Author Archives: Guy Savage

The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald (1950)

“Sex and Money; the forked root of evil.”

Back to Lew Archer for Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool. This novel is the second in the series, following on the heels of The Moving Target. In this novel, Lew Archer investigates a case involving threatening letters, but the case quickly devolves to murder. The very attractive Maude Slocum visits Archer’s office and shows him a short vicious letter which was sent to her husband, James. The letter, which Maude intercepted, accuses Maude of adultery. Maude denies that she has been unfaithful, but Archer isn’t so sure. Maude argues that another letter might reach James and he would give it to his mother. That would ensure an ugly divorce. Archer agrees to take the case, although he thinks there must be more to the accusations of adultery. And, as usual, Archer’s instincts are spot-on.

Archer travels to Nopal Valley, to the home of the Slocums. James Slocum is an amateur actor with the Quinto Players , and Archer, catching a rehearsal, watches James Slocum hamming it up as the dramatic lead in a pathetically bad play written by pompous Francis Marvell.

It was the kind of play that only a mother or an actor could love, the kind of stuff that parodied itself. Phony sophistication with a high gloss, and no insides at all.

While Archer watches a few scenes from this awful play, he also catches a dramatic scene, offstage that takes place between teenage nymphette Cathy Slocum and the man she’s been practicing on, the Slocums’ hunky chauffeur, Reavis.

He turned and smiled wide, full in my face, and I had my first chance to study him. The teeth were white. the black eyes frank and boyish, the lines of the features firm and clean. Reavis had quantities of raw charm. But underneath it there was something lacking. I could talk to him all night and never find his core, because he had never found it.

Then onto the Slocum home where matriarch Olivia Slocum rules with an iron rod. James, Maude, and their teenage daughter Cathy live there too, with mummy holding the purse strings. Her property, which sits on oil, is worth a fortune. She refuses to sell for sentimental and moral reasons, but the property and her fortune keep James tied to her. Olivia is one of those mothers. According to her, James is a Renaissance Man, a veritable genius at everything he turns his attention to. And what is going on between Marvell and James? And why does Ralph Knudson, the Chief of Police, a “tall and thick, a bifurcated chunk of muscle” hang out at the Slocum home? And why is Maude Slocum so tense when Knudson shows up? It’s obvious that the relationships between the Slocums are unhealthy and twisted. Maude hates her mother-in-law, Olivia hasn’t forgiven James for marrying Maude, and Cathy flirts with the help. Add to that the very sick and twisted relationship between Maude and James….

With the discovery of a body floating in the pool, the case becomes more and more complicated. The Drowning Pool is my least favourite Archer so far, but it is still better than most crime books out there. These were unforgiving times for homosexuality, and the characters queasily reflect the attitudes of period. But the family dynamic–people who hate each other yet stick together for money–rang all too true. Packed with atmosphere and MacDonald’s signature hard style, the story packs a powerful punch.

The reflection of a stop-light made a long red smudge on the asphalt where 101 Alternate crossed the foot of the town. Four or five heavy trucks had gathered at the truck stop on the corner like buffalo at a waterhole. As I turned right onto the freeway, I could see the drivers bent over an early breakfast, and a thin-browed, pug-faced waitress smoking a cigarette by the kitchen door. It would have been very pleasant to stop and eat three eggs and talk for a while and then go back to bed in the motel. I cut my wheels sharp left at the next crossing, and the tires whined in self-pity: so late, so weary.

And then there’s the marvelous character of Lew Archer: a man who spends too much of his life exploring the darker side of human nature. This case does nothing to elevate Archer’s opinion of people.

The man in the mirror was big and flat-bodied, and lean-faced. One of his gray eyes was larger than the other, and it swelled and wavered like the eye of conscience; the other eye was little, hard and shrewd. I stood still for an instant, caught by my own distorted face, and the room reversed itself like a trick drawing in a psychological test. For an instant I was the man in the mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one very small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.

Usually with series characters, we get the crime on hand and a continuation of the private life of the series PI. Not so here. As Archer notes, he’s “without a life of his own.

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Apples Never Fall: Liane Moriarty

“That’s the secret of a happy marriage: step away from the rage.”

Liane Moriarty’s engaging novel, Apples Never Fall is a tale of marriage, family dynamics, and buried resentments. The story unfolds through 2 timelines: 69 year-old Joyce Delaney is missing. She sent a garbled text to her 4 children saying she was going ‘off grid,’ but that’s very unlike Joyce. Stan, Joyce’s husband for 50 years isn’t the one to report his wife missing, and that seems strange, but then they weren’t on the best of terms. The second timeline goes back to some months earlier when a young, distressed girl comes knocking at the Delaney home, looking for help, late at night. The chapters then go back and forth in time.

Stan and Joyce were tennis champions who owned their own tennis school, complete with cafe. Joyce, a veritable dynamo, raised 4 children while still playing tennis and running the school. Now Stan and Joyce are newly retired, and Joyce is adjusting to domestic life with Stan. Their busy, active life used to be full of obligations, constant diversions and interruptions. But now Stan sits in the recliner, nursing his knees, watching TV and munching crackers while Joy constantly listens, via headphones, to podcasts. She also accompanies a widowed neighbour to a creative writing course on how to write your memoirs. Joyce hasn’t written hers yet (and is only in the class for the neighbour’s sake) but in spite of her lack of intent, Joyce already has a title “Regret […] A Regretful Life by Joy Delaney.”

