Friday Book Whimsy: The English Wife

Everything seemed a bit more scandalous in the 19th century, and The English Wife, by Laura Willig, tells a great story that takes place in the 19th century, rich in interesting characters and a lot of unexpected twists and turns served alongside the scandal.

The novel opens as the rich New York City aristocrat Bayard Van Duyvil and his English wife Annabelle are found murdered in the garden outside their home the night of their Twelfth Night party. They are discovered by his sister and his cousin, who hear his last word: George. The crime is initially considered a murder/suicide. However, Annabelle’s body was nowhere to be found. Still, the rumors of her having an affair with the architect who is building their fancy new home continue to feed the flames of speculation.

Bay’s sister Janie is certain her brother would not have killed his wife, and she also doesn’t believe that Annabelle would have had an affair, and sets out to solve the mystery. Assisting her is a journalist who is interested in solving the murder to have the scoop of the century.

Via flashbacks, we learn that Annabelle met Bayard in London where she was working as a burlesque dancer. After a brief courtship, she and Bayard move back to New York City where they live a perfect life.

Or is it? As Janie begins to investigate, she learns more than she ever imagined about her brother, his wife, and she and Bayard’s mother, a woman who thinks so much of herself that she looks down her nose at the Vanderbilts!

Willig dishes out the twists and turns with subtlety and imagination. There were times when I would read something and have to stop to think, “Did I know that?” Little by little, the mystery is solved and I found the ending to be quite unpredictable and satisfying.

I enjoyed this story very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Drop in the Ocean

A Drop in the Ocean’s protagonist Anna Fergusson is a Boston research scientist who studies Huntington’s Disease. Or at least she did until she lost her grant money. She is 49 years old and needs to make big changes in her life. She learns about an opportunity to manage a campground on a small island off of Australia for a year. Despite the fact that it is completely out of her comfort zone, Anna accepts the challenge and moves to the island.

There she lives a life that most of us dream about. The temperature is almost always warm, there are beautiful ocean views and breezes and smells. The people are friendly and the job is easy.

Anna becomes involved almost immediately with a man who studies the turtles that make their home on the island. She helps him with his work and is almost blissfully happy.

There isn’t really a whole lot more plot about which to speak, but somehow it works out fine. Author Jenni Ogden has written a story that just moves pleasantly from one place to another without a driving story to tell. There is some drama when Anna learns a dark secret about Tom that changes their relationship.  For the most part, however, the stories are about the life on a beautiful tropical island. There is a bit of a backstory regarding Anna’s father, but it really is sort of random and completely unconnected to the main plot.

A Drop in the Ocean is truly a light read when you are looking for a pleasant distraction that involves romance, a desert island, and maybe a pina colada in your hand.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Address

Back in 2016 I read (and reviewed) The Dollhouse, the debut novel by Fiona Davis, and LOVED IT. In that novel, Davis told the story of the Barbizon Hotel in New York City, a hotel for single women in New York City that opened in the 1920s.

In The Address, the star of the show is the famous Dakota Apartments located on the upper west side of NYC, just a stone’s throw from Central Park. Unfortunately, one of its more recent claims to fame was that it was where John Lennon – a Dakota resident — was shot and killed in 1980.

In 1884, working class Sara Smythe manages to make it to head housekeeper at a famous London hotel. She so impresses one of their residents – wealthy Theodore Camden —  that he coaxes her into leaving London and moving to New York City to become the manager of an apartment building for which he is the architect. Theodore offers opportunities to Sara that were virtually unthinkable in that day and age.

This leads to that, and they become romantically involved despite the fact that he is unhappily married.

Fast forward a hundred years and meet Bailey Campden, who is a kissing relative to the Campden family because her grandfather was the ward of Mr. Campden. Bailey is fresh out of rehab and looking to get her life back together. She moves into the apartment of her cousin, who is a direct descendent of Theodore Campden and who is – along with her brother – in line to inherit his fortune. Bailey’s job is to oversee the modifications of the apartment which has fallen into disrepair.

It is an interesting story line, and I loved learning about the Dakota. I was unaware, for example, that at the time it was built, it was flat out in the country. Residents looked out upon cows. It was a huge risk to build a luxury apartment in the mid- to late 1880s.

Having said that, I am quite frankly really tired of the back and forth between characters and time periods that authors seem to rely on these days. Not only that, but some of the story seemed quite a stretch, i.e. a period of time Sara spent in an insane asylum, where she is rescued by famous journalist Nellie Bly.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough to recommend it, especially for those interested in New York City as a story location. The history was interesting and I like the author’s writing style.

Oh, and the cover art is beautiful!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: I Found You

So many books these days purport to be the next great suspense novel, and Lisa Jewell’s I Found You was no exception.  If you like Paula Hawkins or Ruth Ware, then you will like……

Being a fan of suspense novels, I bit. And I’m so very glad I did.

Back in 2015 I read (and reviewed) The House We Grew Up In, and LOVED IT. However, for no particular reason, I never read another book by this author. But the plot of this novel caught my eye, and I gave it a go.

