The Lives of Edie Pritchard: Larry Watson

Who said the best predictor of someone’s behaviour is past behaviour? That is certainly true for Edie Pritchard, a young woman married to Dean, a man she met in high school. It’s the 60s. Edie and Dean live in an apartment above a bakery in Montana. She’s a bank teller, blonde, a looker; she tends to get a lot of male attention whether she wants it or not, and being beautiful hasn’t made her life easier. Her husband, former athlete Dean, peaked in high school and now seems locked in depression. 

Lives

Dean is a twin, and somewhere in the back of his troubled mind lurks the idea that Edie really wants his brother, Roy.  Dean lacks confidence, Roy does not, and to make matters worse, Edie once had a minor thing with Roy, but that’s all in the past as far as Edie is concerned. A bizarre triangle emerges between Dean, Roy and Edie. Roy pursues Edie, Edie goes off alone with Roy and then Dean accuses Edie of really wanting his twin. It doesn’t matter that Edie denies the accusation.

“Do you know me? I wonder. There’s a me who exists in your mind and you know her. But that’s not me. You’ve made her up and you seem to have a whole life for her.”

There are times when Edie is sure that Dean is shoving her at Roy, and Edie and Roy spend a lot of time together–time that Dean bows out of. And during this time alone, Roy constantly hits on Edie. An incident with a truck brings things to a head, and one day, Edie, who has had enough, takes off.

The novel picks up twenty years later with Edie now on her second marriage. She has a child with Gary Dunn and when the past comes to call, her second marriage explodes. The novel then has a third final section with Edie now in her sixties, living in an apartment when her granddaughter comes to visit.

The book explores Edie’s life, her choices and how those choices then impact three generations of women. Larry Watson’s The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a rather depressing read. The book’s biggest argument, at least in my mind, is that women MUST have an education and or a self-supporting career to fall back on. Until women have that, then their lives are not their own, and they are subject to the vagaries of possession. The book’s argument that Edie’s beauty leads men to want to possess and define her is not invalid, however, any woman in a relationship in which she cannot support herself is vulnerable.

For this reader, Edie was a frustrating character. Roy constantly puts the moves on her, his behaviour and conversation is inappropriate as Edie is, after all, his sister-in-law, not a potential lay. Edie complains to Roy about his behaviour and yet does not avoid being alone with him. Neither does she draw a line in the sand and tell him to back the fuck off. She complains about everyone misunderstanding her relationship with Roy and yet she walks right up that path. Maybe she’s baiting Dean, but whatever her motivation, she annoyed me.

She gets out his pack of marlboros, shakes out a cigarette, and raises it to his lips. If he has to be disabled in some way, she thinks, why couldn’t it be his vision that’s affected. If he were blind or nearly so,. his remarks, his unrelenting remarks, about her appearance would finally cease. And their relationship would be different.

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Vanish in an Instant: Margaret Millar (1952)

Back to the many unread Margaret Millar books on my shelves, and this time it’s Vanish In An Instant with its almost comical cover which belies this depressing, suffocating moody of tale of deception, greed, and murder.

Vanish

The book opens at the Detroit airport with the arrival of the fussy, not-very-pleasant Mrs. Hamilton and her companion, a young girl called Alice. Mrs Hamilton has flown in from sunny California to the snow and grime of Detroit–the weather sets the tone for the entirety of the novel. Mrs Hamilton is here on a mission to ‘save’ her spoiled daughter, Virginia Barkley, who has been accused of stabbing local lothario, Claude Margolis. While Mrs Hamilton expects to be met at the airport by her son-in-law, Dr Paul Barkeley, instead she’s greeted by Virginia’s newly-hired lawyer, Eric Meecham.

The sidewalk was dirty with slush and on the road the cars swished by with the splatters of mud. Even the wind was dirty. Somewhere, in the north of Canada, it had started out fresh, but it had picked up dirt on its journey, smoke and dust and particles of soot.

Mrs Hamilton is an unpleasant woman. She’s not interested in what happened to Claude Margolis or even why Virginia is accused of his murder. She’s the type who throws money at problems, and expects them to be fixed … pronto.

