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Archive for the ‘England’ Tag

Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

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Wild Imaginations   Leave a comment

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Active imaginations, fear of the unknown, religion, science and a bit of romance are among the themes in Sarah Perry’s epic novel, The Essex Serpent.

The setting is 1893 England. Cora Seaborne is introduced as a soon-to-be well-off widow. Her marriage is an unhappy one, so her husband’s death, which occurs within the first chapter, is not unwelcome. Her husband’s physician is enchanted with Cora, so is her friend/companion, Martha. Her son Francis is less enamored. These characters, and several others integral to the narrative, are well-developed as passionate, intelligent and flawed.

Cora, Martha and Francis travel to Essex where there are long-standing rumors of an unseen, but terrifying creature lurking near a small coastal town. The idea of documenting its presence appeals to Cora. Her friendship with Will, the local pastor, and his wife provide friendship.it’s clear there is the potential for something more than platonic between Cora and Will, this is an attraction of minds. He is certain the panic stirred by the unseen, unnamed creature reflects a lack of faith among his parishioners. She, on the other hand, is intrigued by the idea of discovering, perhaps, a new species.

Cora is aware of the feelings held by her late husband’s doctor, yet she does little to discourage his interest. When she beckons, he appears. Generally, the women are portrayed as strong-minded and intelligent, while several of the men are satisfied simply being in their presence.

Despite the dark setting, Perry injects humor and light moments.

The Essex Serpent
Four Bookmarks
Custom House, 2016
418 pages

At Sea Without a Clue   Leave a comment

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Not all mysteries are thrillers; I like those that make me want to sleep with the light on – lots of lights. I expected to be kept awake by Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I wasn’t. I enjoyed it as a mystery, but it fell short as a thriller.

The story is intriguing enough: a small group of passengers aboard a boutique luxury cruise liner bound from England to Norway’s fjords. The 10-cabin ship is owned by an exceptionally wealthy man who has invited a few friends and members of the media for the maiden voyage. Part of the problem is the main character: Laura “Lo” Blacklock, a travel magazine low-level journalist who lucked into the assignment. Ware doesn’t imbue Lo with many attributes that evoke much empathy or interest.

The mystery begins when, after drinking too much on the first night of the cruise, Lo is convinced that the woman in the cabin next door (#10) was thrown overboard. It’s the same woman who had earlier lent mascara to Lo. The problem is, according to the ship’s manifest, the cabin is unoccupied.

Lo knows the woman existed; she had proof. The narrative follows her efforts to determine what became of the woman in the face of incredulity from others. In this, Ware is successful. However, the lack of intensity as Lo strives to prove the reality of what she saw, keeps the novel from reaching the level of thriller. It was easy enough to turn off the lights.

The Woman in Cabin 10
3.5 Bookmarks
Scout Press, 2017
340 pages

Under Construction   Leave a comment

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Bawdy, excessive and slightly unbelievable are my first impressions of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl.

Set mostly in Wolverhampton, England, Joanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl going on 35 who is certain she has outgrown the life into which she’s been born. Joanna is intelligent, funny, overweight and practically exudes anguish since she is still a virgin; in fact, she’s never been kissed. There’s also an awkward, embarrassing moment when she’s on TV. So, she does what most teenagers attempt: she reinvents herself. This involves a new name and a career; that’s right, a career. As a music critic.

At first, Joanna, now known as Dolly Wilde, manages to remain true to herself while projecting a much more confident demeanor. However, the need to fit in eventually overwhelms her and her journey of self-discovery leads to predictable consequences – especially since it involves sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The Morrigan family relies on government assistance to get by. When Joanna innocently mentions this to a neighbor she worries this could mean an end to their life on the dole. This is, in large part, the reason she decides to pursue a career, so she can help financially. This, of course, means quitting school.

Moran’s writing is vivid, albeit at times also lurid. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to compensate for the exasperation Joanna/Dolly causes.

My initial reaction to the novel doesn’t change much by its end.

How to Build a Girl
Three Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2014
341 pages

Slick and Sly   Leave a comment

The adage that opposites attract is evident in Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. Noel and Vera aren’t exactly drawn together as much as they are forced upon each other: Noel is an orphaned 10-year-old evacuee and Vera is a middle-aged woman who reluctantly agrees to care for him.

Before they meet, Noel has managed to fly under the radar in London with his elderly Godmother, Mattie, with whom he’s been living since the death of his parents. Both have a disdain for authority and are content in their relative isolation. As World War II becomes more imminent, Mattie’s health deteriorates and England increasingly is in Germany’s crosshairs.

Noel is unusual, and Vera is initially convinced he is not very bright. Today he’d be considered a nerd; certainly his intellect and lack of social skills don’t make him a popular child. Vera is widowed and trying to make ends meet, although her efforts aren’t on the up and up. Soon, Noel offers suggestions to improve upon Vera’s scams and their efforts prove to be quite successful, if not quite moral.

Among Noel and Vera’s prey is Mrs. Gifford who unwittingly (and repeatedly) donates to whatever charity the two have concocted. However, they don’t just take her money, they spend time getting to know her. Eventually, Noel becomes protective of the old woman.

Evans’ writing style is subtle as the relationships evolve. Attitudes begin to shift and bonds are created. The couple begins to accept each other’s flaws while recognizing their own.

Crooked Heart

Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2015
282 pages

The Very Model of a Proper English Novel   Leave a comment

Major Pettigrew
Easy to visualize characters, plots driven by class conflict, issues of the heart (or both) and a very proper sense of, well, what’s proper are what make English Lit so appealing to me. Yes, the above could easily refer to classic British literature, but it also applies to Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – a very contemporary work.

Simonson’s novel begins with a chance meeting between the Major (his first name is Ernest, while apt doesn’t fit him as snugly as his military title) and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper. Although their paths have crossed in the past, this encounter comes at a vulnerable point in the Major’s life: he’s just learned of his brother’s death. What follows is the evolution of a friendship based on a passion for books and widowhood.

Both characters are thoroughly engaging. The Major in his stilted, decorous yet sensitive manner has appeal, and Mrs. Ali is an exceptionally intelligent woman burdened by a certain sadness associated with being considered an outsider in her home country. Simonson portrays people we know or would like to; they’re well-defined individuals with foibles, principles and dreams. The cast of lesser characters, including Roger, the Major’s obnoxious status-seeking son, enhance the story.

The novel moves at a leisurely pace as the Major and Mrs. Ali embark on a relationship that puts a spark in their step and ultimately has tongues wagging throughout the village. Simonson clearly enjoys thumbing her nose at what’s considered suitable or not.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Four Bookmarks
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011
358 pages (not including the Reader’s Guide)