All the Delaney children were/are excellent tennis players, but none of them became champions. Each one bears the burden of a childhood spent training, winning and losing matches along the way.

When he was a kid, all he’d wanted to do was to beat his older brother in anything and everything. It was the point of his entire existence. Winning his first match against Logan had felt like a cocaine high except just like cocaine, it also made him feel sick. He always remembered with resentment and mystification how nausea had tainted the edge of his win, how he’d gone to have a shower to cool off and thought he was fine, but then he lost his temper with a tennis kid who had wandered through the back door of their house. He hated it so much when kids thought their kitchen was a clubhouse facility. It was almost like he’d felt guilty for beating his brother, as if being two years older gave Logan a lifelong right to win against Troy.

In adulthood, all 4 children have tangled issues with relationships. Amy, the eldest, a “free spirit,” can’t keep a job, or maintain a relationship. She’s spent a lifetime in therapy with no end in sight. Her younger sister, Brooke, who is “too driven,” is separated from her husband. A physical therapist with her own struggling PT clinic, Brooke gave up tennis due to blinding, painful migraines. Troy, freshly divorced, now an extremely successful trader, sabotaged his marriage and now regrets it. Logan’s longtime girlfriend just dumped him. Logan, a professor, has decided he’s going to give up dating and that way he won’t lose again. Each of Delaney children are shaped by competitive tennis.

“So been on the court lately?” Troy gave Logan a speculative look. It had been years since they’d played each other. Logan gave an irritated exhalation as if Troy had asked this same question multiple times before which he was pretty sure he had not.

“No, not for a while now.”

“Why not?” asked Troy genuinely interested. “Not even with mum and dad?

“No time,” Logan fiddled with his left wrist as if to indicate an invisible watch.

“No time?” repeated Troy, “what a crock of shit. You’ve got time to burn.” Logan shrugged. Then he said suddenly as if he couldn’t help himself. “I don’t get how you play socially.” He said socially like the word smelled.

“I enjoy it,” said Troy truthfully. He had friends he played with on a semi-regular basis both in Sydney and New York. They were all former competitive players like him. He won maybe 70% of the time.

“Keeps me fit. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“You’re saying you don’t care if you win or lose?”

Now that Stan and Joyce are on their own, it’s dull. Life has changed in retirement; “Last year they had sold their business, and it felt like everything ended, juttered to a stop.” But late one night, there’s a knock at the door and a young girl, Savannah, claims she’s escaping an abusive relationship and just happened to arrive, by cab, at their home. Naturally Stan is suspicious, but Joyce cannot turn the girl away, and that decision is partly to spite Stan. Savannah stays, cooking marvelous meals. What was supposed to be a temporary measure turns permanent. ….

The detective investigating Joyce’s disappearance questions each of the children and, the husband of course. Stan’s reactions aren’t right, and the detective senses that Stanley knows more than he’s saying. Then there are the kids …. who find themselves taking sides in this situation. The investigation brings the siblings together with each one slipping into old familiar roles as they “regressed,” into old rivalry.

This well paced novel examines the Delaney family dynamics and the powerful resentments that lurk under the surface of a long-term marriage. The Delaney children have complicated feelings–jealousy, resentment, and anger–towards their parents when it comes to Harry Hadad, their father’s star pupil. The children all have a love/hate relationship with tennis–admiring the game but resenting the other players who took their dad’s attention–and that isn’t helped by the fact that Stan took the side of his most promising protégé who cheated in a match against Troy. Family politics are complicated at the best of times but add competitive tennis and the tennis students, sometimes gifted children, who suck up the parents’ time. Outsiders probably envied the Delaney children, and while they were certainly lucky in many ways, they all paid a price when it came to tennis. There’s the underlying knowledge that the Delaney children never met their father’s expectations, and then there are Stan’s mysterious disappearances. …

The characters are all well done, and these 4 may be siblings but they all have different approaches to life: Troy throws money at problems, lives an incredibly lavish lifestyle, and can’t understand why his siblings don’t envy him. Logan has a problem committing to the woman he loves, and sets his sights comfortably low. Amy can’t settle down and Brooke is tightly wound, seemingly perfect but always stressed out. The siblings’ competitive relationships with each other play a role in the tale too as the search for Joyce continues.

Sometimes Logan saw something in a woman that Troy didn’t see straight away. When they were in their late teens, they both dated girls called Tracy, and Troy developed a secret, shameful crush on Logan’s Tracy. She was the superior Tracy. The worst part was Troy had met Logan’s Tracy first, so he could have made a move, but he didn’t see her appeal until Logan saw it.

This was an excellent read, with an overly long-drawn out ending the only negative. I listened to the audio book version which was read by Caroline Lee. Caroline Lee is Australian and it was easy for me to imagine that I was listening to Joyce.

Big Little Lies was made into a series, as was Nine Perfect Strangers. Apples Never Fall would be perfect for a TV series.

review copy

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Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, examines the roles of women in society, the complex nature of parenting and exactly why highly moral people should avoid superficial spouses (relations and friends). Yet why does it seem that superficial shallow people always seem to latch on, limpet-like, to those who have scrupulous morality?

