Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont

Title: The Lark on the Wing (Haverard Family #2)
Author: Elfrida Vipont
Publication: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1970 (original UK publication 1950)
Genre: Middle grade fiction/series
US cover

Plot: When Kit Haverard finishes school, she finally knows that she wants to study singing professionally but her overbearing cousin Laura insists she take a secretarial course instead so she can eventually help her father with his history books (query: who has been doing this all these years?  Laura?  Is Professor Haverard paying a secretary?).  Eventually, Kit does escape to London where she obtains a secretarial job at Quaker headquarters and an apartment (a fourth-floor walk-up but it’s in the very nice Marylebone neighborhood which I visited on my last trip to London - good luck affording it these days) which she shares with childhood friends Helen and Pony.  Next door are Bob, a colleague of Miles and his younger brother Felix, who also sings.   Kit arranges lessons with her mother’s old music teacher, Papa Andreas, who is retired but still works with a few favorite students (he also seems to have quite the ménage living at his little house near Kensington Palace: his cousin Tante Anna; Lotte, the mysterious cook/housekeeper; and Miss Fishwick, who taught Kit piano at Heryot, and is an accomplished pianist).  Kit’s friend Terry Chauntesinger has become an accomplished singer:
You could sense the atmosphere as soon as he walked onto the platform. He had outgrown the lean, long awkwardness of his younger days…Kit looked up at Terry wonderingly.  His blue eyes were fixed on something a long way away, in time and in space.  The song had started in his mind long before the first notes broke the silence… Whilst Pony and Helen chattered in the interval, Kit was quiet, wrapped in her own thoughts.  For it was not enough to make up your mind to sing, and win your way to London, and fight to make your dream come true.  You could do all that and have nothing to give.
Kit is so humble she is unaware of the progress she is making with Papa Andreas.  However, when she and Terry are singing a Christmas carol later that year, noted composer Sir Hugh Cathcart hears them and reveals he is working on a magnum opus, The Hill of the Lord, which is an oratorio for an orchestra, chorus, and two solo voices, with lyrics from the Psalms.  He allows them to sing the opening and is visibly moved by hearing his swan song come to life.   He tells them if it gets performed.  This would be a career-changing performance even for Terry, already somewhat established in his profession, but unheard of for a student like Kit!  But nothing is ever easy for Kit so there are forces working against her on several fronts . . .  
Too busy

My Impressions: The Lark on the Wing, focusing on Kit’s musical studies and life in London, is just as delightful as the first book in the series, and won the Carnegie Medal as outstanding new English-language book for children or young adults in 1951. Vipont always has a large cast of characters – there is a reason why a family tree is included, so it is helpful but not necessary to have read the first book.  Kit is hard up, so her dedicated training has to be juggled with a secretarial job working for the Society of Friends.  Her faith is real and for readers who encounter Kit as a child it may be their first exposure outside of social studies to this religion. Vipont depicts both major and minor characters vividly. I like Kit’s coworkers and how they support her musical ambitions, and even that her eventual success requires not merely dedication (which most self-respecting heroines have) but also drudgery.  Kit gets tired, she gets discouraged, she makes mistakes (but learns from them, unlike some of our favorite heroines) and sometimes is humiliated.  The three childhood friends from Chesterham are sharing a London flat and working hard: Helen at the London School of Economics and Pony studying medicine like Kit’s brother Miles, yet they manage to have some fun and their small home becomes a meeting place where their friends hang out.  When Cousin Milly moves to London to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, even she drops by often and she meets the charismatic Laurence Cray, a sort of missionary doctor chez Kit. 