Single mom Alice Lake sees a stranger on the beach in front of her home in the English seaside village of Ridinghouse Bay. It is cold and raining, and though she tries to ignore him for a bit, she finally brings him a raincoat. She learns that he is suffering from memory loss. He doesn’t know who he is, where he’s from, or why he’s sitting on the beach in Ridinghouse Bay; what’s more, he has no identification. Against her better judgement, Alice brings him into her home.

Meanwhile, in London, Lily Monrose – a Ukrainian immigrant – becomes concerned when her husband of a very short time doesn’t come home from work. She is convinced that something is wrong because he has been a devoted and attentive husband. Being new to the country, she is frightened and confused. Initially, the police don’t seem particularly interested in helping her as they presume her husband Carl has just decided to leave her. However, when they finally begin investigating, they learn that there is no existing person with her husband’s name.

It seems obvious to the reader that Carl and the stranger, who Alice begins calling Frank, are one and the same.

But wait. Flash back to 23 years earlier, when teenagers Gray and Kirsty Ross travel with their parents to Ridinghouse Bay for vacation. It isn’t long before they meet charismatic Mark, who takes a liking to Kirsty, but who Gray immediately distrusts. It isn’t long before Kirsty is missing.

How are these storylines connected? I bet you can’t figure it out. At least I certainly couldn’t. There was one part of the book that caught me so off-guard that I feared I would have whiplash! The plot is suspenseful and unpredictable. The characters are flawed, but likeable, especially Alice. I remember thinking the same thing when I read The House We Grew Up In, so it must be the author’s strong point.

I really liked this book, and strongly recommend it for someone who enjoys suspense novels. This time I won’t wait so long to read another book by Lisa Jewell.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Unquiet Grave

The best thing about most of author Sharyn McCrumb’s books are the ghosts. They’re never scary or murderous. They’re not generally out to do anyone harm. The ghosts are just a part of Appalachian mythology. Like Cole in The Sixth Sense, Nora Bonesteel, featured in many of the books in McCrumb’s Ballad series, sees dead people. She has the sight.

Nora Bonesteel is not in McCrumb’s newest offering, The Unquiet Grave, but a ghost does play a key role. The book, unbelievably enough, is based on a true story in which an accused murderer is brought to trial based on evidence supplied by a ghost. The Greenbriar ghost, to be exact. The murder took place in West Virginia in 1897.

The reader first meets James P.D. Gardner, an African-American lawyer who has been confined to a segregated insane asylum since attempting suicide following the death of his wife. He begins to be treated by Dr. James Boozer, who is trying out the newfangled practice of treating mental illness by conversation rather than lobotomy or electric shock treatment. In the course of their conversation, which is woven in and out of the novel, we learn that Gardner was involved as an attorney in the Greenbriar murder case. The story is told through these conversations.

Back in 1897, beautiful and willful Zona Heaster marries Erasmus Trout Shue, a blacksmith who has been married twice before. His second wife died under mysterious circumstances. It isn’t long before Zona’s family starts to notice that things aren’t as they should be in the Shue marriage. Zona rarely sees her family, she is skin and bones, and she is isolated from the entire community. Within a short period of time, she dies from a fall down the steps. The fall is determined to be an accident.

Zona’s mother Mary Jane is suspicious from the get go. Though not a bit superstitious and deeply religious, she claims to see the ghost of her daughter, who tells her that she was murdered by her husband Trout Shue. Despite Mary Jane’s husband’s misgivings, Mary Jane pleas her case to the county prosecutor, who agrees to have the body exhumed. Upon examination, the doctor determines that Zona was indeed killed, likely by being strangled and then pushed down the stairs. Unlikely though it would seem, Mary Jane manages to convince him to bring the case to trial. Even more unlikely, Shue is found guilty.

All of the above characters are apparently real, and the case is genuine.

While The Unquiet Grave is nowhere near the best McCrumb novel, the story was fascinating nevertheless. The book is relatively short and the ending was extremely unexpected (and unable to be verified in any way as fact). It satisfied this reader. I also enjoyed learning the story through the conversations of a very interesting character, Mr. Gardner. It was a clever story-telling technique on McCrumb’s part.

The Unquiet Grave is not a scary ghost story. Instead, it’s more of a history lesson.  The Unquiet Grave is not part of McCrumb’s Ballad series, a series, by the way, I highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Y is for Yesterday

I don’t make a practice of reviewing mystery books that are part of a series. In many cases, to enjoy the book, it is important that you have read the previous books for context and understanding of the characters. This isn’t always true, and I have made exceptions in the case of particularly good stories.

Author Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (beginning with A is for Alibi through Y is for Yesterday) is familiar to mystery readers and probably many other kinds of readers as well. Sadly, Grafton passed away a couple of weeks ago from cancer. I was unaware that she had cancer and her death caught me by surprise, especially since I had recently completed her most recent offering, Y is for Yesterday, published in August 2017. So, despite it being part of a series, I am going to review the book in honor of private eye Kinsey Millhone and her creator, Sue Grafton.

