Archive for the ‘London’ Tag

In search of beetles — bugs, not cars   Leave a comment

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Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce, is meant to be a charming book, but falls short.  It’s predictable and the characters are caricatures.

Margery Benson’s life is a sorrowful one. Her father commits suicide when she’s a young girl and most of her life is spent living with her depressed mother and dour aunts. Before his death, however, her father showed her a book about bugs, which created an interest in beetles, in particular.

As a middle-aged woman whose life is passing her by, she resolves to find the mythic golden beetle of New Caledonia. Before setting off on this venture, Margery decides an assistant is required. She opts for Enid Pretty, a woman she’s never met, whose correspondence suggests dyslexia, in favor of a Mr. Mundic with post-traumatic stress disorder (although that wasn’t identified following World War II).

Enid is the opposite of Margery in style, personality and intellect.  Enid, whose lively demeanor is off-putting to her employer, does help keep Margery on track. The two set off on their adventure and, unbeknownst to them, are followed by the rejected Mundic. Actually, it’s outright stalking. His inclusion in the plot does little to help move it forward.

In their travels, the women overcome numerous obstacles and forge a bond. Their search for the elusive beetle is secondary.  While their eventual friendship is unsurprising, it is, nonetheless – at times – endearing. Perhaps most enjoyable is the author’s inclusion of an “interview” with the characters at the end of the book.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

The Dial Press, 2020

353 pages (includes Reader’s Guide)

Three Bookmarks

Time and Truth   Leave a comment

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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is an entertaining novel with two separate plots spanning a century. The primary setting for both storylines is a London printing house for the Swansby Encyclopdaedic Dictionary.

In its heyday, Swansby employed dozens to research words and their definitions. Peter Winceworth’s job addresses the letter S. One-hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern, is tasked with determining which words are real. Her publisher, part of the same Swansby family,  has plans to digitize the dictionary.

Alternating between past and present, Peter and Mallory have distinct senses of humor, feelings of self-doubt and an apparent love of language. In an effort to exert a latent sense of power and personality, Peter invents words. These are what later keep Mallory busy.

Through her investigation, Mallory gains an understanding of the person behind the fictitious words. Although he is unknown to her, elements of his personality are revealed.

Williams begins each chapter with a letter from A to Z, each referring (in alphabetical order) to one of Peter’s concocted vocabulary. It’s a clever way of further connecting his work with Mallory’s.

Yet, not everything is rosy in either era. Peter is tormented for a lisp (he only pretends to have). This makes his efforts associated with S-words to be humiliating on the surface, but amusing since he could easily drop the speech impediment. Mallory’s torment comes in the form of repeated threatening phone calls.

The relationship across time is tied to fake words and people with real emotions.

The Liar’s Dictionary

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2020

270 pages

Digging Up the Past   Leave a comment

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When reading a mystery I want to be surprised; I also want to reach the solution on my own. This might seem contradictory, but it’s my benchmarks for a good thriller.

Both were achieved in Fiona Barton’s The Child. I was pleased to be right. Of course, it took most of the book to fit all of the pieces together, but I did. Rather than feel disappointed once I suspected how things would end, I was proud of my sleuthing abilities.

Three main characters move the story: Kate, a journalist intrigued by the discovery of an infant’s skeleton when an old house is demolished; Angela, whose infant daughter was kidnapped from the maternity ward more than 40 years ago; and Emma, a middle-aged woman with secrets, including a teen pregnancy. Emma’s mother, Jude, has a pivotal role in the novel’s progression.

Kate is convinced there’s more to the story than the gruesome discovery at a construction site. Meanwhile, Angela’s begins to hope that she will finally have an explanation of what happened to her daughter. Emma fears that her past has literally been uncovered. Meanwhile, Jude has no interest in looking in the rear-view mirror and dismisses Emma’s anxieties as part of the strained relationship between the two.

Through Kate, the author methodically reveals the heartbreaks and fears each woman has suffered in their respective lives while fitting together the ways in which they’re all connected. If intrigue isn’t enough, there’s also a bit of science thrown into the mix.

The Child
Four Bookmarks
Berkley, 2017
365 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