Milly’s romance with Laurence is doomed but is that necessary? I am not a big fan of Milly (and throughout this series, it seems as if few people are, other than Kit, who is sometimes her doormat) but why couldn’t she have stayed in London where her career was and have Laurence come back from Chihar from time to time?  Where is Chihar, anyway – India? It was clearly not the ideal place to bring a wife, at the best of times!  Maybe if the book were set now instead of in 1950, there could have been a little more compromise.   However, it seems obvious that Vipont thinks Laurence’s commitment to Chihar is a higher calling, just as she views Kit’s musical ambitions.  Given that Vipont provides her female characters with careers, why does she expect Laurence’s spouse to give hers up?  By the way, there are Cray cousins everywhere!  Laurence is related to Kit’s friend Pony and there are other cousins who turn up in the next book.   

  • Cousin Laura continues to be one of the worst relatives ever.  She can’t even be nice when Kit does well and she nearly ruins everything at the end!   Stephen Maynard is the best thing that ever happened to her, yet one questions his taste!  Also, what kind of idiot was Professor Haverard not to leave his estate properly allocated?  And didn’t Kit’s mother inherit any shares in Kitsons from her father?
  • Terry is practically a chain smoker!  1950 is like another world: can you imagine a gifted singer smoking now? 
  • These books are obviously very dated.  Modern-day readers may find Kit impossibly clueless and her vocabulary is at times limited.  She never knows when men are in love with her and is forever saying people are “a good sort.”   It is odd that she and Helen and Pony never gossip about the men in their lives, or they might have saved a lot of time – but then there would be no story.
  • I can't help wondering about the Holt editor who came across these books twenty years after they had been published in the UK and decided to publish them here, as that seems quite unusual.  I am sure there was a story there!  

Cover Art: The same artist, Michael Lowenbein (1935-2009), designed the US cover for this and for The Lark in the Morn but I think this one is more appealing and works better than the UK covers I include above.  Kit isn’t wearing the crazy hat and she looks like a thoughtful young woman with London as her backdrop.  Showing red-headed Terry behind her may be a giveaway!  

Source: Personal copy.  You may need to try InterLibrary Loan to read this.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

Title: The Lark in the Morn (Haverard Family #1)
Author: Elfrida Vipont
Publication: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1970 (original UK publication 1948)
Genre: Middle grade fiction/series
UK paperback edition
Plot: As the youngest in a large Quaker family, mid-20th century, Kitson (Kit) Haverard is used to being the afterthought.  Her mother died when she was born, and she has no particular talent.  However, after an illness when she is 12 she visits her mother’s relatives, develops more self-confidence, and her musical talent begins to emerge.  This coming of age story follows Kit from the village-like outskirts of Chesterham, an English manufacturing city likely based on Manchester; to rural Manningleigh, where her mother was brought up by aunts; and finally to Heryot, a noted girls’ boarding school, where other women in her family have been educated.

My Impressions: Kit is an appealing although at times exasperating heroine.  She is always in a dream and is much more passive than a modern heroine, especially with regard to domineering Cousin Laura who moved into the Haverard household when Kit’s mother died and has bullied everyone in sight since.  Kit’s older brothers escaped to Marston, the brother school of Heryot, but Laura has prevented Kit from having a real relationship with her absent-minded professor father, who is well-meaning but clueless.  What the modern reader may forget is that English children of this era did not have a lot of say in their upbringing.  Although Kit’s peers tell her to stick up for herself she is quiet and inarticulate and it takes a lot of growing up for her even to be able to identify what she wants.

The Lark in the Morn basically has three different parts: home, Manningleigh, and boarding school.  In the first section, Kit plays pretending games with two local Quaker friends slightly older than she, studious Helen and competitive Pony, and rebels against her bossy cousin Laura’s autocratic rule. Her brothers mostly ignore her but Pony’s parents, pillars of the community, provide some of the compassion and insight that is missing in her own family.   When Kit studies for an exam that would give her a “double remove” and allow her to skip a grade, she overworks and collapses, so that even though she wins she is not allowed to take the promotion (I thought this was so unfair when I read it, including that no one bothered to tell her for weeks).  Laura wants her to go to the seaside to recuperate in a strange boarding house but Kit insists on going to Manningleigh, the old fashioned town where her mother grew up (somewhere near the coast? but which coast?).

