Tag Archives: romance

Heat Wave – Penelope Lively

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“What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James asked. “What is incident but the illustration of character?” There is a particular kind of novel—James wrote them as did Jane Austen—in which the actors and the action are as interdependent as oxygen and flame. Those books can be exceptionally satisfying and thoughtful reads.

In Heat Wave, Penelope Lively constructs a tense drama out of the fervors and failures of the human heart. Pauline is settled for the summer in a two-family stone cottage in the English countryside. She has a list of books to edit and an avid appreciation of the rural environment that surrounds her—its deceptive bucolic appearance and its roiling, half-hidden complexity.

Next door her only child, Teresa, spends her days tending to toddler Luke and husband Maurice. Teresa is in love with the perfection of her life—the delightful demanding child, the attentive amusing academic she has married. Maurice is writing a book about the marketing of pastoral settings to tourists. His editor, James, and James’ girlfriend Carol are frequent guests as the two men hammer out progress on the book and the two couples visit historical theme parks and tour grand estates.

Pauline was once married to an academic, Teresa’s father, who also wrote books and expanded the bright cocoon of their marriage to include his many serial dalliances. When Maurice shifts slight attention to Carol, Pauline’s antennae pick up the reprise of an old, damaging story. Teresa hovers over Luke, protecting him from harm. And Pauline holds her breath, anticipating a harm she knows too well that begins to affect her daughter.

The summer stretches into a record heat wave as lives come unraveled. The writer of the romance Pauline is editing loses his wife and his way. Carol and James turn up more and more often and Maurice finds moments to linger over Carol. Teresa is radiant and clueless—and then she is not. And a stunning twist at the end of the novel opens the door to questions that can never be asked but arrive with answers anyway.

Lively can write seductive narratives about scenery and weather. Every detail is lovingly portrayed and each one reveals another layer of the story. Pauline reflects on the wreckage of her marriage and the wasted years of misery when she could not let go. She dreads the very real possibility that Teresa is headed into the same dark passage as Maurice makes charming excuses for his absences and slips into the neighboring village for clandestine phone calls. Heat Wave is a meticulous rendering of intimacy and betrayal. Its characters are effortlessly and vividly drawn; its calm surface masks fierce passions and desperate pretensions—as compelling a page-turner as any thriller.

Heat Wave: A Novel   Penelope Lively | HarperCollins 1997

Secrets at Sea – Richard Peck

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Secrets at Sea is a tale of tails—and whiskers and scampering and crumbs of Bel Paese and thimbles of tea. The Cranstons are mice from an old, really old, New York family. Currently they live in a rambling mansion inhabited by human Cranstons, rather a nouveau bunch by mouse accounting. The remaining mice Cranstons, Helena, Louise, Beatrice and boy-in-trouble Lamont, live in the walls and keep things going nicely. Mama and two older siblings drowned in the rain barrel. Papa was done in by the barn cat as he nibbled a dropped ear of corn. Helena is the eldest and in charge and she is busy from morning to night.

A snake gets Lamont by the tail and Helena must rescue the tail and sew it back on—a risky job for a cosmetically-flawed effect but a mouse does what she can. Louise sits on the bed of the youngest Cranston, Camilla, every night and listens to Camilla’s day. Louise understands several languages, of course, but the poor teenage human has no idea how to interpret mouse so Louise holds her tongue, cocks her head sympathetically and gets all the latest dirt.

Beatrice swoons over boys, any and all boys, as long as they are mice. She has to be watched. And the Cranstons have a shocking secret that threatens to upend generations of New York Cranston mice and expose them to deadly peril. Olive, the klutzy, sallow, unpopular elder Cranston girl, cannot interest a beau for love nor money. So the whole family plans a European tour in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, just “to give Olive her chance.”

This is very bad news indeed because if there is one thing mice do not encounter well it is water. And the trip to Europe involves many days on a large ship entirely surrounded by water. Nevertheless, the house will be closed up for who knows how long. The food will disappear and no cozy fires will warm the grates. The foolish Cranstons need some oversight by more socially adept creatures. So the mice stow away and the adventure begins.

Do not think a sea voyage on a crowded ship with cats, constant pitching and rolling, slippery decks, a violently seasick Olive Cranston, mandatory lifeboat drills, assorted human and vermin nobility, and plots that unspool and then thicken is a piece of cake—although there is a fair amount of cake to be had. In fact, at one point Helena is inadvertently and completely iced in sticky pink. But no mind. Beatrice falls in mad love. Lamont apprentices himself to the shipboard mouse steward and develops a Cockney accent and a swagger. Louise plots to keep Camilla happy and Helena discovers she has as many lives as a cat—and needs every one.

Richard Peck sustains a charming voice and a classic fairytale adventure. There is plenty of wry humor and delicious description. Funny plot twists abound and a palace in merry oulde England is no more challenge for these self-assured mice than their upstate estate in New York was. Secrets at Sea is a middle grade book that will keep a young reader absorbed in something more amusing than the usual school tropes of failed tests, bullies and dumb tricks. But do yourself a favor. Volunteer to read it aloud so you get to enjoy it, too. And, if you have no handy kid, just savor the good writing and the clever tail/tale—whatever. Pure whimsy with a soupçon of Austen. Perfect.   

 Secrets at Sea    Richard Peck | The Penguin Group  2011

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011