Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
by
Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for an excellent classic mystery, I highly recommend The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It was first published in serial form in 1859-60, in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Round and in Harper’s Weekly and in book form in 1860. So it’s an old book, set in Victorian England, but don’t be put off by that because the plot is so clever and varied and the characters surprisingly relevant and modern, I never felt bogged down. I should mention that the book is also very long: the print version is 720 pages.

We’ve gotten away from reading long books, don’t you think? We live in a world in which there’s too much content to absorb and talk about. I feel like it all has to be done in the fastest time possible so we can move to the next book, show, movie, song, etc. I’m just as much a victim of that mentality as everyone else, but I also feel myself shifting to a different reading attitude. When readers were first enjoying The Woman in White, they were reading it a chapter at a time and looking forward to the next installment. Just like TV shows that used to be weekly and gave us time between to look forward to what might happen next. Now everything is a binge. Okay, rant over, time to talk about the book!

Set outside and in London, the story begins with drawing instructor Walter Hartright who accepts a position to tutor two young women at their estate (Limmeridge House). Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie are half sisters and they live with Laura’s reclusive and uncle, Frederick Fairlie. The night before Walter leaves for Limmeridge House, he meets a mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. She asks him to help her and he agrees.

At Limmeridge and as predicted, Walter falls in love with the beautiful Laura and she with him, but the relationship cannot be acknowledged because Laura is betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, the mysterious woman in white, Anne Catherick, who looks a lot like Laura, is seen around Limmeridge. While that’s one of the mysteries readers will need to be patient about, we learn early on that Anne had local connections and was taken under Marian’s mother’s wing for a short period of time. Now it’s getting complicated, but wait! In a plot to get Laura’s money, Sir Percival and his closest friend, the slick-talking Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco from Italy, concoct a scheme with shocking results. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave the rest out. There are plenty of twists, close calls, and dramatic scenes to keep you wanting more.

I do need to note that Marian Halcombe is one of the best and most likable characters in the story. No surprise that one of the book’s major themes is about women’s rights, as Marian is a strong woman with a smart mind. I also enjoyed Fosco’s character. You can’t trust him, but he’s extremely accommodating and pleasant and so fun to observe.

Besides being about women and their rights during the mid-1800s, the story is also about class, titles, money, inheritances, land rights, deception, suspicion of foreigners, international intrigue, love and friendship. The book begins and ends with Walter Hartright’s narration, but Collins includes substantial testimonials by Marian Halcombe, Frederick Fairlie, Fosco, solicitors, housekeepers and other minor characters. The last section reads like a detective novel and helps solve the mystery.

I highly recommend The Woman in White. If you don’t have time for the book, there are plenty of adaptations to enjoy.

Have you read this classic? Are you interested now? What’s your opinion of long books and the rush to consume content? Leave a comment.

Interested in more books by Wilkie Collins? Read my review of The Moonstone here.

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Book review: My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni

My Sister’s Grave
by
Robert Dugoni

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for a series starter, you might want to check out My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni. Published in 2014, it’s the first in a crime and courtroom series about Tracy Crosswhite, a homicide detective with the Seattle Police Department, sure that the investigation of her sister’s murder twenty years earlier was handled improperly.

Sarah Crosswhite, then eighteen, disappeared after the sisters competed in a sharp shooting contest. She’d headed home by herself to Cedar Grove, Washington in heavy rain and although police located her truck on a back road, Sarah’s body was never recovered. Edmund House, however, recently released from prison for rape, confessed to the murder and was sentenced to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. After Sarah’s murder, Tracy fell apart. She quit her teaching job and moved to Seattle to become a detective, hoping to use her skills to uncover what she believed was a conspiracy to frame House. Although she finally put the boxes of evidence in a back closet, her drive to solve the crime cost Tracy her marriage.

