Rose Cottage, Mary Stewart
Rose Cottage is a quiet mystery/romance, not too heavy on either, with no dramatics of the sort you find in The Gabriel Hounds or Touch Not the Cat. It’s all fairly quiet and peaceful; a restful sort of book, with only brief moments of unease, no madly evil people (though one at least who is very flawed), no great tragedy, and an ending that brings everyone neatly together in a perfect reunion.
Given that I’d definitely choose the word “gentle” to describe it, and the romance is just barely there in the last half, this isn’t the most pacey, exciting story. It’s a cosy one, of homecoming and heart-healing and family, needing and wanting no heroics. It’s a post-war story, but the war is just a shadow in the background; it’s a family mystery, but the important thing is not so much the mystery, the not-knowing, but almost the end of the story, when people come together.
This all might sound like faint praise, and it’s true that Rose Cottage isn’t one of my favourite of Stewart’s books. But it’s enjoyable, and especially good if you don’t want high drama, just some village life and a happy ending.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Peter Jones as Bunter, and Gabriel Woolf as Inspector Parker
This has never been my favourite of the books, though it does touch on some of the horrors of war (in the figure of George Fentiman) and there are some interesting moral issues — particularly because this is one of those books in which Peter chooses to offer someone a “gentlemanly way out”. On the one hand, it bothers me because the guy is basically painted into a corner: his guilt has been figured out, and now here comes Lord Peter to make him write a full confession and then gently hint that he should shoot himself, rather than face due process and be condemned by a jury. Of course, the death penalty is probably his ultimate destination, and yet… who is Lord Peter to decide? To offer a way round the law?
It’s one of those stories in which Peter is asked whether he’s a detective or a gentleman, and he pretty much dodges the issue.
The radioplay is a fun enough adaptation, though the pacing is bizarre. Just as you think it must be approaching the denouement, it turns out that no, there’s still half the story to go. It feels very odd, even when you know it’s coming.
As usual, the voice acting is pretty excellent, and there was no desperate overacting by extras in this one, either. Hurrah.
Queen of the Flowers, Kerry Greenwood
Queen of the Flowers is one of the better Phryne books, to my mind. It features pretty much all of the main cast, albeit some of them briefly: Dot, the girls, Jack, Hugh, Lin Chung and his wife, Bert, Cec, the Butlers… There are some new characters, but there’s a very personal element to this book. It explores Ruth and Jane a little more — mostly Ruth — and shows us Ruth’s roots, finally following up on her love of romances to put her in one of her own — the long lost child finding her father. Maybe.
The other plot, with the flower girls and the pageant, etc, is fairly typical and more or less unremarkable, and there are some odd moments here; for example, when Ruth is missing, presumed kidnapped, life goes on in a rather casual way. Which is rather surprising when you consider Phryne’s protectiveness of those she considers her own. It makes some sense in context (e.g. Phryne figures out that Ruth is embarrassed and staying away of her own accord after being a bit of an idiot), but it still feels wrong — especially when Phryne knows her adopted daughters have been targeted to get to her in the past, and are undoubtedly vulnerable.
And I must admit to a longing for Phryne to go after someone other than Lin Chung for once. It’s been books and books since she was with someone else — Death Before Wicket, I think? — and it feels odd. I know she loves Lin Chung, but after everything she’s said about not settling down… she seems remarkably settled. It doesn’t feel quite right, and it’s a shame whenever Phryne or another character calls her(self) a concubine. I do love the old Phryne too, much as I like Lin Chung…
The Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood
The Castlemaine Murders is a fairly typical outing for Phryne, featuring her usual liberal attitudes to sisters, queer people, Chinese people, marriage and danger. At various points, it felt like Lin Chung was more the protagonist than Phryne was — which wasn’t bad, as such, because I do like the character and his relationship with Phryne… but on the other hand, he is definitely not what I’ve read thirteen books and counting for. Watching him come into himself and act with responsibility is kind of cool, all the same, because we’ve seen him go from obeying everything the head of the family said to being the head of the family.
The rest of the mystery, Phryne’s half, is rather secondary. In a bit of convenience, the two mysteries end up tied together — which was far too much of a coincidence for my liking, considering the age of the crimes, the distance, the amount of chance involved…
Still. I’m only critical because of the books have been more than this, at times. It’s still fun, and especially for the way all the characters are developing, growing up, becoming more and more of a family.
But hey, no Bert and Cec?
Murder in Montparnasse, Kerry Greenwood
I might need to take a break from Phryne for a while — just to make sure I don’t run out of her brilliance too soon, of course. Murder in Montparnasse shows us a younger Phryne, as well as the capable detective we’re used to: a Phryne who hasn’t yet learned to read men and situations and take care of herself. It is good to see her unsure of herself, and it’s also good to follow along with the mature Phryne as she negotiates Lin getting married, and becomes friends with his wife-to-be.
It’s also nice to get both Bert and Cec and Phryne’s adopted daughters playing a part in the mystery. Pretty much the whole team is involved here, including Hugh Collins, which is fun.
I think the only drawback is that maybe I’ve been eating up these books too fast, and they’re losing some of their freshness. I think if I spaced them out more, it’d be okay; as it is, I found it a little too routine. Which isn’t bad, since this is the twelfth book and I’ve read all the eleven previous ones in quite a hurry.