None of the Haverards has visited the Kitson family since their mother died twelve years ago.  Kit’s great aunts are elderly but welcoming: wise Aunt Maria and kind but silly Aunt Priscilla, while on the top floor, a little like Mrs. Rochester, is eccentric Aunt Henrietta, a singer like Kit’s mother.  And Kit is welcomed by second cousins she didn’t know existed: Philip, Milly, and Sheila, who tell her about the family business, Kitsons, tea and grocery merchants.   The Kitson cousins have all the freedom and self-assurance that Kit has only dreamed of.  Their father and older brother manage one of the stores (in the books, it sounds much grander than running a grocery and by the fifth book an old fashioned, high quality merchant is becoming unprofitable) and their warm, easy going mother Brenda, a writer who is the daughter of a famous composer, Sir Hugh Cathcart (he plays an important role later).  The uncritical love of her elderly aunts and the easy companionship of her cousins are exactly what Kit needs as she recuperates from her illness.  On a dare from Milly, Kit even encounters Aunt Henrietta, now an embittered old woman who was discouraged by her family from pursuing a musical career. Then, at a family supper on her last evening, Kit meets Sir Hugh himself; Papa Andreas, her mother’s old music maestro; and Terry, his promising student.  Although shy, she sings the Angel Trio with her cousins, and those listening think, hmm, maybe she did inherit her mother’s voice.

When she returns home, Kit learns she won’t be allowed to use her double remove but instead will go to Heryot, the boarding school (imagine a world where a family can submit an application to school without even telling the student, let alone exams and interviews) at which Laura was a star field hockey player, along with her friend Pony who is a complete jerk for most of this book.   Pony immediately finds cooler friends than Kit and (even worse) allows them to torment Kit.  Things are slightly better when Helen arrives the second year, and later on cousins Milly and Sheila, but Kit yearns for quiet time alone, which leads her to a secluded chapel in nearby Heryot Cathedral where she is befriended by Sir Geoffrey Chauntesinger, a noted architect.  His family turns out to be important to her growth to maturity.  By the end of the book, Kit recognizes that singing is part of her effort to find and be true to her inner self and that she wants to study music professionally.

This book and its sequel, The Lark on the Wing, have been two of my favorite books since I found them at the Brighton Library when I was 11 or 12, and I have reread them many times since.   That branch owned these two and a third book, The Pavilion, which takes place a generation later.  Twenty-five years later I learned there were two additional books that take place in the middle but were never published in the US.  This is the first time I have read all five in chronological order.  The first two books include a much-needed family tree, perhaps the first time I had encountered one. Vipont’s Quaker doctrine informs the book but like the Heryot motto, “Walk cheerfully over the world,” does not come across as overly preachy.  In fact, one really admires these five young women who pursue careers in the next book at a time when that was unusual.
US edition
Cover Art: I never cared for the American cover of this book which was designed by Michael Lowenbein (1935-2009), a New York-based artist known for traditional oil paintings as well as illustrating children’s books.

Stradivarius: There is an episode where Kit saves a visiting musician’s Stradivarius from a thief.  The girls who bully her are jealous that her valor is written up in the newspaper.  I was reminded of this not long ago when a Stradivarius worth $5 million that had been stolen from Nina Totenberg’s father was recovered after 35 years.
The stolen Strad - recovered! (AFP/Getty Images)
Source: Personal copy

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Five Things

Bicycle stores are considered an essential service, so are open.  I brought my bicycle to get turned up in case I crave exercise (it seems unlikely, admittedly) and picked it up the other day “distantly” and rode it home.   While it is true that one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, I was definitely out of practice and somewhat resembled Curious George:

Instead of finishing Kokoro for my book group, I picked up Victory by Susan Cooper, a timeslip novel I recommend by this talented writer.  My Radcliffe Book Group met remotely when I was only about halfway through so I am dutifully completing Kokoro now.

