes away the Victorian age occurred, including sexual and social liberation. Begin Again follows four young women recently down from Oxford as they try to redefine themselves in the light of these changes.

Leslie is living at home, but she regularly visits her friends Jane and Florence in London. She has a romantic idea about the freedoms the two girls have and wants to get a place of her own in London, an artist’s studio, using her inheritance. Her mother doesn’t want her to use up her inheritance and has suggested she live with her aunt. Leslie, in truth, would like a little opposition to her plans instead of her mother’s acceptance and prefers complete independence to living with her aunt.

Jane and Florence are living the realities of the independent life, which means no servants and often very little food. Jane takes everything in her stride and doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings for anything or anyone. Unfortunately, this includes her boyfriend, Henry, who wants constant assurances of her devotion.

Florence, however, hates her office job and sometimes feels miserable about her and Jane’s lack of comforts. She feels that the girls who started work straight out of school have the advantage over her and that her Oxford education is not valued at work.

Sylvia lives in her parents’ home but has a lover, Claude. Despite their mutual devotion, Sylvia has kept Claud away from her family, assuming they will not get along. She believes in being absolutely honest and behaving honestly rather than worrying about how others are affected by this honesty. Her younger sister, Henrietta, has been taking Sylvia’s beliefs seriously, maybe more seriously than Sylvia intends, and is thinking of embarking on an affair with a middle-aged married man.

Each of the girls has to adjust her theoretical views about life to deal with reality. This is a sometimes amusing, true-to-life novel about how naive, idealistic young women learn to adapt between the gaps of Victorian and Edwardian values and Oxfordian theories and real life. I enjoyed it very much. The characters are depicted affectionately and seem very real.

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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 1351: Taken at the Flood

Cover for Taken at the FloodHercule Poirot is the interested listener to the club bore one evening in 1944. Major Porter tells the story of a widow who went on to marry Gordon Cloade, a wealthy man. Mr. Cloade was recently killed in the blitz, but Porter’s story is about Mrs. Cloade’s previous husband, Captain Underhay. Underhay reportedly made remarks to the effect that if he was reported dead, he may not be. Instead, he might return to his widow under the name Enoch Arden, a reference to a poem. Later, he was reported dead in Africa.

Two years later, Poirot is consulted by another Mrs. Cloade, the sister-in-law of the woman from the story. She wants Poirot to find Robert Underhay, whom she believes may be alive. She presents this request as a favor to Rosaleen Cloade, the widow of Gordon Cloade, but in fact, the Cloades, who were taught to depend on Gordon financially, were disinherited by Rosaleen when Gordon died intestate. If Robert Underhay can be found to be alive, Rosaleen’s marriage to Gordon will be nullified, to the benefit of the rest of the Cloades. Two days later, Poirot reads that a man named Enoch Arden was found dead in Warmsley Vale, the home of the Cloades.

Who killed Enoch Arden? It seems that the only people with a motive are Rosaleen Cloade and her brother, David Hunter, assuming Enoch Arden was Captain Underhay. But was he?

This is a complicated mystery and not one of Christie’s best. Her talent for portraying characters is lacking in this novel, as many of them seem flat.  It also seems unlikely that anyone would ever guess the culprit, so few clues point in that direction.

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Review 1347: A Place Beyond Courage

Cover for A Place Beyond CourageIn 12th century England, John FitzGilbert is the marshal for King Henry. He is an astute politician and a masterful organizer. FitzGilbert’s comfortable position is threatened, however, after Henry’s death. Henry has made all of his men pledge fealty to his daughter, Matilda, upon the event of his death, but he does not affirm his successor before his death. Many of Henry’s men prefer to follow Stephen, Henry’s likable nephew, after his death rather than recognize Matilda as queen or even as regent for her young son, Henry. The result is the period of English history called the Anarchy.

At first, John throws in his fortunes with Stephen, but he eventually recognizes that Stephen is a weak ruler, too swayed by his closest advisers. In particular, Stephen fails to reward John for his successes in battle. So, John switches sides to Matilda, along with other discontented men.

John is also unhappy in his marriage. He married Aline, his innocent young ward. Aline is painfully shy and seems totally unsuited for her position. She takes little interest in anything but the church.

A Place Beyond Courage is moderately interesting, but I feel it suffers from a trait common to historical fiction about actual characters. It tries to follow too faithfully the events of FitzGilbert’s life, resulting in a series of brief scenes instead of a more integrated novel.

Chadwick has also taken a character historically reviled because he gave his son over as a hostage with a famous speech that boils down to “There can be more where that came from” and depicted him sympathetically. Whether he deserves this treatment is questionable. Chadwick says he is know to have been gentle with women and children, but he sets aside Aline, his wife of many years and mother of his son, a woman he married for her fortune, for Sybilla, a young, beautiful woman the marriage with whom brings peace and useful connections. To justify this, Chadwick makes Aline unfit for her position and Sybilla so eminently more suitable that in the book this relationship is telegraphed for years before they even meet. Do any of these people actually deserve how Chadwick treats them? I’m not sure. Certainly, FitzGilbert seems mostly driven by ambition to me.

Making interpretations like this is the purview of a historical novelist, certainly, but most are more cautious than this. In any case, these doubts of mine are just thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading. My main objection is how Chadwick crams 20 years of events into a long series of short, staccato scenes. Few of the characters are very fleshed out because of this approach.

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Review 1346: After You’d Gone

Cover for After You'd GoneAlice Raike takes an unplanned trip from London to North Berwick to see her family. After she arrives, she sees something horrible that makes her return immediately to London. Later that evening, her mind in an uproar, she steps off a curb into oncoming traffic and ends up in the hospital in a coma.

In vignettes shifting in time and point of view, After You’d Gone tells the story of Alice’s life and of her family’s secrets. This novel is powerful, and it had me in tears by the end. O’Farrell slowly peels off layer after layer to reveal the truths of Alice’s life.

I don’t know what else I can say about this novel except I loved it.

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