The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these, in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.

I had very high hopes for The Thirteenth Tale. I was very intrigued at the beginning and thought the ending was excellent, with the fates of the secondary and bit players nicely revealed and loose ends tied up (see quote above.) It was very well written and had some beautifully written and thought-provoking passages. I should have loved it. I dealt in out-of-print and collectible books for years and there was so much that I definitely enjoyed and related to. However, sad to say, I found the middle a bit of a slog. The stories told by Vida Winter telling of her past were deeply unpleasant and disturbing. They were not enjoyable to read and seemed just setups to establish mysteries to be solved later.

I was never invested in Margaret Ley’s anguish over her lost twin and the dampening effect it had on her life. I guess maybe you have to be a twin to fully appreciate what she was going through and to also understand the key relationship between Adeline and Emmeline. But I just wanted to tell her to get over herself, you were just a baby and didn’t even know about her until you were 10. It was interesting, but I was not emotionally invested in her angst. The refreshing Dr. Clifton says it best, 

“You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits…. However, unlike the heroines of your favorite novels, your constitution has not been weakened by the privations of life in earlier, harsher centuries. No tuberculosis, no childhood polio, no unhygienic living conditions. You’ll survive.”

The final reveals were sort of compelling and surprising, but the reader knew something of the sort was going to be coming since twins were involved.

I had some major questions about some of the key developments in character. Many were answered in the course of the book, but many were not. The characters were deftly drawn but didn’t always hold up to scrutiny. 

**spoiler**

Hester arrived on the scene like a breath of fresh air and brought hope and renewal. But then she turned cold, heartless, and abusive. She and the doctor treated the children like laboratory rats. However good their intentions started out being, they ended up just using them as an excuse to be together without guilt. Then back into a positive character in the postscript. The fact that she had a happy and successful marriage and career at the end seemed to come out of nowhere. Could she really be happy with the patronizing Dr. Maudsley, her intellectual inferior?
Why was young Vida so passionately taken with the placid and dull Emmeline?
Could the violent and uncontrollable Adeline really be kept hidden all those teenage years?
Why was John the Dig so hostile to Hester? Yes, if she found out about Vida, she probably would have brought her out into the open and sent her to school. But would that have been such a bad thing? And why was the present-day elderly Vida so devoted to Adeline who was responsible for so much evil and tragedy? (Assuming it was Emmaline who died in the fire.) 

**end spoiler**

 I would have enjoyed some more closure between Margaret and her mother. I would have enjoyed reading more about the very likable Dr. Clifton, a beacon of sense and sanity. I feel like we should have seen much more of him and learned more about him.

The Thirteenth Tale is definitely a book that would benefit from a “knowing what I know now” reread, but once was enough for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

February 21, 2021

Northanger Abbey: An Audible Original Drama

By Jane Austen

What could be better than Emma Thompson reading to you? I enjoyed this dramatization of Northanger Abbey with music, sound effects, and each character portrayed by a different actor. Emma Thompson as the narrator, Jane Austen, was perfect and very amusing. She conveyed so many subtleties of the story by her inflections. It is an abridged version, unfortunately, but it seems that the abridgment was very well done. I have seen all of the movie versions that I know of, but I still look forward to reading the unabridged version sometime soon.

I see that a couple of weeks ago Audible released The Jane Austen Collection, similarly narrated and played by top British actors, such as Claire Foy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Billie Piper, and Florence Pugh. How Will I find the Time?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

November 16, 2020

Betrayal at Blackcrest

By T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

I felt like bursting into tears. Instead, I let loose a series of highly descriptive words that were not ordinarily a part of my vocabulary. That relieved me somewhat, but the rain still poured on the roof of the car and I was nowhere nearer a solution to my dilemma. I had a spare tire in the trunk and all the tools necessary to put it on. However, I was wearing my best white heels and a dress of white muslin printed with tiny pink and green flowers, my best, and I would starve to death before getting out in the rain thus attired.

