Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Share in Death (Book Review)

Title: A Share in Death: a Mystery Introducing Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James
Author: Deborah Crombie
Publication Information: Scribner’s, Hardcover, 1993; Sound Library Audio CD, 2004.
Genre: Mystery

Plot: In the first of a now prolific series, Scotland Yard detective Duncan Kincaid goes on holiday to a time share in Yorkshire where the discovery of first one body and then a second lands him in the middle of a murder investigation.* Despite not wanting to offend the local police force, his proximity to the crimes makes him a witness and his inquiries annoy both the residents and Detective Chief Inspector Bill Nash. He begins with discreet questions but needs to summon his determined sergeant, single mother Gemma James, to help him investigate the guests – a clever variation on the closed circle of suspects of a traditional house party mystery (I love those English classics from the Golden Age of mysteries).
What I liked: Duncan Kincaid is charming, polite, is kind to children, and has a sense of humor. It is very unusual for a detective and his sidekick to be separated for the whole book, but he and Gemma did interact by phone, and their relationship (which will surely become romantic at some point) is very charming (and tantalizing) in its early stages. At this point, Duncan seems potentially interested in every single woman near his age but there is a lot of time for him to become more discriminating. This was a good introduction to both characters.

I am a big critic of American authors who can’t write convincing British characters and settings (and vice versa) but Texas-born Crombie impressed me with her skillful depiction of Scotland Yard detectives, and particularly with Gemma’s authentic-sounding vocabulary. I can’t wait to read more in this series!  As my mother said, why had I waited so long?  And I see the author is an alumna of Rice's Publishing Program just as I am an alum of Radcliffe's; clearly she is a kindred spirit, but my time selling Berkley and then Avon did not overlap with her.

What I disliked: It was hard to keep some of the characters straight but that is probably the result of listening in the car. However, I wasn’t listening so much for clues to the murders but to get a feel for Duncan’s relationships and the appealing Yorkshire setting.  It didn't feel like the first book in a series: I wondered what had gone on with Duncan prior to his promotion to Superintendent.

Source: My favorite bookstore, the New England Mobile Bookfair, had many of Crombie’s books on hand but often fails to keep the early books in a series on hand (bad business practice and not the first time I have noticed and complained to them) and I could not wait for them to order it. I started out with the CDs but when the fifth CD got stuck I made a quick trip to the library where I found the original Scribner’s hardcover for the last three chapters.

*It is a sort of rule that detectives’ vacations are always ruined: either they get a call regarding some murder or disaster just as they are heading out the door or, as here, the murder follows them on holiday and prevents them from getting much needed relaxation.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Passing Bells (Book Review)

Title: The Passing Bells
Author: Phillip Rock
Publication Information: Seaview Books, Hardcover, 1978; reprinted by HarperCollins, 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Book 1 in a trilogy

Plot: Abingdon Pryory is the home of the Greville family, and, like others of his time, the ninth earl, Anthony Greville, married an American heiress to ensure that the estate would survive financially into the 20th century. The marriage was successful, and they have three children: Charles, his heir; William, still at Eton; and Alexandra, a spoiled and shallow teen. Naturally, the Pryory has its fair share of servants, from Ivy, the new and very inexperienced parlor maid, and Jaimie Ross, the chauffeur with an amazing mechanical sense, to stock characters such as the butler and housekeeper. The cast of characters is expanded by the Countess’ nephew from Chicago; a handsome but impoverished military officer, Fenton Wood-Lacy, who needs an heiress of his own; and Lydia Foxe, the Grevilles’ beautiful neighbor whose birth makes her ineligible for her target, Charles. This book opens just before World War I and follows the characters as their leisurely lives end and they face the stresses and sorrows of conflict in England and at war in Europe.
What I liked: Long before Downton Abbey I loved stories about aristocratic English families and those who served them, as well as other historical fiction set in and around that era. Some of my recommendations for Downton fans are available here. I don’t think Rock’s characters are as fully developed as those by authors such as Elswyth Thane, Madeleine Polland, and K. M. Peyton, but I still enjoyed them even if I wasn't as invested in what happened to them.  I particularly appreciated how the American nephew of Lady Greville – at first treated very condescendingly by his English relatives – becomes a valued member of the family. That’s the difference between an English and an American author! Rock, although he lived in England as a child, did not read the memo that American characters are supposed to be loud, crude, and talk about money all the time.

The title comes from Wilfrid Owen, "What passing bells for these who die as cattle..."  For those interested in the poets of this era, I recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry.