At first this seems to be an open-and-shut case with Virginia as the perp, but then a young man named Earl Loftus pops up at the police station and confesses to the crime. Everything seems to be very neatly sewn up: there’s a nice little confession and bloodstained clothes at the back of Earl’s wardrobe. Loftus didn’t know the victim but he has a plausible enough motive story to carry him all the way to the electric chair

Virginia is released, Loftus has confessed, and yet Meecham isn’t happy… he knows he’s missing something. Loftus, a sad, defeated man, has nothing to lose; he’s dying of Leukemia, and Meecham, driven by curiosity and a request from Loftus, starts digging below the fetid surface of this murder case.

In this moody tale, Meecham is drawn into the toxic worlds that surround Virginia and Loftus. The humiliations of poverty compounded by disease ensnare Loftus and almost make him welcome death, and even one hardened character grasps the poignancy of Loftus’s small, sad life.  In contrast there’s Virginia who’d happily rip off her mother by bumping up Meecham’s fee–just as long as she gets a slice of the action. Most of the people who inhabit these two seemingly disparate worlds, the rich and the poor, are unpleasant, and Meecham’s probing peels back layers of disturbing domestic lives. What is it about these characters that leaves Meecham feeling slightly unclean as though contact brings a cloying moral stain?

Although I didn’t care for the implausible love story, there are some great lines here which added a lot to the tale:

Lawyers come high. The more crooked they are, the bigger their price. That’s how they stay out of the booby hatch, by rubbing the lesions on their conscience with greenbacks.

And here’s Jacqui’s review

And Marina’s review

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson

It’s a good rule of thumb not to get involved with a woman you meet while she’s masturbating on a train, but when it comes to Freda Constantine, successful architect, David Laurence opts for self-destruction or maybe it’s just excitement or the constant sex. Both David and Freda are on the Edinburgh train when their uncontrollable sexual desire leads to an affair. The affair leads to a break up of two marriages with David leaving a perfectly good wife and two daughters. David’s career, which had been bolstered by his Scottish wife’s connections, also suffers. But nothing is keeping David from Freda. He says “she felt like the woman I was meant to have.”

Good Women

Light My Fire, the first of three sharply funny novellas in Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, charts the trajectory of David’s catastrophic relationship with Freda. There’s a sort of madness here, and David’s obsession with Freda is marked by a need for possession–even though he knows she’s trouble–even though he knows “she was a woman you couldn’t trust if you couldn’t see her.” 

At least there weren’t any kids on the other side. I was so obsessed with Freda I’d’ve carried on regardless even if she’d been a mother of ten, but the Fredas of this world, thank god, are strictly ornamental, like those strange toys you’re not supposed to give to children. A perfumed garden, not a fertile field. She’d never wanted kids, she told me, to my unspeakable relief. I’ve got a couple of pals who’ve settled into this grotesque pattern of finding someone new around the time that the current wife’s just about got number two potty trained , and starting all over again. What a carry-on. There must be some kind of death wish involved–fifteen or twenty years of pampers and sleepless nights, it’s a thought to freeze the blood. 

Knowing that he will have to impress “high-maintenance” Freda in a big way if he wants to keep her, David buys a wreck of a 16th century house “in the middle of nowhere.” At first she’s impressed as it’s “practically a castle.” But then she sees inside…

Oh the wonderful scenes at Scottish Christmas party There’s a point at which men’s envy of another man’s sizzling hot new wife turns to amusement:

I could see people I knew glancing at her and then at me. Cool, amused glances.

Light My Fire is wickedly funny in its portrayal of a man who destroys his life in order to possess a woman who is nothing but trouble. David knows Freda is selfish, self-serving, grasping and not particularly bright, but all these negatives are wiped out by his need to sew up her sexual exclusivity. The passionate affair boils down to two wildly disparate people, whose tastes, goals and ambitions are worlds apart, and that’s ok for a while … until reality sets in.  

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this book. Another post (or two) on the rest of the book to follow ….

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Nothing Can Hurt You: Nicola Maye Goldberg

“At a certain point, you realize the world is so bad, that it’s easier to pretend that people deserve the terrible things that befall them. That way, at least, you can pretend that you are safe.”

