Jennie’s Reading List for March and April
The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman
I’ve been on a pop history kick after the two Jennifer Wright books I recently read, so I picked up this book. It was only after I bought it that I realized I’ve read this author before – her book Sex with Kings – years ago. I had a vague recollection of disliking that book so I dug into my book log and found that I read it in June 2009 (!) and gave it a C+. I dinged Herman’s writing and the book’s organization, which I found repetitive, in my notes. Either she’s changed as a writer or I’ve changed as a reader, because I didn’t mind the prose this time.
The structure of The Royal Art of Poison was odd, though. It’s organized into two parts. The first as an investigation into how basically gross and unhealthy everything was in the past, even for rich people, what with the poison and the poison antidotes (sometimes poisonous themselves) and the cosmetics (also poison!) and the medicines (again: poison) and how dirty even the fanciest palaces really were. (I’ll never think of Versailles again without remembering that apparently courtiers used to just relieve themselves on the stairs or wherever they happened to be when the urge struck them.)
The second half is an examination of 20 cases of historical people who may or may not have been poisoned, including kings, queens and other notables such as Mozart and Napoleon. I would say more often than not the author’s conclusion was “not poisoned.” Sometimes it’s “not poisoned but sickened in some other way and then basically tortured to death with quack cures.” (Example: Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I of England, who was given the following treatment: his doctors “split roosters and pigeons in half and applied the still-warm, bloody carcasses to his head, which they hoped would extract the noxious humors” Also, purging. So much purging.)
Anyway, this book was a fairly entertaining and easy read, if not quite as funny as the Wright books. I gave it a B.
The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz
I got drawn into this book when I came across a blurb from an author I’ve enjoyed, momentarily forgetting to Never Believe a Blurb. Not that The Lost Night is terrible; it just felt like it could’ve been a lot better.
Lindsey is a 33-year-old New York fact-checker; as the novel starts she’s getting together with Sarah, a friend she lost touch with a decade before. They’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of a traumatic event – the suicide of their mutual friend (and Sarah’s roommate) Edie.
After Edie killed herself, Lindsey quickly and completely divorced herself from their friend group, so it comes as a surprise to her, talking to Sarah over dinner, to find that Sarah had for a time after Edie’s death refused to believe that Edie actually killed herself. Lindsey also finds herself in conflict with Sarah over her memories of Edie’s last night – Sarah insists that Lindsey didn’t come to a concert that night that Lindsey firmly believes she did attend (she, Sarah and their friend Alex – Edie’s recent ex – were all drunk and partying on the roof of their apartment building that night before the concert and before Edie was found dead by Sarah).
These revelations about the past trigger something in Lindsey, and she begins to obsessively dig into the past in a search for the truth. An old videotape from the night in question makes Lindsey begin to suspect that she herself may have done something to Edie (they’d had a falling out before Edie died). But other suspects abound, and the more Lindsey digs the more she comes to believe that Edie was in fact murdered.
Edie is a very stereotypical Manic Pixie Dead Girl; everyone was drawn to her and no one really understood her. Lindsey is sort of a sad figure – she idealizes the year she belonged to the friend group that included Edie, Alex, Sarah, and Kevin (another roommate whose gun was used in Edie’s death). At 33, she’s drifting a bit, with a job she’s good at but which is somewhat dead-end, no real romantic relationship except for guy who uses her for booty calls, and only a couple of close friends. She had a troubled childhood that is hinted at for most of the book, but even when its defining event is revealed, I felt left with more questions than answers. I would’ve really liked a better understanding of her upbringing; she seemed to view her parents as villains but wasn’t entirely sure why, or if her resentment was justified.
I seem lately to be reading a lot of mysteries and thrillers where the identity of the killer feels out of left field – this is the third in recent memory I can think of. Despite that, and only so-so prose and characterization, I still found The Lost Night pretty readable, and thus gave it a B.
Jackie, Janet and Lee by J. Randy Taraborrelli
It’s been a while since I’ve read a juicy, gossipy biography. My sister accidentally ordered two paper copies of this book, and instead of returning one she gave it to me. I used to be a bit of a Kennedy-phile, so it seemed up my alley. It details the lives of Janet Lee Auchincloss and her daughters, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill. Janet was a socialite who grew up with wealth but with a distant father. Maybe that’s what drove her into her passionate but troubled first marriage to John “Black Jack” Bouvier, who was 16 years older than Janet. The marriage didn’t last, but it did produce Jackie and Lee. Both went onto live very public lives, though of course Jackie was by far the more famous. One of the major themes of the book is Lee’s inability to ever step out of Jackie’s shadow, and how frustrated she was by it. It didn’t help, of course, when Jackie married Ari Onassis, who had been Lee’s lover first (but never committed to her).
I would say Lee is a bit more of the focus of the book than Janet or Jackie. Perhaps that’s because she lived the longest (she only died this February, at 85). Maybe there were more sources who were willing to talk about her. But I also think it’s because Janet and especially Jackie were somewhat closed off and inscrutable, even to those close to them. Lee was much…needier seems like an unkind word, so perhaps it’s enough to say that she was a seeker. She wanted to make her mark on the world but never quite knew how, so she careened from one thing to another – acting, interior decorating, husbands and lovers.
Even though Janet had two other children with her second husband, Hugh Auchincloss, Janet, Jackie and Lee remained something of a defined unit while all three were alive. Again, Jackie is something of an opaque character in this story, but in many ways (maybe because of that opacity?) she comes off the best. She and Lee weren’t as close in later years as they’d been when they were young, and even her mother came to resent her after she refused to spread the Onassis wealth around as Janet wanted her to. But Jackie took care of her mother during Janet’s long battle with Alzheimer’s, whereas Lee couldn’t handle it and stayed away. Jackie appeared to be closer to her half-siblings Janet Jr. and Jamie as well. I came to admire her in a way I hadn’t before.