Millhone lives in the fictional town of St. Theresa, California, supposedly modeled after Santa Barbara. She is single after two unsuccessful marriages, and is fiercely independent. She lives in a little bungalow next door to her best friend, an 80-something man named Henry. Constants in all of the books are Henry’s delicious cinnamon rolls, Millhone’s ever-present glass of Chardonnay, and dinner at the Hungarian restaurant down the street which, according to Millhone, serves terrible food. When the series began, it was 1982. As of Y is for Yesterday, it was 1989.

Unfortunately, though I think Y is for Yesterday was better than the past couple of books (V is for Vengeance and the book she called X, thereby answering the question I had since reading A is for Alibi as to what her X book would be called), I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as her earlier books.

As I mentioned, it is 1989. Kinsey is contacted by the parents of a young man recently released from prison, where he served a sentence related to the murder of a high school classmate. He and some of his buddies had filmed a violent rape (which they swore was consensual sex) and the death of the classmate was related to this tape. The parents had been contacted by someone demanding lots of money or they would release the tape to the public.

At the same time as this is happening, Kinsey realizes that the serial murderer who nearly killed Kinsey in the book X but escaped was back and looking for revenge.

As usual, Grafton’s characterizations of Millhone and her peeps are excellent. These are people with whom I would like to spend time. The story, too, was well executed. My major complaint is that there were times in the book that I wanted to yell out, “For crying out loud, Kinsey, you’re seriously going to go for a walk without taking your gun?” Given Kinsey’s history, it just didn’t ring true. I also felt the men involved in the rape and murder didn’t seem realistic. The serial killer, however, was fascinating and TERRIFYING.

If you have never heard of, or read, this series, start at the beginning. You will become friends with some worthwhile characters. And don’t look for Z is for Zero, because Grafton had apparently not written a word yet, and forbade her children to hire a ghostwriter to continue the series. She also nixed (and always has) a movie based on the books.

Sue Grafton, rest in peace.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Best Reads of 2017

My reading goal each year in terms of quantity is 100 books. I never make it, despite the fact that I think I read a LOT. In 2017, I read 91 books (and am in the process of my 92nd as we turn the pages of the calendar to 2018). That is three more than I read in 2016, and two fewer than I read in 2015. I abandoned a number of books this past year, however, which may account for fewer total books. I also had more books to which I gave a bad review than I usually have, and I don’t know exactly why that is. Generally, operating under my standard reading rule which is Life is too short – and there are too many choices – to read a bad book, I don’t finish books I dislike. This year, however, I did that on a number of occasions. Maybe I’m finally getting more mature!

I read a number of new books, but as usual, I also read a number of books published prior to 2017. So a couple of my favorite books of 2017 which are listed below were actually not published in 2017.

Having given you all of this useless background, here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2017, with a link to my review…..

The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn
Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and stories about strong women are always of interest to me. The Alice Network is based on the true story of a network of women spies during World War I. It is 1947, and New York City socialite Charlie St. Clair begins searching for her beloved French cousin whom she doesn’t believe perished in World War II as most assume. In the course of her search, she meets Eve Gardner, who was a member of the Alice Network during WWI. The two stories intermingle, and a great novel is the result.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate
Speaking of historical fiction, this excellent novel was based on a fact so horrifying that I almost couldn’t believe it was true. In 1939, five children who live with their parents on a riverboat in Tennessee are left alone one night when their father is forced to take their mother who is having a dangerously difficult labor into town to the hospital. While they are gone, a group of people, claiming to be government officials, enter the boat and take the children to an orphanage. Run by real-life Gloria Tann, poor children were kidnapped and then sold to rich people unable to conceive. Decades later, the daughter of a United States senator, comes across the practice and learns her family’s part in it. Great storytelling by the author.

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell
I just finished this book and haven’t yet reviewed it. Nevertheless, it is definitely one of the best books I read this past year. Jewell is the author of another book I liked – The House We Grew Up In – one of my favorite books of 2015. Single mother, somewhat bohemian in her lifestyle, Alice Lake comes across a man sitting on the beach in front of her house. She greets him only to learn that he has no memory – he doesn’t know his name, his background, or why he is sitting on the beach in this little English village. The book is a combination of three story lines that connect in a way that I dare you to predict. The story is so clever that at one point, I was so taken by surprise I thought I might have whiplash.

The Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz
Speaking of clever, this murder-within-a-murder mystery is one of the more interesting books I have ever read. The charm of Hercule Poirot meets the serious police business of Harry Bosch. The author is the creator and writer of Foyle’s War, one of my favorite PBS mystery series. His writing is outstanding and I’ll bet you can’t figure out the ending.

The Tumbling Turner Sisters, by Juliette Fay
This novel is a delight from beginning to end. The father of four girls in the early 20s finds himself unable to work when he is seriously injured on the job. The family is in despair when the mother decides that the girls will learn to become acrobats and work the vaudeville circuit. Part love story, part adventure novel, part history lesson. I loved these characters and nearly everything about the story.

Happy reading in 2018!