In a series of interconnected stories centered on the murder of a college student, Nothing Can Hurt You from Nicola Maye Goldberg sensitively examines the fallout from the crime. In 1997, Sara Morgan is  horrifically murdered by her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, and when Blake pleads guilty by temporary insanity, he is acquitted. But this doesn’t end the story for those who are involved, touched, and haunted by Sara’s death in one way or another.

Nothing can hurt you

The book begins strongly with an opening section from a young, damaged married woman named Marianne. She’s moved to upstate New York along with her husband, and while their new idyllic home makes it seem that they “had wandered into a painting,” the darkness in Marianne’s head remains. There are hints that the root cause of her “episodes” lies buried deep in her past. Yes you can move to the country, buy a big house, and get a dog, but these are just the trappings of normalcy. Marianne is damaged and nothing’s going to change that.

It’s Marianne who finds Sara’s body in the woods. There’s some debate whether Sara was the victim of serial killer, John Logan, who operated in the area, but Blake Campbell’s confession eradicates that theory. As the book continues we meet characters who are caught in the ripples that form in the wake of Sara’s murder. Many of the characters knew both the victim and the killer, and find it impossible to align the events that took place. And what of Blake who walked away from the murder and spent a short time in an upscale Rehab center? 

Katherine, an alcoholic, meets Blake at the Paradise Lake Recovery Center. He’s young, handsome and a reader like Katherine. Katherine hears the “gossip” that Blake murdered Sara, but she finds it hard to believe that Blake is capable of such violence. Blake’s friend, Sam, the owner of the knife used to kill Sara is still haunted by her death. He’s plagued by bad dreams, dissects the past to try to look for clues he missed about Blake, and even now, years later, the murder stains Sam’s personal life. 

In this chorus of voices, there’s a third circle of people–not family, not friends, but still people touched by the crime. During the trial of serial killer, John Logan, Juliet, a reporter who works for a small local paper in upstate New York meets Celeste, a veteran NY reporter who’s feeling burnout from all the violence. Juliet, at the beginning of her career becomes obsessed with Sara’s murder

“How so they manage it? Serial Killers?” I asked Celeste once. “I can barely keep my shit together, and I only have one job.” I was having a lot of days when things like showering and buying groceries seemed not only pointless but basically impossible.

“It energizes them,” she said, without hesitation. “They’re at work, they’re waiting in line at the DMV, whatever, and they’re thinking about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do. It’s how they get through the day.”

The families of the victim and the killer are at ground zero when the murder occurs. Sara’s half-sister, Luna grows up in the wake of the murder and eventually cuts herself off from her family. Blake’s family “hired a lawyer, a good one, from New York, to represent their son. Did that make them bad parents? Bad people?” Blake’s sister, Gemma, has managed to detach herself from her family, but she wonders if her daughter is headed for inherited mental illness. A young girl writes to the manipulative serial killer, and Sara’s mother, who years later is a psychic, is called in on the disturbing case of a missing child:

The Stoddards live in what used to be a farmhouse. It’s big for three people. which makes Jonathan think they wanted more children. They moved up here from New York before William was born, probably to escape the terrors and temptations of the city. Inside, it’s beautifully decorated with thick, soft carpets and silver doorknobs. But it smells slightly off, like rotting fruit. On a table by the front door is a crystal vase full of nothing but dirty water.  

Threading through the stories is the dark, inexplicable nature of violence. There’s random violence against strangers, and then there’s violence against people we say we cherish the most. We look for reasons for violence–not just the solution to a crime, and that’s what’s so disturbing about Sara’s murder; there are no answers.

Some victims stay victims but others … well others who face monsters learn what they are capable of. As Josephine Hart writes in Damage“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Marianne shows just how dangerous she can be when another man makes a clumsy pass. It was at this early point in the book, that I knew I was reading something special. 

The snow had fallen so heavily overnight that Ted could not get his car out of our driveway. He and my husband spent all day watching TV, playing Risk, and drinking whiskey. They ate leftovers. I pretended to be busy in bed with a book, when I was really sitting with the emptiness. For the first time I longed for one of my visions. I wanted to see Ted’s head crack open, to see myself scooping out his brain with my fingernails.

Brilliant.