T.E. Huff’s tongue-in-cheek amusing voice shines through despite the over-the-top plot and his most blitheringly idiotic heroine. Deborah Lane, an actress, is concerned about her cousin and roommate Delia, also an actress. The last she heard from her, she was getting married to Derek Hawke the master of an ancient manor/castle/ estate. That was a month ago, and Deborah has not heard from her further. She travels to the village of Hawkestown to find her, make sure she is alright, and have a little vacation. As soon as she meets Derek, who denies, very very plausibly, even knowing Delia, she is convinced that he has murdered her or is holding her prisoner somewhere. It does give her pause for about a second that there is absolutely no credible motive and that there is considerable evidence from the very beginning that Delia was not telling the truth about her romance with Derek. But Deborah mulishly refuses to see sense. Throughout the whole darn book.

She gets a job being a secretary to Derek’s delightfully scatty aunt, meets her ward, a fey “angelic” teenager in love with an unsuitable village boy, and Derek’s black sheep lookalike cousin, an author of violently disturbing mysteries. All proceeds as all Gothics do, but this one has two quite surprising twists near the end. We are also treated to some funny encounters with the eccentric denizens of the village while Deborah is “investigating.” Despite way too much time exploring the hallways, staircases, cellars, and dungeons of Blackcrest with determined Deborah, this one mostly held my attention.

Fans of “Jennifer Wilde’s” early historical romances might recognize the name “Derek Hawke”. Our modern Derek is apparently a descendent of the Derek Hawke who was either a hero or a villain, I’m not sure which, in the popular “Marietta trilogy”. So that’s kind of fun.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

August 18, 2021

Wherever Lynn Goes

by T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

I was on my own now, and in my purse was a perfectly lovely contract and an even lovelier check signed by Philip Ashton-Croft himself. The Sunday Supplement would have to do without me. Someone else could cover the next axe murder from “the woman’s point of view.”

I am now on a mission to read every Tom E. Huff gothic novel. The mysteries are nothing too special, the heroines sometimes are not too bright and make silly decisions. If you haven’t figured everything all out at least half-way through, you’ve never read a romantic suspense novel written in their heyday of the ’60s and ’70s. But the humor is top-notch and unusual in a gothic and the pace just merrily rolls along. It’s light on the romance and the secondary characters are well-drawn. I particularly enjoyed Lynn’s best friend Mandy who is a hoot and definitely the brains of the operation.

Men found her fascinating, and with her powerful magnetism and individuality she could have been quite successful had she really tried. Mandy was singularly unambitious—rather lazy, in fact, far more interested in being amused than in having a career. Her chief claim to fame thus far was her appearances on the telly as Maisie the Milkmaid in a series of commercials for Delicious Dairy Milk…Flippant, lighthearted, invariably cheerful, she was also shrewdly intelligent—something few of her merry companions ever suspected.

Mandy is in the thick of things every step of the way and even gets her own unlikely love interest. Huff sometimes plays around with the stereotypical characteristics of the romantic hero and the villain so it actually might take the gothic romance devotee an extra page or two to figure out who the true love interest is. Cliches abound but I love the way he obviously does not take the genre too seriously and I like to think he is giving the knowing reader a little wink and a smile. I love the setting of the London scene of the ’70s and the, now in 2020, retro details and attitudes.

If you’re looking for a baffling mystery and heart-melting romance pass this one by. But if you’re looking for a fun nostalgic trip down memory lane this old-timey contemporary gothic will keep you turning the pages and give you some laughs and smiles along the way.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

January 15, 2020

Come to Castlemore

By T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

“If you carry on this way, no man will have you!” she exclaimed. “I’ll take that risk,” I replied calmly. “Impudent! Always were! You go running off to those moors like this, and you’ll regret it, mark my word! It isn’t decent. Reading about those filthy pagans with their stone circles! I couldn’t hold my head up in public when my own nephew published a book about them—” “I see you read it,” I said.

Even though this was very well written as are all of T. E. Huff’s Gothics, I had to skip through the last half of the book. I just could not stand the character meant to be Kathy’s “surprise” love interest. What a pig! He was over the top controlling and chauvinistic, but worse, Kathy, who was intelligent, strong, and ahead of her time in other ways, was a limp dishrag around him. Totally under his power. This is another book that I strongly suspect was written tongue in cheek. No gothic cliché is left by the wayside. Choosing to read it that way, and also due to a happy twist at the end, I am rounding up to 3 stars. Not sure I’d really recommend it though. I much prefer his contemporary Romantic suspense.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

April 7, 2020

Room Beneath the Stairs

A.K.A. T. E. Huff

By T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

I was eleven years old when I first saw Greycliff Island, and I immediately made it my own. I would never be able to go there, of course, but that didn’t matter. It was my private place, safe and secure, removed from all the heartbreak and sadness I had known so often in my short life. It was a symbol, and in my imagination I dwelt there like a storybook child, surrounded by warmth and beauty and the friends I had never known.

