"A Curious Beginning" by Deanna Raybourn

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Well-paced and plotted with admirably high improbability, A Curious Beginning introduces the dynamic duo of Miss Veronica Speedwell and Mr. Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. The story is set in Victorian London and our heroes face a plot that not only threatens their lives, but could also topple the most powerful monarchy on Earth. The pair struggle with trust issues early on, but form a formidable team which promises many delights in the books to come.

And readers will avidly receive and follow the exploits of Ms. Raybourn’s plucky, determined hero and her partner in the books to come, I’m sure of it. The author has expertly introduced enough issues between the two to keep readers’ energies focused for many entries in this new series.

As they try to learn each others’ truths, the highly appealing pair find themselves pawns in high-level machinations against the British Imperial throne. These schemes focus on two hot buttons for Queen Victoria: the Irish Home Rule question, and the identity of her successor to the throne. These issues bring a grand load of weight and urgency to the proceedings - far be it from my disbelief not to be willingly suspended. The mystery, the heroes’ intrepid handling of all threats to life, limb, and Empire, and the supporting characters’ motives and actions, are all very strong points in the book’s favor. I feel comfortable recommending it based on these.

But I feel I can’t do justice to the two heroes. In an introductory story, they match wits and tempers, they verbally spar, eventually they work as a cohesive unit - they are memorably introduced here. They treat each other in a highhanded manner, as befits a staunch Victorian man and a willful woman equal to his every objection. However, these scenes dominate the bulk of the book, and I found myself tiring of all the personal conflict. This may have been the author’s intent. After all, their lives are in jeopardy and at stake throughout the whole book. However, there’s a slight awkwardness in the presentation - certain of the scenes proceeded with an emotional herky jerkiness that could have been handled more smoothly.

Overall, however, I fully expect these two vivid characters will settle on investigative strategies and tactics for escaping the close scrapes and tight spaces that will inevitably lie in the path ahead. Ms. Raybourn has introduced a new series, and in particular, two new protagonists, in this exciting and assured effort. Climb aboard and buckle your seatbelt - this promises to be one stylish ride!

"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

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Translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus

Plain and simple, touching and hopeful, Kitchen has philosophical asides sprinkled throughout that give it depth and charm. This charm emanates from Mikage, the young woman who loses her beloved grandmother, and from Yuichi, whose mother passes away a few months later.

These philosophical asides have the virtue of being spoken very plainly and grow out of the normal thoughts and emotions of our heroine, Mikage. So unadorned and succinct are they that they frequently achieve a poetry reminiscent of Basho, or other masters of haiku. They even at times approach a Zen state in propounding newly discovered, or newly obvious, truths as Mikage encounters them.

Mikage is a university student in Tokyo when her grandmother’s death unmoors her. She misses her classes, withdraws, and sleeps great clumps of her life away. When invited by Yuichi and his radiant mother Eriko to stay at their apartment indefinitely, her life turns around, and her relationship with Yuichi takes on a complicated, so-many-things-left-unsaid quality.

Ms. Yoshimoto resolves this relationship satisfactorily, but Mikage’s growth in maturity and wisdom constitutes the true treat in Kitchen. This is a brief, uncomplicated read, but its marbling of a young, appealing woman’s reflections and yearnings commend it to the discerning reader. Recommended!

"The Perfume Collector" by Kathleen Tessaro

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Grace Munroe, an attractive young London socialite, receives a letter one day in 1955 that not only changes her future but alters her past, as well. In The Perfume Collector we learn of these changes through separate narratives, one from the late 1920s and ‘30s, the other in Paris during the spring of 1955. The book contains the stories of several intelligent, resourceful women who get by on their wits, sometimes their charms, and some of whom are simply bullied into lives they cannot escape.

The two narrative strings proceed quite independently of each other, until Ms. Tessaro’s meaning and intent become clearer. And as they do, the pace and our interest pick up concomitantly. The drawing of these two streams into a cohesive whole constitutes a lovely performance, very skillfully managed by the author.

I found the characters somewhat less skillfully handled, however. The earlier story belongs to Eva, whose sudden transition from 14-year old ingenue to debauched vamp at 15 I found quite jarring. She wields her newfound sexual power and glamour like a seasoned veteran. Where did she learn it so quickly, unless it was under the tutelage of the high-priced prostitute, Miss Waverly? We never see allusions to such tutelage, but we apparently must assume it.