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I Belong to Vienna: Anna Goldenberg

I Belong to Vienna from Anna Goldenberg was inspired by the author’s desire to answer the question: why did her relatives return to Vienna, the scene of catastrophic events, following WWII? This is a very unique, personal history, part research, part contemplative as we learn how the members of one extended family were scattered by WWII. The author’s grandparents, Helga and Hans Feldner-Bustin, met at a Zionist group meeting in 1945 and slowly became a couple. After the war, they both attended medical school and emigrated to America, working as residents in a Poughkeepsie hospital, but did not settle there, instead deciding to return to Vienna in 1956. 

I belong to Vienna

This is a remarkable account which manages to convey a sense of urgency as the author digs into the past to discover details, and in this intimate history, we stay by Anna Goldenberg’s side as she digs into the story of how some family members died and others survived.

As I’m doing research for this book, a memorial is erected on the former site of the Aspang train station, from where most Viennese were deported. One of my cousins, as chairman of a Jewish student organization, is preparing to give a public address here on the anniversary of the November pogroms. I’m sitting in a restaurant, across the table from my mother, when he calls. Were our great-grandparents and Hansi’s brother Herbert, deported from the Aspang train station? Yes, I answer, and explain what happened to our grandfather’s family: Theresienstadt, meningitis, Auschwitz; family camp, selection, Sachsenhausen. I talk fast, get all excited, and feel the exhilaration I always do when I know the right answers to tough questions. When I hang up, I see a shocked look on my mother’s face. “I never knew all those details,” she says. 

The book offers a unique look at the disintegration of Jewish family life during this horrendous period.  Hans’s (Hansi) parents, Rosa and Moritz Bustin owned a furniture shop. One great point made by the author, backed with incredible detail, is how the Nazis systemically and bureaucratically stripped her family of any means whatsoever:

On April 13, 1938, a law was passed allowing the Nazi appointed Reich Governor–who was in charge of “coordination,” meaning forced political conformity–to appoint so-called acting administrators for Jewish enterprises. The administrators’ task was to oversee such businesses’ appropriation. The man assigned to Moritz’s furniture business set about collecting all customers’ outstanding payments. It’s hard to say whether the largely non-Jewish clientele had been intimated or impressed by his stormtrooper uniform, but either way, he’d collected all debts within a few months. 

The author scours official documents that record the decimation of her family, and the bureaucratic, systematic details are in horrific, cold contrast to the reality of the results: the suicide of Hansi’s uncle the day before an administrator took over the family business, the stripping of assets, the impossibility of creating any sort of livelihood. In another instance, the author’s great-grandmother scraped every penny to save her husband only to have him stuck in Italy as he tried to connect to a non-existent steamer.

The seventeen scanned pages attached to my great-great-aunt Frieda’s form allow me to understand what happened to the family between May 1938 and November 1939: the first page details the Jewish communal organization’s “home check” and describes their living situation in words. Shortly after the Anschluss, Frieda’s husband had been arrested because one of his vendors had filed a false complaint against him, presumably hoping to take over his furniture business. “Business liquidated–nothing kept,” it reads. 

But amidst the horror and despair, there are some stories of survival: Helga’s grandfather, who had proved to be a not-so-great dad, came through for his daughter and grandchildren, the miracle of transportation of children to England, and a Bronx-based cousin who sold his car to fund steamer tickets for relatives escaping from Vienna. 

It’s amazing that so many documents survive. 

They reveal in detail one cog in this massive machinery of annihilation, I see how seriously the administrator took his task. For half a year he carefully prepared lists, scoured warehouses, wrote letters, calculated balance sheets. Thus is how my family was destroyed and I can still read all about it today.

Review copy

Translated by Alta L. Price

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More Better Deals: Joe R. Lansdale

“Some people pave a short way to hell.”

In Joe Lansdale’s hard-boiled noir novel, More Better Deals, it’s Texas in the 60s and Ed, a used car salesman makes a marginal living pushing junkers on a used car lot. There are a few tricks of the trade: moving the odometer back, blacking tires, plugging holes in the transmission. But a deal’s a deal, and Ed doesn’t have trouble sleeping nights even though he knows most of the customers have been ripped off. Boss Smiling Dave, “about two hundred and fifty pounds of lard on a five-foot frame mounted on tiny feet, had a cheap pistol”  in his desk just in case any of the customers think they have a complaint. Smiling Dave’s advice:

Don’t grow a conscience., Ed. It’s bad for your bank account. You know what they say. Buyer beware, and better you fucked than me.