Young Molly Gibson is the only daughter of the widower Dr. Gibson. She’s on a visit to Cumnor Towers, the home of Lord and Lady Cumnor for the once-a-year festival for the peasants to oohh and ahhh while the nobility condescend to share space. Molly is stranded and taken to rest in a bedroom. She’s left to the care of Mrs. Clare Kirkpatrick, a former governess who married and left the family’s employment. But things didn’t go well for Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Her husband died, and left with a small child, Mrs. Kirkpatrick now runs a school and lives for chance invitations to the grand house of her former employer. Her child, Cynthia, is somewhat in the way, and so she’s shipped off to school in France. While Lord and Lady Cumnor give Mrs. Kirkpatrick the occasional charity invitation, she also has her uses, and so she’s put in charge of Molly. This early scene gives us a glimpse of Mrs. Kirkpatrick when she gobbles up the supper sent for Molly and then promptly forgets that the ill little girl is left in her charge. Little did Molly know that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was shortly to become her stepmother. …

This wonderful novel follows the life of Molly Gibson. She’s the only child of the hard-working Dr. Gibson who decides to remarry in order to provide Molly with a mother. Of course there’s a secondary issue of Dr. Gibson’s servants being completely out-of-control, and so a new wife will come in handy when it comes to running the household. Clare is a ‘type’ and if Dr. Gibson had taken more time to consider the matter, he would have run for the hills, but Clare knows how to charm men:

Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accents he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect on his nerves that a cat’s purring has upon some people’s.

Once Dr. Gibson’s proposal is made, Clare, who now reverts to the name Hyacinth, begins to show her true colours. Not that she is a bad woman. No, she’s vain, superficial, foolish, snobbish, selfish. Given that Clare/Hyacinth is treated so insensitively by Lady Cumnor, perhaps we could have some sympathy for the poor former governess, but Clare is always banging on about how sensitive she is–which is just an excuse for her behaviour and her perpetual demands for attention. She’s about as as sensitive as a concrete wall. The nail in the coffin of Clare’s character: marriage to Gibson has rescued Clare from all of her financial worries, but once she becomes Mrs. Gibson she starts acting as though she’s gone down in the world.

The Gibson household, having made the shift to the new mistress (several old servants depart) then adjusts to the arrival of the beautiful Cynthia, Clare’s daughter. While Molly is the heroine, and a great one at that, Cynthia is far more fascinating. And all the young men who visit the house seem to think so too. Two brothers come to visit, Osborne, the eldest and Roger Hamley, the sons of Squire Hamley. Molly has a deep rooted relationship with the family and was much loved by the Squire’s late wife. Osborne is the favourite son, or he was the favourite, and now he’s a disappointment to his father.

Wives and Daughters has a more gossipy feel than Trollope. The author recreates the world of Hollingford–a small town where everyone knows all the comings and goings of their neighbours and scandal provides great entertainment. While villagers gossip amongst themselves, the Miss Brownings act as a bridge between the villagers and the Doctor’s house when it comes to the plot twists regarding the land agent Mr. Preston and Cynthia.

Both Dr. Gibson and Molly keep confidences, and the fallout of these confidences highlights these characters’ moral integrity. Contrast this to the behaviour of the new Mrs. Gibson, who uses information gathered during eavesdropping to further Cynthia’s future. With a mother like Clare, it’s easy to see how and why Cynthia suffered and fell into trouble. While Molly is an open book, if one cares to pry open the pages, Cynthia is entirely different. She’s matured early and without a responsible parent. Both the Doctor and Molly cannot understand Cynthia, and the Doctor, who had a relatively peaceful life before he remarried, finds out the hard way that his wife is a disappointment. Cynthia, however, is a mystery:

She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp.

Molly is a gem, and yet we have probably all had experiences of seeing the quiet ‘gem’ overlooked by the more glittery, worthless types who have incredible plasticity when it comes to beguiling men. Like her father, Molly has never had the experience of dealing with someone as complex as Cynthia, and Molly is far more troubled by Cynthia’s problems than Cynthia is. Cynthia’s “real self was shrouded in mystery,” and while Molly befriends Cynthia and truly loves her, the friendship can only go so far before Molly finds that she faces “a dead wall beyond which she could not pass.” Cynthia acknowledges that she lacks “the gift for loving” (probably inherited) and that becomes painfully true when Molly sees the man she loves fall under Cynthia’s spell.

Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present.

This was a fantastic read. There were times Molly was too angelic, and I sometimes wondered why Dr Gibson didn’t strangle his wife. No wonder he starts enjoying his time away from home. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Gibson moves from annoying to dreadful, and her petulance regarding her husband’s need to treat dying patients shows her true nature and her “superficial and flimsy character.”

But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what’s the use of your father’s going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind?’

The woman just doesn’t get any notions of moral responsibility. She doesn’t act badly from malice, but simply from petulance, selfishness, immaturity and a wildly overblown sense of her own moral standing. Everyone exists to make her life easier–to please her. The sharp delineations of society are very well drawn through the characters’ interactions, and several incidents illustrate how the upper classes feel as though they have ‘the right’ to arrange the lives of the lower classes. But Gaskell also shows us what the lower classes expect from the toffs and in one scene depicts the townspeople as terribly disappointed when the nobility don’t wear any jewels to the local ball. They were cheated of an expected display.

