Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Lady in the Smoke by Karen Odden

Rating: WORTHY!

"How did they found out I wasn't at Anne's?" Find out?

This is an intriguing novel that perked my interest when I saw it offered for review on Net Galley. I'm thankful I was able to get it for review. Please note that since this is an ARC, any comments I make regarding the technical qualities of the writing may be irrelevant to the final published version of this novel as changes are made.

Set in Victorian times this is, unfortunately, a first person PoV story, which I generally do not favor. Indeed, I think they should come with a warning sticker! If I find an interesting novel in a bookstore or the library and see that it's first person, I typically put it right back on the shelf with very few exceptions. It seems that authors are obsessed with 1PoV these days, and they're becoming increasingly harder to avoid if you want to read at all. I find this sad.

With ebooks, you don't always get much of a chance to skim the first couple of pages (or sniff the paper!) and see what's what, but it had sounded intriguing and in the end I wasn't disappointed. This one wasn't bad at all to read. Some authors can write 1PoV without the main character becoming insufferably self-obsessed or self-important. I was grateful for that, too! On a personal note, rest assured that other than a single one I'm almost finished working on, I shall write no first person PoV novels (except for parodies!)! You have my word! And I promise you that mine will carry a warning sticker, which will make it the second novel I'm working on that will be issued one!

But I digress. Lady Elizabeth Fraser, of Kellham Park in Levlinshire, has had three seasons and has not made her match. Exactly why this is so isn't really explored, and I found myself wondering about it, but her mother is less than thrilled with her and makes it known as they head back north from London. There's a good reason for her mother's surly attitude which you might be interested to discover - but I ain't gonna reveal it! The pair don't make it home however, since their train runs off the tracks and they're lucky to escape with their lives. Why take the train? Well, the family fortune isn't what it once was - which is yet another reason Elizabeth's mother is not happy with her failure to marry. After three seasons and now a dip in fortune, Elizabeth is, so her mother believes, destined to end up an old maid, living off relatives. Then there's the accident, and the dedicated and charming Mr Wilcox, who is a railway surgeon, turns up. He doctors people who have been in train accidents; he doesn't do surgery on engines, just FYI!

This couple is thrown together as Lady Elizabeth helps him with the injured, and a whiff of scandal starts to rise, given how much time they spend together, he being an unmarried man and she a debutante (three seasons removed) from the nobility. As she grows to know him, she also realizes that he's into more than surgery. There's something going on with the railways, and it seems to be tied to Lady Elizabeth's shifting fortunes. That's all the spoilers you're going to get, but rest assured this is a satisfying and complex novel with many undercurrents and very little melodrama.

I liked the way the author captures the English. Some American authors do not seem to be able to do this right. The only questionable phrasing I found was "..and he'll come see you then..." which was missing a preposition and felt like it wasn't something that a Victorian lady of breeding would say. Aside from that (and maybe that's arguable), I was impressed by the feel of the novel and by the extensive research the author had done, which showed in what she wrote. It was very easy to become immersed in this world, which says a lot for me, not being a huge fan of historical novels, and less a fan of historical (hysterical?!) romances, but this is where I was most impressed.

I must confess that I don't really get why so many authors feel this urge to pair off their female characters at the end of the story. It's like there's an addiction to resolving every adventure by marrying off the main character at the end. Can a woman not stand on her own two feet? Can she not enjoy a friendship with a man (even in a Victorian novel!) without it having to be a romance? Yes, people do fall in love and get married, and/or end up between the covers, but between the covers of a novel it happens far more often than is realistic, and it happens with an unrealistic degree of expedition, which is what happened here. It would be nice to read more stories where women are not in need of validation by a male character all the time, but the romance here, while rather precipitous for me, was very understated, so it did not turn me off the story. The last chapter was, however, hard to stomach and the least enjoyable part of the novel for me.

One of the most interesting things about this novel for me, was that it's really a detective story yet it never feels like one, and it's a romance, but it doesn't feel like your standard bodice-ripper, either (last chapter notwithstanding), so kudos to the author for writing it this way. My blog is as much about writing as it is about reading, and it's really nice to find novels like this one, which deliver the goods, and in diverse ways, too. It made for an interesting read. I particularly liked the chapters covering the court case, which I think was brilliantly done.

I have to question the use of Levlinshire which seemed like it was intended as a village rather than a county, although its usage was so vague that it might well have meant the county. I don't know why an author would feel the need to invent a county for a novel set in Victorian Britain. Goodness knows there are plenty available, some of which no longer exist. Any would be perfect for a fictional work. No villages, towns or cities in England have that kind of name to my knowledge; only counties end in 'shire', but it occurred to me that perhaps this was the name of the country home of one of Lady Elizabeth's acquaintances, so it was the home which was referred to, and maybe the village by association? It just seemed odd (not odden, just odd!) the way it was used, but I forgave all of those issues when I read this sneaky passage: "and the boy George is a good sort"! I don't think this was intentional, but I agree, Boy George is a good sort!

As you can see, my "complaints" are few and trivial, which was impressive to me. I liked the main character, although there were times when she was rather stupid, but people are stupid on occasion. She had her Victorian sensibility moments, and while these were few, they seemed at odds with her iron resolve on other occasions, so she was a bit of a mixed bag. I never really got this attraction between her and the doctor. To call it love seemed way premature, but for most of the story it was relatively innocuous, so it wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Overall I liked the main character and rooted for her.

Really though, when it comes right down to it, the only important thing about a novel is not the cover, or who the author is, or how slick the back cover blurb is, or whether the novel is a best seller, but whether it's worth reading. To me, a novel is never two-fifths worth reading or four fifths or whatever; a novel is either worth reading or it isn't, and in my view this one is well worth reading. I recommend it.

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