Customers are suckers, and every sale presents an opportunity to screw someone over and grab a commission. It’s a marginal life, and Ed’s in a rut. His mother, a bitter alcoholic wreck, thinks that Ed can do better since he can ‘pass’ for white, so there’s nagging pressure to improve his life and the life of his sister. And one day the opportunity for Ed to get ahead comes knocking in the shape of a cheap blonde who’s behind on her car payments.

More better deals

Ed tries to repo a red Cadillac and runs right into Nancy Craig, a “blond in a cheap out-of-the-bottle way.” Barely dressed, cocktail in hand, she invites Ed inside her home and claims that her abusive husband, a travelling encyclopedia salesman is on the road, presumably with the Cadillac. Nancy, hardly an oppressed housewife, oozes sex and availability; “she could make Billy Graham pull down his pants and jack off in five o’clock traffic.” Nancy and her husband own a run-down drive-in and a pet cemetery, and to Ed, it’s a sweet deal; get the blonde, the drive-in and the cemetery. Frank, Nancy’s gorilla of a husband is in the way of that plan of course, but a few sweaty hot sexual encounters later and Ed signs on for murder.

Nancy is a bad woman, but that doesn’t stop Ed. Since he’s ok with ripping off customers, he’s apparently also unperturbed by Nancy’s explanation of how to run a pet cemetery.

Be honest with you, Ed, what we found out is digging a hole is work. So we mound the dirt up a little, scrape some here or there and make it look like a grave, then we take the beloved off in the woods and throw it in a ditch somewhere.

That would be a hint to make a run for it, but Ed is too wrapped up in the hot sex to hear alarm bells. 

It may sound as though More Better Deals is a typical noir novel–perhaps it even sounds like something you’ve read before: the bad blonde, an inconvenient husband, and a murder plot. In the hands of Joe Lansdale, however, this book is something special. A simple debt collection launches our narrator into hell–he may think he’s landing a sweet deal, but in this tale of greed, lust and murder, just who is screwing who is up for grabs. Lansdale laces this tale with some wonderful touches, violent cops, crude sex and a narrator who’s bad but not as bad as he needs to be. For Lansdale fans, I think this is one of his best, and for anyone who’d like to read a hardboiled noir novel, go no further.

They throw the switch and the devil is showing you your hotel room.

Review copy

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Weatherley Parade: Richmal Crompton (1944)

Yes, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) wrote those Just William books, but she also wrote a host of adult novels. Crossing genre and audience boundaries can be hazardous to both the author’s career and the readers’ expectations, so when I first came across a few of her novels (for adults) I wondered how good they would be. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Steffan Green, a story of village life in the 30s, so onto Weatherley Parade–a book which had lingered in my TBR  room stack for far too long.

The word ‘parade’ evokes a celebration, but if there’s any celebration here, then it must be the celebration of survival. The book opens in 1902 with the return of Arthur Weatherley from the second Boar War. Although Queen Victoria died the year before, somehow the ending of the Boer War seemed to slam the door on the era, so here we have the Weatherley family about to enter a different age. Since the novel follows several generations of this family into the 20th century, we know we are going to head into some difficult times.

Arthur Weatherley arrives home a broken man; he’s now an invalid and will remain so for the rest of his life. In his absence, his much younger responsible second wife, Helena, has managed their stately county home, their baby Billy and Arthur’s 2 children from a former marriage: Clive and Anthea. Even though the 3 children are young, already the eldest 2 have formed the characters which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Clive is ‘perfect’–a sober little adult in the body of a 15-year-old. He’s even tempered and meticulous. Clive has many of his father’s characteristics, but while Arthur Weatherley could be called an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, a product of his age, Clive is a prig. But there’s more than just fustiness afoot here. There’s no warmth, no shred of humanity or compassion. He’s an automaton. Eventually he marries and proceeds to micromanage his young, naive wife. If he micromanaged her with sarcasm or anger, she’d probably fight back, but he micromanages her with a smile, under the guise of ‘teaching’ her. 

