After dedicating a chunk of time to the Sydney Rye saga, I circled back to read the second book in the Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn. Called A Perilous Undertaking, it is indeed a story fraught with potential missteps, as Veronica and her colleague, Stoker, must deal with royals, police detectives, high society eccentrics, and a whole slew of artsy bohemian hedonists as they try to figure out who committed a murder in 1887 London.
The catch is, someone has already been convicted of the crime; but at least one extremely high-up individual doesn’t believe Miles Ramsforth, art patron, to be guilty of killing his pregnant mistress, Artemisia, and has demanded that the unconventional duo prove it by discovering who did. Since the case is emphatically closed according to the police, there will be little assistance (or cooperation) from that direction, so Veronica and Stoker explore the original circumstances of Artemisia’s death with an eye to who benefits, and use a variety of stratagems to spend time with and focus on the many suspects.
I liked this book almost as well as the first. The various relationships are continuing to evolve, the new characters are fun and interesting, and the places the story goes are unexpected. I will probably continue with this series, though not right away.
That’s because, at the moment, I am rereading the first and second books in the Finlay Donovan series by Elle Cosimano, for two reasons: One is that the third book is due out in January, and I always like to review before continuing; but the other is that Ms. Cosimano has graciously agreed to be a guest speaker during the mystery genre segment of my readers’ advisory class at UCLA’s library school this coming Tuesday (via Zoom, since she is an east-coaster). We are all excited about her appearance; if you wish to read my review of her books about the hapless accidental hit woman, it can be found here.
After I am finished with her two books, I am quite excited to read the brand-new (out on Tuesday, and pre-ordered to arrive from Amazon that same day) Barbara Kingsolver novel, Demon Copperhead (with a nod to David Copperfield). I have loved every one of her books with the exception of her greatest success story, The Poisonwood Bible, which people tend to either love or put down after 100 pages of effort. I was one of the latter; but everything else in her catalogue is a winner for me. I hope this one is, too!
I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.
This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.
The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.
As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.
I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.
The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.
Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.
Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.
Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.
In case you don’t get the reference: In the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, portions of the state of Florida used a punch-card type ballot that was easily misread; during the furor that followed the initially indeterminate election, the public soon became familiar with references to hanging, dimpled, and pregnant “chads,” which were the little pieces of the punch-card that were, in theory, supposed to be removed by the punch tool, but instead either hung by a corner or, worse, looked like they had been pressed on with intent, but not punched out. The recount in Florida resulted in a bunch of wrangling, with many lawsuits and counter suits between the parties, until ultimately Gore conceded, although he had won the popular vote. It’s a controversy to this day, and one wonders on what trajectory our country would be now had Gore, and not Bush, become President.
I reference it here because I just had a reading experience that reminded me of the bewilderment of the Florida election officials trying to discern the intent of the voters by interpreting the various states of chads.
You will recall that at the beginning of July I decided to go beyond her Bill Slider mystery series to explore the other genre of author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, by reading the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, an enjoyable Upstairs / Downstairs, Downton Abbey read-alike. In that review, I mentioned that the ending was “somewhat abrupt,” and bemoaned the fact that the sequel wouldn’t be available for more than a month. Well, I have just completed the sequel—The Affairs of Ashmore Castle—and it is this that has given me the unsettling feeling provoked by hanging chads!
Lest you should think I am panning the book, I am emphatically not—I quite enjoyed it. In fact, the deepening stories of all the main and subsidiary characters provided an even richer and more involving experience than did the first book in the series. The various marriages and matches made in the first volume by the ruling classes were developed and took interesting turns, the world of the servants likewise became more transparent, and I followed all the story lines with anticipation. That anticipation carried on up to the very last page, when one character asks another, “What do you really come here for, Lady Alice?” and, swiping my finger impatiently across the face of my Kindle to turn the page and discover the answer, I was instead treated to Amazon’s “Before You Go…review this book” prompt! I was in such disbelief that that could possibly be the end of the book that I actually went back to the beginning, checked the number of chapters, and clicked on the last one to see if there had been some glitch with my Kindle that had caused the last third of the book to disappear!
