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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-12-29 20:58
Window on the Square -- Don't look too closely. There are too many holes
Window on the Square - Phyllis A. Whitney

I started out rating this 2.5 stars, then dropped it back to 2.0.  As a book to while away a few hours, it's fine.  It's a good page-turner, with multiple entwined mysteries, and I didn't see any obvious give-aways in terms of the ultimate revelation.


The ultimate revelation itself, however, is a bit of a let-down.  While not unexpected, it doesn't really mesh with the characters as they're presented.  So the following is going to be filled with spoilers.  If you want to pick this up, the Open Road Media edition for Kindle is currently $2.99, and there's a 3-book set with Thunder Heights and The Golden Unicorn for $3.99.


The rest of this very long review is pretty much spoilers, so consider yourself warned!


It's important to have a detailed summary of the action in order to see how all the tropes work as well as how the ending is set up.


Setting is 1870s New York City, Washington Square to be precise.  There's a bit of local description and a few bits and pieces of contemporary history, but not much.  Certainly not enough to make anyone running to Google to check out the accuracy.


Young Megan Kincaid has recently lost her mother and younger brother in an accident.  Her father, a professor at Princeton in New Jersey, was killed in the Civil War,  Her brother Richard was apparently developmentally disabled.  The book was published in 1962, so there isn't a whole lot of emphasis placed on Richard's condition.


Megan is the classic impoverished, innocent, idealistic young woman, the archetypal gothic heroine.


Megan's mother was a successful seamstress, and now Megan proposes to make her own living the same way, though she's not nearly as skilled.  She receives a summons to the home of Brandon and Leslie Reid, ostensibly to sew a frock for Leslie's daughter Selina.  But her other job, and the real reason she was hired, is to care for Selina's brother, Jeremy.  They are respectively eight and nine -- or seven and eight -- years of age.  I forget precisely how old they are.


Jeremy is withdrawn and moody, the result of having accidentally killed his father, Daniel Reid, two years before.  Selina is boisterous and spoiled.  Jeremy is blamed for everything; Selina gets away with everything.


Jeremy and Selina are the classic vulnerable orphans, for whom the heroine will sacrifice anything and everything, including her reputation and her life, if necessary.


Leslie Reid is the gorgeous widow who married her late husband's older brother within a year of Daniel's death.  She is fragile, often in poor health, but always beautiful.  She dotes on Selina, but seems to have no feeling for Jeremy at all.  She appears, however, to be devoted to the memory of her late husband.  Daniel was some kind of crusader in the days of political corruption.


Leslie is the archetype of the beautiful "other woman" who stands between the innocent heroine and at least one of the men put forward as her Happy Ever After.


Brandon Reid is Leslie's second husband, older brother of her first.  He is dark, handsome, worldly, powerful.  He explains to Megan that she is not just a seamstress; she is a kind of supra-governess, who will be living in the Reid home to try to bring Jeremy out of his emotional lockdown.


Brandon Reid is the classic gothic "hero."


Thora Garth was Leslie's childhood nurse, and is now governess to Selina and Jeremy.  She is devoted to Leslie and, by extension to Selina, but she hates Jeremy, considers him evil and wicked.  She makes no attempt to hide her hatred and calls him out frequently.


But Thora has another side.  Fairly early on, Megan discovers that Garth (as she is most often called) has a habit of sneaking into Leslie's room when the mistress of the house is out.  Garth dons Leslie's gowns, bathes herself in Leslie's perfumes, and gazes with deep longing at the miniature portraits of both Daniel and Brandon Reid.  Garth quickly develops an open animosity toward Megan.


Thora Garth is the classic nurse/governess protector of the delicate "other woman," who manifests symptoms of irrationality and/or insanity as a threat to the innocent heroine.


Andrew Beach is the children's tutor.  He comes to the house in the mornings to teach Selina and Jeremy.  He is also something of an artist, who sketches portraits of important people,which are then published in the newspapers.  Leslie Reid has noticed his talent and has asked him to paint a portrait of her with Selina. 


As a relatively well-educated, working-class man, Andrew is the classic counter to the wealthy Brandon Reid and a challenger for Megan's affections.