Like Tracy, the once-thriving community of Cedar Grove has never been the same since Sarah’s murder, suffering emotionally and economically. And when hunters uncover Sarah’s remains, people in the town, including Sheriff Roy Calloway, want to let things be. “What’s done is done,” says Calloway. But, now, after all these years, this is Tracy’s chance to finally set things right and she returns with a lot of questions. Why are items found at the gravesite inconsistent with prior evidence and why did no one follow up on weak testimonies? Tracy’s more complicated motivation, however, stems from overwhelming guilt in letting her younger sister return alone after the shooting competition, an act of selfishness that she feels led to her father’s and later her mother’s death. She’s the only Crosswhite left and must do right by Sarah. She turns to her childhood friend Dan O’Leary for help. Dan, a lawyer and recently divorced, has returned to Cedar Grove. Could something more develop between them?

I enjoyed this story about family loyalty and how small communities deal with violent crime, together and individually. Dugoni creates a nice home town feel in Cedar Grove and shows how things are not always how they seem. He raises the question of media coverage and whether some things are better left alone, when “those answers could do more harm than good.” I recommend My Sister’s Grave to readers who like crime and romance stories that are relatively nonviolent and clean with a good plot and satisfying finish.

If you’d rather hear an audio verison of my review, you can check it out here on SoundCloud:

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What’s That Book? Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel by Elizabeth George

Hi Everyone! Today I’d like to welcome Noelle Granger, today’s contributor to What’s That Book. Thank you, Noelle!

Title: Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel                                                  

Author: Elizabeth George

Genre: British mystery, police procedural

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What’s it about? Elizabeth George is an American writer who sets her mysteries in Great Britain. There are eighteen books in this series and I’ve read more than half of them. Her main character is Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton, who has a massive intellect and who struggles constantly with his background. The books have followed him over the years, through his marriage and the loss of his wife and child, and his tolerance for the foibles of his co-workers.

His partner is the decidedly unattractive Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who comes from a much lower class. Lynley and Havers clash constantly because she is short-tempered and very aware of her class, making her very difficult to work with. Winston Nkata is his Detective Constable, a very tall black African with a remarkable scar on his face who can relate to victims where Havers cannot.

George writes massive books, and I’ve heard complaints they can be used a doorstops. But despite the length, they are works of art—fiercely intelligent, stunningly researched, and always enticing. This novel concerns the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation) an underground, ritual practice in the Nigerian population of London. As usual with her books, written in third person omniscient, the story opens with vignettes of various characters that at first seem disconnected but which become increasingly entangled as the story unfolds. The central plot is the death, later deemed murder, of a black police sergeant who is investigating FGM in the Nigerian community. Lynley is assigned to the case, which has cultural associations that are completely foreign to him. As usual with George, there are a number of threads to the solution to the case, including a father’s cruel, violent insistence on subjecting his eight-year-old daughter to the practice. I kept reading on because I had no idea who the murderer was and there were plenty of candidates.

George’s character development is compelling and in this book, we learn more about Havers (who makes me want to tear my hair out) and Nakata, a gentle giant with a wonderful family. The author teaches the reader a good deal about the tribal origins of FGM and the work the British police are doing to root out its practice and stop it.

How did you hear about it? This book was on a best seller list.

Have you read other books by this author? Yes, quite a few.

What did you like about the book? The entangled plot line and the characters.

Closing comments:  I consider Elizabeth George an author in the footsteps of Dame PD James.

Contributor:  N (Noelle) A. Granger is a Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She is the author of the Rhe Brewster mystery series and the historical fiction novel, The Last Pilgrim. You can learn more about Noelle at saylingaway.wordpress.comand na-granger.com. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband and a Maine coon cat.


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it? Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose
by
Umberto Eco

I finished this massive book over a month ago and I wasn’t going to review it. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but I know a lot of other people did and not just people I know. The Name of the Rose was first published in Italian in 1980 and was translated into English in 1983. It has sold more than 50 million copies and is one of the best-selling books ever published. The 1986 film version starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater was also very popular. I hear the movie is very good but I haven’t had the chance to watch it.

My paperback version was 592 pages of dense print and unlike many books, reading just ten pages took me about an hour, as there are many references and quotes in Latin. I knew it was going to take a long time, so I planned ahead and finished it in plenty of time for my book discussion. What follows is a very brief description, meant to help you decide if this is the kind of book you might like.

