Day 1288: Seven Keys to Baldpate

Cover for Seven Keys to BaldpateJust as a side note, the Classics Club Spin number is #1, which means I will be reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the end of January. That’s quite a coincidence, because I just checked it out of the library to read last week. I haven’t started it yet, though, and will be interested to see what I think of it more than 40 years after I read it the first time.

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I heard about Seven Keys to Baldpate during a news story about its namesake, Baldpate Inn in Colorado. Written in 1913, the novel was made into a successful stage play and three movies. It is not exactly a mystery as we think of it, since no detection occurs. Simply, the main character is trying to understand what is going on.

Billy Magee is a successful writer of pot boilers, but he feels he is capable of writing something more serious. To get away from interruptions, he travels to upstate New York to stay in his friend’s summer hotel, Baldpate Inn, which is closed during that season, winter.

In the train station at Upper Asquewan Falls, he falls in love on sight with a young woman. He attempts to help her find a place to stay, but after he puts her in a cab, he never expects to see her again.

He has no sooner gotten settled in his room at the abandoned hotel when people begin to arrive. Finding him there, they each tell him a story that is patently untrue to explain their presences at the hotel. Among them is the girl from the railway station. It is especially disturbing because Billy has been told he has the only key to the inn, but each successive arrival lets himself or herself in with a key.

Soon the hotel has almost a dozen people staying there, all of whom seem to understand what is going on except Magee. The mystery seems to involve an envelope of money in the hotel safe, however.

This novel is ridiculous but entertaining, written in a breezy style that is occasionally overly florid. It is meant to be ridiculous, however, sort of a satire against the potboilers that Billy writes, which is probably why it was so popular in its time. Although it is sometimes a little long-winded, it is a quick, fun read.

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Day 1183: The Widow’s House

Cover for The Widow's HouseI haven’t read a creepy book in a while, and The Widow’s House is a good one. It is also a complex story where nothing is what it seems.

When she went away to college, Clare Martin moved away from her home in the Hudson Valley and hoped she would never return. She and her husband, Jess, moved to New York with aspirations to be writers, and ten years ago, Jess wrote a critically acclaimed novel. However, another one was not forthcoming, and for the past three years, Clare has been supporting them by taking editing work. They are badly in debt.

Jess suggests they move back into the country with the money from selling their loft apartment, leaving both of them time to write. He has a fancy to live in the same area where Clare grew up. When they go to look at houses, however, most of them are out of their price range.

Their realtor, Katrine Vanderberg, has an idea. Another writer is looking for a couple to occupy the caretaker’s house on his property. The rent would be free in exchange for some help around the property. The main house is River House, a beautiful but neglected octagonal mansion that is said to be haunted. The owner is Alden Montague, or Monty, the writer, who just happens to be the Martins’ old writing professor, and he is glad to have them.

Shortly before the move, Clare finds out that Jess turned down a teaching job at a college near their apartment, an opportunity that would have allowed them to stay in New York, without even discussing it with her. She is so upset by that, and what she thinks is his philandering, that she prepares to leave him soon after the move. But his behavior makes her change her mind.

The main house is supposedly haunted by a woman who had a child by the owner of the house. One stormy night she left the child on the doorstep of the house and drowned herself in the pond. The child was found dead. Clare was fascinated enough by this local story to have written about it in college, and now she decides to write a novel about it.

But almost upon her arrival in the house, she sees the woman standing near the pond and hears a baby crying at night. Clare has a history of psychic experiences and decides the house is haunted. When the caretaker’s cottage is destroyed in a flood, she and Jess move in with Monty.

Early in the novel I suspected gaslighting. I won’t say if I was right, but there are layers upon layers to this novel. It is a well written, suspenseful, spook fest. I had to keep reading it until late in the night once I got started.

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Day 1152: The Ghost of Christmas Past

Cover for The Ghost of Christmas PastI was amused by the sprightliness and humor of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness novel that I read recently, so I thought I’d try one of her Molly Murphy novels. I saw this one listed on Netgalley and requested it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is the 19th Molly Murphy novel, so it’s hard to say if I’d have been more impressed with an earlier book in the series. The series has won Agatha awards, so I assume so.

Molly is an Irish immigrant who by this novel is married to Daniel, a New York City police captain. Molly is in a depression. Her husband had problems with Tammany Hall, causing him to take some work in San Francisco from a government agency in the previous book. She followed him in time for the 1906 earthquake and lost her baby. Daniel’s employment prospects are up in the air, and Molly does not want to move away from her close friends in their New York neighborhood. And Bridey, an Irish girl she took in and learned to love, is being reclaimed by her father to return to Ireland. Finally, Molly returns from taking care of her mother-in-law to find that the Christmas she expected to have with her neighbors will not be because Gus and Sid are going away to spend it with friends.

Molly and Daniel get an invitation to spend Christmas with her mother-in-law at the stately home of Cedric Von Aiken in upstate New York. There, they find a gloomy family, haunted by the disappearance of the couple’s three-year-old daughter ten years before. Molly thinks it unlikely that the little girl supposedly dressed herself, put on her coat, opened the heavy front door, and walked out by herself. But her footprints and hers alone were found in the snow going to a nearby creek.

Of course, Molly decides to try to figure out what happened. Of course, we have the dynamic of the protesting husband that has made me tired of other series featuring a crime-solving wife.

link to NetgalleyAside from there being no sign of the other series’ humor and lightness, the plot of the novel is just too unlikely and the solution has been used before. Spoiler, although I will not be specific: an unexpected arrival is oddly time to coincide with Molly’s visit to the house. But that’s not the biggest coincidence.

