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review 2018-12-11 09:35
The Ebony Swan
The Ebony Swan - Phyllis A. Whitney

If reviews came with musical accompaniment, you'd be hearing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah as you read this.  I've finally finished this book.


There's a combination of factors involved in the blame for my incredibly slow progress: I'm in a slump, and therefore easily distracted by anything right now - it doesn't even have to be shiny; life has been busy and when I did sit down to read, interruptions abounded; this is not Whitney's best work.  By a long shot.


Susan's father took her away from her grandmother's home and cut off all contact, after the death of her mother under mysterious circumstances.  Susan was the only witness and at 5, suppressed the memories.  Now her father's dead, she's an adult, and she's returning to her grandmother's home in Virginia to get to know her and figure out why she can't remember her own mother.  But grandma has a trunk-load of secrets she's less than enthusiastic about sharing, and nobody else seems to want Susan to come back at all. 


This is one of Whitney's later books, written in the 80's, and she's still got her magic touch when it comes to atmosphere, setting, and characters.  But the story dragged... the pacing was continental drift slow, and there was so much time spent in the heads of the characters, it was a challenge to keep myself engaged.  And when everything came together with a solution/ending that was twisted in that way in which Whitney excelled (this is an author who really understood long-simmering anger and epic grudges), I was so ...exhausted by the slow pacing that I just couldn't feel the punch I should have. 


It's good, it's even a bit haunting, but you have to really be patient with it, and in the midst of a slump, patience is thin on the ground.

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review 2018-10-06 00:09
The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Not the book I was expecting based on reviews I'd read.  I was mentally prepped for a darker, somewhat more manipulative, maybe almost a templaric tale.  It wasn't any of those things, but it is an excellent story.


The MC is contacted by an author who is both very reclusive and famous to an almost unholy degree, to write her biography; her true biography, not one of the dozens of made-up tales she's told over the years.  She's finally ready to reveal who she is and what really happened at Angelfield Hall.


I didn't like the MC much (Margaret); her level of personal drama/victimisation irritated me to distraction.  As someone who is neither a romantic nor a twin, I found the level of pain and mourning to be, if I'm being kind, too far removed from my experience to fully empathise.  If I'm not being kind, I found it heavy-handed and unrealistic.  Someone should have shoved both Margaret and her mother into counselling decades ago.


I liked Vida Winter though (the author whose biography she is writing).  This character is where Setterfield's talent as a writer over-shined my irritation with the soppy MC.  Vida Winter kept me reading, even when I'd have rather not.  (There are some twisted family dynamics in this book.)   Her ability to weave a tale borders on magic, and she used language to enthral, manipulate and trick her reader, and did it in a way that made me bump my rating up a 1/2 star.  Her crafting of the plot was outstanding and I did not anticipate that twist; I was so busy anticipating a different twist - one that would have ruined the book in my eyes - that I was rather blindsided by this one. Well played.


My favorite quotes from the book:

"I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy.  And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. [...] I still forget myself when I'm in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that.  When I was a child, books were everything.  And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books.


and this scene (which I've edited for brevity):


"Doctor Clifton came. [...] He took a thermometer and instructed me to place it under my tongue, then rose and strode to the window.  With his back to me, he asked, 'And what do you read?'


With the thermometer in my mouth I could not reply.


'Wuthering Heights - you read that?'




'And Jane Eyre?'




'Sense and Sensibility?'




He turned and looked gravely at me.  'And I suppose you've re-read these books more than once?'


I nodded and he frowned.  'Read and re-read? Many times?'


I was baffled by his questions, but compelled by the gravity of his gaze I nodded once again.


He removed the thermometer from my mouth, folded his arms, and delivered his diagnosis. 'You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination.  Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits.  Whilst on one level the crisis can be ascribed to wandering about in the freezing rain without the benefit of adequate waterproofing, the deeper cause is more likely to be found in some emotional trauma. [...] You'll survive.'


'Treatment is not complicated: eat, rest, and take this ...' he made quick notes on a pad, tore out a page and placed it on my bedside table, 'and the weakness and fatigue will be gone in a few days.'  [...]


From the door, he saluted me and was gone.


I reached for the prescription.  In a vigorous scrawl, he had inked:   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes.  Take ten pages, twice a day, until end of course."


Sherlock Holmes: the cure for what ails you.



I read this book for the 13 Square in Halloween Bingo.

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review 2018-10-02 23:24
The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure
The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure - Robert Arthur,Alfred Hitchcock,Harry Kane

I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to find this as amusing as I did, but I'm several decades past its target demographic.  I'd never read a Three Investigators book before and know a few people with fond memories of them, so I wanted to give one a try. 