On the top of the bureau was a little pile of books that Lindsay had brought from the Library the day before. He looked at them with a kindly smile.

“No trash, I hope, darling?”

“No,” said Lindsay. “They’re all from the list you gave me.”

Anthea Weatherley, on the other hand, is nothing like her brother. She’s vain, superficial and hell bent on being the centre of attention. “Already the bright–too bright–eyes were darting round in search of further conquests.”

Other characters include: Arthur’s sister, Lilian, a youngish woman when the book opens, whose many engagements to various men have all ended abruptly. Lilian is on the wild side; she smokes and drinks, and her private life causes Arthur a great deal of anguish. Lilian won’t settle down, and over the course of several decades she restlessly careens from one cause to another, burning her bridges as she goes.

Another significant character is Clive’s best friend Ronnie–the son of the local vicar. Ronnie is neglected and treated badly by his father who is unhealthily fixated on his paralyzed daughter, Flora. She may be immobile but she’s a tyrant masquerading as an angel:

You’re a very brave little girl,” said Miss Clorinda. 

“Well, I can’t be anything else,” said Flora, “so I might as well be brave.”

The Vicar’s hand went to the pocket where he kept the notebook in which he recorded his angel’s more notable sayings, then, as he remembered where he was, withdrew. He could put it down later … Flora’s sharp eyes had seen and understood the movement. If he forgot to put it down later, she would remind him. He didn’t often forget, but when he did she reminded him.

Ronnie accepts Clive’s patronage as he’s several years younger than Clive, but as the years pass, Ronnie, no longer wants a friendship with someone who acts like his schoolmaster, and he grows apart from Clive.

The novel’s strongest aspect is the examination of character as these people age and interact. Many of the relationships here are built on exploitation of one sort or another. When people are nasty, then their behaviour is at least somewhat transparent, so manipulation with kid gloves under the guise of ‘caring’ is especially toxic.

Will wild Aunt Lilian ever find happiness? It’s arguable that she can’t fit into the role defined for her by the standards of the day (marriage and children). Will she grow through the Suffragette movement or it this just another of her phases?

And what of Anthea as she ages? Some of the novels best scenes concern her middle aged attention seeking behaviour which her kind, supportive (doting) husband, accepts as normal.

There’s some tragedy here as peoples’ lives fall apart. Adults blunder and a child pays the  heavy price. Society changes a great deal over the years 1902-1940, and these changes free some of the characters. The novel begins with women not expected to get an education as “a girl’s place is at home both before and after marriage, ” and divorce is considered perfectly scandalous. We pass through WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Civil War, the growth of Socialism, the rise of Nazi Germany, and eventually WWII. Incredibly few characters become casualties given these events, and instead people more or less build their own tragic fates. While the Weatherley children grow up and move away, the story still revolves around the house and the family. This is a gentle read, even while it reinforces the idea that character is fate.  

 

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The Swap: Robyn Harding

“But I had set something in motion that I couldn’t stop.”

Told through the voices of several characters, Robyn Harding’s novel, The Swap is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest. The island, which is known for its “free-love culture” attracts certain types: hippies, holiday makers and people looking for a fresh start. In the latter category, we have Freya Light, a diminutive blonde “social media influencer” and former Instagram star who has now returned to pottery making in the wake of a scandal. Her husband, professional hockey player, Max paralyzed another player with an illegal hit on the playing field. With Max’s career in ruins and Freya coming under fire from social media, the couple move to the island and settle into their gorgeous, waterfront property. 

The swap

Also looking for a fresh start are Jamie and Brian. He’s a former school teacher, now YA fantasy writer and she opens a small gift shop. They are trying to cope with the prospect of never having a child and they are also trying to forget the humiliation of being so desperate for a child, they were scammed for 1000s. 