The book is narrated by an old monk named Adso of Melk who, before he dies, wants to document the catastrophic events at a Franciscan abbey in Italy, back when he was a young Benedictine novice. This story begins in 1327 where the members of the abbey are at the center of an investigation into heresy. Brother William of Baskerville, a former inquisitor, arrives with Adso ahead of a big meeting where many will argue about whether Christ was poor and who should rule Europe, Pope John XXII or Louis the Bavarian, the Holy Roman Emperor.

When a young monk is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, William begins an investigation and within a week, six more are dead. At the center of the investigation is a book, hidden away in a secret room in a maze-like library full of tricks, deceptive mirrors and intoxicating fumes. William uses his deductive tools to solve many riddles that will eventually lead to the secret room, but also to ultimate disaster.

There’s no doubt that this tumultuous period of time in religious history resulted in all kinds of factions and wildly varying opinions about church and government. I would never be able to explain it all because I found it confusing to follow. But some of the things they argue about include the church’s ownership of property, whether laughter is a sin, things as small as whether there should be images drawn in the margins of their manuscripts, and most important, who should have knowledge (hence the book hidden in the library’s secret room that only a couple people know about). In addition, it’s really a big power struggle between the top guys at the abbey and bad feelings about being passed over for the librarian’s job who is traditionally the next in line to become the abbot.

I’d probably get a C+ at best if I handed this in for a class, and if you see anything I’ve gotten wrong, please say so in the comments. I want to get credit for reading this, though!

So, what do you think? Have you read it? If not, do you want to read it?

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On YouTube: Video Review of Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Hi Everyone,

I’m trying something new and sharing this video review of Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.

If you prefer old school, you can read my review here.

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Book Review: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Razorblade Tears
by
S.A. Cosby

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I know to be wary about books that get a lot of hype, but I fell for it this time. When I saw the critical acclaim from The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post and many others, naming Razorblade Tears one of the best books of 2021, I wanted to read it.

In the beginning, I thought I was part of that cheering crowd, but I soon changed my mind. Here’s the premise of the book:

Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins are two ex-cons whose gay sons, Isiah and Derek (married to each other) were gunned down outside a wine shop in Richmond, Virginia. When Buddy Lee suggests they combine forces to avenge their sons’ deaths, Ike agrees.

Ike, a successful Black business owner, has kept a clean record in the fifteen years he’s been out of prison for manslaughter. And he’s kept his violent temper at bay. He needs to, especially now that he and his wife have custody of three-year-old, Arianna, Isiah and Derek’s daughter. Buddy Lee, who is white, is a career con man and an alcoholic, living in a dilapidated trailer. On top of their grief, they have many regrets about shunning their sons for their homosexuality. Now they have a chance to make things a little better.

They soon learn that Ike’s son, Isiah, a journalist, was about to expose a scandalous relationship between a woman named Tangerine and an unnamed powerful man she’d met. On the other side, this powerful person has hired a hit man and his violent gang to find Tangerine and kill her before the story gets out.

Over a period of several days, Ike and Buddy Lee chase the killers and the killers chase them. And there are many violent casualties along the way, described in graphic detail. Between the violence, they move towards friendship as they joke around and share their struggles about accepting their sons. Ike also sets Buddy Lee straight on a number of racial assumptions. I thought these were good ways to bring out the subtleties of racism, one of the better parts of the book.

I was interested in the premise, but honestly, the rest of the book just isn’t that good, with all kinds of weird metaphors and choppy sentences. Razorblade Tears is described as noir fiction, and as a reader you have to accept the violence as part of the genre, but I found the characters to be stereotypical and the fight scenes hard to follow. In addition, to say you must suspend all disbelief is a huge understatement.

In the end, I felt manipulated by the hype and in the heavy-handed message about race, gender, sexuality, and a host of other social issues. I felt this could have been a much better book if the author had focused more on the characters and had chosen one or two issues.

