On this slow Sunday morning, we're expecting another day of 90 degrees, which means I'll probably be out on the porch most of the day, alternately reading and trying not to fall asleep, though we may go up to Champaign later.
I haven't posted any reviews in a while, and these books deserve longer writeups, but I figured short takes were better than nothing. Most of the other recent reads on my sidebar will appear in a future NoveList column.
Molly Brown, Invitation to a Funeral (St. Martin's, 1999, c1995). Restoration playwright Aphra Behn takes the stage as amateur detective. She scours all of London to discover the murderers of two brothers who kindly arranged a funeral for her father, who died aboard a ship en route to Surinam with her and her mother fourteen years earlier. This madcap adventure presents a who's-who of Restoration England, for nearly everyone of importance (Nell Gwyn, Samuel Pepys, Louise de Keroualle, and of course the rakish Earl of Rochester) makes an appearance, save Charles II himself. Brown has a gift for comedy: Aphra tries and fails to teach a beautiful empty-headed thespian how to act, and Louise de Keroualle, publicly on a hunger strike in despair over the loss of the king's affections, secretly raids the royal kitchens after dark. Great fun. This appears to be Brown's only novel. What ever happened to her?
Marjorie Eccles, The Shape of Sand (St. Martin's, 2006). In 1946, while her family's former country estate of Charnley is being renovated for new owners, construction workers uncover letters and a diary belonging to Harriet Jardine's mother, Beatrice, who disappeared after a house party in 1910. Harriet and her two sisters, teenagers at the time, believed the gossip that Beatrice ran off with her half-Egyptian lover, whom she'd met on a visit to Egypt seven years earlier. The truth is none so simple, as the sisters learn when workers uncover a mummified woman's body behind Charnley's walls. Scenes shift between the postwar and Edwardian periods, with glimpses of Egypt as seen through Beatrice's journal. Readers expecting a traditional mystery may find it moves at a languorous pace, and there is no formal detective, just a gradual uncovering of the mystery. Yet it's a gripping character study that makes you wonder how well it's possible to know someone.
Melanie Gifford, The Gallows Girl (Piatkus, 2006). I bought this novel from Book Depository purely based on the blurb, as I'd heard nothing about it elsewhere. This is a shame, because despite having no "marquee names," it's an atmospheric story with a completely unpredictable plot. In 18th-century Hampshire, Isaac and Harriet Curtis run a coaching inn, Green Gallows, along a major thoroughfare to London. They raise their elder daughter, Lucy, to be a lady, hoping to find her a rich husband, while they treat their other daughter, Rachel, more like a servant. Fifteen-year-old Rachel has always loved working the stable yard, and ignores her unkempt appearance, though can't help feeling jealous of the attention Lucy receives. When rumors of a new toll road reach Green Gallows, Isaac fears for their livelihood and takes action, selling off Lucy into marriage to an odious, wealthy older man. And that's only the beginning. Most remarkably, though the setting rarely leaves Hampshire early on, it never feels claustrophobic, and it introduced me to a richly described world of financial struggles amongst the rising middle classes in small-town Georgian England. This dark, suspenseful novel of power, obsession, and revenge is also a very unusual coming-of-age story.