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 838: The Forgotten Room

Cover for The Forgotten RoomThe Forgotten Room is a romance novel, which is not my genre, but it has enough of a focus on family secrets to keep my interest. The novel relates the stories of three romances, set at different times in the same mansion in New York. Written by three romance authors, I suspect that each one wrote one of the stories.

In 1892, Olive Van Allen is employed in the house as a servant, but she is there under false pretenses. The owner of the house, a nouveau-riche businessman named Pratt, hired her father as an architect for the house but then ruined him by refusing to pay him. Olive hopes to find paperwork to prove Pratt owed her father money, but she is distracted by falling madly in love with one of the sons of the house, the artistic Harry Pratt, and stealing meetings with him in his attic studio.

In 1920, Lucy Young takes a job as a secretary at the office of Cromwell, Polk, and Moore, a law office that handles the affairs of the Pratt family. She also takes a room in a boarding house that used to be the Pratt mansion. In addition to the desire for advancement, Lucy hopes to discover in the Pratt papers the connection between the Pratts and her mother and perhaps learn why her mother whispered “Harry” on her death bed. Lucy is also soon torn between two men, her boss, Philip Schuyler, and a handsome art dealer from Charleston, South Carolina, John Ravenel.

In 1944, Kate Schuyler is a doctor serving in a hospital that used to be the Pratt mansion. She gives one of her patients, Captain Cooper Ravenel, her own room in the top of the hospital because the hospital is overcrowded. But she is surprised when Captain Ravenel seems to recognize her and calls her Victorine.

The pleasures in this novel came from trying to figure out how these people are related and what happens to Kate’s mother and grandmother. The tension is supposed to come from whether Kate will be parted from Captain Ravenel, who is engaged to be married to someone else. There’s not much doubt about that, though, and it’s more interesting to find out what secrets kept the other lovers apart.

link to NetgalleyUnfortunately, Olive’s story is based on something a few words could have cleared up and the spitefulness of Prunella Pratt, Harry’s sister. Lucy’s is a little more understandable. What I found unlikely was Prunella’s conversion at the end of the novel to an old lady who regrets her actions and encourages Kate to follow her heart. Yeah.

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Day 772: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Cover for The Haunting of Maddy ClareBest Book of the Week!
The Haunting of Maddy Clare has been on my reading list for a while. I’ve finally read it, and my first reaction is to immediately look for another book by Simone St. James. It’s not often I encounter a good ghost story. This one is really good.

It’s just after World War I, and Sarah Piper has been living a safe but impoverished and lonely life in London taking temporary secretarial jobs, when her agency sends her to Alastair Gellis. Gellis has an unusual request. He is a wealthy young man who can afford to turn his interests into employment, and his interest is in ghosts.

Alastair’s regular assistant is away, and he has been summoned to the site of a haunting. Sarah’s job is to assist him in recording evidence of a ghost.

Maddy and Alastair travel to Falmouth House and an interview with Mrs. Clare, an elderly woman. She explains that Maddy came to her doorstep years ago as a child. She had been beaten and was barely dressed and covered with mud. She could hardly speak. The Clares took her in and tried to find her people, with no success. She was obviously of the servant class, so they employed her as a maid. She was with them for several years, always frightened and never leaving the house. Then one day she hanged herself in the barn.

Maddy haunts the barn, and Mrs. Clare wants Alastair to get her to leave. She already tried an exorcism, with terrible results. But Mrs. Clare says that Maddy hated men, which is why she asked Alastair to bring a woman.

Sarah learns she is expected to go into the barn accompanied only by a wire recorder and a camera. She finds the experience terrifying. Although she does not see Maddy, Maddy plants images in her mind and asks Sarah to find someone. What she wants is not clear, but Sarah decides to continue.

Shortly thereafter, Alastair’s partner Matthew Ryder arrives. Although he is badly scarred from the war, Sarah is immediately attracted to him. Matthew, on the other hand, thinks Sarah is too fragile for the work and should be dismissed. In the meantime, Sarah has sensed a threatening presence in the village.

This novel drags you in from its first sentences. It also tells a deliciously creepy yet heart-rending story about why Maddy is haunting the barn. If you like ghost stories and enjoy some romance in  your historical fiction as well, you’ll like this novel.