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging -pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short– not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

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The Impudent Ones: Marguerite Duras (1943)

“Love Contains the dregs of Hate.”

A first time translation into English brings us Marguerite Duras’ The Impudent Ones. Published in 1943, this was the author’s first novel. I’ve only read the exotic ones; The Sea Wall is my favourite. It’s been ten years since I read that semi-autobiographical novel and I still think about it (and the incredible film version). The Impudent Ones and The Sea Wall are both stories of family politics, and sisters whose sexuality may benefit the family unit, but the similarities stop there.

The Paris-based blended Grant-Taneran family consists of Mr and Mrs Taneran, their son Henry and Mrs Grant Taneran’s two children from her first marriage: Maud and Jacques Grant. Mr Taneran, who married the widow late in his life is “stooped” with “despondent eyes.” And it doesn’t take long to figure out why he looks so beaten up. For financial reasons, he’s working again after retirement, but it’s not all bad: he can “escape the tyranny of his family and felt quite pleased about it.” He’s afraid of Jacques and when he married the widow, he thought that Jacques would leave the family soon. Fat chance. Jacques is always in “need of cash,” and when he gets any he “spent recklessly.” Jacques married and lived off his wife’s money for a while, but surprise, surprise, that source went dry. Constantly sponging off the family, Jacques has all bills directed to his mother, and she gives him just enough money to keep him coming back in a co-dependent fashion.

The novel opens with the family dealing with the news that Jacques’ wife is dead, and her death opens the door for more borrowing. Maybe it’s a good excuse. Maybe it’s genuine. (I’ll go with the former.) The bank is dunning Jacques for money, and the family go to the country, to Uderan, in southwest France. The Grant-Tanerans own a property here, and since a heavy fog of lethargy hovers around the family (from page one) it’s no surprise to find out the country property is falling into decay. The family lived there years ago, but the place was in a bad state when they bought it, and since they are not farmers, the place gets worse.

In the country, Maud’s presence stirs up passions. She is courted by two men: John Pecresse, and George Durieux, but the novel’s lethargy continues to be reflected in the characters’ actions. Will Maud marry one of these men? Will her family approve?

Boredom is mentioned in the novel, and the author certainly creates that atmosphere, but unfortunately it oozes through the plot which, as a result, is uninteresting. The family is toxic, a thoroughly miserable lot who loathe each other. The characters are unpleasant and it was impossible for this reader to care. The story is told with strong exposition; imagine someone sitting opposite you telling you about these incidents, and that’s how the story feels. Makes me think of that well-worn fiction writer advice “show not tell.” Too much telling here.

Jacques began going out again and taking back the upper hand he had in the household from which the death of his wife had momentarily exempted him. Since this event, on the other hand, he had become more and more difficult, hardly being able to stand the presence of Taneran at the table. Even if Jacques went out as much as before, he did not want it to be said that he suffered less for his loss which is why he feigned an exasperation intended to simulate sorrow.

It’s the sort of story when I long for some drama–instead of this insipid behaviour of family members. The family is funded by Mr Taneran who is undermined by his wife and bullied by his stepson. Great potential. Very complicated family politics are the best aspect of the novel.

Review copy. Translated by Kelsey L. Haskett. I listened to the audio version which was beautifully read by Suzanne Toren

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Should We Stay or Should We Go?: Lionel Shriver

“With all those numbers on the news every night, who’s going to notice if two more elderly Britons snuff it?”

The title of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go? could refer to suicide or Brexit: both are issues in the novel through the main characters, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson. It’s 1991. Kay, an NHS nurse, is 51 when her 94-year-old father, who had dementia, finally dies. Now that her father is dead, Kay says she feels “absolutely nothing” as he’s spent years “dying by degrees.” Kay’s mother, 18 years her husband’s junior is now 76 years old “having squandered a decade and a half on toilet duty, cursed and vilified for her efforts.” The long illness of Kay’s father brings the subject of Cyril’s parents to the fore, and then the post funeral discussion segues to Kay and Cyril making a decision:

We should really keep the means to a quick exit at the ready on principle.

They don’t want to be like Kay’s father and so reject his example of the “whirlpool of endless need.” So, calculating their life expectancy, they make a pact to commit joint suicide on Kay’s 80th birthday in 2020. It sounds like a great idea at the time and so far away. …

The first part of the novel covers the pact and its fallout. This is followed by alternate outcomes of the pact in Sliding Doors fashion. Some outcomes were miserable–others make giant leaps with imagination–such as one alternative involving cryogenics and another dystopian future in which Britain experiences a “sudden deluge of migration.”

The pact and its outcome could have made a good short story or even a good novel; aging is a vast topic in itself, but the alternate scenarios didn’t work for this reader–although I seem to be in the minority here. Also, while the premise is interesting, its execution stresses issues with characters slotted into those issues like chess pieces. For example, early on Kay and Cyril have a long discussion (post her dad’s funeral) re aging, carers, financial concerns etc.

