Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review of the weekend's reading

I finished two books over the weekend, Jacqueline Winspear's Among the Mad and Kate Ross's Cut to the Quick. I've been reading Among the Mad while riding the subway to and from my jobs, while Cut to the Quick has been my "before bed" book.

The fifth book in the Maisie Dobbs series, Among the Mad find Maisie and her apprentice Billy on Christmas Eve, 1931, heading out the door to deliver reports before going their separate ways for the upcoming holiday. Spotting a man who appears to be begging, both Maisie and Billy head over to give the man some money when Maisie has a feeling* and urges Billy to stay back as she moves closer. She isn't fast enough though, to stop the man from killing himself and injuring several others, including Maisie herself.

It turns out that the man's suicide is only the beginning, as there is a vast plot boiling away under the veneer of society and Maisie finds herself chasing after a very smart, dangerous man. One who plans to bring the city to its knees, if necessary.

After my disappointment with the last Maisie Dobbs novel, I was rather pleased to find that I enjoyed this one, although not as much I enjoyed the first three novels in the series. Maisie finds herself seconded to Special Forces, working with her maybe at one time, would have been suitor Detective Inspector Stanton, and working for the maverick Detective Chief Superintendent MacFarlane, head of Special Branch.**

It was a solidly plotted novel, with pieces of the story coming from all corners. Maisie does her investigations her usual way, following her intuition where it leads her (mental institutes, secret government buildings, to the country side and dank warrens where the poor, the displaced, and the forgotten live) and figures out the who's and why's behind the mad man's plot. She also pieces a bit more of herself back together, although the inclusion of her best friend Priscilla feels like a forced move to let Maisie do a bit of self-reflexion.

All in all, a good read for the subway commute.

I can't remember on which blog I read about Cut to the Quick, but whoever wrote about it sold me on it in an instant. A London dandy who investigates crime? Sold.

After getting in over his head at a gambling hall, Hugh Fontclair finds himself rescued by Julian Kestrel, an English dandy. Although he only saved Hugh on a whim, Hugh sees it as something more and invites Julian to be the best man at his upcoming wedding. Figuring it would be a good way to save money--always tight--and curious as to why he was picked, Julian agrees and sets off for the Fontclair's country estate, Bellegarde. Julian gets more than he expected on this trip, though, as it seems Hugh and his family are being blackmailed into the marriage, although no one is willing to say why. Not only that, but the dead woman found one afternoon in Julian's locked bedroom makes things especially interesting.

After proving that there is no possible way he could have killed the unknown woman, Julian is forced to prove his manservant's innocence; made slightly more difficult considering that Dipper is a former pickpocket. Long buried secrets are uncovered at every turn, as Julian leaves no stone unturned in his search for the truth. His search takes him through the past of everyone present at Bellegarde, from Mr. Craddock and Lady Tarleton bitter hatred for one another, to Colonel Fontclair's war record, to Guy, Hugh's cousin, and his fondness for the drink.

I really enjoyed Cut to the Quick, although I had to force myself to read very slowly so that I could savor each word. Ross had a very detailed way of writing, drawing attention to the little things that made the story feel more real. I also enjoyed how the story wasn't just from Julian's point of view, but from the other characters as well; it fleshed out the story in a way that would have been impossible from just one person's point of view. From Maud Craddock, the bride being forced into a marriage to a man she's come to love, to Hugh Fontclair, who is willing to fall on the proverbial sword to save the family's name, to Dipper, sent out on a fact-finding mission by Julian, each additional point of view was unique and enjoyable.

As much as I enjoyed Julian and the way he solved the murder (and subsequent mysteries), I have to say that my favorite character was Phillipa, the eleven year old sister of Hugh. She's a minor character in all of this, but an integral one.

Philippa had a poor opinion of authority and did not submit to it very well. When she was forbidden to do something she had set her heart on, she thought the prohibition over carefully, and if she decided it was unfair or unnecessary, she disobeyed it. Which was why, when her governess told her she could not meet Mr. Kestrel until tomorrow, she decided to slip away from the schoolroom and have a peek at him that evening.
and also,

"I'm sorry you're leaving," said Philippa. "I haven't half finished telling you things."
"It might be just as well to save something for the next time we meet," Julian pointed out.
"But that won't be for a long time, will it? Mama and Papa won't want to go to town, after everything that's happened, and I don't suppose you'll come to visit us here again."
"That might be awkward," he admitted. "At least for the time being."
"I hoped you'd come often, till you were quite one of the family. And then, when I was old enough, you might like to marry me. I shall have money, you know, and I am a Fontclair."
"If I were you, I should wait for a husband who cared for something besides my pocketbook and my pedigree."

and then, after assuring Philippa that it was better to be thought of as clever and interesting, instead of just merely pretty,

"No," she said slowly. "You are supposed to know about these things." She pondered. "I shall be eighteen in seven years. I suppose you'll have forgot all about me by then."
"It's you who'll have forgot about me," he said lightly.
"Oh, no," Philippa shook her head. "I have a very long memory."

How can you not love a character like that? She's so self-assured and knowing, as only an eleven year old girl can be. Most of the characters were great, and I look forward to seeing some of them in future books.

(Sadly, there are only three more and a short story, as the author died several years ago.)

*I really wanted to type "one of her" feelings, but I feel like that would be unfair.

**I've got odds on Maisie finding herself seeing one of these men in the next book; better money on MacFarlane.

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