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Day 730: The Sea Captain’s Wife

Cover for The Sea Captain's WifeSince she was a little girl, Azuba has wanted to marry a sea captain and leave her home on the Bay of Fundy to live with him at sea. Although such arrangements are not usual, they are also not unheard of. She envisions a life of romance and adventure, traveling to the distant realms of the earth.

This is the life she plans with her suitor Nathaniel Bradstock, but once they are married, he changes his mind. Azuba is bored and discontented at home for years alone and feels he will be a stranger to their daughter Carrie. After a traumatic miscarriage, she decides to insist he take them with him on his next voyage.

In her loneliness, Azuba has befriended the young Reverend Walton. Just before Nathaniel is due to return, carelessness and misjudgment result in a scandal for the two of them. When Nathaniel learns about it, he decides she cannot be trusted home alone and makes immediate plans to leave instead of staying ashore awhile as planned, taking along Azuba and Carrie.

Azuba has got her way, but she is not happy. Aside from the misunderstanding with her husband, she has not realized the dangers and inconveniences of the voyage. To make matters worse, Nathaniel sees her and Carrie as more burdens among the many he must juggle as captain. The terrifying voyage around the Horn is the first in a series of mishaps that endanger them all.

I found this a fascinating book in its knowledge of sea lore and the ports of the time. The main characters are complex, the novel focused on Azuba and Nathaniel’s struggle to design the conditions of their marriage. I have one plot quibble when Mr. Walton reappears in Belgium, where he is studying to be a photographer. After booking Azuba and Carrie on a relatively safe journey home by steamship, Nathaniel suddenly decides to keep them with him. There is no explanation of this decision, and we don’t even see the scene where it is made. It seems awkward, as if Powning made the decision just to further the plot.

Finally, Nathaniel and Azuba don’t actually work out their conflict. Instead, the decision that resolves it is forced on Nathaniel. Still, I found this novel of absorbing interest. But one more quibble. Sometimes stopping to explain what Azuba or other female characters are wearing actually interferes with the story-telling.

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Day 726: The Other Daughter

Cover for The Other DaughterRachel Woodley has been working in France as a governess when she receives a telegram informing her that her mother is ill. Although she returns home immediately, the telegram was delayed, and she finds her mother dead, the funeral over, and the landlord giving her two weeks to vacate her home.

While she is going through her mother’s things, she finds a recent newspaper photo of the Earl of Ardmore with his daughter, Lady Olivia Standish. The Earl looks exactly like her father would have looked had he not died on a botanical expedition when she was four. But it’s not just a resemblance. He is the same man, with the same scar on his face.

Rachel goes to Oxford to see her Cousin David, who she’s sure would know the truth. David explains that her father was the second son and that he and her mother were forced to part after her father’s older brother died and her father became heir to the estate.

Rachel is furious to hear that her father left them, that she has been lied to, and that she is illegitimate. The thought of all the times she missed her father also makes her angry. She is expressing her displeasure when they are interrupted by Simon Montfort, Cousin David’s neighbor in rooms. He takes Rachel away to calm her down.

link to NetgalleyAlthough Simon is a social columnist for the Daily Yell, he promises to keep private what he has overheard. Soon, he is helping her get an opportunity to meet her father. After a makeover of a new haircut and his sister’s fashionable clothes, he lends her his mother’s apartment and presents her to young London society as the chic Vera Merton, his cousin. Rachel is not entirely sure of her own motives but is soon positive that Simon is doing this for his own purposes, especially when she learns her sister Olivia was once his fiancée.

This novel is sheer frivolity, set as it is in the 1920s among the wild young things. It is certainly a bit predictable—soon we guess Rachel will end up with either her sister’s current fiancé or her previous one. But it has lots of snappy dialogue and enough twists to keep things interesting. Although I’m not generally fond of this genre, I enjoyed The Other Daughter.

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Day 708: At the Water’s Edge

Cover for At the Water's EdgeMaddy, Ellis, and Hank make a riotous threesome as they party and caper their way through Philadelphia high society. It is World War II, but both Ellis and Hank are classified 4F. In any case, taking upon any adult responsibility doesn’t seem to be in their plans. Maddy and Ellis Hyde are married, but they live with Ellis’ parents. Hank has a girlfriend but has shown no interest in marrying Violet.

