Tag Archives: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Spunky Ladies, Part Deux

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: A Mystery by Tessa Arlen (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 310 pages)

Class confusion erupts as rascal nephew Teddy Mallory’s body is found hanging in the woods of Lord and Lady Montfort’s country estate the morning after their much celebrated annual summer ball. The setting is the English country manor house and grounds as well as miles of fertile farmland that is worked by hundreds of families dependent on the estate for a livelihood. The time is the early 20th century Edwardian Era.

Author Tessa Arlen has taken on the shifting social dynamics of upper crust society just after the dawn of the industrial revolution. There are strict unspoken rules observed as the gentry interact with their social peers. The set of social rules for interactions between the gentry and their manager servants (in this case, the housekeeper) and the household staff she commands are just as rigid.

To Arlen’s credit, her characters are made real by their thoughts, actions and feelings. The beautiful annual event has been turned into the search for the murder of Lord and Lady Montfort’s college age nephew who has always been difficult but lately has gotten himself deeply involved in criminal activities.

Clementine came downstairs for dinner early. She had taken care over her appearance and had chosen her dress thoughtfully; it was part of her resolution not to let the side down, it was important to keep up appearances at times like these. Her friends gathered together in miserable little huddles throughout the room and were a far more introspective and reserved group this evening, compared to the convivial get-together of the preceding night.

The reader can’t help empathizing with the houseguests trapped into staying while Teddy’s death is being investigated. The lot of them fear that there is a murderer among them. Lady Montfort (Clementine Talbot) takes on the challenge of solving the murder with the help of her stalwart housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, and together they forge a bond and take on sleuthing that most would deem inappropriate, especially since the local constabulary is actively seeking the murderer.

A well-recommended debut novel.

Vintage Gloss

Vintage: A Novel by Susan Gloss (William Morrow, $14.99, 320 pages)

Fast forward to present day Madison, Wisconsin where Violet Turner, a late twenties divorcee and owner of Hourglass Vintage, revels in expressing her individuality in a community that encourages folks like her. Hourglass Vintage, a clothing shop featuring many high-quality items, serves as the nexus for several women of varying ages and backgrounds, each of whom is faced with a life crisis.

Author Susan Gloss patiently sets out the circumstances that bring these women together. April Morgan, a pregnant teenage math wizard who has had a rough childhood and Amithi Singh, a comfortably settled middle aged naturalized citizen who emigrated from India with her academic husband 40 years ago, find refuge at Hourglass Vintage in the person of their most empathetic friend, Violet, when their lives are derailed by deceit and abandonment.

As April’s midsection grew, so did Violet’s sense of longing. She knew it was ridiculous to be jealous. April hadn’t had an easy life, and wouldn’t any time soon. Still, there was a luminosity about her lately, a quiet confidence. Violet had seen it in Karen’s face when she was pregnant with Edith, and she feared she’d never know the feeling herself.

Vintage is Gloss’ debut novel and it is reminiscent of The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean (reviewed on this site in March of 2011). Both proprietors face challenges as they struggle to maintain a vintage clothing shop. Violet has the advantage of having weathered a disastrous marriage, if that’s an advantage, and she knows how to stand up to bullies. April has been forced to step up and be the adult in her childhood with a bipolar mother who has recently died. Amithi is discovering that her world is not what it has seemed to be and she needs to sort out a new approach to her life.

The novel allows the reader breathing room so that the ups and downs experienced by the characters are not overwhelming. Clearly, this is not a tearjerker story.

Well recommended.

Rosemary and Crime

Rosemary and Crime: A Mystery by Gail Oust (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 310 pages)

Rosemary and Crime is the fourth book written by Gail Oust and the first of her Spice Shop mysteries. The main character and narrator is Piper Prescott, the recent former wife of C J Prescott, III, Esq. who is an ambulance chaser. Piper has plunged her divorce settlement money into Spice It Up!, a culinary seasonings boutique situated in Brandywine Creek, Georgia, an up and coming town where she is a Yankee among the Southern townspeople. The opening day for her shop is ruined by the murder of a local celebrity chef, Mario Barrone, who was scheduled to present a cooking demonstration.

“Must have been awful,” Gina continued, “what with finding Mario’s body and all.” She scooped a forkful of chocolate chess pie, a classic Southern sweet, into her mouth. “It it’d been me, I would’ve screamed bloody murder.”

Piper’s BFF Reba Mae Johnson, mother of twin sons, a widow and owner of Klassy Kuts beauty salon, jumps in to assist after the unfortunate discovery of Mario’s body by Piper focuses all the town’s attention on the crime. Naive Piper has picked up the murder weapon and left her fingerprints as she enters through the back door of Trattoria Milano, Mario’s high-end restaurant the night before her shop is set to open.

These better-than-average gal pals get themselves into some hilarious scrapes as they work furiously to solve Mario’s murder. Their nemesis is Police Chief Wyatt McBride, a recent hire in Brandywine, who has returned to his hometown after a law enforcement career in Florida.

Several of the males in this story have mighty character flaws to overcome as author Oust portrays them making many demeaning comments and acting in chauvinistic ways.

Recommended for readers who enjoy cooking and light-hearted drama.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publishers.

You can read a review of The Secret Lives of Dresses here:



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Vintage Clothes

Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)

The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.

Astor Place Vintage

This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.

In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.

In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.

A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.

This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

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The Secret Lives of Dresses

The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean (5 Spot; $13.99; 304 pages)

Don’t be fooled by the naive feeling that permeates this novel at the outset.   The main character is twenty-year-old Dora Winston and her perspective on life shapes the story.   Dora, an orphan, was raised by her beloved paternal grandmother, Mimi Winston, who is a widow.   Their relationship affects the way Dora sees the world and is the basis for her intensely personal sense of values.   Dora’s parents died in an automobile crash when she was just a baby.   So Mimi is her whole family.

The reader is introduced to Dora as she is rushing to the hospital where Mimi is being treated for a stroke.   The stroke renders Mimi helpless and her doctors are on alert for any signs of consciousness.   The circumstances of Mimi’s stroke could be seen as devastating and yet, author McKean somehow manages to morph the story into a classic example of catastrophe = opportunity.

Dora steps up and chooses to keep her grandmother’s vintage women’s clothing store open for business, taking time away in the evenings to visit the hospital.   The clothing is not used in the sense of being secondhand; rather, each dress has a unique provenance.   Although the novel is not a mystery, there is a mysterious quality to McKean’s portrayal of the characters.   This reviewer wanted to know more about them and their lives.   There is a wide range for these characters which sets up good contrasts among contemporaries such as Dora and her cousin Tyffannee or Mimi and Gabby, her housemate.

Through trial and error Dora learns to maintain an open mind permitting her to see the world around her in an unfiltered manner.   She compares her inner hopes and dreams, or the lack thereof, with what’s actually possible.   Due to the wide variety of ages portrayed, McKean keeps her story from being typecast as a young adult book.   The maturity exhibited by Dora is a refreshing change from the self-centered way many twenty-somethings appear to behave on TV and in the movies.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.


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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Secret Lives of Dresses: A Novel by Erin McKean.

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