I gave Jackie, Janet and Lee a B+. There was an excerpt at the end for a book the author has coming out in June about the younger generation of Kennedys (some of whom are grandparents at this point!), and my interest is piqued.
Milkman by Anna Burns
I was alerted to this book by Janine’s laudatory review. I was a little concerned about the “experimental fiction” aspect and the note about some readers struggling with it, but I figure I got through The Sound and the Fury (twice!) and liked it, so how hard could Milkman be? It turned out to be harder at some times than others; I often have to get into a rhythm with prose that’s not straightforward and clear. A couple of times I just wasn’t in the right mood and the discursive style bugged me, but most of the time I was well in tune with the unique voice that Burns created (especially in the latter parts of the book).
The prose itself was a reflection of and perhaps a commentary on the world the narrator inhabits – one in which things are not named or spoken of openly, and so characters talk (and think!) in roundabout, often almost impenetrable ways. There are parallels, too, between middle sister’s dilemma with the Milkman and the plight of all of the innocent people caught up in the Troubles. Both situations place its victims in untenable positions – once they are presumed guilty their innocence becomes almost irrelevant, as the rules of the time and place value perception over fact (and groupthink over individualism). It’s a tribute to Burns’ voice that she can make a story so filled with loss and sadness and menace so funny. I gave Milkman an A.
Postscript: I forgot to mention that as I was reading Milkman Lyra McKee was murdered in Belfast. The past is never really past, I guess.
Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve read a Lisa Kleypas historical, but I think it’s been a while. I loved several of her books back in the day, but I’m so persnickety about historical romance these days and when I do read one I prefer to go for something less conventional.
(For a plot synopsis and positive review of Cold Hearted Rake, see Kati’s review from 2015.)
Cold-Hearted Rake *is* pretty conventional, down to its rather nonsensical pun title. Devon is neither all that cold-hearted nor much of a rake. (At one point when the heroine accuses him of being an “infamous rake” he denies it, stating that he is “…fairly standard as rakes go”, which I did like.) The book has the several of the hallmarks I’ve tired of in my years of reading historical romance: a lot of mental lusting and unlikely random situations where one of the characters just happens to walk in on the other in the bath – that sort of thing.
So it took me a while to warm to the romance, and I found myself more interested in the side stories – West’s reformation, the beginnings of the romance between Helen and Winterborne, even the accident that Devon and Winterborne are involved in. Somehow I really wasn’t expecting the accident, but I thought it moved the story forward well on several fronts.
Ultimately, I did like Cold-Hearted Rake, mostly because I liked how Devon became a better person. Heroes becoming better people are fairly de rigueur in historical romances, but somehow this one moved me and I actually believed it. I’m giving Cold-Hearted Rake a B.
My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing
This is another thriller; it’s described in the blurb as “Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, which is not that accurate but gives the reader an idea of what they are in for. I should have paid a little more attention to the “Dexter” part because I’m not into reading things from a serial killer’s perspective, and this book squicked me out at times. It was really a mixed bag because the twists did keep me reading, but the subject matter was distasteful. I also found myself pondering fairly big plot holes.
The unnamed narrator and his wife Millicent are a perfect suburban couple – good jobs, nice house, two kids (a boy and a girl). They’re also burgeoning serial killers, an avocation they just kind of fell into (or so the narrator thinks). His main interest is the sense of excitement and togetherness that kidnapping women with his wife gives him. It’s clear from the beginning that Millicent is more of a go-getter in the field, so to speak. In fact, there are some pretty big hints telegraphed by the narrator (though he himself seems oblivious, perhaps due to a combination of deliberate ignorance and dimness) that Millicent is not exactly what she seems.
I didn’t quite see the twist at the end coming, at least not specifically – I had a general idea that the family that slays together doesn’t necessarily stay together. But in general I have really mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side: very readable – I read it in a couple of days, which is quick for slow-reader me, and found myself eager to pick it up a number of times. So in that sense, it was very entertaining. I’m still thinking about it days later, which is unusual for a book read quickly that really wasn’t that deep. But this (to get to the minus side) is both because of how disturbing I found the story, and because there were some plot holes that I’m not sure if I’m being picky to be bugged by.
Whenever I don’t have deep experience in a genre, I wonder if things that bothered me are just examples of the way things are in that genre. For instance, if someone was new to romance, and was like, “what’s with all the mental lusting?”, I’d be like, yeah, that bugs me too, but that’s just how a lot of romances are; it’s pretty common. With mysteries/thrillers/suspense, I’m beginning to think plot holes are my “mental lusting.” I mean, even Gone Girl, which I hold up as the book that really got me into this genre, and which I think was really well done – even that book has aspects it’s better not to think about too deeply. Could the villain really have gotten away with everything they did in that book? I know there were reasons the police didn’t pursue it, but it still seemed unlikely to me.
It’s similar with My Lovely Wife in the end; I’m not sure that I believe the police would not be able to make a case that they apparently don’t make (I’m trying not to be too spoilerish here). There are other points where I just don’t understand the logic of the characters. But they’re serial killers, so maybe I’m not supposed to? The narrator is such a cipher – he seems like a normal guy and sometimes evinces discomfort at what they’re doing but not nearly enough given the nature of the crimes. I couldn’t figure out if he was just sort of shallow/dumb, and thus didn’t feel the enormity of the crimes, or if we were supposed to be surprised at the depravity beneath the surface. The latter didn’t really make sense given his actions, though.
I’m not really sure how to grade this book given my ambivalence about everything about it. I’m going to go with my gut instinct and give it a B-.