After a particularly drunken New Year’s Eve, Ellis’ father throws Ellis and Maddy out of the house to fend for themselves and cuts Ellis’ allowance. To get back into the good graces of Mr. Hyde, Ellis and Hank come up with a hare-brained scheme. Long ago, Mr. Hyde went to Loch Ness to look for the monster. He claimed to have found it and circulated photos. But they were revealed as fakes. Ellis thinks if they can find the monster and take legitimate pictures of it, he can revive the family name and make his family proud.

But getting to Scotland during wartime poses problems. Hank finally gets them on a freighter, but when their ship rescues some men whose vessel was torpedoed, Maddy begins to understand the horrors of war. Arriving at their destination, she is the only one of the three who seems to understand how ridiculous their presence as tourists is during this difficult time. The three know nothing of ration cards, air raids, or war casualties. And the men’s boorish attitude about the lack of conveniences at the inn doesn’t help.

Maddy settles in and gets to know the villagers, but she is soon disturbed by how much Ellis and Hank are drinking and how many of Maddy’s “nerve pills” Ellis takes. Maddy herself has only ever taken one.

link to NetgalleyAlthough dealing with another period and setting, Gruen is covering some of the same ground as in Water for Elephants. She clearly enjoys the wives in distress theme. Still, after I experienced an initial distaste for all three main characters, Maddy grew on me with her evolving sensitivity and efforts to help the villagers. I enjoyed this novel and think it makes a good light historical romance. Gruen periodically gives us details of the war and does a fair job of evoking the atmosphere of a small pub, where everyone nightly listens to the war news.

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Day 630: Amherst

Cover for AmherstAmherst combines the tale of two love stories, one actual and one fictional. The historical actual affair was between Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and the much younger Mabel Loomis Todd. The modern fictional affair is between Alice Dickinson, working on a screenplay about the affair, and Nick Crocker, an older academic who gives her a place to stay in Amherst while she does her research. All of these people are married to others except Alice.

Emily Dickinson herself is a minor character in the 19th century story. Her brother and Todd used her house for their trysts—a known fact—and there is some debate about how much exposure Emily herself had to sex. Nicholson theorizes a woman listening at doors and a sort of free love attitude by everyone except Sue, Austin’s wife. I found it all a little sordid and probably unlikely.

All of this might be interesting to a reader of literature if Nicholson had spent any time with these characters before thrusting them into their love affairs. We don’t know any of them, so we don’t care about them (alas, too often my complaint lately).

Worse, to me, are the liberties or omissions at the end of the novel. Nicholson gives Todd full credit for her efforts to publish Dickinson’s poetry after her death, even having her spend hours convincing Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the value of Emily’s work. He doesn’t mention that Higginson was already very familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, having been in correspondence with her for 20 years before her death, as related in the excellent biography White Heat. (Although on the surface Nicholson seems unfamiliar with or ignores some of the content of the biography, he interestingly uses the phrase “white heat” to refer to the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson.) Higginson was already convinced of the worth of Dickinson’s poetry—he just had doubts about how publishable it was. In fact, he almost certainly met Dickinson, which Todd never did.

The other historical fact Nicholson completely glosses over is the one the world of literature finds most shocking—that Todd and Higginson edited Dickinson’s poetry, changing capitalization and spelling but even rewriting some of the passages.

http://www.netgalley.comThe lovers are not really likable, in fact or fiction. Austin Dickinson actually consummated his affair with Todd while his wife was grieving the recent death of their young son. Mabel comes off everywhere as self-centered, and she fought with the Dickinson’s over Emily’s legacy as much as she ensured it.

The two modern lovers are just not interesting, really more of a footnote to the historical section, and I found Nick to be extremely manipulative. The novel also employs that overused trope of having Alice find out immediately in a way that is too crass to be believable that Nick has a reputation as a seducer. Note to minor characters: these warnings never work.

It’s hard to tell whether Nicholson meant these stories to be romantic, although he states in an interview that he is interested in exploring love. I did not find the stories romantic, either one of them. I also did not feel they particularly explored the theme of love. I was not at all drawn in by this novel, neither by the historical nor by the modern story.