I also just finished All the Best Lies, which was a good thriller about a cold case, set mostly in Las Vegas.  Two quibbles: somehow I put this on reserve without realizing it was the third book in a series.  You know how much I hate reading things out of order!   Also, at one point someone slashes the tires of the main characters’ rental car.   One of my pet peeves is the Too Stupid to Live protagonist who does incredibly stupid things when in danger.   Here, post-tire slashing, the heroine stormed off emotionally outside alone without a jacket, without money, without a phone, despite believing a killer knows where she is staying!  Later, she goes for a run!   There are legitimate ways to endanger your characters without exasperating your readers.  Can you think of books where you got so exasperated with the characters it spoiled your enjoyment of the book?

I am a little nervous of my new toaster so I have only used it once.  Could it be because of this pessimistic message?  

I am not usually home when the mailman comes but now I rush to the door to see what he has brought.  It is always disappointing!  Yesterday, a Macy’s circular, a postcard from a radio station to the previous owner, and my Excise tax.   I would like more information on how this $185.50 is going to be spent, please.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

More Frederica, Chapters 22 - 24

When we left Frederica, in the eponymous book by Georgette Heyer, the heroine's youngest brother Felix had stowed away in a hot air balloon and come to grief when the balloon descended into a tree.   Frederica asked Lord Alverstoke to pursue the balloon and he is now in charge of the injured Felix at a farm outside London.
Chapter 22

Alverstoke’s night at the farm minding Felix is very stressful.   At least grumpy Miss Judbrook feeds him quite adequately but Felix tosses and turns all night, feverishly moaning or calling out for Frederica.  My favorite bit is when he wakes up and asks where he is, and Alverstoke replies, “You are with me, Felix,” which he knows is silly when he utters it, but Felix is comforted.  Alverstoke is so perturbed by Felix’s condition he sends for the doctor early in the morning.   The doctor is impressed by how well Alverstoke deals with the wretched boy and asks if he has children.  “Not to my knowledge,” he replies.   He reassures his new best pal, Dr. Elcot, that Frederica is a very competent nurse.

The next morning Frederica arrives in Alverstoke’s traveling carriage with many of the things an invalid needs (such as lemons for lemonade).   She is very tactful, except sometimes with her own siblings, and admires Miss Judbrook’s new parlor carpet, which wins over that disgruntled lady.  Frederica tells Alverstoke her mother suffered from rheumatic fever (bronchitis) and Felix has inherited his deceased mother’s weak chest.  Frederica reveals that her uncle-in-law died but Miss Winsham, instead of helping the Upper Wimpole Street household, is supporting her newly widowed sister.   Frederica is also concerned about Charis’ spending too much time with Endymion back in London but has enough sense to realize that is out of her control.   She is surprised when Alverstoke says he is not returning to London but is moving to an inn at Hemel Hempstead;  she does not realize he is staying to support her and the inn is to protect her reputation.

Chapter 23

Alverstoke returns to the farm at 6 pm, refreshed, and immediately notices how much more comfortable Frederica has made the sick room.  However, Felix seems very feverish.   Together, they make him swallow his medicine, then Alverstoke makes Frederica go to bed.  He says he will drive back to the inn at midnight after she is rested.   She is grateful for his help, not questioning why.   Alverstoke admits to himself that although fond of Felix, he is there because he has “fallen deeply and reluctantly in love with” Frederica and wants to help her.  The bored leader of ton is finally thinking of someone else before himself.