In case it bothered anyone else, spoiler: the Butlers don’t leave in the end. I was very worried they wouldn’t and that the lovely found-family feel was going to be lost a little — but nope, Mrs Butler sorted things out.
Death Before Wicket, Kerry Greenwood
I’m not sure why I didn’t review Death Before Wicket when I read it, in the correct order, before Away With the Fairies. Not that it really requires solid anchoring in the continuity: most of the usual characters are missing from this book, and Phryne is totally out of her usual context. It’s, not coincidentally, not the most engaging of the books.
The worst thing, for me, is that there’s this whole magic and mysticism plot where Phryne pretends to be Isis and breaks a magical/hypnotic hold on a certain young man, and then there’s loads of sex stuff, and cricket. And weird totems and sex magic. That’s really mostly what this left as an impression on me — that and knowing that the cricket was like Murder Must Advertise, and the collegiate setting was Gaudy Night. I don’t recall it stealing any lines from Sayers as Raisins and Almonds did, which is a relief.
I would be worried about the series slumping with this one, if I hadn’t already read ahead by the time I’m writing this. It was definitely the slowest of the series so far, to my mind. I might even, possibly, suggest skipping it…
Shadow Memories, Nicholas Erik
Received to review via Netgalley
Shadow Memories isn’t a chore to read, because it has very short chapters and constant action. Unfortunately, it has very short chapters and constant action… so it’s hard to connect to the characters, and the plot comes across as very confused. Some major stuff is just skimmed right past, while an undue amount of time is spent on a guy who thinks his wife is cheating on him.
It takes too long to get to the conspiracy/alien stuff — at least in any detail — and the main POV character is just infuriating in his complaints about sleeping on the couch like his partner owes him sex just because he exists and hasn’t actively done anything annoying that day.
So, not for me. It’s pacey enough though. Some people might enjoy it.
Away with the Fairies, Kerry Greenwood
For all that this one is set in a women’s magazine and so obviously brings up echoes of Peter Wimsey’s time in advertising (Murder Must Advertise), it’s still very much its own story. I still don’t really read these for the mystery, just as I don’t really read Sayers for the mystery, but for Phryne/Peter being their amazing selves. There’s also plenty of Dot in this one, and Lin Chung and Li Pen reappear as well.
There’s actually two stories running in parallel here. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered a bunch of other readers who hate Lin Chung and his relationship with Phryne — I don’t get that, because I love the connection between the two, and the fact that despite that, Greenwood doesn’t force Phryne to change the way she lives. They find their own ways around it. I might be more bothered if Lin Chung starts feeling possessive about Phryne, or Phryne just stops appreciating pretty young men, but for right now, I can’t see a problem.
The two plots do contrast quite a lot — one is relatively safe, while the other is very high stakes, but I didn’t mind. It’s nice to see Phryne dealing with a case that doesn’t result in her being personally attacked, on the one hand, while the other plot ups the danger and means everyone is actually in danger and bad things can actually happen to the characters — and do — which is necessary to avoid the stories just going dead. If it was all high-risk but no actual feeling of danger, it’d quickly go flat.
Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson
Read for a reading challenge, and that’s the only reason I stuck with it. At all. The prompt for this one was “set in your hometown”, and Leeds was the closest I found. So I knew the Merrion Centre, where part of it was set, etc. I wasn’t impressed, though; the narration was really meandering, not always on point at all, and it takes ages to really get started. I kind of have difficulty with the idea of Tracy buying a prostitute’s daughter in this casual way, and I roooooolled my eyes at all the stereotypes about her being fat, a battle-axe, looks like a lesbian, etc, etc. And the stereotypical elderly lady, starting to succumb to dementia.
So I started off on a bad foot with this book, and stayed on it. I didn’t settle into the style at all — the book nearly hit the wall at some points, I found it so frustrating.
Very much not for me, in any sense. I hesitate to say it’s a bad book, because there’s no accounting for taste and all that, but it really wasn’t something I’d recommend.
Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
In my thoughts on Urn Burial, I wondered if one of Phryne’s lovers was ever going to be really exposed to danger, so that you don’t feel as if everyone around her lives a charmed life. Well, this one has a bit more threat to it — the confrontation chapter, in particular, was tense and a little shocking. I had the sense that it could’ve gone either way, and the desperation of other characters around Phryne who clearly believed that helped. The lengths they were prepared to go to, to save the character in question… yeah, I felt that more than I have for several books.
As for the plot itself, well — it’s typically dramatic, with Phryne getting tangled up in race issues again: this time not Chinese, but Jewish. I know that some people would probably call her a “Mary Sue” for being so adaptable to other people’s customs, but it makes sense with the character: her background, her generally accepting habits, the fact that she is definitely a lady.
One of the scenes was borrowed whole-cloth from Dorothy L. Sayers, which bothers me a little. I think often the homages are deliberate, but taking one of Harriet Vane’s lines to her future husband and putting it in the mouth of a character who will appear in one book, if the pattern holds? Hm. I don’t know if it was deliberate reference, unconscious plagiarism, or what, but it stood out like a sore thumb — Miss Lee joking to Phryne that she will always find her at home, when of course, she’s in prison and can’t leave. That line, in Sayers, tells us so much about Harriet, and yet here it feels wasted. Sigh.
Still, that’s a minor quibble, and for the most part this is a solid outing for Phryne.