Kate, Henry, and Fuller are three of the Reid family servants, respectively the maid, butler, and coachman.  Kate quickly befriends Megan, though Henry remains aloof.


More important than the servants, however, are a couple of inanimate objects that are introduced early in the book with that kind of ominous foreshadowing of dark events to come.


One is a music box carrousel -- Whitney's misspelling drove me nuts through the whole book -- that Megan had given to her brother Richard as a gift.  This is her Most Precious Possession, given much more emotional value even than the few pieces of nice jewelry she has inherited from her mother.


The second is a carved head of the Egyptian god Osiris which occupies a place of some honor in Brandon Reid's library.  Prior to his brother Daniel's death Brandon was an (amateur?) archaeologist in Egypt.


Slowly, Megan works her way into Jeremy's affections and begins to break through his shell.  At first she is told he accidentally shot his father, but then she's told he did it deliberately.  But Jeremy doesn't completely remember what happened.  He insists there was another gun involved, that he did indeed have a gun, but it was unloaded and it disappeared after the shooting, to be replaced by the one that actually killed his father.


She also becomes more and more friendly with Andrew Beach, who warns her to get away from the Reid family.  This is the classic gothic romance trope of the kind, attractive, but slightly less desirable potential love interest.  Megan even goes on a "date" with him, to a cute little Italian restaurant.


She also goes on a "date" with Brandon Reid, taking the children to a theatre matinee.  It ends badly, because Brandon is moody and can't seem to control his emotions.


Later, they have another "date," of sorts, taking the children skating.  Now the relationship between Megan and Brandon is becoming more romantic, more threatening.


A series of events around the Christmas holidays starts to bring issues to a head.  Jeremy begins to make an elaborate gift for his uncle/stepfather, a beaded collar in an Egyptian style to decorate the Osiris head in Brandon's library.  Megan provides the beads; Andrew Beach obtains some fine wire for stringing the beads.


This co-operative effort strengthens the connection between Megan and Andrew over the issue of Jeremy, and reinforces the rivalry between Brandon Reid and Andrew for Megan's affections.


Leslie, Selina, and Garth takea trip up the Hudson River to visit Leslie's parents for several days.  While they are gone, Megan and Jeremy have a "date" of their own, a dinner party at the Reid house jsut for the two of them.  They dress up, have all the servants participate in preparing the dinner, and it's all going to be fun.  Then Brandon comes home, and things get messy.  There's now a sort of declaration of love, and then threats are made.


Megan must leave.  Leslie fires her, Garth threatens her, but Brandon insists she stay.  Her affection for Jeremy, and her sense of responsibility toward him, now override her better judgment.  She agrees to stay.


Christmas arrives, and Brandon gives Megan an Egyptian scarab brooch as a token of his affection.  Their romance is doomed, of course.  Megan gives Jeremy the precious carrousel music box, which is also doomed, of course.  Jeremy gives Brandon the beaded collar for the Osiris statue, and Brandon is delighted with it.  This means the Osiris is also doomed.


While all this is going on, Selina keeps chirping up with declarations of having a secret that she's not going to share with anyone.


But then there's a confrontation between Jeremy and Brandon over the music box, and Brandon in a fit of temper sweeps the toy aside and breaks it.  Jeremy is heartbroken, but also blames himself.  Surprisingly, though, Megan doesn't seem to be terribly affected by the damage.  And that's where things really began to fall apart for me.


A few days later, a gunshot in the house sort of wakens everyone.  But no one is hurt; the victim is the Osiris statue.  So another Precious Possession is destroyed.


Someone is out to get Brandon and Megan, and possibly Jeremy, too.  Garth insists the boy be put away, blaming him for shooting the statue, even though he remembers nothing of it.  Brandon believes, too, that Jeremy can no longer be allowed in the house, and though he intends to find a better place for the boy, he agrees that makinghim an inmate of some asylum is the only option.


Megan, with no evidence to the contrary, believes something else is going on.  She alone has faith in Jeremy.


The exact order of events leading up to the conclusion isn't entirely important, but it reveals the weakness in how Whitney resolves all the little mysteries.