He and Frederica get into a routine.   He seems to have most of the daytime shift with Felix while Frederica catches up on sleep, then she wakes up and he returns to the Inn.  On the second day, Jessamy arrives with a valise full of books, the Waverley novels to read aloud to Felix, plus books for him to study.   Feverish though Felix is, he recognizes Jessamy and is pleased to see him, although Jessamy is shocked by his appearance.   Jessamy also tells Alverstoke that Harry and Miss Winsham quarreled, and Miss Winsham packed her trunk and moved in with her widowed sister, leaving Charis unchaperoned.   Frederica admits to Alverstoke that this concerns her and he decides he will intervene with Endymion, if necessary, to save her worry.   Alverstoke admits to himself he will sacrifice anyone to reduce her stress, except Felix or Jessamy: “he had become fond of the infernal brats – though he was damned if he knew why.”    At the end of the chapter, Frederica shares with him that Felix’s fever has broken and we know (if we had doubted) that the boy will recover.

Chapter 24

As Felix continues to improve, life at Monk’s Farm becomes almost normal.  Alverstoke’s very proper valet Knapp feels out of the action over at the Sun so offers to help tend to Felix.  This frees Frederica to spend a little time away from the sickroom so Alverstoke takes her on short rides in his phaeton or go on walks with him.  They chat about everything but he realizes she shows no sign of recognizing his feelings or reciprocating them but Alverstoke is now sure how he feels:
His own doubts were at an end.  The more he saw of her the more he loved her, and as he had never loved any woman before.  Not the most beautiful of his mistresses had inspired him with a desire to shield her from every adverse wind; he had never pictured the most amusing of his well-born flirts presiding over his several establishments; and far less had he contemplated a permanent relationship with any of these ladies.  But after knowing her for little more than two months Frederica had so seriously disturbed the pattern of his life that he had been cast into a state of indecision: a novel experience which had not been at all agreeable.  When he was pitchforked into her little brother’s fantastic adventure he had still been in a state of uncertainty; since then he had spent more than a week in close companionship with her, and under conditions as unromantic as they were uncomfortable, and all his doubts were resolved: he wished to spend the rest of his life with her, because she was the perfect woman he had never expected to encounter. 
His lordship, in fact, had fallen deeply in love.  He was also undergoing yet another new experience: Frederica showed no sign of returning his regard.  He knew that she liked him; once or twice he had dared to hope that the feeling she had for him was more than fondness, but he could never be sure of this, or forget that on the only occasion when he had given her the faintest reason to suspect him of gallantry she had instantly set him at a distance.  
(We suspect she is not indifferent because of the way she reacted in Chapter 16 when Harry said the Marquis was old and Frederica said he was in the prime of life)

When Alverstoke decides to test the waters, it is nearly disastrous because Frederica is obsessed with Felix’s recovery and is thinking about Dr. Ratcliffes’s Restorative Pork Jelly!  Well, pork jelly, such as Dr. Ratcliffe’s (or Ratteliff’s) Restorative Pork Jelly, was highly recommended for loss of appetite or any sort of consumptive complaint, per author Lauren Gilbert.  Still, maybe not worth missing a proposal for a mere jelly!   Alverstoke laughs at the situation and prudently decides to bide his time.