Nope. She really did end it there. She used the last few chapters to set up some truly urgent situations with both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” protagonists, and then left them all hanging, or dimpled, or pregnant, and JUST. STOPPED. WRITING. I haven’t been this disconcerted since I read Connie Willis’s gargantuan time travel duology, Blackout and All Clear; at the end of Blackout—or I should say, where Blackout stopped—I looked up articles about the two books and discovered that Willis had originally intended it as one gigantic tome, but that the publisher convinced her she must split it in two (the first book being 491 pages, while the second is 656, published within nine months of one another). And split it in two she did, with no warning, no wrap-up, no transition whatsoever—book one simply stopped on a page, and book two took up on the next page. It made me nuts.
What makes me even more dissatisfied with the abrupt stoppage of the Ashmore story is that I read the second volume a mere day after it was published, and will presumably have to wait a year (or more, depending on what other series she has on the boil) to discover the fates of all involved! And by then I will have read so many books in the meantime that it will probably mean a reread. Sigh. You wound me, Ms. H-E.
New York Historical
Several people on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page have recently requested recommendations for historical fiction, but hastened to say, “But not World War II please!” and it does seem like that conflict has dominated recently published popular historical fiction for a while now. I just discovered (through one of those BookBub daily deals on e-books) an author who specializes instead in a past/present focus on the important landmarks of New York City and the people who were somehow significant in their history or creation. I picked it up not so much for the connection to days of yore but because the story was art-related, but I was ultimately drawn in by the history.
Fiona Davis definitely has a formula. I have read two of her books now, and the introductory chapters of a third, and she plots them all similarly: Two protagonists, one living in the late 19th or early 20th century (1880-1940), the other in a more contemporary decade (1970s forward), who are either directly related or tangentially connected through the device of an iconic New York building and also through the ploy of a mystery to be solved. They remind me in this way of Kate Morton’s books, although they are neither as lengthy nor as literary in their language.
The first that I read, The Masterpiece, follows the fortunes of Grand Central Terminal, featuring little-known details of its history. The “early” protagonist, Clara Darden, is a struggling artist who has managed to snag a position as a temporary teacher of illustration at the prestigious Grand Central School of Art, an uncommon feat for a young woman in 1928. But Clara is determined that her drawings will, someday soon, grace the cover of Vogue magazine, and she uses every opportunity, including the influence of the two men in her life—one a wealthy poet, the other a bohemian painter—to make her ambitions come true. None of them knows that the Great Depression looms in their immediate future.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1974, Virginia Clay is recently divorced and desperate for work. After failing as a lawyer’s secretary, she reluctantly takes a job in the information booth of the rundown, grimy and dangerous Grand Central, and becomes invested in the fate of the once splendid building, whose historic status is now being challenged in the courts by a group who wishes to build a skyscraper on top of it. One day she takes a wrong turn and discovers an abandoned art school on a top floor of the building, where she finds a powerful watercolor hidden behind a cabinet and is introduced to the mystery of the artist Clara Darden, who disappeared in 1931. Virginia becomes determined to discover her fate, but there are several people who don’t wish her to succeed.
The second book, The Address, is centered around the famous Dakota apartment house, “the” address at which to live. The first part of the story takes place in 1884, when Sara Smythe, a young housekeeper in a London hotel, is lured to the United States by one of the Dakota’s architects, Theodore Camden, with the promise of a managerial position at the brand new building on the verge of opening its doors. Theo, his wife and three children occupy one of the luxury apartments, and regular contact between Sara and Theo soon leads to a forbidden association that will have long-lasting implications for all of them
The second protagonist is Bailey Camden, descendent of a ward of Theodore Camden and his wife, Minnie, a hard-partying young interior designer whose addictions have caused her to squander her chances with a major design firm. Just out of rehab in September of 1985, Bailey is floundering, trying to keep herself from drinking while looking for any kind of work in her field, in a town where her name is synonymous with disaster. She turns to her cousin, Melinda, a direct descendent and heir of the Camden family, who hires her to supervise the redecoration of Melinda’s apartment at The Dakota. There’s no money in it until Melinda comes into her inheritance at age 30 (still a few months away), but at least Bailey has a place to stay (the servants’ quarters of the apartment), a job to keep her mind engaged, and a local daily AA meeting. But while finding storage down in the basement for some of the classic ornamentation Melinda is insisting be ripped from the walls of the apartment so it can be modernized, Bailey discovers some artifacts in an old trunk that indicate the past history of her family may not be at all what she has been led to believe.