Selina reveals her secret: She knows where the other gun from her father's killing is, the gun her brother insisted he had checked to make sure it wasn't loaded and therefore he couldn't have killed his father.  I just didn't buy that Selina, at age seven or eight, would think this was a fun secret to tease everyone with.  Though very different in temperament, she and Jeremy did have a close relationship.  And the fact that this gun was hidden meant something nefarious was going on.


The gun is hidden in a heavy candlestick belonging to Leslie,  That Selina, who was very close to her mother, would have bragged about knowing this also didn't seem to make sense.


And then Leslie is murdered, beaten to death with the aforementioned candlestick.  Evidence emerges implicating Brandon, even though he is out of the house at the time of the murder.




Well, of course, Brandon didn't kill her.  Neither did the children.  Neither did Thora Garth.  Neither did the servants.  Neither did Megan.  Neither did Andrew Beach.


As Andrew reveals to the police, Leslie killed herself.




Not only did I not buy Leslie's suicide-by-overdose-of-laudanum, but I didn't buy the rest of her scenario.  Yes, it's somewhat similar to the conclusion of DuMaurier's Rebecca, but the character of Rebecca de Winter was entirely different.


According to Andrew Beach's version, Leslie took the overdose and then told him what to do so her death would be blamed on Brandon.  After she died, Andrew proceeded to bludgeon her corpse with the candlestick, while wearing one of Brandon's shirts so there would be blood on it.  Then he was to wash in Brandon's basin, to make sure there were traces of blood there, too.


Andrew did all this because he was in love with Leslie.  Somehow or other I just couldn't see him bludgeoning the dead body of the woman he loved in order to frame someone else.  Andrew didn't come across as that kind of person.  He may have been jealous of Brandon for having been Lesllie's husband, and for having won Megan's heart as well, but Andrew was never portrayed as being a bad person.


But why would Leslie kill herself anyway?  Well, apparently it was because she was going to be found out to be her first husband's real killer.  Jeremy hadn't been believed at the time of the killing that there was another weapon, bu now Selina had found it and Jeremy's version would be believed.


At which point in the telling, Jeremy remembers -- I think he remembers -- that the person who fired the gun that killed Daniel Reid was in fact Jeremy's mother.  I'm not sure why Jeremy didn't remember this at the time, or why no one believed him, or how the other gun got removed from the scene.


Why did all this go down?  Oh, because Lesllie's parents were in financial trouble so she married wealthy Daniel even though she was already really in love with Brandon.  But then Daniel got mixed up in dirty politics and she didn't want to see her posh future destroyed, so she killed him. 


And Brandon married her to keep her quiet about the political scandal to save his family's reputation.  I didn't buy that, either.  He was an archaeologist, for crying out loud.  He would have been obsessed with the truth.  He would have wanted to know, at all costs, not just hush it up and forget about it.


Plus, he was willing to let Jeremy take the blame.


At the beginning of the book, I had some sympathy for Brandon, but it didn't last long.  He gave in to his lust for Megan even though he had married Leslie to save the family reputation.  That kind of man wouldn't easily set aside his scruples.  Nor would he, as the book went on, contemplate ending the marriage dishonorably.  His mood swings weren't suitable for heroism either.


At the end, when it's all been sorted out, Megan and Brandon are going to go to Egypt, and leave the children with their maternal grandparents. No.  No way.  After all the children have been through after all that Megan has been through fighting for Jeremy, there is no way I can accept Megan and Brandon abandoning them to the parents of the woman who killed their father and his brother.


Besides, how did Leslie's parents recoup their supposed financial losses?  How are they going to be able to take care of two small children?  Selina liked her grandparents, but I'm not sure about Jeremy. 


Overall, I thought it was a really crappy ending, partly for just being crappy but also for not being particularly believable.  Andrew Beach wouldn't have done that to Leslie and to Brandon, and by extension to Megan.  Andrew wasn't a bad guy.  But I also didn't see Leslie as the kind to take the suicide route and beg to be mutilated after death.  Just didn't make sense.


The worst, though, was Megan walking off to Egypt and abandoning the boy she had worked so hard to save.  That alone made Window on the Square just a tiny bit shy of wallbanger status.


The writing was fine, and most of what led up to the ending was fine but that ending pretty much ruined it all.  Not as bad as The Thorn Birds, but bad.  Down to 1.5 stars.