I'm not going to touch on the sheer fantasy of what is the foundational premise of the books; they were written to be adventures and mysteries for kids (I use 'kids' as a broad spectrum noun here) and why not make these kids important?  Why not give them more parental freedom and the only junk yard in the world that would be fun and safe to play in. 


But it was still hilarious.  The gnomes, which are probably not PC by today's standards.  The Japanese representation, which is definitely not, yet feels innocently done here - yes, the authors' should have been more sensitive, but the kids reading it at the time would likely have read it in total naiveté.  I didn't find the Japanese speaking stereotypically funny at all, but I did have a good head shake over it.


Mostly what I found funny were the three boys, and that's just because despite my best efforts, I grew up and can't avoid seeing the playacting taking place.  Still, their hideout sounds cool as hell and I loved the Alfred Hitchcock appearances.  That man just couldn't stay on the sidelines of anything, could he?


I read this for the Baker Street Irregulars Square in Halloween Bingo.

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review 2018-09-29 11:14
Houses of Stone
Houses of Stone - Barbara Michaels

I'm not sure what to make of this book.  It's a much longer, slower-paced book than most of Barbara Michaels' body of work.  It's also a lot meatier and it reads very much like Michaels had a couple of agendas when she wrote it, among them feminism, history and archeology, and the origins of the gothic novel.  Anyone familiar with Barbara Michaels knows she was qualified on all fronts.


Unfortunately, though she did redeem herself about 75% of the way through, I never really warmed to the MC, Karen.  In fact it took me that long to remember her name, though I could have rattled off a list of all the secondary players without a problem.  For most of the book she's so ardently 'feminist' that she is paranoid and distrustful of literally every word that comes out of anyone's mouth.  Her best friend Peggy spends much of the first half of the book apologising to her for perceived slights.  I put the word feminism in quotes before because Karen equates being a feminist with having that mistrustful chip on her shoulder, when in reality that chip has more to do with her own perception of herself and how she is always 'handled' by others.  It's no coincidence that the point at which she started letting go of all her resentment was the same one at which I started to like her.


Houses of Stone is a story of a story within a story within a story, and though there are suspicious and mysterious events that happen from start to finish, it never really had that typical build up of tension inherent to mysteries or suspense.  There was a climax of sorts, but honestly it sort of felt tacked on so the paranormal aspect of the book could be wrapped up.  The heart of this book is about the research involved when an important, previously unknown text is discovered.  With a tad of romance, intrigue and deception.


For me, Peggy made this book.  I loved her competent, no-nonsense attitude and Ioved how comfortable in herself she was, and therefore how unstoppable a force.  She kept me reading long after I'd have gotten fed up with Karen; a fortunate thing, since I'd have missed a good story otherwise.


I read this as a buddy read with Linda Hilton and Moonlight Reader and also for the Gothic Square for Halloween Bingo. a square in Halloween Bingo - but which square I'm not sure as yet.  I'm hoping to hear Moonlight Reader's thoughts because I'm not sure I'd call this romantic suspense; I had thought maybe gothic but I'm not really sure of that now either.  Worst case, Barbara Michaels is my wild card author, so the book, besides being enjoyable will serve a purpose for bingo no matter what.

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review 2018-08-02 07:12
The High Tide Club
The High Tide Club - Mary Kay Andrews

Three words:  Phoned. it. in.


That's what this book appears to be.  Something Andrews - an author whose books I've always enjoyed - phone in.  Huge continuity errors, like an off-stage character that dies in WWII, first over Iwo Jima, then over Germany.  A fragmented sentence ended with a period that is truly a fragment - just cut off half way through; I can't even guess what it was supposed to have conveyed.  Monster gaps in the timeline, and I don't just mean time passes, but time passes where plot-important stuff happens and it's just ... gone.  Like maybe it used to be there and someone went all highlight-and-delete happy without turning Track Changes on.  The first half of the book is like a time warp, without the narrative overlay.  


There's supposedly a romance in here too, one that gets exactly two scenes.  Normally this would be fine; this story isn't about the MC's romantic life.  Except the story starts with Brooke being a single mom because she didn't tell the boy's father she got pregnant the night before he left for a 3 year research trip to Alaska, then continued not telling him.  During the course of this story he comes back, hoping to start back up, having no idea he's a father.  Even after he meets the boy.  All of this ... baggage; seems like it would call for more than 2 scenes.


The most unfortunate part of this is that The High Tide Club is, at its core, a really great story about extraordinarily strong women, friendships that span a century, and a ripping good murder mystery.  It's genuinely lovely; with a lot of heart and, at the same time, a delightfully brilliant mystery.   The American South setting is something Andrews excels at, even, apparently, when she's phoning it in, and the characters are all fully realised.  


If St. Martin's and Andrews hadn't been so short-sighted as to publish the raw manuscript, instead of a finished, edited work, this might have been one of her best.   As it is, I think I'll just re-read Hissy Fit.

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