Next, Harry posts down to visit, which is a mixed blessing.   It is good to see him supporting Frederica but he overreacts to Felix’s appearance, demands a specialist, and when Frederica says he could help by finding them lodgings where Felix can recover outside London, he doesn’t feel up to it. Harry also tries to get Alverstoke to tell him exactly how much has been expended on Felix’s behalf.   It is amusing that Alverstoke at the beginning of the book was determined not to pay a grouse towards any of the Merrivilles but now feels very differently.   Still, he is respectful of Harry’s pride and promises to give him a Dutch reckoning later on.
It is clear to Frederica that in her and Miss Winsham’s absence, Charis is spending all her time with "that blockhead" Endymion (clearly, his military duties are very light).  When she mentions it to Alverstoke, he brings up Charles Trevor and Chloe, and asks her if that romance will endure.  She thinks so, and suggests that when Chloe’s younger sister Diana is ready to make her debut, Alverstoke may be able to persuade Mrs. Dauntry to agree to the match (some feel the elder sister should be married before the next one is launched).   Alverstoke is amused by the machinations of her mind and asks why she cares.
“Do you mean that it’s no concern of mine?  It isn’t, of course, but I like them both so much – and one can’t but care for what becomes of persons one holds in affection, and try to help them.” 
As Alverstoke thinks about this, he supposes he must care about very few people, primarily Frederica, but then he realizes he cares about Felix and Jessamy as well, independent of their sister.    
Next to sally forth to Monk’s Farm is Lord Buxted, with the best of intentions but arousing no enthusiasm from those in attendance on Felix.   He is not allowed to see Felix or bring him a puzzle, and Alverstoke has to muzzle Jessamy to prevent him from being disrespectful.  Buxted is amazed Alverstoke is on the scene (both because it seems against his frivolous/detached nature and because of the implied intimacy he observes.   Alverstoke makes a big deal of the fact that he is staying at the nearby inn and implies he is just waiting for his valet to be spared from Felix’s bedside.   Then, Alverstoke ensures Buxted has special alone time with Frederica; Buxted proposes again, and she declines again.  Later, she scolds Alverstoke for setting her up like that and says how inconsiderate it was for Buxted to propose at a time like that when she is so concerned about Felix.   Alverstoke has a twisted smile as he knows he came very close to making the same mistake.

To read previous installments of this group read, click here.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Victory by Susan Cooper, a timeslip story about a ship's boy at Trafalgar with Admiral Nelson

Title: Victory
Author: Susan Cooper 
Publication: Margaret K. McElderry Books, hardcover, 2006
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fantasy

Plot: This is the story of two children, separated by two hundred years, and how each crosses the ocean to cope with a new life thrust upon them.  One child is Sam Robbins, a powder monkey aboard the HMS Victory, the ship in which Vice-Admiral Nelson will die a hero’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The other is Molly Jennings, an English girl transplanted from London to the United States in 2006, fighting a battle of her own against loneliness and depression.

My Impressions: How did I miss this timeslip novel by Susan Cooper with so many appealing characters?   Molly’s life changed when her widowed mother met and married an affluent American, who was working in London.  At first, the blended family, which includes stepbrother Russell, five years older than Molly, manages to coexist, and Molly continues at her school while Russell continues at the American School in London, and a new baby, Donald, unites the family. But when her stepfather gets transferred back to the US, Molly finds suburban life in Connecticut alien and unwelcome, and is desperately homesick.  On a family trip to Mystic, she finds herself in a naval bookstore where she is drawn to a biography of Admiral Nelson, which she purchases and reads. Back in 1803, a farm boy, Sam Robbins, is rescued from an abusive father by a kind uncle, a rope maker in Chatham, who offers him a home.  For five days, Sam enjoys working at the Chatham Dockyard, and then he and his uncle are press-ganged on their way home and forced into the English Navy.  The depiction of life on board the Victory is vivid and fascinating, in all its brutality and not ignoring the rats (ugh).  Even the minor characters are carefully and well-drawn, particularly the crew of the Victory, Molly’s grandfather (a former Naval man), and, of course, Admiral Nelson himself.  But it is Molly’s instinctive interest in Nelson that connects these two children across the centuries. . .
Portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott
An Author’s Note by Susan Cooper reveals that there was a 13-year-old Samuel Robbins on the HMS Victory as a ship’s boy and the names of all the crew are listed on the Victory’s website,  How fun it would be to go visit!  I have never been to Portsmouth, England, only Portsmouth, New Hampshire (a delightful town).  Cooper concludes by writing: “Sam Robbins’s encounters with Admiral Nelson are not historical; they came out of my imagination, and I loved writing them.  Perhaps I wrote this whole book only for the change of meeting one of my greatest heroes, just as I was lucky enough to meet Shakespeare in a book called King of Shadows and Merlin, long ago, in a sequence called The Dark is Rising.  Writers are fortunate people.”

Another Child at War: The Boston Globe recently had an interesting story about a black 8-year-old named David Debias who passed explosives to the thundering guns of the USS Constitution on the night of February 20, 1815.  He was a free man, fighting for his young country but may have come to a terrible end (worse than dying in battle).

