Reading Notes: Genre edition

by Sunita

I read a bunch of books! I’m not sure how I managed that, since I’ve been grading and DUS-ing. But I discovered I’d finished three books in about a week: two mysteries and a romance/WF.

First up was The Janus Stone, the second installment in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. Ruth and Nelson go to Norwich, where bones have been discovered in the foundation of a large Victorian house that was most recently a children’s home. The property is now being turned into tiny but luxurious and expensive flats. The novel is set shortly after the previous one, and Ruth is experiencing the joys of first-trimester pregnancy, complete with morning sickness. Her born-again Christian parents are very upset that she is pregnant and refuses to name the father. At first she can hide her pregnancy but as the story progresses and time elapses that becomes more difficult.

I had mixed feelings about the pregnancy storyline at the end of the last book, but it is a good way of keeping Ruth and Nelson connected without turning them into an insta-couple. Nelson loves his wife and has no intention of breaking up his family, and Ruth doesn’t want him to. Nelson’s wife Michelle is an appealing character, and I’m not sure how this triangle is going to be resolved (by which I mean, Michelle is going to have to know at some point and what’s that going to do to their marriage and family?) but so far Griffiths has written it in a way that earns my trust.

As for the mystery itself, the bones turn out to be that of a child from decades ago rather than centuries. Are they those of the little girl who vanished from the home, or are they someone else’s? The story widens to include the former priest and nuns who ran the home, the past owners of the house, and others. Cathbad returns, and Ruth is in jeopardy once again. I didn’t see many of the twists although by the end the villain was fairly obvious. It took a while, though. And the Norfolk countryside was as well portrayed as before.

Next up was Death in Devon, the second installment of Ian Sansom’s County Guides mysteries. These are only nominally mysteries and mostly about Morley, Sefton, Miriam, and the people they encounter as they travel around England for Morley’s project. I found Miriam just as annoying as in the first book and unfortunately she’s around more, but Morley is definitely growing on me. The story is set at a minor public boys’ school in Devon, where Morley’s old friend is headmaster and has asked him to come and give a keynote address. A smashed car is found on the beach below the cliffs and solving this mystery (suicide or not) leads them to other weird happenings. There are plenty of characters and at times there is an air of real menace. And there are caves.

I’m very much liking the development of this series. This installment doesn’t get particularly high marks on Goodreads, but I think it’s because it’s not the 30s mystery readers are expecting, even though there is a death and other events to be solved and it is set in that period. There’s less backstory in this one, but Sefton’s Spain experiences are still part of the narrative and Morley is developing into more of a person and less of a construct. I hope the same happens with Miriam.

Finally, I started reading the new Sarah Morgan book, Family for Beginners and didn’t stop reading until I’d finished. OK, I took a couple of breaks for work and dinner and talking to TheH. But I was hooked and had to keep going until I found out what happened to everyone and everything. The central character, Flora meets Jack, a recent widower with two daughters, when he comes into the flower shop where she works. Flora is wonderful with plants and flowers and uncomfortable with people. She was raised by a stern, unloving aunt after her mother died when she was eight, and she’s alone in the world except for her friend and co-worker. She and Jack hit it off, but his daughters are a much harder sell, especially 17-year-old Izzy. Their mother, Becca, seems to have been practically perfect in every way, except of course she wasn’t.

Flora is shy and uncertain but also immensely empathetic. She’s made her way through life by pleasing people and putting her own needs last. Jack is loving and honorable and oblivious to many things, including how his daughters are really doing after their mother’s death. Plot twists throw them together into a makeshift family setup and when the action moves from New York City to the Lake District, various relationships and secrets emerge and demand resolutions. The romance between Jack and Flora is sweet and mostly hindered by external conflicts since they’re both such nice people, but those conflicts are believable. The plot developments reminded me of Rebecca on occasion, and the dead mother is even named Becca, so I wonder if there was some homage going on there. But Becca is not a monster, thank goodness; I can’t take any more Awful Other Women in my romances and women’s fiction reads.

If I have any quibbles with the book, it was that there was a lot of talking things out. A lot. I would have preferred more of the story to be about the settings, especially once they go to England. Morgan is so good at writing that context, and while what was there was great, I wanted the fell-walking scenes and the garden centre visit, not another kitchen-drama episode. But that really is a minor quibble, and I can see myself returning to this story and characters. I like stories where everyone is doing their best and is decent at heart and where the conflicts are the normal everyday type, which doesn’t make them easier to resolve or trivial, just familiar. Even the fabulous boathouse (oh, of course it’s an homage to Rebecca!) is rented out most of the year for additional income. If you’re a Morgan fan you’ll recognize the settings and some of the character types, and the dog, but that won’t make them less enjoyable.