Other books feature backdrops such as the New York Public Library, the Chelsea Hotel, the Frick mansion/museum, and the Barbizon. They all seem to stay true to form, with two protagonists separated by half a century, and a mystery to be solved that connects the two through the agency of the building. But despite this repetitive device, the books are enjoyable reads, with engaging characters and vividly painted scenes; Davis seems to rigorously research the entire history, not just that of the buildings but also the habits, mores, clothing, hairstyles, and other minute details of the time periods involved. I also enjoyed the diversity in age and occupation of her main characters—they are of all stages and all life situations, and their vulnerabilities and failures are poignant and ring true.
I have never been to New York City (though I’ve always wanted to go), but I imagine these books would be particularly impactful for those to whom these buildings are familiar sights in their daily travels. Even never having been there, the books make it easy to picture. I don’t know whether I will read on, but those teaser chapters at the end of the previous e-book definitely snare your attention before you know it, so more Fiona Davis may be in my future.
There are certainly authors to whom I have remained intensely loyal who have written one book I absolutely loved but have also written others that I didn’t. And because I read the book worth loving first, I kept them on my roster of excellent authors despite the downfalls and shortcomings of other works. So this week I decided that just because I had read two books by an author neither of which had particularly wowed me or stuck with me didn’t mean I should dismiss the author out of hand; that perhaps she was worth one more go.
The author to whom I refer is Diane Chamberlain. I first read her book The Dream Daughter, about which many people expressed doubts since time travel was not something they felt was appropriate to her oft-labeled “hometowns and heartstrings” style of writing. Since I love a good time travel book, however, this was prime motivation for me to read it, and I did enjoy it, although not as much in retrospect as my initial reaction might indicate. So I went on to choose another of her books, hoping to get the “traditional” Diane Chamberlain experience, and was vastly disappointed; I didn’t connect with (or even like) any of the characters, felt the narrative was lackadaisical and the plot deficient in sense, and decided, based on Cypress Point, that I wouldn’t read anything more written by her.
But, as sometimes happens, I had placed another of her titles for Kindle on hold at the library a while back, and it popped up as “available” just when I had finished something else and was at loose ends for the next, so I read it. I’m so glad I did, and can say that it may change my attitude about at least some of the rest of her inventory.
The book is Big Lies in a Small Town, and I must confess, first of all, that I was predisposed to like it, despite my previous experience, because this one was about art. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I have special collections on Goodreads of “books about art” and “books about reading,” and am always looking for another to add to those lists. I found one in this book, and also found it compelling for more reasons than just its theme.
First of all, this book also steps outside that “hometowns and heartstrings” narrative and into the realm of historical fiction, although I’m not sure how much of it is real and how much made up. The point is, it all could have happened, and its setting in a true-to-life context, especially including the financial situations and the state of race relations in a small southern town in the 1940s, made it particularly evocative.
The book has two main protagonists, one in 1940, the other in 2018, connected by a Work Progress Administration (WPA) mural painted after the Great Depression by one artist and restored almost 80 years later by another. Anna Dale is the artist from New Jersey who enters a WPA mural contest; she loses out to someone else for the mural she wished to paint in New Jersey, but is instead awarded a smaller project for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. She takes a trip to scope out both the community and the placement of the mural, planning to stay only a few days to try to capture the flavor of the town and its people upon which she will base the mural but, being somewhat at loose ends in her life with no employment or attachments to prevent her, allows herself to be persuaded by the town’s “movers and shakers” to stay in town to execute the entire project. She soon realizes she is a fish out of water, a Yankee not used to dealing with the prejudices and ubiquitous racial undertones of a small Southern community. And to complicate matters, the town has its own artist who tried for the same assignment and lost out to Anna, so there are some people in town who are already predisposed to dislike her. Anna is determined to achieve her goal, but vastly underestimates the obstacles she faces.