So two very different couples here: Freya and Max and Jamie and Brian. …

Into the two couple mix, add Low (Swallow), a lonely, awkward teenage girl, the product of a polymorphous household. Low sees Freya and is enchanted. But enchantment leads to obsession. Obsession would be dangerous enough all on its own, but Freya is a narcissist, she only wants relationships with people who are willing to idolize her. She plays favourites, using people like toilet roll, and while she picks Low as a friend, she’s also ready to drop her when Jamie shows interest. 

None of the characters here are likable. Freya is a monster, and it’s interesting that the introduction talks about Low being manipulative when Freya outclasses everyone. Low’s obsession with Freya becomes dangerous when Freya casually dumps Low in favour of Jamie, and this leads to Low spying on all four adults for .. yes.. you guessed it … a ‘swap.’

I love stories about people who blow up their lives–especially if those lives are decent. In this case, the marriages of the two couples are not healthy, and at first Freya finds the gaps, and then Low takes up the slack. 

This is a highly readable novel. I disliked the ending, but that might just be me. Some of my favourite sections include members of Low’s unconventional household trying to remonstrate with her about being ‘normal.’ Oh the irony.  The characters of the women are well done, while the men are a little weak (in more ways than one). Freya is a black hole in space when it comes to attention, so the more she gets, the worse and more outrageous she becomes. Her egotistical pursuit of internet fame and followers highlight her superficiality, and since opening up one’s private life to the world will inevitably bring criticism, someone who wants 100% worship (no haters) will come a cropper on social media  In today’s world, it’s easy for people to post a few carefully chosen pictures to portray the image they want people to have of their lives. Everyone can be a celebrity. In Freya’s case, she wants people to worship her, envy her, and emulate her, but with Freya, media attention is like crack to the addict, and so she inevitably spins out of control.

On a side note: with the internet, it seems hard to imagine that someone would have failed to sniff out the ‘rat’ that Low discovers in Freya and Max’s past. 

Review copy. 

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Uncrowned Queen: Nicola Tallis

A few months ago, I watched The White Princess which I enjoyed in spite of its flaws. It’s a period of history that interests me, but it’s by no means a favourite era: the subtext here is that I’m not an expert when it comes to the details. One character leaped out me: Margaret Beaufort. I saw her tomb years ago, and have always remembered it. While I found her role in the series interesting, I knew the programme was far from historically accurate, and that made me want to learn more. The series portrayed her as a religious fanatic, multiple marriages in her past, that incredibly tight relationship with her son Henry (who became Henry VII), the mother-in-law from hell, in love with her brother in-law Jasper, and even at one point she commits murder. What was up with all that?

So this brings me to the book: Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. The first section of the book explores Margaret’s origins. With history, there’s always an argument as to how far back one should go. In this case, there are so many people mentioned that I became bogged down with keeping everyone straight. No doubt someone who is well versed in the period would fare better. 

Uncrowned queen

While some things about Margaret’s early life are known, there are also huge gaps in her early history. It’s clear from her history, a young heiress whose father died young, that she was a bargaining chip. I was unaware of the whole ‘wardship’ scam (I may be using the word ‘scam’ out of context but after reading that wealthy lords were granted and/or bought wardships, the word seems to fit–especially when you consider that those guardians got first dibs when it came to marrying off their wards and the doling out of their wealth.)

Margaret was a hot commodity–a “marital pawn since the earliest days of her childhood” as the author points out so well. Engaged then married and unmarried when politically expedient. Married at 12, pregnant and widowed at 13. These are things that make or break a person, and what rings through loud and clear, is that Margaret came through all the marriages, the political intrigue and turmoil of her era, strong, pragmatic and ready to play the long game. 

I found some parts of the book frustrating: so many people mentioned (and this reflects my own deficit not the author’s), plus then there are some speculations that while they were minor, were to this reader, a bit superfluous. We don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of Margaret’s life until about the half way point of the book when her son, Henry, finally becomes king. 

There’s an argument here regarding Margaret Beaufort’s personal lack of involvement in the death of the two princes in the tower. I have no issue with that particular argument but IMO while we can speculate until the end of time, whatever happened is all so murky, we will never know for certain the Tudor involvement. 

Anyway, an interesting read: Margaret emerges as an incredibly strong woman, a survivor who as an heiress saw her lands confiscated for the actions of others. This period is a time when people threw caution to the winds for religion, and courted terrible fates in the pursuit of power. Margaret, intelligent and self-controlled, learned how to survive and fight another day. Particularly interesting is her devotion to education.  