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text 2018-12-25 20:36
Looking for Recommendations

I discovered a small bit of bonus Amazon money yesterday and decided to spend it on MYSELF.  I know I have gift money coming, too, but this $30 and change is a bit special.


I decided to spend it on Kindle books that I might not otherwise have bought, so I'm looking for recommendations in the following categories:


1.  Historical romance, any setting except genre Regency unless it's really special.


2.  Classic-style Gothic romance, contemporary or historical, but not paranormal romance (see #3)


3.  Epic fantasy, including multi-volume series. Doesn't have to be romance-y, but okay if it is, and bonus points for strong female characters. (I know there's likely some overlap between PNR and EF, so hit me with your recs!)


Even though I've read extensively in historical romance, I haven't read everything, and especially not in the past 20 years.  So any and all recommendations, regardless whether you think I MIGHT have read it or not, are welcome and encouraged.  New books, old books, public domain freebies, it doesn't matter.  Your favorites, your comfort reads, let me know.


I'm setting myself a personal goal of 10,000,000 words for 2019.  Based on an average of 70K words, that's roughly 140-150 books, fewer of course for longer works.  My personal collection would suit this just fine, but this thirty bucks is burning a hole in my cyber pocket and I want to buy some books with it!



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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-11-21 16:38
The Tulip Tree - Voices from the past, but little else
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

Spoilers throughout.  Trigger warnings for gruesome violence mentioned and one animal death.


Disclosure:  I'm not sure how I acquired this book, but the paperback edition as pictured was in a large box of gothic romances stored in my workshop.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with him about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of romantic fiction.


As I suspected from the beginning, this is a novel I first read probably a half century or more ago, either as a book club edition or a Reader's Digest Condensed version.  The more I read of it, the more I remembered from that initial reading, though I did not recall the ending at all.  That may have been what kept me reading through to the end.


I rated it only 1.5 stars for a number of reasons, and I can't say I would recommend it to other readers.  It's not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one. 


And it's definitely not a gothic romance.


Plot, such as it is: Thirty-year-old Kimball Watts is an editor for a New York publishing house.  He and his wife Josephine have two small daughters.  Jo's adoptive parents have recently died and she has inherited their estate, a small farm in upstate New York.  With the cash proceeds from the sale of the farm, Jo and Kim purchase an old house just over the state line in New Jersey.  Kim commutes to Manhattan; Jo stays at home with the two girls.


The house is huge -- they aren't even sure just how many rooms it has -- and consists of two smaller pre-Revolution houses joined by a later 19th century central structure.  There's also a barn and some acreage.  The house is in some disrepair but more or less livable.


There are few neighbors.  The Stauffers -- George, Helen, their son Bert, and George's parents -- struck me at first as being just too weird, but they're actually "normal," by whatever standards.  They have a live-in maid, Verna, who is about 16 and is an orphan from the local Catholic girls' home.


Clarissa Cutler lives next door to the Wattses with her husband and two young children.  Clarissa is an albino African American; both of the children are also albinos.  Her husband Vincent is a handsome black man.


A few miles away there are some other neighbors who live in a small cluster of old cabins, apparently without running water or electricity or . . . anything.  They are the descendants of servants and other retainers of the huge and vacant estate across the road from the Wattses.  Among them is Benji Potter, the elderly and somewhat mysterious black man who has attached himself to the Watts home as caretaker and guardian.


Though written in third person, this is almost entirely Kim Watts's story.  He likes the house and wants to stay there, but Jo is superstitious and wants out.  Legally, though I'm not sure why, the house belongs to her.  Kim goes through some financial negotiations to acquire the house as community property, but that doesn't seem to help Jo accept the house.


Eventually Kim learns about the house's history when a weird elderly lady -- I don't even remember her name now or her connection to the house -- stops by one night unannounced and tells him about it.  There are settler massacres by Native Americans, rapes and murders and mutilations of enslaved people, family murders, and so on.  Kim tells Jo none of this.


But Jo just can't deal with her superstitious fear of the house, so she packs up and leaves.  Kim doesn't know what to do.


And then they all lived happily ever after.


Say, what?


