Monthly Archives: January 2012

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Summary from the publisher:
It’s the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford’s young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever.

I first heard about The House at Tyneford when various publishers started making “If you like Downton Abbey, you’ll like…” lists (here’s the one that made The New York Times, although Tyneford isn’t on it). Like most people, I am obsessed with Downton and, really, anything that addresses the relationship between upstairs and downstairs in grand old English estates, especially when things started breaking down in the early 20th century. The fact that Elise was a Jewish refugee made the book even more appealing.

Ms. Solomons paints a vivid picture of Tyneford House, but things become even more real when you have a strong frame of reference. It was easy to conjure the big house that slowly became more run down as the men left for war and upkeep became more difficult, as well as the frenetic activity of the servants’ hall below stairs. With these visuals in my mind’s eye, I tumbled straight into the world of Elise and the Rivers family.

Elise herself is an interesting heroine. I was fully prepared to hate her at the beginning—she seemed immature and empty headed and almost content to be so. Of course, as she reflects somewhere in the middle of the book, if she’d been allowed to stay in Vienna and go on as she was, she would never grow beyond the girl we met in the first few pages. Instead, she undergoes a journey of love and loss that is alternately traumatic, happy, and sad, and she emerges a transformed and much more likeable character. I sympathized for her as she tried to find her place in a house where she was neither servant nor gentry and as she tried to adapt in a land that was so different from her home, and I truly felt her pain as she desperately tried to learn news of her parents and sister during the war, when they were scattered all over the world.

Elise is supported by an incredible cast of characters, from the villagers who play hooky from church on the first day of trout season, to the elder Mr. Rivers and his reckless son Kit, to Mr. Wrexham who, with his pride in adherence to the old ways, reminded me of Mr. Carson. They enrich life at Tyneford and make the difficult moments easier to bear.

Parts of the plot are a little predictable, particularly where the various romances are concerned, but I enjoyed everything else about the book so much that I was willing to overlook it. Overall, The House at Tyneford is a transporting historical tale that will definitely keep you satisfied until you can get your next fix of Lady Mary and Matthew.

The House at Tyneford was read as part of the What’s in a Name challenge, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

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Still Life by Louise Penny

Still Life by Louise Penny

Summary from the publisher:
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators are called to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods on Thanksgiving morning. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in this holiday season.

Louise Penny is another one of those authors who constantly showed up in my recommendations queue, but that I took forever to get to. I finally picked up Still Life the first book in the Inspector Gamache series, on a cold Friday night after an exhausting week, when my only plan for the evening was to snuggle under the covers with a mystery that was perfectly atmospheric and full of character.

There’s a blurb on the back of the book from the New York Times book review that perfectly captures what I felt about this book:

“[Penny’s] deceptively simple style masks the complex patterns of a well-devised plot.”

Reading Still Life was like stepping into the world of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, where you think discovering the culprit is going to be fairly easy, especially because of the small setting, but, much like Murder on the Orient Express (I mean, how much smaller can you get than a train?), you don’t truly have an inkling until a major confrontation with the murderer occurs. Ms. Penny masterfully redirected my attention from one potential suspect to another so that the guilty party was very much a surprise, even though I realized in hindsight that I should have seen it. To me, that’s not a source of frustration, but the mark of a really good mystery.

Much like Still Life is a modern Agatha Christie mystery, Inspector Gamache is a modern Poirot who solves his cases by a combination of acute observation skills, a keen understanding of people, and the ability to admit when he’s wrong. Everyone who works with Gamache has a deep respect for him (except for a new trainee who Gamache tries to mentor, but who, in the end, is too full of her own convictions to actually benefit from his teachings), and you can see why. I was in awe of Gamache’s patience as he worked through the case and of his contentment with life outside of work, and I was glad to finally make his acquaintance.