What I disliked: Some of the story lines were more convincing than others. I was not convinced that the spoiled daughter of an earl would fall (with little encouragement) irrevocably for a surly married doctor or that he, who seemed so contemptuous of her, would proposition a nurse, clearly gently born, the day he met her. I also hated that Lydia, scorned by Lord Greville because she is a greengrocer’s daughter (albeit a rich one) revealed her lack of class by betraying her husband (plus she seemed as if she would be an important character, then disappeared). Or that the American cousin falls in love with the clueless housemaid, although the point is meant to be that the war and nursing gave her status and broke down the barriers between them.  I didn’t object to these things happening so much as I felt they weren’t convincingly developed. Rock is trying to convey that the divisions between the classes start disappearing because of the war, but I think he does a better job of this in the second book, Circles of Time, much darker but which I also recommend highly, particularly in its depiction of Germany between the wars.
Source: My Goodreads friend Cathy brought this author to my attention and I got the first book from the library. Having read many similar books, I am surprised I had never come across it before. I am glad that HarperCollins has brought the whole trilogy back into print with attractive covers.

More:  Earlier this week I got the first season of Downton from the library for my boss.  Everyone else in my department is is a huge fan (two women and two men) and I think he caught our enthusiam walking to lunch every Monday.  I hope he and his wife enjoy it!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Swoon (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them
Author: Betsy Prioleau
Publication Information: Hardcover, 2013, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., isbn 9780393068375
Genre: Nonfiction/Relationships/Cultural History

Description: Swoon is a glittering pageant of charismatic ladies’ men from Casanova to Lord Byron to Albert Camus to Ashton Kutcher. It challenges every preconceived idea about great lovers and answers one of history’s most vexing questions: What do women want?

Contrary to popular myth and dogma, the men who consistently beguile women belie the familiar stereotypes: satanic rake, alpha stud, slick player, Mr. Nice, or big-money mogul. As Prioleau, the author of Seductress, points out in this surprising, insightful study, legendary ladies’ men are a different, complex special altogether, often without looks or money. They fit no known template and possess a cache of powerful exotic secrets.
With wit and erudition, Prioleau cuts through the cultural lore and reveals who these master lovers really are and the arts they practice to enswoon women. What she discovers is revolutionary. Using evidence from science, popular culture, fiction, anthropology, and history, and from interviews with colorful real-world lady-killers, Prioleau finds that great seducers share a constellation of unusual traits.

While these men run the gamut, they radiate joie de vivre, intensity and sex appeal; above all, they adore women. They listen, praise, amuse, and delight, and they know their way around the bedroom. And they’ve finessed the hardest part: locking in and revving desire. Women never tire of these fascinators and often, like Casanova’s conquests, remain besotted for life. [from the flap copy]

What I liked: As a former romance editor, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about this book. I have always been a firm opponent of the arrogant hero who is obnoxious and condescending to the heroine for the whole book, yet she is expected to (and does) fall into his arms at the end, so was eager to hear more about men who use charm and appreciation of women who conquer and win hearts. I particularly enjoyed the range of subjects the author investigates from Gershwin (who “lacked the requisite matinee-idol looks” but charmed through ebullience and a special joy in life), Robert Louis Stevenson (who knew he was beloved by many women, I had a vision of him as a sort of Dungeons and Dragons geek), and David Niven (the British actor, who was a chronic womanizer described as “delicious as French pastry” – although I never saw him in his prime, I have no trouble believing this), and much more.

She describes author Kingsley Amis, who charmed everyone in sight during a teaching stint at Princeton with his British accent and sense of the ridiculous (and later married Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose Cazalet Chronicles will appeal to Downton Abbey enthusiasts).

Fans of modern romances will enjoy the references to Patricia Gaffney (a friend from my Topaz days), Susan Elizabeth Phillips (a friend from my Avon days), Lisa Kleypas, Jennifer Cruisie, Jane Green, and Megan Chance, among others.

The author’s credentials are impressive: a Ph.D. in Literature from Duke, one of my alma maters, and is published by Norton, which in and of itself, is a great recommendation.

Prioleau addresses the issue of the cold, professional seducer, arguing that “[a]n authentic woman-charmer doesn’t despise his conquests or seek their destruction.” Of course, that type does exist – maybe he requires another book!

What I disliked: I found the organization of the book a little confusing which made it fun to read as a browse but meant I relied on the index when looking for a specific topic. This did not detract from my enjoyment, however.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours, which gave me a copy to give away.  Please leave a comment if you would like it.   Here are links to other stops on the tour.

Monday, March 4th: Scandalous Women (this is one of my favorite blogs)
Tuesday, March 5th: Enchanted by Josephine
Thursday, March 7th: A Bookish Affair
Monday, March 11th: The Blog of Litwits
Tuesday, March 12th: In the Hammock
Thursday, March 14th: Jenny Loves to Read
Friday, March 15th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, March 18th: Dolce Bellezza
Tuesday, March 19th: Book Addict Katie
Wednesday, March 20th: Stiletto Storytime
Thursday, March 21st: Unabridged Chick
Friday, March 22nd: Books a la Mode – author guest post
Monday, March 25th: Man of La Book
Tuesday, March 26th: Literally Jen
Wednesday, March 27th: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, March 28th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Monday, April 1st: A Chick Who Reads