Well, that's how the ending felt to me.  There was no build up for the way everything was resolved.  It wasn't as though a whole bunch of puzzle pieces slowly, inexorably, and logically fell into place.  Instead, the various characters did things that as a reader I expected would have some significant impact and move the story along in a specific direction, but they really didn't.


Spoilers ahead.


Clarissa is beautiful, but weird.  She wears weird clothes, wanders around outdoors in the middle of the night in diaphanous gowns and a long blonde wig.  She drives her Pontiac convertible like a bat out of hell.  Her midnight rambles are described in such a way that you think they must have some significance.  They don't.  Is she spying on the Wattses?  Is she trying to seduce Kim?  Maybe yes to both, but neither is made clear.  Is she trying to scare them out of the house?  Maybe that, too, but again it's all vague and just weird.


What about George Stauffer's parents?  His mother is a harridan, complaining, dominating all conversation with her rants, just a horrible person.  The father is apparently an alcoholic, since he's restricted to ginger ale while everyone else has cocktails and wine.  Are her harangues supposed to illustrate how out of touch with the middle of the 20th century she is?  Is she supposed to provide a contrast to Kim's more contemporary view of life and the world?  I don't know, because Kim doesn't really react.


In fact, Kim never really grows through the whole story.  There's a hint of his having had to deal with his own experience of racism and some confrontation with his guilt over his inaction, but I never saw any change in him as a result. 


In fact, the only character who does change is Jo, and there's never any explanation for how or why she changed.  She just . . . does.  There's never any explanation for why she was so superstitious or why she took all these little omens so seriously.  I see omens in everything, too, but I don't take them seriously.  Why did she?  And why did she stop?


What I realized when I finished the book last night was that none of the characters had any depth.  They were almost caricatures, set on the stage of The Spooky Old House with a Tragic Past, and then once the story of the spooky house had been told, it was all over.  The millionaire who owned the property across the road sold out to a developer and the 20th century was being rudely imposed on all the history and spookiness.  The End.


The writing is fine, with a lot of description of the weather and the scenery and the moods, but the structure and characterization were flawed.  And it's too late to fix it.




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text 2018-11-11 19:15
Not a formal status report, but . . . . .
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

I knew I wouldn't be able to stay up and read very long because I was really, really tired when I went to bed.  I did, however, want to start this book.


There's no question that this is a gothic romance.  The publisher put it right on the cover!  It's compared to Du Maurier's classic Rebecca. The artwork is almost typical gothic, with the spooky house and single lighted window.  The young woman, however, is in close-up portrait rather than full-length with windblown hair and gown.


And the author is male.


There are also quotes from a number of reviews published in real newspapers.  Hmmmmmm.  Gothic romances did not get reviewed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the 1960s.


I only read 12 pages, not quite the first whole chapter, before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that I had read this book before, decades ago.  One small incident ticked my memory, something I would not have consciously remembered but that came back to me the instant I read it. 


There were only two ways I could have read this book in the 1960s.  It was either condensed by Reader's Digest, or it was a Doubleday Book Club selection.  My parents subscribed to both for a number of years at that time.  I read the condensed version of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop as well as his later novel, Ocean Front, though I don't know if that was book club or condensed.  I do remember the cover, however, so maybe it was a book club edition.  I also read two other book club offerings, The Daughter of the Pangaran and Summer Doctor.  I remember details of both those books, and they were published about the same time as The Tulip Tree, so I'm more comfortable guessing I read a book club edition.


So in 1963, a gothic romance written by a man would be published in hardcover by Doubleday and be reviewed numerous newspapers, be selected for their subscription book club, and later be republished in paperback.  No doubt Howard Rigsby earned a great deal more for his gothic romance novel than most of the women writing paperback gothics.

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text 2018-11-11 00:04
The Tulip Tree -- a voice from the past?? Maybe.
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

This is one of the books from the hoard of gothics in the workshop.  Though my (battered) paperback copy was published in 1970, the original Doubleday hardcover was published in 1963.  I think I may have read this, perhaps in a Reader's Digest Condensed version or possibly as a Doubleday Book Club selection my dad had.


So I may just keep this one out for a day or so and read it in bed at night, if I'm not too tired.

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