Review 1602: Friday on My Mind

Because I read the Frieda Klein mystery that comes after this one first, I was aware of a plot point in Friday on My Mind, but writing about it is not really a spoiler, because it happens in the first few pages. That point is that Sandy, Frieda’s ex-lover, is found dead in the Thames with his throat cut and Frieda’s hospital bracelet on his wrist.

Frieda had broken up with him several months ago, but recently he had been trying to contact her. Friends said he was in a state of agitation. He had come to her office with her belongings and shouted at her when he wasn’t allowed in. Frieda is the police’s suspect, and when they find Sandy’s wallet in her home, they plan to arrest her.

Frieda thinks her nemesis, Dean Reeve, has killed Sandy, as he’s killed other of her enemies, and is framing her. She feels that the police will not investigate further, so she flees, determined to find the murderer herself.

As usual, this is a complex mystery with interesting characters. It also has a gripping ending, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I liked Sandy, and I was bothered by how unlike himself he was behaving after the breakup, as well as by his murder.

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1565: A Struggle for Fame

After reading The Uninhabited House, I looked for more books by Charlotte Riddell and came across the Recovered Voices series published by Tramp Press and this book, A Struggle for Fame. A Struggle for Fame is Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel about the publishing industry.

Although Glen Westley is the main character in the novel, it follows the progress of two Irish young people who meet on the ship from Ireland and both end up in London’s literary milieu. Through poor investments, Glen’s father has lost the family home and all his money. She determines that they will travel to London so she can try to make a living as a writer.

On the ship, they meet Barney Kelly, a young chancer who is looking for a way to make money.

Glen works hard at good literary fiction and is repeatedly rebuffed by editors even while being told she has promise. Barney, on the other hand, falls into an opportunity to write articles for a journal. The novel makes clear that Glen has much more ability than Barney, but he is able to make a living at writing much earlier than Glen. It is clear from the beginning that the novel is about Glen’s rise and fall, but we are drawn in to see what happens.

A lot of characters are vividly drawn and quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. It is fairly obvious that Riddell is depicting, sometimes satirically, publishers and authors she knew. Although written in 1883, the novel has observations about gender and ability that still apply today.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1478: Literary Wives! War of the Wives

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

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Selina Busfield thinks her husband Simon is working in Dubai when the police notify her that he’s been found drowned in Southwark. She can’t imagine what he’s been doing there, and the circumstances around his death are unclear. Did he commit suicide, was his death an accident, or was it murder?

But this concern is soon pushed aside when some complete strangers show up at the funeral, one of them claiming to be Simon’s widow. It appears that for the past seventeen years, Simon had two families, one with Selina and one with the much younger Lottie.

When we chose the last set of books for Literary Wives, I could tell by the description that this would be the one I liked least. And so it proved. I am always wary of any book that describes almost any outfit a woman has on except if it’s important to the plot. But worse, I thought that almost everything about this book was predictable except for the cause of Simon’s death, and that was too far out in left field. The wives were such extremes of direct opposites that they were almost clichés—Selina the society dame focused on appearances and Lottie the air-headed artsy girl. Then there was their immediate reaction of fury at each other when they were both victims of their husband’s deceit. Finally, the pileup of discoveries showing what a creep he was (and by the way, they never knew!). And then the finish, which I won’t reveal. Sorry. Absolutely not for me. I only finished it because it was for the club.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

In the context of this book, I find this question almost impossible to answer because both marriages were a mirage. Although there have been a few disconcerting exchanges in the past, as far as Selina knew, she was the wife Simon wanted—organized, active, immaculate, still attractive, a good if reserved mother. He has frequently told her she is the perfect wife. As the book continues, Selina finds some reward in relaxing her standards a bit, including a more genuine relationship with her children.

As for Lottie, her marriage seems murkier to me. She is much more emotionally dependent on Simon even while being less financially so. She is also so engrossed in her romantic feelings that it’s hard to get an idea of their day-to-day life. Certainly, it seemed as though Simon was a warmer husband to her and her daughter than he was to Selina and her children.

But this novel has a lot more to say about life after marriage than about life during it.

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Review 1475: Dark Saturday

When I went looking in the library for something suitable for the end of October, I found one of Nicci French’s dark and disturbing mysteries featuring psychotherapist Frieda Klein. I have read all but the book before this one in this series. I missed the last book but did not feel that it threw me off in reading this one.

The Frieda Klein series began with a dangerous psychopath escaping justice by killing his twin brother. Only Frieda believes he is alive, and she knows this because he has been both harassing and protecting her. So, this ongoing plot is always mixed with one that is solved in each book.

Frieda is hired by a mysterious man named Levin, whose role I don’t quite understand, to look into the case of Hannah Docherty. Fifteen years ago, she was permanently hospitalized after being found guilty of the murders of her entire family.

In Frieda’s initial examination of the case files, she finds some discrepancies that are not explained by the theory of the case. After she goes to visit Hannah in the mental hospital, she begins to entertain the possibility that Hannah did not commit the crime.

During the course of the investigation, she finds an eccentric crime blogger who stole all of the Docherty’s possessions after they were thrown out. Frieda takes these possessions from her and shortly thereafter the woman is killed in a fire that burns down her house. Now, Frieda is sure that Hannah is not the murderer.

Frieda is an enigmatic character whom I find fascinating, and the other characters in the book are convincing. Although some of the books in this series are not really thrillers (some are), they never fail to send a chill down my spine.

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Review 1462: Not at Home

Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.

When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.

Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.

This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1461: Expiation

Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”

Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.

But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.

Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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