Jacqueline Winspear, “An Incomplete Revenge”

Oh, well. Sometimes we finish books against our own better judgment, and I’m going to chalk this one up to Hurricane Irene. I read the first of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books some time ago and didn’t like it. First, I am cranky about plucky class-disadvantaged heroines in historical novels. Second, Winspear’s writing strikes me as frequently awkward. Maybe she’s reaching for formality to give a flavor of the English inter-war period. But dialogue like this (from An Incomplete Revenge) is pretty wooden. This is Maisie talking to Billy Beale, her assistant:

Hops-picking nostalgia.

Normally I would refrain from the widespread search of a property — it can be time-consuming at a point when manpower might be better utilized elsewhere. However, in this case I think it’s better than nothing. Billy, the boys found the silver close to the chestnut tree where they were collecting conkers. If we make an assumption that whoever made off with the goods leaped over the wall and then dropped the locket and paperweight as he landed and ran, more items might have been lost or a trail might still exist.”

I’ve stayed away from Winspear’s books since, but time hung heavy on my hands yesterday what with the streaming rain and howling wind and no subway service. I had picked up An Incomplete Revenge in the laundry room  (again!), wondering if I should give Maisie another try. And really, I shouldn’t have. I was lured in by two themes: hops picking and gypsies. (You always hear about hops picking, right?) On both topics, I should have stuck with Wikipedia.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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11 Responses to Jacqueline Winspear, “An Incomplete Revenge”

  1. Teresa says:

    I’m definitely not a fan of Winspear, but I still read four of her books before deciding never again. I excuse myself on reading the second because I’d brought the first two on holiday, so it’s what I had. Plus, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for her first novel. Maybe she’d get over the awkwardness. And I actually do have a weakness for “plucky class-disadvantaged heroines in historical novels.” But her writing is so mannered and clunky.

    I vastly prefer Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books for mysteries from the same period that also feature a plucky heroine. The writing is far and away superior.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, Teresa, Laurie King is brilliant. I haven’t read all of the Russell/Holmes books because I find even them a little bit mannered (Sherlock Holmes?! Of course they are mannered!) but never clunky. And her stand-alones are usually terrific.

    I have to qualify my swipe at “plucky class-disadvantaged…” etc. When the book is really, really well-written, as in, say, “Fingersmith,” I am happy to go along with the conceit. It’s casually pasting 21st century cultural assumptions into a distant and different historical context that so often goes awry.

  3. Lisa says:

    I keep seeing rave reviews of Winspear’s books, and the folks at our wonderful local mystery bookstore keep recommending them to me, and I keep saying no thank you. I got the first one from the library – possibly more than once, now that I think about it – and I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter. The writing is a big part of it.

    • carolwallace says:

      And yet, Lisa, she is so very popular. Clearly some people don’t mind. Actually, probably quite a few people like Winspear’s writing — not everyone can be reading despite it. I’d rather that were the answer than that people Just Don’t Notice It.

  4. Susan says:

    I have listened to most of Winspear’s books on CD’s from the library. I like the voice of the reader and the books have been good companions on long drives. I have also enjoyed the Jane Austen mysteries by Stephanie Barron (on CD). Don’t know if I would have stuck with either series if I had been reading the books rather than listening to them, as the two experiences are quite different.

    • carolwallace says:

      Sue, you’re right, it must be completely different. Being a New Yorker, I don’t drive much (!) and don’t have the patience to listen rather than read — but I’d imagine that the narrator becomes a more fully-fleshed character? And that could be important.

  5. Anbolyn says:

    I liked the first book of this series, but have tried to read the second book multiple times – I even tried to listen to it – and just can’t get along with it. At least I know what the attraction is and that always helps when I’m talking with patrons.

    • carolwallace says:

      I always forget this about you, Anbolyn — actually your profession must on some level affect the way you read everything, right? Is it ever possible to read just for yourself?
      The other point is that the great popularity of the Maisie Dobbs books says they are responding to some desire among readers. Nostalgia, sure, and the normal craving for moral order that fuels mystery-reading. But I think there’s also a real desire to see a woman who’s been through difficult times prevail, using her emotional and intellectual gifts.
      OK, off my soap box now!

  6. Christy Summerfield says:

    I think Laurie R. King’s books are nearly incomparable for “plucky heroines”–really they’re so much more than that, but since we’re sort of on “plucky heroines” . . . In fact, I recently left a message on Ms. King’s website asking that she never stop writing. However, I really enjoy Maisie Dobbs and I like her “pluck”. These books are not in the same literary category as King’s Mary Russell mysteries, but for me they’re fun, however slight, and sometimes that’s OK–well, again, for me. I do read historical non-fiction–I find myself hungry for all that was passed over in high school and college history classes. But I also enjoy historical fiction. I would never claim Winspear’s writing is great but I haven’t found historical inaccuracies in her stories. That definitely does not mean there aren’t any. I’ve become an enormous fan of audiobooks. What began as entertainment for long road trips with my son more than 20 years ago has evolved to the point where I’m always listening to one audiobook while also reading another. I listen to books as I’m doing mindless housework for example. And I listen as I fall asleep. It’s as if someone is reading me a bedtime story. Quite delightful. Another advantage to audiobooks for me is that I have finally gotten through enormous classics I have avoided all my life, like “Moby Dick”. I have great admiration for the narrators of audiobooks. Most of the time, one narrator brings all the characters to life. In a previous life, I was an actress and appreciate the talent and craft involved in doing this well. In fact, in all the years I have been listening to audiobooks, there have been only a handful of times when I found the narration so dreadful, I couldn’t continue listening.

  7. carolwallace says:

    Christy, you make a really good case for the audiobook here. (Especially the point about “mindless housework!) Guess I’m going to have to give them a try.

    I certainly don’t want to be the kind of nit-picking reader who goes through other people’s books pointing out mistakes. There are lots of ways to approach historical fiction, and the best we authors can do is hope to bring our readers along with us, keeping them involved in the narrative. But, that being said, we (I’m still speaking as an author) can’t always win. I think (now I’m speaking as a reader) I’m just not Winspear’s ideal reader.

    Which, actually, is fine. For both of us.
    Thanks for weighing in on the discussion, Christy!

  8. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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