Nearly 80 years later, in 2018, Morgan Christopher, who is in prison for three years for a crime she didn’t commit, is given an opportunity to curtail that sentence if she agrees to certain conditions: Jesse Jameson Williams, a prominent artist from Edenton, North Carolina, has died, and in his will he specifies that Morgan is to be offered the job of restoring a mural that will hang in the gallery containing his paintings and those of his protegés. Morgan is an artist but has no experience with the complex skills required for restoration, but she is desperate to leave prison, so she accepts and is paroled contingent upon her completing this project. In the process of working on the mural, she discovers disturbing design elements that pique her interest about the unknown fate of Anna Dale.
This story was masterfully plotted to keep the reader turning the pages. The perspective switches back and forth between past and present with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to make it irresistible, and Chamberlain is wonderfully cagey about how and when she reveals the plot points that connect all the players. I read it in two days, and when I say days I mean until 2:30 a.m. when I could no longer keep my eyes open. In addition to complex plots for both time periods, the narrative contains interesting technical information about the restoration process as well as fascinating personal details about life in the South after the Depression. It addresses such issues as mental illness, injustice, poverty, and racism, but incorporates those themes into its riveting and emotionally engaging story line without being preachy or didactic.
Can you tell that I liked the book?
Reading this made me immensely curious about the WPA mural program; here is a look at some of the artists who were defining American art “after the fall,” that is, after the Great Depression’s socioeconomic devastation, and here is an interesting contemporary speculation on whether anything similar to this project could ever again happen in the United States. Below is one mural, by artist Ben Shahn, entitled “The Meaning of Social Security.” It’s on a wall of the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, in Washington, D.C.
A little “if-then” referral: If you read this and find that you enjoyed learning about the technical processes of restoration, another book you might enjoy is The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro, which also includes many fascinating technical details, although it is much less respectful of the original artist! My review is here.
I am a mystery reader, and I specifically enjoy British mysteries, although I have read my share of others. So I am always looking out for a new Brit-based series, and somewhere along the way I discovered the Bill Slider detective novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. They don’t seem to be terribly well known here in the States—I never see recommendations for them on any of the reading pages to which I belong—and the American version of the books is usually poorly designed and cheaply printed, with ugly art, crap paper, and inappropriate typefaces! But it’s such a fun series that I have persisted from the first—Orchestrated Death—to #21, Headlong, which I just completed, and I see that there are two more awaiting me, which happened while I wasn’t looking (i.e., teaching Young Adult Literature and reading for that).
They are police procedurals in the truest sense: Although Detective Chief Inspector Bill Slider is definitely the lead guy, he has under him a team of versatile and memorable officers, all working together to solve the homicides that come their way. From his main prop, Atherton, a literate, clever, fashionable ladies’ man, to the lowliest “plod” on the force, all have distinct personalities and specialties, and we are granted a multidimensional vision of the crime, the suspects, and the process through their eyes.
But lest the books be too concentrated on the whodunnit, Harrod-Eagles has also provided both Bill and many of his colleagues with lively and interesting partners, children, and private lives, which figure largely into each story in various ways.
She also has a wicked sense of humor and has created the higher-ups as wholly original versions of bureaucratic cliché; for instance, Slider’s direct superior, Porson, is the master of malapropism, and delivers twisted versions of every idiomatic proverb in the book, providing Slider and his minions with an ongoing challenge to keep a straight face while the reader is free to hoot with laughter.
This latest fulfilled its challenge of keeping the reader guessing. Ed Wiseman, a prominent literary agent, has apparently fallen to his death from the window of his study into the dug-out building site next door. Slider is assigned the case, but has been cautioned that Borough Commander Carpenter would like to see this quickly ruled an accident and quietly put to bed; it seems a young woman who was involved with the victim is also somehow related to the Commander’s wife, and he wants to keep any scandal out of the papers. But when the verdict is not accident but murder, Slider has to pursue a slippery group of clients, friends, ex-wives, romantic partners, and rejected authors in his quest to solve the crime, while assiduously avoiding involving the girl, who seems increasingly central to the case.