And we’re off! This book was meant to be just a placeholder while I waited for a book I really wanted to read to become available at the library. I really enjoyed the trip back into time to the days when Gothic romances were the be all and end all. This one was a contemporary, written and set in the ’70s when guys were “with it” and if you had sex before marriage, you were a “swinger”. I loved the short time we are with our heroine in London where she meets the man who will soon become her husband. It was their second encounter, the first being when she was an orphaned young girl living with her relatives in Cornwall. We quickly move to his forbidding mansion on a mysterious island near the coast of her old home. Something sinister and mysterious is going on, and something is wrong with her husband.

As this might as well be a template for the typical gothic, we quickly determine who the hero is. And because we know who the hero is, we also know who the villain has got to be. Hint: gothic heroes are not jovial or idle. All the plot points and set pieces fall into place. Anyone looking for surprises and twists will be disappointed.

Yet T. E. Huff can really write! I was just carried along by the atmosphere and the immediacy of the action. I felt like the author was constantly winking at me as all of the stock characters and obligatory happenings marched across the page. There is very little humor but there is a lot of fun.

Now, it seemed like a scene from a rather pedestrian horror film, wildly far fetched: heroine in darkened hall, paralyzed with fear as chilling sounds rise up from the sinister stairwell. But it had been real, all too real. The wind didn’t make that kind of noise. Neither did cats.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence or a careless anachronism that our modern day heroine carries a candle down into the basement and not a flashlight. And her silk skirts rustle on the stairs. Because mini-skirts inconveniently don’t rustle.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone in the mood for an old-fashioned gothic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

July 2, 2019

Danger at Dahlkari

By T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

***only spoilery if you’ve never read a Gothic before**

In all but the heroine, this novel forcibly reminded me of a Madeleine Brent romantic suspense. Exotic locale, deadly adventure, and a mysterious hero who isn’t what he seems and who doesn’t really interact meaningfully with the heroine until over halfway through. And she goes on a long dangerous trek with him. Like “Madeleine”, the romance is on the light side. It also reminded me of many other T.E. Huff (aka at least 3 other female pseudonyms) in its usual tropes. Although we are told Lauren is intelligent, scholarly, headstrong, brave, and sensible but we usually see is naive, hysterical, and silly when it comes to her romantic relationships. Her companion Sally is the force to be reckoned with throughout most of the book. Also, the author employs his usual bait and switch with the heroes. Of course, the real hero is immediately apparent to even a semiconscious reader from his first appearance. So that means we know who the villain is as well. There is an interesting reveal at the end that came as a surprise to me.

Despite going over very well-traveled ground, it is well-written and paced with an engaging semi-humorous voice that T.E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde) is known for and which is virtually indistinguishable from Madeleine Brent’s first-person voice. Readers who liked this book would adore Madeleine Brent And Madeleine Brent devotees would find enough similarities with Madeleine to find much to enjoy in this particular title.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

May 2, 2020

The Stranger Diaries

By Elly Griffiths

“It’s a quote,’ I say. ‘From The Tempest.’ ‘What’s the next line?’ says Harbinder though I’m sure she’s looked it up. ‘Hell is empty,’ I say, ‘and all the devils are here.”

I loved the 4 narrator format on this audio. There were many things I liked about the book: The literary theme, the characters, the old-fashionedness, the creepiness, the light humor. I liked the characters seeing themselves from the different perspectives of the others and the changes of attitudes from the first impressions. There were also some amusing references to Harry Potter and Georgette Heyer. However, the murderer proved something of an anticlimax. Looking back I should have guessed (which I didn’t even suspect, my bad) because there was no one else it really could have been as motivation or opportunity was lacking in everyone else. Actually, the motive was pretty obscure to me. The Stranger, the story within the novel wasn’t very good either. And much to my annoyance and confusion, since I was listening to it on audible, the last 30 minutes is a telling of the whole story all over again and just tacks on an ending. There was a ghostly presence near the end but I feel like it was a loose end. I feel like there should have been more links between the story, The Stranger. and the mystery of The Stranger Diaries.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

May 19, 2020

Home Before Dark

By Riley Sager

“Every house has a story. Ours is a ghost story. It’s also a lie. And now that yet another person has died within these walls, it’s finally time to tell the truth.”

