Day 1251: Mischief

Women Crime Writers coverMischief by Charlotte Armstrong is the first novel in the 50’s volume of my Women Crime Writers set. It is an excellent start to the second volume.

Ruth and Peter O. Jones are in New York for a convention at which he is a speaker. Because Peter’s sister cancelled her babysitting gig at the last moment, they have had to bring their nine-year-old daughter, Bunny, with them. The elevator man hears them talking about where to find a babysitter and volunteers his niece, Nell. Once Ruth and Peter leave, though, Nell begins to behave strangely.

Jed Towers is on his last date with his girl, Lyn, before moving across country to take a new job. They have a spat, however, and Lyn walks out. Jed goes back to his hotel determined to find another date for his last night in town. Across an open courtyard, he sees a girl in the opposite window, who seems to be inviting him over.

I can’t say more about this novel without giving away the plot. Suffice to say, it builds up a great deal of suspense as one guest after another starts to worry about what is going on in that room on the 18th floor.

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Day 1232: Laura

Cover for LauraBest of Five!
Laura is the first of eight mystery novels included in a two-volume set, beautifully bound, called Women Crime Writers, published by the Library of America. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the best American literature in print, and I have ordered its catalog. (I received it after I wrote this, and I have to report that it publishes relatively few works by women. I am disappointed.)

Laura is a doozy of a mystery. I think it was made into a movie, and I believe I’ve seen parts of it, but I didn’t know the solution.

A young woman is murdered one Friday night by a shot in the face with a shotgun. Her body isn’t discovered until Sunday morning when the maid arrives. The apartment belongs to Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is to be married the next week.

The first section of the novel is narrated by Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s long-time friend. He is an older man, a writer who considers himself an expert on crime. Mark McPherson, the detective in the case, calls to interview him about Laura.

Laura seems not to have an enemy in the world, but she was about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a man with a need to feel superior, which it was difficult to do with a woman like Laura. But Shelby was about to marry the golden goose, as Laura was much more successful than he was. Would he have killed her? To his dismay, Mark feels himself falling in love with a dead girl.

Laura has a couple of twists, one that I think I should have anticipated but did not. It packs quite an emotional punch, especially for a novel written in the 40’s, the era of the hard-boiled detective.

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Day 1215: The Flamethrowers

Cover for The FlamethrowersSet in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.

The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.

Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.

Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.

However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.

This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1174: Literary Wives! The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldToday 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
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

The Blazing World was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I won’t recap my review but instead provide you the link so that you can read my original review. Then I’ll go on with my comments for Literary Wives.

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

Although Harriet is a widow at the beginning of the book, all her actions are centered around her experiences of being first a daughter and then a wife. She has been a good wife, but she has had no support from her art dealer husband for her art. She has sat quietly by and watched him claim credit for her ideas. Fiercely intelligent and original, she has become convinced that as an older woman, she is almost invisible. In fact, her entire focus on the project that she conceives and that drives the plot of the novel is fueled by anger at the paternalism of first her father and then her husband.

Unfortunately, she finds that the art world is paternalistic in just the same way, as she has trouble claiming her own art after conducting her experiment. This is a powerful novel about institutional sexism—particularly the difficulties women still have in being taken seriously in any realm except that of the household, but especially in the creative arts.

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Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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Day 1134: Manhattan Beach

Cover for Manhattan BeachI have enjoyed everything that Jennifer Egan has written and thought that A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best books I read that year. So, when Netgalley offered Manhattan Beach, I was pleased. Egan’s other work has been, in one way or another, experimental, but Manhattan Beach is a straightforward historical novel, to my surprise.

Anna Kerrigan is a young girl at the start of the novel in 1930’s New York. Her father, Eddie, works as a bagman for the longshoreman’s union and takes her with him on his rounds. But shortly after the start of the novel, he begins leaving her home. He does this after he takes a new job working for a gangster, Mr. Styles. Although Anna interprets this as rejection, it is to keep her safe.

Eddie does not enjoy his home life. Although he loves his wife, they have a second daughter, Lydia, who is severely handicapped. Her presence makes him feel uncomfortable, and Agnes is always trying to force him to show affection to Lydia.

Then Eddie disappears without a trace. Anna begins working to help support the family. Eventually, the story splits into two. In one, Anna becomes involved with Mr. Styles, whom she remembers visiting as a child with Eddie, and works her way into the man’s world of marine diving as part of the war effort. In the other story, we find out what happened to Eddie.

For most of this novel, I wondered where it was going. Much of it centers around Anna, Eddie, and Mr. Styles. But first it seems to wander in focus from the New York underworld to the war effort and diving to Eddie’s experiences during World War II. Although the bulk of the novel is set during the war, there is very little feeling for the period.

link to NetgalleyOverall, I was a little disappointed in Manhattan Beach. It was well written, but Egan’s previous novels sparkled with originality. Egan makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she wanted to write about New York during the period, but the period feel is just not there. She is interested in the Naval Yard, where Anna works, but I didn’t really get an idea of what it was like.

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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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