“True, the means-testing is pretty brutal-”

“The savings threshold above which the council won’t wipe your bum is a measly twenty grand-which is far more cash than Mum has left after all those carers, but she still wouldn’t qualify for benefits because she has the house. If you’ve stashed nothing away, or next to nothing? The council picks up the whole tab. How do you like that, Mister Socialist. You slave away your whole life like my father, carrying your financial weight and supporting your family, and then when you collapse the state says you’re on your own. Do nothing, earn nothing, and save nothing-make absolutely no provision for yourself-and the state takes care of you for free, soup to nuts. Talk about moral hazard! Obviously, anyone who does anything, earns anything, and saves anything is a berk!”

This discussion goes on for some time. It’s more like a talk radio rant than a post-funeral discussion between husband and wife.

Brexit, immigration, and Covid are thrown into the mix, so that the issues are broadened, while I (boringly perhaps) would have preferred a narrowing. Put the characters under a microscope instead of turning a telescope on them. Of far more interest, as the date for joint suicide approaches, is Cyril’s persistent belligerent bullying of Kay into suicide, so much so that she resorts to hiding that she has high blood pressure from her husband. And then as a GP, his attitude to the aging “bed blockers” is positively Harold Frederick Shipman in its nastiness. What a nasty old git Cyril is, a misery who begrudges life beyond 80. While he has a definite point (the pitfalls of life extension, the financial burden of end-of-life care, the use of heroic means to prolong life etc) Cyril’s insistence in carrying through with the pact in spite of his and his wife’s good health screams of something else. What elderly person would want a Dr. like Cyril? Anyway for this reader, there were too many issues flying through the plot.

Review copy

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The Vixen: Francine Prose

“Beneath my youthful diffidence and insecurity lurked the egomania of a Roman emperor.”

Set in the McCarthy era, Francine Prose’s novel The Vixen follows the bumpy career of a young, naïve idealistic editor, Simon Putnam. It’s 1953, Simon is freshly armed with a brand new shiny Harvard degree in Folklore and Mythology, but his career prospects don’t look great. He’s living back at home, watching the news on the execution of the Rosenbergs, with his sporting goods sales goods father and his migraine-stricken former high school teacher mother, so he’s grateful, well sort of, when his uncle Madison, literary critic and “public intellectual” pulls strings to get him a job with the New York publishing house, Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon’s hired to replace a pregnant, unmarried young woman who’s being eased out, so right away the vibes aren’t great. He’s buried with manuscripts–mostly awful ones but since he takes his job seriously he reads ever single one carefully before rejection.

I began each manuscript in a state of hope that curdled into disappointment, then boredom, annoyance, anger, then remorse for the anger that the writer didn’t deserve.

For someone whose psyche lives inside Njal’s Saga, this is all very dull work. Imagine, then, when the manuscript: The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is tossed onto his desk and he’s told by his boss, the intimidating Warren Landry, to manage the author and bring the book to publication. Simon’s boss drops a bombshell: they need a blockbuster, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is that blockbuster, a tacky bodice ripper very obviously based on Ethel Rosenberg (Esther Rosenstein in the book) who was executed just the year before. Without the book’s success the firm will fail. So no pressure. …

The novel is awful, sleazy and plain laughable–except for the fact that it is based on a real (dead) person. To add more problems, Simon’s mother knew Ethel Rosenberg, and Simon knows that his mother would be horrified by the novel. So here’s the moral dilemma: should Simon tell his boss to use the manuscript for toilet paper or should Simon bury any moral scruples and try to tidy up the novel for publication? Decisions, decisions, and then he meets the book’s sexy author Miss Anya Partridge.

What would you call her look? Hong Kong brothel meets Berlin cabaret? Lotte Lenya? Pinch of Marlene Dietrich? Soupçon of Rita Hayworth? Let’s find a more literary model …Let’s say … Colette, only juicier. To coin a phrase … a bad-girl hothouse tomato!”

And to complicate matters even further, the very sexy Anya is an inmate at a mental institution, and it’s the very same mental institution that also houses the other publishing partner: wheelchair bound, Bartlett who occasionally escapes from the asylum and creates disruptive scenes at the publishing house. Simon is already busily having erotic dreams about Anya before he meets her, and he justifies working on the novel to tone it down. Simon cannot walk away from the job because of his sexual attraction to Anya.

In some ways this novel is a romp. We know (and in his heart Simon knows too) that there is something really fishy going on. Why is he, the low man on the totem pole, given this novel to bring to publication? If the novel is so important that the firm’s financial health rests upon its publication, shouldn’t the novel be given to someone more senior? Then what of the novel itself, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic? Ethel Rosenberg/Esther Rosenstein is portrayed as a “notoriously buxom and beautiful Mati Hari,” sexually rapacious and insatiable as she seduces man after man. It’s actually a dirty book, so badly written it feels like some sort of parody. And why is the bizarre, sexually adventurous Anya so disinterested in what Simon does to her book? Curiouser and curiouser. By the time the novel concludes, the plot feels so fantastic that it’s comic and yet … it’s sadly a reflection of the times and all too real. Skullduggery, propaganda, Red Scare, manipulation, Black Ops…. what a world. …

Review copy

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Palace of the Drowned: Christine Mangan

“When I read that review, it was as if someone had printed all my worst fears, all my deepest secrets, for everyone to read.”

I’d never intended to visit Venice, but after reading Christine Mangan’s Palace of the Drowned, I can’t say that it sounds appealing. Mangan’s 1966 Venice is portrayed as a dismal place, rotting, smelly and miserable. But since our main character, Frankie Croy is depressed, perhaps, after all, it’s a state of mind. Frankie is a writer with a number of books under her belt.