Death of Nelson: I am sure if I were English, I would have learned in school about the friendship of Admiral Nelson and Admiral Hardy.  Instead, although I knew about Nelson’s heroism, I read about his scandalous affair with Emma Hamilton in a Jane Aiken Hodge and watched That Hamilton Woman with Vivien Leigh.  Eventually, I heard the famous phrase “Kiss me, Hardy!” in Code Name Verity but until now did not know that Hardy was Nelson’s dear friend and that Nelson spoke to him as he was dying in the Battle of Trafalgar.
Susan Cooper

More Susan Cooper
: My review of Over Sea, Under Stone, which begins The Dark is Rising series

Source: Personal copy

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, a whodunnit set on an isolated Highland estate, cut off by snow

Title: The Hunting Party
Author:  Lucy Foley
Publication: William Morrow, Trade Paperback, 2020 (originally published 2019)
Genre: Suspense

Plot: A group of friends in their early 30s book four days at a winter Highland wilderness, Loch Corrin.   It’s a chance to relax together and celebrate New Year’s Eve.   Miranda and her husband Julien, Samira and her husband Giles, Mark, Katie, and Nick have been friends since they were up at Oxford.  Samira and Giles now have baby Priya, Nick has an American boyfriend Bo, and Mark’s competent girlfriend Emma has organized this trip, in part to be accepted by his friends.  Heather, the manager, and Doug, the brooding gamekeeper, have secrets of their own that brought them to the back of beyond.  The estate, while beautiful, is very isolated and cut off from the world once it begins to snow and the guests begin to quarrel – and then a guest is murdered . . .

My Impressions: This suspense novel is a modern take on the classic country house mystery.   Such mysteries were a popular genre of English detective fiction between the First and Second World Wars: set in the homes of the English upper class and often involving a murder where the guests – and the killer - were isolated by a snowstorm, as here, or a manmade contrivance.  Usually, the detective arrives to analyze the scene, preventing the suspects from leaving until he (or occasionally she) has solved the murder.   Here, the detectives cannot reach the scene due to bad weather so the characters are on their own to figure it out the menace or to die trying.

This was a fast and entertaining read.  I really enjoyed the combination of reunion, with the friends who have outgrown each other and aren’t really friends, and the isolated setting, with the snow coming down as escalating emotions lead to murder.  The story is told primarily in flashbacks, with the Scottish estate vividly depicted as background.  The reader jumps at every unexplained noise and wants to warn against walking around unaccompanied!  Everyone has a secret to protect or a motive to wish someone else ill, and the only flaw was that all the characters were fairly unlikeable.  I also enjoyed the brief glimpses of undergraduate life at Oxford.  I read so quickly I missed a couple clues although I did guess the killer.

Off the Blog: It’s been a bad month for Boston sports fans: first, we lost Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, then the Ivy League tournament was canceled, Tom Brady announced on Tuesday he is leaving the Patriots, and now we learned Chris Sale will undergo Tommy John surgery.  How are we supposed to distract ourselves from COVID-19?
Photo copyright to Axios
Source: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher and TLC Book Tours.  Please visit other stops on the tour below:

Wednesday, March 4th: Instagram: @myreadingchronicles
Thursday, March 5th: Instagram: @bookapotamus
Friday, March 6th: Really Into This
Monday, March 9th: Book by Book
Tuesday, March 10th: Reading Girl Reviews
Thursday, March 12th: Instagram:
Friday, March 13th: Booked J
Monday, March 16th: Laura’s Reviews
Tuesday, March 17th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, March 19th: Jessicamap Reviews
Friday, March 20th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, March 25th: PhDiva
Thursday, March 26th: Instagram: @beauty_andthebook_
Friday, March 27th: Instagram: @shelovesthepages
TBD: Tuesday, March 3rd: Stranded in Chaos
TBD: Wednesday, March 11th: Jathan & Heather