If I was happy to meet Gamache, I was over the moon to discover Three Pines. Remember when I said I wanted atmosphere and character? Three Pines has an abundance of both, and Ms. Penny transported me to this quirky little village where everyone knows everyone, especially through the idioms and slices of Quebecois life that she sprinkled through the narrative (all clearly inspired by her own experience as a native of Montreal).  And the citizens of Three Pines are just as charming as the place they reside. I fell in love with each of them and felt their pain at the loss of their beloved neighbor, and I desperately didn’t want the murderer to be a local, even though I knew it had to be.

I’m glad I had the presence of mind to have the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, directly at hand, because Still Life ends with an eerie observation from Gamache:

“Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.” (paperback, p. 312)

I hope this lack of stillness continues, because I can’t wait to delve deeper into the lives of Gamache and Three Pines.

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The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Summary from the publisher:
Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium in a hospital bed. But before the accident that landed him there, he’d been hired to find Rose Janko, the wife of a charismatic son of a traveling Gypsy family, who went missing seven years earlier. Half Romany himself, Ray is well aware that he’s been chosen more for his blood than his investigative skills. Still, he’s surprised by the intense hostility he encounters from the Jankos, who haven’t had an easy past. Touched by tragedy, they’re either cursed or hiding a terrible secret-whose discovery Ray can’t help suspecting is connected to Rose’s disappearance. . . .

I can’t say how excited I was when The Invisible Ones arrived right before Christmas. Someone from the fabulous marketing team at Putnam recommended it to me because I love Tana French, and between that, the fact that it was about Gypsies in England, and the rave reviews it received in such publications as People, I was itching to pick this up. When I finally did last week, I found that it was well worth the wait.

The Invisible Ones is one of those twisted mysteries where you think you have a handle on where things are going and who the guilty parties are, only to be completely surprised when the truth finally hits you. The fact that Ray lost his memory at a crucial point in the case only heightens this, because you’re desperately trying to piece together his deductions as he remembers them. I was glued to the page, to the point where I wished my commute was just a few minutes longer so I could finish the chapter.

I really enjoyed Ray as a protagonist because he’s not your typical, brilliantly observant private investigator. That’s not to say he’s not those things—he is—but he’s also dealing with a lot of emotional baggage from a painful divorce and a previous case that went horribly wrong, and both of these things play strongly into the Janko case, causing him to be too cautious in certain situations and too trusting in others. And, of course, he has to reconcile his own past with his experiences with the Jankos and the rest of the Gypsy community. A character like this has every potential to be frustrating, but Ray never reached that point for me, rather I felt that he worked through all of his issues as he worked through the case, and when the solution finally became clear to him, he truly earned it.

What fascinated me most about this book, though, was the incredible insight Ms. Penney gave the reader into the Gypsy community through her second narrator, JJ. Gypsies are notoriously reticent towards outsiders, and having JJ’s input on what was going on within the Janko family and on Gypsy lifestyle was invaluable and really made the story special. Without it, The Invisible Ones had the potential to be a one-sided mystery about the dark and mysterious world of the Traveler. I also have to commend Ms. Penney on really capturing the Gypsy lifestyle, both from the traveling stand point and those who live “in bricks,” as she says. It’s clear that there was a lot of research involved, and it’s all presented respectfully, but truthfully.

Even though this book was recommended to me as a Tana French fan, I think The Invisible Ones is in a category all its own. It was an incredibly absorbing yarn that takes its time to unravel, and I highly recommend it.

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Always full of excuses

Profuse apologies for being the worst blogger ever! I started an internship in the trade editorial department at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt about a month ago, and it’s been eating up my time and scrambling my brain. An editorial intern spends a lot of time reading manuscripts and reporting on them, so, essentially, I’m writing several blog posts a day, just for editors instead of readers, and while I adore my blog and miss it constantly, reviewing is a little too close to work at the moment. I’m going to try and be better about it, though, particularly with so many great books in my to-be-read pile, so I’m going to stop my whining and get reviewing.

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