Her second novel had sold well based on the success of the first, but her third had faltered, and it soon became apparent that this, her fourth and most recent, was destined for the same type of mediocrity.

Frankie’s first novel was the result of personal tragedy and mental anguish. Her ability to write (and subsequently publish) recuperated her life following WWII and the death of her parents. While it’s not explicitly stated, it becomes obvious that her fragile mental health is linked to her success as a writer. It’s as if her creativity is waning since her other novels have not had great success and she “could feel it, she thought: the end lurking just around the corner.” She’s sure that her publishing house is losing interest in her, but she still has a book left on her contract. Frankie “had always had a tendency to fixate, to obsess,” and then she reads a review written by J.L. The review is blunt and to the point: the new novel is “so apathetic, so resigned, so passive,” that J.L (whoever that is) wonders what on earth “happened” to the writer’s talent. Frankie’s publisher at first tries to reassure her and to brush off the review as nothing serious, but then he lets slip that Frankie’s work has become stale. Frankie takes the review personally. She’s angry and suggests that her next novel will be about the murder of a critic.

Frankie’s world begins to fall apart. Initially she tries to identify the reviewer, and the review continues to get under her skin; she can’t let it go. This shift in Frankie’s mental state culminates in a very public embarrassing scene in London, and she flees to her long-term heiress friend, Jack’s, palazzo, The Palace of the Drowned, in Venice to lick her wounds, hide and heal.

In Venice, she was allowed to be someone else. Someone who was, she often though, a version of her former self. She had read somewhere once that the fog in Venice obliterated all reflection.

Frankie is keeping to herself when she meets Gilly, a young woman who claims to know her. Frankie, who isn’t the friendliest person at the best of times, bristles at Gilly’s forwardness at first, but then begins to melt even though Frankie is fairly sure that Gilly is lying about knowing her. There’s something about Gilly that’s not quite right. She appears to be a young, almost giddy girl, a girl whose “life was filled with luck, filled with perfect moments by being somewhere at just the perfect time, by being the type of person to always say the absolute perfect things.” Yet there are glimpses of an agenda under the surface of Gilly’s desire to enter Frankie’s life: uncomfortable moments, manipulations.

Frankie had always trusted her instincts, and there was something now warning her against the girl watching her with an eagerness that continued to unsettle her.

Palace of the Drowned is an atmospheric novel. There’s Maria, the Danvers-esque housekeeper who doesn’t speak English, who may or may not be snooping in Frankie’s room. Then there are those noises in the deserted palazzo next door. And then what of Frankie’s mental state? There are hints of earlier issues–issues prior to the review that sent her over the edge. Is Frankie a reliable judge of character or reality any more? As one journalist said, is she losing the plot???

A terrible sense of dread and impending doom permeate this novel–from the rotting palaces, stinking water and the dreadful weather. The magnetic relationship between Gilly and Frankie, with its bizarre undercurrents is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, and so expect no easy answers here. The heavy fog of depression which seeps through every page combines with multiple vague mysteries to weigh down the plot at times, and the secondary characters are, unfortunately, vague and not that interesting. Ultimately the dark ending carries the tale to a satisfying, although ambiguous ending which made me wish I’d found the characters a bit more compelling.

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Moon Lake: Joe Lansdale

“But you don’t beat the moneyman.”

Joe Lansdale’s Moon Lake is a tale of corruption, murder and the long-held secrets of a small East Texas town. The novel opens in 1968, with a father driving his 13-year-old year old son, Daniel to Moon Lake. Daniel’s mother, always a free spirit, ran off some months before, abandoning her husband and son. Now facing financial ruin, the father drives the son to the lake and then drives the car into the water. By some miracle, Daniel survives but his father does not. His father’s body is never found.

Temporarily, Daniel is taken in by the Candles family, also his rescuers, but Daniel, a white boy, can’t remain with this black family (East Texas, 1968)–even if he’d like to, and eventually, Daniel’s aunt June (Daniel’s mother’s twin sister) is located and hauled back to Texas. June isn’t a nurturing woman. In fact she makes it clear that raising a kid is the last thing she wants to do, but she does it. Years later, Aunt June is dead and Daniel, now an author, inherits her home. Around that time, a drought hits, Moon Lake shrinks to nothing, and in the dry lakebed, Daniel’s father’s car is retrieved. What remains of the body is in the vehicle, but the car is parked in a garage, and stranger still, a skeleton is found wrapped in rags in the trunk. Everyone assumes that it’s Daniel’s mother, but Daniel remembers that his mother had a silver star placed in one of her front teeth, and there’s no such tooth on the corpse in the trunk. Local law enforcement assume that Daniel’s father murdered his wife, stuffed her body in the trunk and then proceeded to drive the car in the lake as a murder-suicide. But Daniel isn’t buying that theory.

My mother was beautiful and mysterious-that silver star in her front tooth, her charming hippie outfits-but if you knew her for long, you realized how peculiar she was as well. It’s like she had clawed open a hole in the universe, gone into it, and clawed it back together again.