As with most of the rest of the series, this one is intricately plotted to realistically showcase the varieties of police work necessary. It’s also filled with red herrings, puns, wordplay, and humor, and continues to unfold the personal lives of the main characters with glimpses into their family dynamic. I’m glad to pick up this series again, and won’t delay long before moving on to the last two unread volumes.
The interesting thing about Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is that she is not specifically known for this series, and says that she wrote the first book as relaxation between other projects, with no intention of publishing it. Her “real” metier is historical fiction, and her reputation is tied to a massive effort called The Morland Dynasty, which began as 12 volumes that were to cover a 500-year period of British history, but evolved into 35 books as she discovered she wanted to spend more time (and pages) on the fictional characters embedded in the history. Outside of this mammoth family saga, she has also written other historical fiction, contemporary novels, a couple of fantasy books, and a dozen romances, with a total of more than 90 titles!
After enjoying the Slider mysteries, I wanted to read and experience something else she had written, but I didn’t want to embark on anything like a 35-book endurance test, so I chose the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, which seems to be a cross between historical fiction and romance with perhaps a whiff of the gothic (the description brought Victoria Holt to mind, although Harrod-Eagles’s prose is far more accomplished and the characters and plot more complex). (The publishing company compares it to both Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but since I have only seen the TV shows for both of those, I can’t speak to their similarity.) I have come to regret this decision, because I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately wanted to continue on with its characters and plot line, but the second book in the series isn’t due out for another month!
The story begins in the year 1901. The Earl of Stainton and his family occupy Ashmore Castle, although at the opening of the tale several of the family members are widely dispersed. Eldest son Giles, who has always been at odds with his father despite his position as the heir apparent—not least for his choice of occupation—is in Egypt on an archaeological dig, while second son Richard is off fighting the Boer War in South Africa. Occupying the castle are the earl, his wife, and their two teenage daughters (plus a host of servants and, occasionally, their elder, married daughter and family plus Uncle Sebastian). But when the Earl breaks his neck in a hunting accident, Giles is called home from his beloved desert vistas to verdant but gloomy England to take up his duties as the new head of household.
What Giles is swiftly made to realize by his father’s men of business is that along with the estate and castle he has inherited a host of severe financial troubles that, if unchecked, will mean certain ruin for the entire family. He grimly digs into the details, hoping to find ways to alleviate the situation, but eventually comes to the dismal conclusion that his only real option is to marry for money. Having dedicated his adult life so far exclusively to his career, he doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish this, so he turns to his worldly Aunt Caroline for assistance.
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kitty Bayfield, shy daughter of a wealthy but minor baronet and his social climber of a wife, has just graduated from her finishing school, along with her impoverished but vastly more socially skilled friend Nina, and is preparing to be presented to society during the Season. Kitty’s aunt comes up with a scheme to present Nina to society alongside Kitty to help Kitty overcome some of her reticence and feel more comfortable. Soon Giles, his brother Richard, Kitty, and Nina all meet, at teas, dances, and outings, and while Giles is powerfully attracted to Nina, he is soon made to realize that only Kitty can help him out of his financial predicament…
Harrod-Eagles is wonderful at both characterization and world-building, and all the protagonists come alive on the page; but equally compelling are the foibles of the servants behind the scenes, as well as the interventions in the plot made by secondary characters such as a cobbler turned industrialist, Giles’s French grandmother, and Nina’s Aunt Schofield. I spent several pleasurable hours getting to know both people and situations, and was dismayed to discover, when I arrived at the (somewhat abrupt) ending not knowing how certain significant acts in the evolution of the relationships would turn out, that the next book is not yet available. Now I am biding my time by filling in with other books, while anticipating the August 11th release date of The Affairs of Ashmore Castle.
Of course, I could embark on reading the Morland Dynasty books; but if I were to enjoy them as much as I did this, I would be dug in for a good long time, and I’m not sure I’m ready to commit a few months’ reading to the works of one author. Maybe I’ll just read the first one…
As I noted in a previous post, I had been plagued by the memory of a book I had read some years ago that should have been on my dystopian/post-apocalyptic list, or maybe in historical fiction, but wasn’t. That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and after I finally dredged up the memory of the title, I discovered she had, since I read it back in the ’90s, written two sequels. I finally got around to revisiting Benson’s creation this week; my initial intention was simply to read the sequels, but I felt the need to refresh my memory of the first book, so I did a reread first, which changed my plans.