Other WordPress bloggers have written mixed reviews. You can check them out here.

Books with Chai
The Lesser Joke
The BiblioSanctum

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What’s That Book? Surreality by Ben Trube

Hi Everyone! Today I’d like to welcome Berthold Gambrel, today’s contributor to What’s That Book. Thank you, Berthold!

TitleSurreality

Author: Ben Trube

Genre: Mystery / Science Fiction       

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s it about? Detective Daniel Keenan is assigned to investigate the virtual murder of the co-founder of a massively multi-player online game, Surreality. Although the crime takes place in cyber-space, it has real-world ramifications. As Keenan pursues the culprit, things begin to escalate in deadly ways. To make matters worse, aspects of Keenan’s own past continue to haunt him as he furiously works to solve the case.

I love how the book mixes tropes of an old-fashioned noir mystery with modern day technology like computer games. Keenan and his partner Caliente are likable characters, and in a book like this, where there is a whole secondary “virtual” world in which much of the action takes place, it’s important that the reader has relatable characters to keep them grounded.

There are a number of minor characters in the book who help to fill in the details of the world of Surreality and explain how the online game was created. As in any good noir detective story, there’s intrigue, backstabbing, and even a bit of romance. In the notes, the author mentions how the book was influenced by Isaac Asimov’s classic novel The Caves of Steel in terms of mixing mystery and science-fiction, and I would say that the comparison is definitely a good one. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi or detective stories should give this a read.

How did you hear about it? I follow the author’s blog and discovered the book there. Also, although we have never met, the author and I both live in Columbus, Ohio, which is also where Surreality is set, so that made me even more interested in it.

Closing comments: I’ve read this book four times, and I think it holds up very well even knowing how it will turn out. It’s not just about how the plot unfolds. The real fun of the book is in the characters and setting.

Contributor: Berthold Gambrel is a blogger and author. You can read his blog at https://ruinedchapel.com


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it? Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

Book Review: Date with Death by Julia Chapman

Date with Death
by
Julia Chapman

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for a cozy mystery to read during the holidays, take a look at Date with Death by Julia Chapman. Set in England in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s the first in the Dales Detective series in which the author introduces Samson O’Brien, Delilah Metcalf and a host of characters who live in the small town/village of Bruncliffe. Bruncliffe is the type of place where everyone knows everyone’s business, and has strong opinions about all things, giving the setting a colorful backdrop.

The story opens with Richard Hargreaves’ murder on the tracks of the local train station as well as Samson’s return to Bruncliffe after a fourteen-year absence. There’s a lot of beef between Samson and the people in town as well as a mystery behind why he’s back from a top detective position in London. Samson’s boss has advised him to lie low until gross misconduct charges against him have been settled.

Romantic tension develops right away between Samson and Delilah when Samson sets up the Dales Detective Agency downstairs from Delilah’s business, the struggling Dales Dating Agency. Richard’s mother soon hires Samson to investigate her son’s murder, whose death has been declared a suicide. She’s certain Richard didn’t kill himself, that he was on the upswing after a tough divorce and happy over a love prospect he connected with through Delilah’s dating agency.

To Delilah’s horror, more of her clients meet mysterious deaths and it’s a race against time to clear the connection and keep others safe. Not surprisingly, Delilah helps Samson with his investigation.

Readers meet many of the town’s residents, including Delilah’s family and get to know their back stories and quirky characteristics. Some act suspiciously, suggesting a possible connection to the murders and the mystery of who is the killer takes many twists before the finish.

Many relationship questions remain at the end, including the simmering interest between Samson and Delilah and readers will need to dig into the next ones to see where they lead.

I enjoyed this story, though cozy mysteries are not my favorite genre. My mystery group thought it was great, however, so take that as a recommendation too. Although close to 400 pages, it was a fast read and entertaining to read during the hectic holiday times.

