Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

07 August 2017

The Hidden Blade


While The Hidden Blade is a prequel to Thomas's historical romance, My Beautiful Enemy, it is not at all a romance, but is straight up historical fiction set in late 1870s Europe and China. However, even without the romance, The Hidden Blade is a grand, sweeping story packed with lush descriptions, tons of historical detail, and compelling characters ... trust me, you're not going to miss the luv.

Ying-ying and Leighton's live are told in more or less parallel stories which, while linked by love of a mutual friend, come together all too briefly. Their individual coming of age stories are full of breathtaking tragedy and suffering. The small moments of happiness and peace are frequently followed by some new fresh hell. It's a novel to make you weep.

Yet, I loved this book. With determination and desire for a better life, Ying-ying and Leighton survive heartache and adversity to become characters worthy of an epic romance. I cannot wait to see what happens when they finally meet in My Beautiful Enemy.

The Hidden Blade by Sherry Thomas (NLA Digital LLC, 2014). Kindle edition.

26 June 2017

The Summer Before The War


Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (link to review) remains one of my favorite novels of all time, so it's a little surprising that it's take me this long to get around to her recent The Summer Before the War. To be fair, my thinking went: I was a little worried that TSBTW couldn't compare to MPLS and I would be disappointed and so if I never read TSBTW then I couldn't be disappointed, right?

Silly, silly woman. The Summer Before the War was an excellent read. One of those delightful books I want to press into the hands of everyone I know and inflict upon book clubs. I even (rather desperately) want someone to make a film adaptation à la Merchant Ivory Productions.

It's sweet and witty and sad and just so fucking CHARMING. If you've ever wanted an Anne Shirley, Downtown Abbey, World War I mashup ... this is the book for you. Am I wrong to have imagined Beatrice Nash as a Friend of Anne? A well-educated, young teacher who believes in woman's equal place and making the world better through good(ish) works? Fiercely independent, eminently competent, and yet a little lonely and desperate for bosom companions?

Okay, so I WAS completely smitten with Beatrice. But it's the kind of novel full of interesting characters who are very difficult not to fall at least a little in love with. The only characters I can say I did not like were Mrs Fothergill, (an odious woman), the landlady (ditto) and the Professor (because SPOILERS, but trust me).

Lest you think this book is all sweet and gentle fluff, I will point out that quite a lot of it is about women's rights and class structure. Beatrice can't look after her inheritance, because she is an unmarried lady. She almost loses her job, because she is too attractive. She can't publish her fathers letters, because she is a woman and, therefore, has no authorial authority. Who she dines with, what books she reads, which students she gives extra help to, how much she spends on ladies' incidentals ... Beatrice is judged for all these things and one imprudent choice could cost her her living and place in society.

And then the war happens and so much changes. And so much doesn't. Because People.

I listened to The Summer Before the War on CD, read by Fiona Hardingham. Hardingham did an excellent job distinguishing between the different characters and classes, giving them each their own unique voice so that I was never confused about who was speaking. She also brought appropriate wit and emotion to every scene, giving the the story great immediacy. She made me laugh. She made me cry. She made me sit in my garage for an extra three minutes, because I couldn't bear to not hear just a little bit more.

Definitely recommended.

The Summer Before the War written by Helen Simonson & read by Fiona Hardingham (Random House Audio, 2016)

29 March 2016

A Taste for Nightshade


Transported to Australia for trying to swindle a young gentleman, Mary Jebb eventually escapes the nightmarish hellhole that is the Australian penal colony system, makes her way back to England and reinvents herself as Peg Blissett and find work in the kitchen of the young matron, Grace Croxon.

Grace’s husband, Michael, is the brother of the gentleman Mary Jebb swindled. He married Grace for her huge tracts of land, which he intends to raze and build a mill upon. He doesn’t love Grace. Indeed, he barely seems to tolerate her and spends much of his time at “his” mill or the local inn. No wonder then that Grace, very naïve and lonely as she is, becomes quite attached to her new cook. Who has, quite probably, some rather terrible plans for Grace.

If you’re a fan of the BBC dramatization of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith or ITV’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, I think you’ll enjoy reading this book. Mind you, it is a definite chunkster and the story is unevenly paced – it seemed to take forever to get going and then it felt as if Bailey was trying to pack enough action for two novels into the last third of the book. Even though I went back and reread a few chapters, I still feel I didn’t adequately grasp some characters’ motivations or actions. This made the big, Gothic “sturm und drang” type moment at the mill a little less thrilling for me than it might have been otherwise because I was left asking “but why?” Overall, though, I found A Taste for Nightshade to be a hugely enjoyable novel and I will be reading Bailey’s first novel, An Appetite for Violets, which also features a cook, receipts, and a murderous conspiracy!