Finally, the novel and dialogue are fleshed out just enough to propel the plot along, and when we come to the problem of Bridey, the behavior of those involved and their remarks are comic in their obviousness. Not one of my favorite books, for sure.

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Day 1133: Dept. of Speculation

Cover for Dept. of SpeculationToday 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

Dept. of Speculation is a clever and affecting short novel about marriage and relationships. It is written mostly in little fragments but still manages to generate both sympathy for the main character and suspense.

The narrator is referred to as “I” in the first half of the novel and “the wife” in the second half, I suppose signifying a sense of distance from herself. The wife and the husband navigate some of the common problems in marriage, including parenthood, settling for less interesting careers to have a paycheck, changing houses, and so on. But the primary tension comes from when the wife realizes the husband is cheating.

The novel has some truly comic moments, especially concerning motherhood. The narrator, who is scarily intelligent, feels her brain is turning to mush after she has a daughter. I could relate to some of the comments she makes, as my niece has been going through the same thing.

Funny and sad, this novel feels like a true exploration of a relationship. It is sparsely written and contains many thought-provoking quotes and facts.

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

Last meeting of Literary Wives, I commented that On Beauty was the most realistic book we had read in dealing with marriage, but Dept. of Speculation sets forward a similar situation in all its difficulty and ambiguities. It does this in an inventive way, by only looking at the fragmentary thoughts and feelings of one character, the wife. And she has complex reactions to events as well as an astounding intelligence.

Literary Wives logoFirst, we are treated to her reactions at being a mother—a frustration at the stalling of her career, exhaustion from little sleep, the sense that her intelligence is failing her, and overwhelming love. Her feelings about her husband aren’t as obvious until she is astounded to learn he is unfaithful. It is clear she thought that nothing was wrong and they would be together until death. Then she has to deal with the complexities of her reactions to that.

I think this is as thoughtful and true an observation of marriage as I have ever read.

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Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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Day 1083: Everybody’s Fool

Cover for Everybody's FoolBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think I am the only one to be delighted when I learned that Richard Russo was returning to the familiar ground of North Bath, New York, and Sully, of Nobody’s Fool. Sully has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has less than two years to live unless he undergoes a procedure he’s been avoiding. This situation leads him to consider a little more deeply some fundamental questions.

Sully’s friend Rab has felt a change in their relationship since Sully came into money. They no longer work together, and Rab feels that Sully neglects him. Rab is ridiculously dependent on him.

Sully is concerned for Ruth, his long-time lover, and her daughter, Janey. Janey’s abusive ex-husband is back in town, fresh out of jail.

A major character of the novel is Douglas Raymer. Once the rookie who waved his gun at Sully for driving on the sidewalk, Raymer is now the chief of police.  He has always been obsessively self-conscious and unsure of himself. His self-esteem has not been improved by finding out on the day of his beloved wife Becka’s death that she was leaving him for someone else. The problem is, he doesn’t know who, but he has found the remote for someone else’s garage door under the seat of Becka’s car.

Raymer is already considering quitting his job when he begins one of the worst days of his life. While attending the funeral of a judge, he passes out from the heat and falls into the grave. Later he realizes that he must have dropped the remote, which he planned to use to find Becka’s lover, in the grave.

Russo is great at creating flawed but lovable and believable characters, and he specializes in settings of beaten-down working class towns in the rust belt. He also doesn’t flinch from pushing his characters to the heights of absurdity, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style. Sometimes he goes too far with this, but other times it works perfectly to produce a serio-comic effect. This is one of those times. Empire Falls remains my favorite Russo novel, but this one is right up there.

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Day 896: No Country

Cover for No CountryA story about Irish immigrants to India seemed like an interesting change to me. But I decided not to finish this 500+-page book.

It begins in 1989 in upstate New York, where the bodies of a couple are found and their daughter is being questioned. The promise is that the novel will answer the question of who killed them or whether they committed suicide, but at least in the first 200 pages, after this brief opening, the book doesn’t return to the crime.

Instead, the story goes back in time to 1843 Ireland. There, we meet two boyhood friends, Brendan and Padraig. Through several unlooked-for occurrences, Padraig ends up on a ship to Bangladesh with every intention of returning immediately, while Brendan adopts Padraig’s illegitimate daughter Maeve and ends up fleeing the famine for Canada.

Everything about the Irish section of the novel seemed clichéd to me, and because Ray spends no time at all on characterization, we’re not especially interested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters, but they don’t have distinctive voices or personalities. Finally, there is no sense of place to the novel. So, I decided to stick it out until the novel moved to India, hoping that would change things.

In Calcutta in 1911, we meet Robert, Padraig’s Anglo-Indian grandson. I didn’t stay with Robert very long because I still didn’t feel very interested, and again there was no sense of place. It seems obvious that the couple who die in 1989 are going to find they are related in some unanticipated way, but by then the relationship will be so distant, it would hardly seem to matter.

In fact, the story seems to be one of unrelenting misery, but a misery so detached that we feel little empathy as we read the catalog of horrors experienced by Brendan and his family in Ireland and on the way to Canada. The novel is ambitious to tell the story of these families but in a way that didn’t capture me or make me want to invest the time to finish it. From reviews I’ve read, it just becomes more complex, one reviewer mentioning it needed a family tree. But that would probably give away the ending.

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