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Book review: Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob
by
William Landay

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber is the first in his office to hear about a murder in the woods outside their suburban Massachusetts town’s middle school. When he arrives at the scene, he learns that eighth grader Ben Rifkin has been stabbed to death. Andy leads the preliminary investigation, even though there is a potential conflict of interest: Ben was a classmate of his son, Jacob. Police interviews with classmates and Facebook comments on a memorial page suggest that Ben had been bullying Jacob and that Jacob was preparing to defend himself. Damning evidence quickly puts Jacob at the scene, police charge him with murder and Andy steps down from the case.

Jacob swears he’s innocent and Andy believes him. Readers, however, must form their own opinions about Jacob. The author makes it tough to decide because Jacob is hard to know. He’s a typical teenager, closed and sarcastic. And he has only a few friends in his circle, friends who now keep their distance.

As Jacob’s lawyer prepares for trial, Andy and his wife, Laurie face the impossible problem of seeing the evidence yet wanting to believe their son. During this time, Andy reveals shocking information about his own past that may point to a pattern of crimes. Their lawyer suggests genetic and psychological testing and he and Laurie worry that Jacob has received the “murder gene.” The disturbing results call their parenting skills and decisions into question: are they bad parents because they put Jacob in daycare as a baby? Were they wrong to think he had outgrown his toddler aggression? Hadn’t he?

On the last day of the trial, readers may think it will all be over when the jury returns with its verdict, but twists and turns lead to a surprising finish. In the end, Andy may never be sure of Jacob’s guilt or innocence. Readers may feel the same way.

Published in 2012, Defending Jacob explores themes of marriage, parenting, bullying and nature vs nurture. Lesser themes include politics in the district attorney’s office and the false feeling of security in an affluent suburban town. I enjoyed this story, despite it being a little dated. This is my second time reading it and my only negative comment would be that Jacob seemed older, not like a fourteen-year-old boy. The story has been modernized and is now a TV miniseries starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell.

Defending Jacob is a good choice for a book club. I recommend it to readers who like mysteries and character studies.

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Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None
by
Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ten strangers are invited to visit a luxurious private island off the coast of Devon, England. People are talking about who the mysterious new owner of Soldier Island might be. The curious guests don’t care. Their invitations suggest a vague connection to a person named Owen and they all accept. When they arrive, there is no host, just a message to settle in.

After dinner, a shocking and eerie recording charges each with separate murders. “Prisoners at the bar,” the voice asks, “have you anything to say in your defence?” Although never officially charged with the murders, it’s a new kind of justice on Soldier Island and it turns out that each guest has something to hide:

Something went terribly wrong for one of Dr. Edward Armstrong’s patients. The butler and cook, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, must explain how a woman under their care died. Spinster Emily Brent must account for the death of a young woman. Former detective William Blore lied under oath, and the defendant died. For Vera Claythorne it’s the drowning death of a young boy. Captain Philip Lombard once left twenty-one East African tribesmen without food or water. General John Macarthur sent one of his men to certain death. Anthony Marston’s drunken driving took the lives of two young people. And Justice Lawrence Wargrave abused his influence in court, sending the defendant to his death.

As a storm rages, one by one, the guests die, just like in the children’s nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Soldiers.” They soon understand they are isolated and their supply boat won’t return for days. What to do?

This is my second Agatha Christie mystery and it’s perfectly constructed. Every clue means something (even the red herring!) and the eventual explanation is clever and satisfying. Just like when you meet a stranger, you have to go through the process of learning about the person and understanding his or her motives. Because they each have something to hide, you can’t know for sure if this one has a good reason for having a weapon or if that one has a good explanation for what went wrong in the past. And as the numbers dwindle, their strategies change. Is staying together as a group a good idea? Is it best to lock yourself in your room?

In a twisted form of vigilante justice, the killer makes his/her guests pay for crimes that were untouchable by the law. How they react and how they justify their actions is just as interesting as the mystery itself.

I enjoyed And Then There Were None, but I’m taking off a star because of the occasional racist commentary, which I also noticed in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Can you go back and change the way a classic and famous book is written? I don’t think so, but this story did undergo a couple title changes. You can read my review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and find links about the subject here.

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