Back in Long Lincoln to identify the body found in the trunk, Daniel takes a room with a local widow, not the most hospitable woman, but the arrangement works. With Ronnie Candles, now a police officer, Daniel discovers that the lake holds many secrets and rich and powerful people are determined to keep those stories buried. Daniel finds a few unexpected allies and begins digging into the town’s hidden past.

I am a Joe Lansdale fan. Last year I read and loved More Better Deals, but Moon Lake is not his best. The freshness and vitality of More Better Deals is absent here, and while I liked some of the characters, overall the theme of small town corruption said nothing new. The most interesting character, Daniel’s aunt, plays only a minor role and disappears from the book all too soon. Interestingly, it’s the female characters here that grabbed my attention: Officer Ronnie Candles, mouthy Aunt June, the antisocial landlady, Mrs. Chandler, Shirley, the brainy intern, and Christine, the owner of the local paper. The male characters couldn’t hold the spaces they inhabited quite as well.

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Wayward: Dana Spiotta

In Dana Spiotta’s novel Wayward, following the 2016 election, 52-year old, married Samantha Raymond goes off the rails. It’s impossible to say that one thing led to her leaving her husband Matt and only daughter Ally. Samantha is not exactly unhappily married but she’s become unmoored. Matt is also unhappy about the election results but his reaction isn’t as intense or deep as Sam’s. For Matt, life goes on, and it’s business as usual. His response causes Sam to feel estranged:

His workouts, his distant looks, and his phone fondling aside, all those seemingly tolerant expressions served only one purpose. he was caring for himself, taking care of his needs, and it had nothing to do with her.

Sam falls in love with a wonderful old house in Syracuse that’s a complete wreck, and she impulsively buys it. Her husband and daughter have no idea, so when she announces she’s leaving, Matt and Ally are in shock. Matt’s reaction is to be supportive and to give her whatever money she needs (until she comes to her senses). Ally’s reaction is to stop talking to her mother.

Unbeknowst to Matt and Ally, Sam furious about the election went off the rails on social media. From Facebook, she heads into a local protest group of mainly middle-aged women and two young women who blame the older women in the room for Donald Trump’s victory. According to the young women, the meeting is “full of cis, straight, white privileged women” who have a “lot to answer for.” This meeting leads Sam to a series of fringe groups, including various Armageddon, survivalist groups, fundamental Christian groups and Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies. It’s through Hardcore Hags that Sam meets the mysterious MH “real name Devereaux, a.k.a. Mother Hubbard.”

At sixty-five, she had the hard contours of someone who could do pistol squats and burpees. Her hair was silver rather than gray, and her eyes a high contrast, striking blue. She was wrinkled but in an austere, Walker Evans way. Sam guessed that MH was actually more glamorous as an older woman than she probably had been as a young woman. She didn’t have that quality of a thing faded, a hint of beauty lost. She looked peak. MH immediately launched into a monologue about her “‘n=1” self-experiment in carnivory. She was eating nothing but meat and water for a month, “nose-to-tail,” with lots of organ meat and raw suet.

“Only ruminants. No fish, fowl, or swine.”

MH, a “biohack obsessive” is a mass of contradictions; she claims she’s a ‘half-hobo” but is expensively and stylishly dressed; she’s “all about the gift of middle-life, of menopause,” yet she’s taking hormone replacements. Now she feels “wildly unleashed,” and as part of her object is “provoking people,” she goes to a stand-up open mic comedy club where she delivers a monologue about her first period, a pregnancy, a miscarriage and an abortion, ending with the image that “everything-everything-becomes drier and rougher. And worn down-like sprung, stretched-out elastic on a pair of granny panties.”

For this reader, Wayward was an unsatisfying read. The quotes may sound funny, but within the text, MH is annoying and gag-worthy, and her very serious self-absorption along with Sam’s train-wreck of a life, suck any possible humour out of the tale. I expected to like this novel far more than I did. There are many ideas and social issues here, perhaps too many, and the characters seem created to fit those ideas and /or issues. I could never quite accept why Sam left Matt (especially given the later plot), but then perhaps this is all about privileged middle-aged white women feeling rudderless and falling prey to influences such as the totally fake MH. Authenticity or the lack thereof of in the lives of privileged people seems to be the main theme here: and once I accepted that idea, I could accept Sam’s rather feeble attempt to break away from a family who deserve better.

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Framley Parsonage: Anthony Trollope

“The game is not worth the candle.”

Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage is the fourth novel in the Barsetshire series. It’s a return to old friends with some new acquaintances thrown into the mix. It’s also a return to some familiar Trollope themes: the mixing of classes, the insidious nature of debt, the power of the press and ecclesiastical inequities. The hero, if there’s a hero here, is Mark Robarts, who, as a young man, made friends with Ludovic, a young man who was destined to become Lord Lufton. Ludovic’s mother, Lady Lufton, took to Mark and so began an advantageous acquaintance.

Between Mark’s father, a doctor and Lady Lufton, it was decided that Mark should enter the church. Hardly coincidentally, Lady Lufton was then able to give the living at Framley to Mark which comes with the princely sum of 900 pounds a year. When the novel opens, Mark is married to Fanny, and while he loves his wife, he’s not exactly content with his lot on life. Could it be that the early exposure to wealth and position influenced Mark’s ambition to ‘get ahead in life?’ While Lady Lufton has been a marvellous patroness to Mark, he chafes, mildly, at her control, and perhaps that, along with some misplaced ambition, explains why he insists on visiting Chaldicotes even though he knows that Lady Lufton disapproves. Chaldicotes House, the seat of Mr. Sowerby, is, according to Lady Lufton, a veritable den of inequity, with the Chaldicotes set “gall and wormwood to Lady Lufton who regarded them as Children of the Lost One.” Part of her dislike resides in political differences and part in religious differences. Plus the Luftons reside in East Barsetshire while Chaldicotes is in the “Western Division of Barsetshire.”