In Grace’s case, she has violent reactions to what she learns of her own past, and the reader has to interpolate emotions rather that read about them - why is she so vituperative, what exactly is she crying about, why did she faint? These flaws are far from fatal, and more sensitive readers may not find them flaws at all. For me, these flights had no foundation in her story or emotional makeup.

I usually enjoy and appreciate open, non-conclusive endings, which this book has, and the potential for Grace’s pleases and gratifies the reader. I did become stuck wondering about French property law, though, and how it will affect Grace and her soon-to-be-estranged(?) husband.  The Perfume Collector is a pleasurable read, nonetheless. The beautiful plotting and the wise, balanced conclusion carry the day.

"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

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One learns in special relativity of the absolute elsewhere - that region outside past occurrences and also outside of future occurrences. One feels that the consciousnesses of various characters of Mrs. Dalloway to be absolutely exclusive of each other: specifically here I mean those of Septimus Warren Smith - a minor character suffering from madness which had its origins in the Great War - and Mrs. Dalloway herself. That these two universes should actually intersect is the great miracle of this very idiosyncratic novel.

With their sudden tangents, nested phrases, and occasional trop de longueur, its sentences remind one of Henry James’s. But here, the effect is more stream of consciousness, because we follow the fears and memories and self-doubt of the eponymous heroine, her most intimate associate, Peter, and the harrowing delusions of a suffering war veteran. Taken together, these thoughts and feelings cut for us a cross-section of post-World War I England and hold it up for inspection. The author is rather pitiless with her subjects: she knows the fear and doubt which undercut the lives and level the emotional landscape of 1920s London.

It is the great democratizer: Mrs. Dalloway's own doubts and terrors show her surprising affinity for those less fortunate:

“Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. Even now, quite often if [her husband] Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another, she must have perished. But that young man had killed himself.”

The last sentence refers to Septimus, whom we encounter at abrupt moments through the book, who panics in the face of the medical establishment and leaps to his death. How does Mrs. Dalloway hear of his demise? At her party the evening of that fateful day, when the distinguished Doctor’s wife tells her of it.

This episode, which Mrs. Dalloway hears second-hand, affects her deeply. It generates a terror which she must suppress so that she can play hostess at a glittering party. And so: personal histories will trail behind us and ensnare us in the end. Woolf shows us this truth: it  crosses class lines, lines of sex and social position. At length she portrays London poised on a precipice, holding Mrs. Dalloway in its arms with everyone else, ready to plunge into an epic, swallowing darkness.

This is a very effective psychological novel, with its close, sometimes disjointed retelling of the terror and delusion that we feel. The author manages all this with a careful, almost fussy, diction that nevertheless results in a kind of bluntness. The hurt feelings, the desperate hopes, the entrenched animosities, all see the light of day. It’s a distinctive achievement, memorable and affecting, and I’m certainly glad to have made Miss Woolf’s acquaintance.

"Alice Fantastic" by Maggie Estep

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In a charming piece that manages to be touching in spite of itself, Maggie Estep spins the story of how Alice Hunter, her sister Eloise, and their mother navigate their way through very challenging lives. It’s a hysterically funny piece, full of gallows and self-deprecating humor. Novelist Jonathan Ames says Ms. Estep “is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin.”

So yes, the sisters are so abrupt with each other and their mother, both in thought and word, that their outward, gruff exteriors may be described as hard-boiled. And though the author portrays the ever-present inclination among all three to express and act upon their erotic desires, this inclination never intrudes on the story; it always serves it as an integral feature that at times brings the three women closer and at other times drives a wedge between them.

This novel is about the growth of all three women, who are closer in age than most mother-daughter combinations. The women grow in fits and starts, through painful episodes, like the incarceration of a lover, and an unexpected pregnancy. Ms. Estep knows her subject, and doesn’t let any of her narrative decay into sentiment (which is warded off by wise-cracking and verbal bullying), or rancor, because eventually we know it’s no more than skin-deep. This is the growth that’s on offer. It will affect you; it gratifies with its balanced treatment and realistic conclusions.

I enjoyed Alice Fantastic more and more as I got into it. I’m glad I stuck with it because 40% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I would. Give this a go. Maggie Estep’s book is bright, clever, very well paced, and surprisingly affecting.