I finished the book this morning, and went to the library website to obtain the two sequels for my Kindle (neither was available); but after then browsing through some reviews on Goodreads and further pondering what I had just read based on some observations I found there, I decided the story, while intriguing in many ways, wasn’t something I wanted to pursue beyond the first volume.
Although I write this review blog and can be analytical about a book, I think I have confessed before that sometimes I am not a particularly discriminating reader. Certain things will turn me off immediately—repetitious word usage, bad grammar, lousy world-building, clichéd characterizations, wince-worthy love matches—but I am all too prone to be swept up by a story that has compelling elements without fully recognizing its flaws until I take a minute, and that was the case here.
I did love the set-up, which was a future/past double narrative of the Black Death in 1348 England and a post-“Outbreak” world in the future (which in the 1990s when it was written was actually 2005) after an antibiotic-resistant disease has decimated the population of the United States and done lesser but still severe damage to England.
The protagonist in the 1300s narrative is a Jewish doctor named Alejandro Canches, who is masquerading as a Spanish Christian after an unfortunate event necessitates he flee his home and conceal his identity. He becomes caught up in the priority of the Catholic Church to preserve the heads of state in Europe from the virulent plague that is ravaging every country, and is sent by the Pope across the English Channel from Avignon to the court of Edward III to impose draconian measures of quarantine and hopefully keep the large and contentious royal family of Plantagenets alive and healthy.
The narrative in the near-future section is carried by American Janie Crowe, a former surgeon who has lost her husband, daughter, and career to the recent pandemic and is starting over by attempting to qualify as a medical archaeologist. She travels to London with her assistant, Caroline, to take a variety of soil samples she will use in her doctoral dissertation project. The world in England post-pandemic is a closely monitored one with bureaucracy impeding every move, particularly those of foreign nationals, and Biocops on watch for the slightest infraction of health protocols. In the course of her work, Janie will unwittingly dig up an artifact that has the potential to release an ancient plague for which there is no modern cure.
The story-telling is absorbing and keeps up a fairly brisk pace, but the editing left something to be desired in terms of anachronistic and repetitive language, plus some scenes that are unnecessarily drawn out with superfluous amounts of detail; it’s not exactly obvious that this is a first-time writer, but the narrative could definitely have been tighter. It was easy to invest in the personalities and individual quirks of the two main characters, but less easy to overlook some of the anomalies that take a good premise and make it slightly ridiculous as less-than-believable events transpire one after the other. And while introducing a romantic element into the 1300s part of the story worked nicely, the one in the near-future sections was just awkward.
The thing that bothered me the most—which is odd, because I am usually a fan of magical realism or mystical features—was the source of the remedy, the midwife Mother Sarah and her centuries-long legacy. We never really learn how she came to develop her healing knowledge, and the mysterious natural elements that conspire to conceal or reveal her presence remain likewise unexplained. I would have enjoyed all these details if they had been integrated into any kind of logical system but, as they are written, they are merely frivolous and unsatisfying window dressing that ultimately detract.
If you like this kind of story I wouldn’t tell you not to read it; there is much to enjoy here. But while the details of the past are more believable (and better written), the way the future tale plays out is hard to swallow and also kind of silly.
If you are looking for a better version of these events, even down to the past/future component, I recommend you seek out the award-winning Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, instead. That one I can unreservedly recommend! (And then follow it up with some or all of her other time travel fiction.)
The Venice Sketchbook
Between my inclination to read almost any book that’s about an artist and my steadfast desire to visit Venice someday, I could hardly resist a book with this title. I have read books by Rhys Bowen before (mostly from her Molly Murphy mysteries) and found them pleasant and entertaining without being particularly compelling; this one, while not written to a formula as is the mystery series, had a little more going for it, but its content didn’t quite meet its potential.