Lady Lufton wishes her son to marry:

In her mind every man was bound to marry as soon as he could maintain a wife; and she held an idea–a quite private tenet, of which she was herself but imperfectly conscious–that men in general were inclined to neglect this duty for their own selfish gratifications, that the wicked ones encouraged the more innocent in this neglect, and that many would not marry at all, were not an unseen coercion exercised against them by the other sex.

Lady Lufton didn’t exactly arrange Mark’s marriage, but she organized it, let’s say, and she’s trying to ‘organize’ another marriage–this time it’s between her son, Ludovic and Griselda Grantly, the daughter of Archdeacon Grantly. Lady Lufton dislikes her son mingling with the Chaldicotes set as that old bachelor, one of the group, the Duke of Omnium “was the very head of all such sinners.” As it turns out Lady Lufton may not have a precise knowledge of why the culture at Chaldicotes is BAD, but her intuition is correct. It’s not a set for nice young men. Lord Lufton found that out the hard way and Mark Robarts is about to fall victim to the seductions of the loose company.

It’s at Chaldicotes that Mark finds himself aggressively befriended by Mr Sowerby, the owner of the house. Even though Mark knows Sowerby is a “dangerous man,” heavily in debt “and that he had already entangled Lord Lufton in some pecuniary embarrassment,” he can’t quite turn away from Sowerby’s society. Mark is persuaded to visit the Duke of Omnium at Gatherum Castle, and that upsets Lady Lufton even more. Framley Parsonage illustrates that patronage from the wealthy and influential is a great thing but it comes with a price.

Trollope tells us that “it is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing.” Mark Robarts is a man who finds himself a clergyman, and yet there is no evidence that this is a life that suits him or one that he would have chosen for himself. There is no evidence of him being any sort of spiritual advisor, and indeed Mark seems to find the clergy an ill fit, and he’s soon riding to hunt, buying an overpriced horse from Sowerby, and signing notes for Sowerby’s debts. The novel is very strong indeed in its depiction of Sowerby–a man who inherited wealth and an estate and has run through all of his money, and now he’s running through friends and acquaintances. Debt is a way of life for Sowerby, and he hops from one loan to another in stepping stone fashion. Yet since this is Trollope, his customary generous view of human nature reigns:

Let not anyone covet the lot of a spendthrift, even though the days of his early pease and champagne seem to be unnumbered; for that lame Nemesis will surely be up before the game has been all played out.

And if Sowerby runs out of friends to sign notes of debt for him, then no matter, he can always marry Miss Dunstable, the Oil of Lebanon heiress. But the problem with that plan is that Miss Dunstable is besieged by impecunious suitors and she has a very good head for money and business.

Sowerby lives like a rich man and seems to not have a care in the world, but inevitably his debts catch up with him and he can juggle them no longer. Trollope shows how a debtor is a veritable black whole in space sucking in anyone foolish, weak or soft hearted enough to sign for debts.

One subplot concerns Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, who comes to live at Framley Parsonage following the death of her father. She falls in love with Lord Lufton but is not considered a suitable bride by Lady Lufton. After all, Lucy is the sister of Lady Lufton’s “pet” clergyman. Another notable character is Mr. Crawley, a dour, impoverished clergyman whose joylessness infects everyone around him. Yet it’s through Crawley we see the contrast (and the injustice) of how one clergyman lives in such circumstances that his (large) family can barely survive (a great deal drop off like flies) while another buys horses and hunts with the gentry. And once again we see the insufferable Bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudie–a woman so thick-skinned and full of herself she even upends and coopts a lecture about South Sea Islanders. It’s an hilarious scene.

“It is to civilization that we must look,” continued Mr. Harold Smith, descending from poetry to prose as a lecturer well knows how, and thereby showing the value of both–“for any material progress in these islands; and –“

“And to Christianity,” shouted Mrs. Proudie, to the great amazement of the assembled people, and to the thorough wakening of the Bishop, who, jumping up in his chair at the sound of the well-known voice, exclaimed, “Certainly, certainly.”

A great deal of the humour comes from Mrs. Proudie; she’s as horrid as ever, and her acid comments lash many another inhabitant of Barsetshire. We see the marriage market through Griselda Grantly, Lucy and Miss Dunstable, and the machinations of parents who cannot, alas, insist that their children marry by decree. Mr Sowerby’s fall from respected landowner to total penury is a formidable study in human nature. He seduces Mark by his friendship and then squeezes him like a lemon. Yet Trollope makes certain that we know that this action is not personal, this is simply Sowerby’s Modus Operandi, and as long as there are innocents like Mark Robarts in the world, Sowerby will live to spend another day. The Duke of Omnium has made slight appearances in the earlier Barsetshire novels, but here we see a wolfish appetite under the seemingly benign, disconnected persona.

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