Book Reviews: Good, Bad, and Coincidental

Imagine my surprise when one of the paperback mysteries I’d picked up at a used-book sale turned out to reference one of the others!  In Harm Done, which I reviewed last month, a girl claims she was kidnapped by two women who forced her to do housework, and an irritated Inspector Wexford demands to know if she has read The Franchise Affair.  She has–apparently it’s such a classic in Britain that it’s required reading for university entrance exams–but she’s indignant at what he’s implying.  I didn’t understand until I read The Franchise Affair myself.  How convenient that it happened to be the next book in my stack!

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

This 1949 mystery begins with a languid, small-town lawyer getting a phone call from a woman who’s been utterly surprised by the police coming to her door.  Marion Sharpe and her elderly mother live in an isolated house (called The Franchise) on the edge of town, and 15-year-old Betty Kane claims that when she was waiting for the bus that would take her home from spring vacation at her aunt’s house, Miss Sharpe and Mrs. Sharpe offered her a ride but instead held her prisoner at The Franchise, forced her to do housework, and beat her severely before she finally escaped.  The Sharpes claim no knowledge of this at all!  The lawyer and police suspect that the Sharpes are innocent and Betty is lying to conceal what she was really doing for four weeks, but finding the truth requires a long investigation.

Written 20 years after The Man in the Queue (reviewed here), this book is not quite so charmingly archaic, but it is a pretty good mystery with some wonderful prose.  For example, here is the lawyer’s first impression of The Franchise, whose builder made some awkward choices about proportions:

The total result was that, instead of the bland contentment of its period, the house had a hard stare.  An antagonistic, questioning stare.  As he walked across the courtyard to the unwelcoming door, Robert knew what it reminded him of: a dog that has been suddenly wakened from sleep by the advent of a stranger, propped on his forelegs, uncertain for a moment whether to attack or merely bark.

Here’s some dialogue between Robert and his aunt about their housekeeper:

“She has discovered that the Methodists are ‘whited sepulchres,’ it seems, so she is going to those ‘Bethel’ people above Benson’s bakery and is due to be ‘saved’ any day now.  She has been shouting hymns all the morning.”

“But she always does.”

“Not ‘sword of the Lord’ ones.  As long as she sticks to ‘pearly crowns’ or ‘streets of gold’ I know it is all right.  But once she begins on the ‘sword of the Lord’ I know that it will be my turn to do the baking presently.”

It’s a highly entertaining book, on several levels.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

I’ve been trying to get into this book since it was given to me as a birthday gift in May, but I never got past page 50.  I like the idea of a hard-rock singer in 1980s Minneapolis suddenly getting drawn into a war between creatures she thought were mythical, but the pretentious way the faeries talk about her in the prologue turned me off, and then there were a bunch of unlikable real-world characters, and then some scariness, and then back to lines like, “I care nothing for your sport.  Fool of a phouka!  Are you ass, as well as dog and man?” and then I was forcing myself to pick it up again and again but could only stand a few pages at a time.  Not my kind of book, apparently.

Hell with the Lid Off by Alex K.A.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought this self-published novella from its author, who was selling it outside a coffeehouse one night.  I used to edit manuscripts for a “vanity press” in the days before you could print your own book via Amazon, and all of them but one were truly dreadful; it was the memory of that one worthwhile book that led me to gamble $2 on what this earnest young author described as a fictional story set here in the East End of Pittsburgh and illustrated with photographs of local scenery.  I love Pittsburgh and love reading books set here even if they partially disappoint me.

Kevin and Grace are siblings in their mid-twenties who haven’t seen each other in a decade, since Grace fled their father’s abuse.  Now their father is dead, their mother isn’t important (if the book ever said what had happened to her, I missed it), and Kevin is doing pretty well as a marijuana dealer.  Grace comes back to town to seek closure with her past and determine her future.  They’re delighted to see each other, but Kevin’s black-market associates cause them trouble.

The best thing about this book is its plot.  It has a very consistent pull and a pace that never stops moving yet never seems rushed.  The book is exactly the right length to tell the story.  (The pages aren’t numbered, but there are about 75-90.)  Having struggled with plot structure and verbosity in my own attempts to write fiction, I’m impressed that this young, amateur author did it so well.  The two main characters are pretty well-developed and believable.  The Pittsburgh setting is vivid and accurate, although I wonder why the author avoids naming neighborhoods while giving other specifics.

What I didn’t like about the book was the overblown writing style, packed with “vocabulary words” that are used about 98% correctly–so it could be a lot worse, but there are too many places where I paused to wince at the word choice and wonder why he couldn’t just say it a simpler way.  And why so many of the paragraphs end with ellipses is totally unclear…  At least the style is consistent throughout the book; it would be far more irritating if it weren’t.

Overall, this book is worth reading if you can handle a very dark plot about flawed characters.  The black-and-white photos are a nice way of adding tone and realism to the story.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

This novel about stay-at-home mothers pondering on their life choices was a great one for me to read while I’m unemployed and thus spending a lot of time at home with my kids while considering what I might do next.  The author handles a huge number of viewpoint characters quite deftly, making the narrator’s identity clear within the first few sentences of each chapter.

Amy was a lawyer who met her husband at work, but now he’s still working there, while she never went back after maternity leave ten years ago.  She feels distanced from him, as her life revolves around their son’s schedule and her three close friends: her best friend from college and the mothers of two of her son’s classmates.  Jill, her college friend, was a super student but then failed to get a PhD. in history, tried working in the film industry, was ready to chuck it for motherhood but turned out to be infertile, and finally adopted a girl from Russia but still feels uneasy about her.  Karen was a brilliant statistician, but her extended family expects her never to go back to work because of her husband’s income.  Roberta was an artist who got into puppetry to earn a living and met her husband, who is now a weekend puppeteer working a day job as a television cameraman to support his family.  Everyone’s made trade-offs; everyone’s a little uncertain about what needs to change.  The men as well as the women are realistic characters.  They’re living in New York City (except Jill, who recently moved to the suburbs) and that flavors the story a bit, but most of their experiences of 21st-century parenting will be familiar to parents from anywhere in North America.

This book is a great combination of realistic, interesting, emotionally involving, and hilarious.  I especially like the description of taking a toddler to “Maestro ‘n’ Mommy, an interactive class . . . in order to grip bacterially-overrun maracas while listening to original songs that whipped everyone into revival-tent ecstasy.”  Gaaaahhh, yes, that’s exactly why I avoid those things!

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5 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Good, Bad, and Coincidental

  1. Josephine Tey is one of those authors I’ve heard about countless times, but have never read, even as a big Anglophile/mystery lover! Sounds like The Franchise Affair would be a great place to start!

  2. Josephine They wrote a book in which her detective, while stuck in a hospital bed, is given information about Ricard III (of the “murder of the princes in the Tower” fame in English history, and the plot does a fascinating exploration of why she disagrees with that accepted version. It’s called Daughter of Time.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 New Articles of 2016 | The Earthling's Handbook

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