Monday, March 16, 2020

Survivor in Death, bestselling romantic suspense about ferocious but vulnerable detective Eve Dallas

Title: Survivor in Death
Author: Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb
Publication: Putnam, Audiobook, 2005
Narrator: Susan Ericksen
Genre: Romantic Suspense/Series
Plot: Lieutenant Dallas is called in to a particularly brutal murder of the Swisher family: all killed except 9-year-old Nixie who was out of bed and hid from the intruders.  Finding a terrified little girl in a crime scene brings back terrible memories of her childhood to Dallas.  Determined to protect her witness, she brings Nixie home with her, which is disconcerting for everyone.  With no DNA or clues, Dallas needs all the help she can get from the crew: Peabody, McNab, Feeney, Dr. Mira and, of course, the incomparable Roarke, in her unerring hunt for the killers.  This is the 20th book in the series.

My Impressions: I was working at Berkley when the In Death series was launched in 1995, more than twenty-five years ago.  I remember editor Lesley Gelbman telling the sales team that Nora Roberts was writing so fast she had decided to do a new series under a pseudonym.  This was about the time that Putnam started publishing Nora’s contemporary romantic suspense in hardcover instead of Berkley publishing as paperback originals.  When I heard it was a futuristic romance about a New York City policewoman I thought, this is not for me.  Thus, while I was a Nora fan, I didn’t get around to reading it for several years, which was a waste of the free copies I could have had – by then I was working elsewhere.  In the first book, the mid-21st century gadgets and hero/suspect Roarke got somewhat more attention from the author than Eve Dallas herself, but both Roarke and Eve turned out to have complicated and dark backstories., which are revealed gradually as the series progresses (well, you have to do something to keep a series fresh for this long!).

There has been a lot of publicity about the 50th installment – Golden in Death, which came out last month and I realized it had been quite a while since I had read any in this series, although I had continued to pick them up (I own 36 of 50), so I decided to start catching up.  I had mixed feelings about this audiobook.  Apparently, Susan Ericksen has done all the narration for this series but I thought she was shrill and I imagined Dallas sounding more like Lauren Bacall.  Her voice for Roarke seemed just right, however.  Eve experiences a number of flashbacks to the violence that destroyed her own childhood and her inability to relate to Nixie was convincing, although in real life no one would expect a homicide detective to bond with a child while in the midst of solving active murders. Naturally, Nixie idolizes Eve, who rescued her from near death but I was glad there was no thought of adopting Nixie, yet Roarke does bring up the issue of children:
He took her hands, kissed them. “I want children with you, Eve.”
The sound she made brought on a quick and easy grin. “No need for the panic face, darling.  I don’t mean today or tomorrow, or nine months down the road.  Having Nixie around’s been considerable education.  Children are a lot of bloody work, aren’t they?”
I am reminded that when Nora’s first Putnam hardcover hit the NYT bestseller list, there was a guy in Putnam sales named Mike Brennan who said to us, “Now she’s a legitimate bestseller!”  This made us so mad because it was her various paperback reps at Harlequin, Bantam, and Berkley who had worked so hard on building her sales in paperback, which got her into hardcover.  In my brief contacts with Nora, she seemed very practical and too down to earth to share that snobbery.

I can't help thinking Roarke will be one of Nora's lasting achievements!  Her heroes are mostly of a type but there is only one Roarke and he is both fierce and sensitive, attractive, crazy about Eve, and able to provide anything she wants (except freedom from her past).  In the last book, he desperately wanted to destroy those who knew she was being abused by her father and let it continue because her father was a source.  Eve told him that it would destroy her if he killed for her sake.   Reluctantly, he promised to step down.

Source: Although I enjoyed this on audiobook from the library, I actually own the hardcover.
Off the Blog: Look at the Valentine I found when I looked inside my copy!  The artist is now a college graduate, which shows how long it has been since I looked at this series.