A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey (St. Martin's Press, 2016)

13 January 2016

The Mayor Casterbridge: Thoughts on the First Half


I’ve been reading (and listening) to Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. It began as a grudging I-said-I’d-read-this-in-2015 assignment, but quickly began to enjoy it ... which really should come as no surprise considering how much I’d enjoyed reading Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

However, there is still Under the Greenwood Tree. There will always be Under the Greenwood Tree. It can happily join Dickens’ Bleak House as “literary works I know I’d really enjoy if I could just get into them, but can’t ever seem to get into.” (Which is strange, because I’ve enjoyed multiple film adaptations of the two and, usually, a decent film adaptation can help me slide into even the most obfusticating novel).

Anyway! The Mayor of Casterbridge is just all sorts of yumminess! It’s set in the southwest of England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution so there’s lots of conflict between preindustrial methods/thinking and industrialized ones. Henchard, our “Man of Character,” having sold his wife and child, has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and turned himself a model of success in his country town – even rising so far as mayor. But Henchard can’t stay long in that sweet spot -- change is coming in the return of his family and the arrival of a stranger whom he will both love and despise.

I’m only up through Chapter XXIII -- Lucetta accidentally meets Farfrae ("fair, fresh, and slenderly handsome") while expecting Henchard -- but there’s no doubt I am one hundred percent emotionally invested in The Mayor of Casterbridge. It’s such a soap opera! And Henchard may be the protagonist, but I do not find him a very sympathetic one. He clings too much to old methods and refuses to change his mind, because ... I think he finds it all very threatening? He was a nobody who became a Somebody and now that’s all endangered because of new-fangled ideas put forth by a smooth-talking Scot and he doesn’t know how to go along with the new ideas?

And Henchard could have my sympathy for that -- we’re all dinosaurs in some way -- but his treatment of the women in his life is indefensible. Yes, the trouble all began years back when, in a fit of drunkenness, Henchard finally did what he’d (equally drunkenly) threatened to do before and sold his wife, Susan, and daughter, Elizabeth Jane, to another man. So he can blame demon rum for that first act. But everything that follows ... Henchard’s stone-sober for all that.

However. I have another twelve chapters to go. It’s possible the man might improve? I certainly would like Elizabeth Jane to find some lasting happiness and I’m not sure she’ll find that again with her father or even with Donald Farfrae. I’m not convinced Farfrae feels any particular tendre for Elizabeth Jane. Oh, there’s definitely a sympathy of spirit and he finds her "so pleasing, thrifty, and satisfactory in every way" BUT I still don’t know that would be enough if she weren’t the mayor’s (his ex-friend) daughter. Lucetta is a mature woman of property and Farfrae is a practical man. If Lucetta wants him, she’ll certainly get him.

I’m not blaming Lucetta for setting her cap at Farfrae and “stealing” him away from Elizabeth Jane, either. Her past intimacy with Henchard just about ruined her socially and now she has a chance to recreate herself. Henchard could be the man she settles for, but he’s doing a bad job of wooing so far ... probably because he doesn’t realize he needs to make woo.

Henchard! I’d be much further along with The Mayor of Casterbridge if I didn’t keep putting the novel down to facepalm over Henchard.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (Harper & Brothers, 1895)

The Mayor of Casterbridge written by Thomas Hardy & read by Simon Vance (Tantor Media, 2010)

08 January 2016

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery


A coworker, who reads almost nothing but historical mysteries starring lady detectives, encouraged me to start reading Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series as she thought it was quite good and definitely something I would enjoy. And, you know, I was all set to take her advice, but then I was passing through the New Book room, saw Raybourn’s newest work, A Curious Beginning, on display, and was so smitten with the cover that I decided I’d start right there with Raybourn.

Maybe I expected too much of A Curious Beginning, but I found it just okay. The premise is an interesting one and I enjoyed much of the banter between characters, but overall the story left me feeling ... meh. Indifferent. Unenthusiastic. Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing and threats to Veronica’s life, the solution to the central mystery of the novel -- the death of the Baron -- simply didn’t take up enough of the book or feel developed enough. Also, and quite unfortunately, I guessed what direction the story was going in early on and so watching the characters slooooowly come to the same conclusion was, delicious banter aside, a bit frustrating.