I’m sorry, but I like my ghost stories to be scary. It was still good though. There were some very surprising twists at the end that I didn’t see coming, which is always a good thing. Some things did not hang together, some mysterious happenings that were part of Maggie’s story did not make sense and were not explained. Specifically, the book which supernaturally opened to a clue, supposedly to lead Maggie towards the truth, but, oops, it was a false lead. The supernatural or ghosts don’t lie for no reason.

Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after the death of her father. 25 years earlier, when Maggie was 5 years old, Her family fled in terror from the house never to return. Her father wrote a bestselling “non-fiction” book about the haunted house which screwed up Maggie’s life. She returns to try to learn the truth for herself, because to her anger, her parents never would tell her the whole story. Was it all lies? Was it mostly lies? Or was it mostly the truth? Mysterious things start to happening in real life to Maggie which echoes what her father wrote about in the book.

The truth is revealed pretty satisfactorily (and shockingly) except for a few unanswered questions. Since I listened to it on Audible, I couldn’t go back to see if I was played fair with. For the most part, except for my previous small example above, I think I was. One thing that did interfere with my enjoyment was the bitter hostile tone of the narrator who played Maggie. I guess it made sense, but it was overdone and her constant stubborn belief that the whole book was “bullshit” despite all evidence to the contrary was annoying. All in all, a great concept and well done.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 7, 2021

Castle Shade

by Laurie R. King

“Your mother says you like detective stories.”

“I do. They’re so clever, people like Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. However, I have to tell you my heart belongs to Bulldog Drummond, said the future Queen.

“Good choice.”

Conversation between Mary Russell and Ileana, Royal Princess of Roumania

Once again, Laurie R. King smoothly melds real historical figures with the latest adventure featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. In this tale, we have Queen Marie of Romania, her daughter Ileana and her lover and great Romanian patriot, Barbu Stirbey. It is set primarily at Castle Bran, Marie’s beloved home and supposedly the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But we also travel throughout Romania and Transylvania.

Mary and Holmes are asked to investigate some strange happenings at Bran Castle. Mycroft suspects they are political orchestrations to undermine the Queen who is rightly much beloved by the Romanian people. There seems to be an effort to tie sinister happenings around the castle and the town such as abductions, dead people coming to life, witchy doings, and even vampirism to the Queen. Having done my due diligence and read up on the political situation and Marie’s relationship to her feckless son, Carol, a political explanation of the mystery seemed credible indeed. I will only say that it is much more interesting than that.

There is plenty of adventure and action as well as mystery, as Mary survives abduction and attack, discovers the source of a ghost-like presence in a secret room, and, with Holmes, races to save the life of a likable local girl. As always, there is amusing banter between Holmes and Mary, and intriguing and titillating insights into their unique relationship. We also get a rare glimpse into Holmes’ inner thoughts regarding his wife, his marriage, and the challenges of his brother Mycroft’s presence in their lives.

Four and a half years of being married to Mary Judith Russell, and he was still finding the adjustment difficult.
For his entire adult life, until the night he signed his full name upon a church register, Sherlock Holmes had been accountable to no one….when he judged it necessary, he had bullied, ignored, and lied, even to his friend Watson, without hesitation.
But not to a wife. A wife meant a contract of a different sort….Serving the needs of brother and Britain had become increasingly incompatible with his partnership with Russell.

It looks like things might be coming to a head between Mycroft, Holmes, and Mary. By the end of this book, you have not only been on an adventure, but feel like you’ve been a guest in Dracula’s Castle, come to know important, compelling, if little known personages in history, and traveled through the countryside and villages of Transylvania and Romania. It’s maybe not for everyone, but I welcome each book in this series. I always feel a little more enlightened about something.**4 stars out of 5**

June 23, 2021