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review 2019-01-05 02:05
Review: The Fallen (DCI Matilda Darke short story) by Michael Wood
The Fallen - Michael Wood

Published by: Killer Reads (23rd December 2016)


Source: purchased


Rating: 5*



A man has been found brutally murdered in his own home. The victim is Iain Kilbride, a once-famous TV star who has faded into obscurity. All signs point to a break-in, but why has nothing been taken?

For DCI Matilda Darke, this is the perfect chance to prove her newly formed Murder Investigation Team are up to the task. Matilda suspects the clue to finding the killer lies in Iain’s past, but she’s about to discover how dark that past really is…



I came across this prequel to the DCI Matilda Darke series a little late, but absolutely relished reading about the initial setting up of the MIT and about Matilda's first faltering steps as she returns to work as a newly appointed DCI. Seeing Matilda's historic exchanges with familiar characters such as the irrepressible Ben Hales is an added bonus, and getting to peek inside her relationship with husband James is insightful.


Although this is a short story, nothing feels rushed. The pace is steady and the story and characters have time to unfurl in an unhurried manner.  The case itself is utterly gripping and cleverly written with the author's usual incredible attention to detail. I completely forgot I was even reading a short story!

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text 2018-12-30 04:11
The Summer Tree - Reading progress update: I've read 10 out of 383 pages. And about the ten million . . . .
The Summer Tree - Guy Gavriel Kay

Disclaimer:  I'm not sure I ever posted a disclaimer about this, so here goes.  I bought the Kindle edition of this book in October 2018. I do not know the author personally, but I follow him on Twitter and we have had some brief exchanges there.  I also purchased the second volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, The Wandering Fire.  I obtained the third volume, The Darkest Road, in the late 1980s as a review copy when I was reviewing for Rave Reviews magazine.  I refused to write a review, or even read the book, because I felt it unfair to review the last volume of a trilogy when I hadn't read and couldn't even acquire the first two books.  I am an author of contemporary and historical romance and various non-fiction.


So far, I've read the first 10 pages of this book about fourteen times since purchasing it in late October; it's now late December.  I keep getting interrupted, then have to go back and reread to remember what's going on.  This is not therefore a real status report.


It's a new year's resolution, of sorts.


My resolution, initially arrived at without a whole lot of thought, is to read 10,000,000 words of fiction in 2019.  I'm qualifying that here because I'm quite sure I read far more than ten million words of news and non-fiction and internet chatter every year.  And while I may include some non-fiction full-length works in this accounting, the real purpose of it is to boost my reading of book-length fiction.


I used to read almost nothing but novels.  My non-fiction reading was mostly research material for my writing.  When my writing career crashed and burned in 1996, I lost all interest in fiction.  In 1998, when I went back to college, almost all my reading was academic stuff.  Since then, I've sometimes had some difficulty getting back into fiction.  That's one of the reasons I've enjoyed the Halloween Bingo game so much -- it has forced me to focus my reading at least partly on fiction, especially genre fiction.


So for 2019, it's going to be fiction, fiction, and more fiction.  Mostly romance and epic fantasy -- like The Fionavar Tapestry -- but who knows what else might get thrown in!  I have a system in place for estimating the number of words per book, and I'm going to set up a spreadsheet to keep track of them.  Only completed books count.


I started with Phyllis A. Whitney's Window on the Square, and now I'm going to curl up in bed with the Kindle and The Summer Tree.  It's cold here in central Arizona tonight, so this sounds like a good plan.




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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 2018-12-29 03:39
Window on the Square - Reading progress update: I've read 77%.
Window on the Square - Phyllis A. Whitney

Yes, the Precious Possession has been Violently Damaged, causing Emotional Trauma.



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text 2018-12-28 18:46
Window on the Square - Reading progress update: I've read 55%.
Window on the Square - Phyllis A. Whitney

Ah, yes, all the classic archetypes.


Vulnerable child with secrets.

Obnoxious, spoiled child.

Innocent, impoverished, idealistic young woman.

Handsome, brooding (and married) master of the house.

Fragile, beautiful mistress of the house.

Menacing, jealous housekeeper.

Cheerful servant.

Helpful, encouraging, working-class other man.

The Great Big Huge Mystery of Someone's Death


There are even some Precious Possessions that will probably be needlessly destroyed to cause Untold Heartbreak.


The 1870s New York City setting is a change from the usual remote mansion, and so far there are no otherworldly aspects, but the rest is so far classic gothic/suspense.


I'm reading this in the atmosphere of ongoing Twitter discussions about the importance of accuracy in historical romances.  The current brouhaha is over whether or not sex workers in historical settings are allowed (!) to have Happy Ever After endings with marriage to dukes.  Yes, that's a bit simplified, and of course many of those who are advocating for the rights of courtesans to their HEAs and elevation to the nobility are quite vocal.


Was it historically accurate for any sex workers to attain such lofty positions?  Well, if we go back to the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora, there's certainly evidence to support the notion.  So let's look past that particular issue and examine another.


Is it necessary, in the framework of Romance with a Capital R, that the female main character find her HEA with a more powerful, more wealthy, more patriarchally normative male rather than a middle- or working-class spouse?


If the defense of sex workers as entitled (sic) to HEAs is put forth as challenging the patriarchal norms, how is that challenge sustained if the sex worker can only be liberated by stepping into the patriarchy?


This is, of course, illustrated clearly in so many gothic romances, where the heroine is forced into selling her labor -- if not her sexuality -- due to poverty.  She is at the mercy of her almost always older, more powerful, and definitely more wealthy employer.  Jane Eyre is perhaps the prototype or even the archetype, but there are so many, many more just like her, some who emerge as victors in their struggle and some who fail.  From Victor Hugo's Fantine to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, women must obey certain rules that don't apply to men, even though it is only through men that women can achieve happiness of any kind.


In 1984, when I attended my first RWA national conference, two of the historical romances that were finalists for what was then the Golden Heart award were books I had read, LaVyrle Spencer's Hummingbird and Carole Nelson Douglas's Lady Rogue.  Spencer's book, which I had completely and totally enjoyed except for one issue, won.


Douglas, who also writes fantasy and mystery, had created characters who didn't end up with quite the traditional HEA, at least for 1984: They didn't marry, and the woman maintained her separate identity and "career."  Looking back, I'm surprised that the book was nominated, let alone a finalist, because it didn't follow precisely the Romance Novel formula.


But even Hummingbird bothered me because of that one detail, and Spencer would go on to use that device in at least one other book: There's another man involved, who falls in love with the heroine but she treats him like shit.  In Hummingbird, that man is lowly shoe salesman David (whose last name I can't remember). Abby is in love with the dashing, handsome, wealthy Jesse, but she reluctantly consents to marry David.  When Jesse confronts her with her lack of passion for David and her true passion for him, Abby succumbs.  David is devastated, and Spencer spares no other thought for him.  She did the same thing for the other man in Twice Loved, and that was the point where I gave up on Spencer.


In Window on the Square, I can see the same scenario unfolding.  Andrew Beach, the artist-and-tutor, is going to come to a bad end one way or another; Megan Kincaid will no doubt end up with the moody, mysterious Brandon Reid.  What will happen to Brandon's wife Leslie and her over-protective childhood nurse Mrs. Garth is anyone's guess at this point.

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