This is historical fiction, which is Ms. Bowen’s specialty, but the historical context suffered a bit by her putting the personal stories first and not sufficiently researching some of her background material, which surprised me. And while she tries to set a vibrant scene in Venice, some of her prose felt like generic descriptions from not very original guidebooks.
Part of the problem with the scene-setting may be that both of her characters are so melancholy most of the time that anything they describe carries a pall of personal gloom with it. The story is told from two perspectives—Juliet’s primarily from the war years (1938-45), and Caroline’s from 2001. Juliet Browning was an aspiring artist who attended art school for one year in her youth and then had to drop out and get a job to support the family when her father lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1928. The story revolves around three separate trips that Juliet makes to Venice: One, when she is just out of school, a cultural pilgrimage chaperoned by her Aunt Hortensia; one, 10 years later, when she is chaperone herself to a group of girls from the school at which she is the art mistress; and a third a year after that, when she is granted a bursary through her school to spend a year in Venice studying at the Art Academie.
In the contemporary story, Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie (Juliet) dies and leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a few final words that include a prompt to go to Venice. Caroline’s son is in New York City with his father, too traumatized (according to his dad, anyway) to fly back to England after the events of 9/11; Caroline decides to take her mind off her troubles by making a pilgrimage to Venice to scatter Juliet’s ashes in the city she loved. She also hopes to find out exactly what happened to Juliet there more than 60 years ago. Until Lettie passed away, Caroline assumed that she had been the same stolid, pleasant spinster her whole life, but perhaps there is a past there.
The plot line hinges on romance: On her first trip to Venice, Juliet meets Leonardo da Rossi, the attractive and charismatic son of one of the ruling families of Venice, and they have a “moment” that is repeated on her second visit. But Leo is destined to marry to suit his family’s business interests, and by the time Juliet returns in 1939, he has been married for some time to Bianca.
Connections that Caroline makes once in Venice lead (somewhat too fortuitously) to her own encounter with a descendent of Leo’s, and with some assistance from and discussion with him, Caroline begins to put together a timeline and a story of her aunt’s days in Venice. A lot of the revelations about Juliet come from a diary that she kept and Caroline discovers, although gaps in it lead to some confusion and false leads until additional clues are acquired. It’s all rather serendipitous.
As I said at the beginning, although this is supposedly a romance about an artist and a beautiful city that steals her heart, the melancholy nature of both the personal and global stories bogs it down. Juliet is first frustrated by the truncated nature of her visit to Venice with her strict aunt; then she is wistful as she conducts her young art school charges around the city, because they don’t seem to appreciate what she would have given anything to experience in their places; and when she finally arrives to stay for a year, living there and studying art, although she does make some friends and have some positive experiences, she is self-conscious about being so much older than the other art students, and she is depressed by the fact that Leo da Rossi is off limits.
Overlaid on Juliet’s story is, of course, the progress of World War II as it relates to Italy and specifically to Venice, and it begins as a constant menace that fails over and over to turn into something concrete, a hovering cloud that never actually rains (so the narrative seems like it contains a lot of false alarms); and then when things finally change for the worse, the story is so relentlessly focused on how it is affecting Juliet and her immediate circle that it’s hard to get an idea of the actual historical facts. I won’t go so far as to say it’s clichéd, but it’s a bit one-dimensional and shallow.
Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that her husband has left her (after she has supported his career at the expense of hers) to hook up with a famous musician and make good with his fashion designs. She reluctantly agrees to joint custody with Josh of their son, Teddy, six, who stays with her in England during the school year and goes to his father in New York City for the summer and winter holidays. She complains a fair bit about all of it, but doesn’t take any action (like getting a lawyer), and then the outside world intrudes as the planes crash into the World Trade Center, separating her from her son for an extended period. Her impulse is to fly to New York as soon as that becomes possible and take Teddy back, but instead she embarks on this quest to Venice, with all of this hanging over her head.
It’s not all depression and despair—there are fun and funny moments here and there, and some genuine feelings are expressed—but it’s not a happy story, not a traditional romance with a HEA, but also not an achievement for historical fiction. I think that if the background events had been more compellingly and immediately presented, it would have been a better book. I’m not panning it, but it wasn’t a five-star read for me; maybe a three.