Over time, Margaret pressed against the constraints imposed by her sex and society, slowly demanding more and more control over her life, until the crown on her son’s head allowed her to make the unprecedented move for almost total independence: financially, physically and sexually. This is a woman who learned pragmatism very early on, who knew when to lay aside ego and finer loyalties for the sake of the long game–unlike so many of her male contemporaries. 

Review copy. 

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Filed under Tallis Nicola

Imperfect Women: Araminta Hall

Araminta Hall’s novel, Imperfect Women, a tale of murder, female friendship and the splintered lives made by the pressure of choices, is told through the eyes of three very different women: Eleanor, Mary and Nancy, friends who met in University and have stayed close for decades. Their lives have taken very different paths: Eleanor works for a charity organization and on the surface seems to have the career every women wants. But when it comes to her personal life, she has no long-term relationships and no children. Nancy, the beauty of the bunch, is married to human rights lawyer, Robert. They have a gorgeous London home, a child in university, and to all outside appearances, the perfect marriage. Yet Nancy also feels like a bit of a loser. She didn’t have the great career she expected, and she had a difficult time adjusting to having a child. And that brings us to Mary who is an earth goddess type. She’s married to self-focused academic Howard, has children and lives in domestic chaos. These three women feel imperfect and inadequate in various ways for the choices they’ve made.

Imperfect women

The novel opens with a call to Eleanor in the middle of the night from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Nancy didn’t return home after having dinner with Eleanor at a restaurant. Eleanor joins Robert as they wait for Nancy’s return, but only the police arrive to break the news that Nancy has been found dead.

In the wake of the murder, it’s revealed that Nancy was having an affair with a married man. Eleanor knew of the affair but only in scant detail while Robert says he suspected the affair. When Eleanor tells the police that Nancy had tried repeatedly to break off the affair, the mystery lover becomes the prime suspect in Nancy’s murder.

The story unfolds through 3 narrative voices: Eleanor, Nancy and then Mary. Through these alternating voices, we see how these three very different women struggle with their fractured identities through career, marriage, children. Eleanor has a great career but no personal life, and even though she doesn’t want children, she’s confronted frequently with this very personal decision:

“You know, I’m getting to that age where everyone asks me if I have kids, and when I say I don’t, they actually ask me why not, or if I want them  which they would never, ever do to a man. And there’s this kind of judgment behind the question that I’m not fulfilling my womanly duties by becoming a mother. And then I work with lots of women who have children and they’re constantly feeling guilty and definitely being judged by the same people who judge me for not having them, or you for not working.”

Nancy has a good husband and marriage but having a child led to disaster and estrangement from Robert. She feels deeply lacking because she never had the career everyone expected her to have. And as for Mary, she has centered herself on the family. Her home life is bitter and chaotic and she’s become a doormat for her selfish controlling husband. Mary seems happy, but to her two friends, she’s wasted. None of these women ended up with the lives they expected to have.

Women, Eleanor thought, carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much so it weighs them down and stops them from ever achieving quite everything they should. She knew also that a man faced with the true extent of a woman’s guilt only ever really thinks she is mad, she could hear it already in Robert’s tone. Madness, neurosis, heightened emotions, are all such easy monikers to apply to women.

While this is a crime book, the plot explores the fallout from the crime, and the impact on Nancy’s friends and family. But much more than that, it examines how women betray women. There’s always been a subtle animosity directed towards Nancy from her friends due to her looks and marriage, so when she turned to Eleanor for help, Eleanor was impatient as she felt that Nancy’s issues were self manufactured and slight. Yes men betray women, but perhaps betrayals from other women are worse. Just as there are cracks in long-term marriages, there are cracks in long-term friendships. Years create divisions and low-level resentments. It all comes down to that-mile-in-my-moccasins thing.

I liked this book quite a bit. By the time Mary’s section rolled around I had guessed the perp, so this section seemed long-drawn out until it arrived at the obvious. But apart from that, the way in which the author peels back levels of guilt and dissatisfaction in the lives of these three women adds depth to the tale.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hall Araminta