Also, god love a duck, Veronica has purple eyes. (Which, okay, with that name she’d have to. But she is also literally a secret princess).

My coworker has not read A Curious Beginning and still stands by her recommendation, so I will have to take the first Lady Julia mystery, Silent in the Grave, to lunch soon.

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn (New American Library, 2015)

17 April 2015

Tainted Angel


During the Napoleonic war the British government recruits toothsome young women as “angels” -- special agents who seduce information from the unwitting enemy. Vidia's mission is to spy on a very wealthy man who has the power sink the British economy. But soon Vidia’s colleagues suspect she’s double-crossing them and working for Brodie. And, maybe, she is. Or isn’t. It’s, frankly, impossible to tell as everyone engages in a very dangerous (and, at times, quite sexy) game of cat-and-mouse.

Loaded Tainted Angel onto my Kindle before going on holiday and it turned out to be just the sort of read I needed to get me through a five hour flight. Tainted Angel is a fun, romantic romp through Regency London with lots of cross-and-double-cross cloak-and-dagger type espionage. I wasn’t always sure what was going on --the author sees fit to let you figure out things as you go and Vidia isn’t the most forthcoming protagonist when it comes to her past adventures -- but I found I didn’t care very much. Eventually, I would know what Vida was up to and all would be well. In the meantime, I just enjoyed the journey.

I greatly enjoyed Vidia’s interaction with her maid, Maisie, and only wish there was more of it. The Dokes’s surprise twist was great fun and I hope she gets a book of her own ... if this is going to be a series and I have absolutely no reason to think that! (I know, I’m anti-series only until it suits me not to be). Indeed, nearly all of the characters were delightful -- even the villains, whoever they might be.

Tainted Angel by Anne Cleeland (SourceBooks, 2013). AZW file.

03 April 2015

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet


The Pursuit of Mary Bennet is set three years after the events detailed in Pride and Prejudice. Mingle's Mary is a good deal different from the priggish, pedantic girl Austen too-briefly described in Pride and Prejudice and the change is a little surprising at first, but makes sense if you accept Mingle's premise that, with the absence of the older married sisters, Mr. Bennet has more time to spend improving his younger daughters. Also that Mary, having seen the happiness attained by her older sisters, has become more aware of of her own character flaws and actively worked to smooth them over.

I was willing to accept both suppositions and embrace this improved Mary. I was glad to see her with Jane at High Tor, enjoying the gentle attentions of Mr. Henry Walsh, even if silly Kitty did keep getting in the way. However, the baby craziness in the second half really put me off, because it was so unexpected and, well, a bit creepy. Poor lonely and unlovable Mary! Don't be another Lady Edith!

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride & Prejudice Novel by Pamela Mingle (William Morrow, 2013)

07 November 2014

A Mad, Wicked Folly


After engaging in some simply scandalous behavior in France, artsy Victoria Darling is sent home in disgrace. Appalled by her hoydenish behavior, her parents try to explain to Vicky why her behavior and desires are so terribly wrong. They're not written as ogres and, while they break her heart, they clearly believe they're doing it for her own good. Basically, this statement by her father sums it all up:

I know you have ideas for your future, but I must say that further schooling is quite out of the question. A girl’s duty in life is to be a pretty and entertaining wife to her husband. She should not outshine him in knowledge lest she show him up among his peers. Advanced study is harmful to women as it makes them discontent and unfit for lives as wives and mothers. You are quite a pretty girl, so your prospects are much more promising than Louisa Dowd’s anyhow, poor thing. She is but a plain girl, and education is the only option for her.

Of course, Vicky longs to be more than a pretty, entertaining wife. She wants to be a proper artist and study at the Royal Academy. But her father would never grant permission (or pay tuition) and, as an unmarried miss, she has no voice or funds of her own. But maybe the man her parents so clearly desire her to marry (her family has new money, his family has title and ton) will allow her ...

What a romp! Ohh, yes, A Mad, Wicked Folly frequently made me angry because the limited sphere historically allowed women is ANGRIFYING and the novel does not downplay that at all -- the arrests, the forced-feedings, the appalling lack of public sentiment is all there. A Mad, Wicked Folly is essentially a select history of British suffragette movement wrapped up in pretty ribbons of artistic yearning and class-crossing love. All in all, a highly enjoyable read and I look forward to its sequel -- set during WWI, yay! -- whenever it comes out.

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller (Viking, 2014)

17 August 2014

The Velvet Room


Belonging to a place isn't nearly as necessary as belonging to people you love and who love you and need you.

The Velvet Room follows the story of Robin, a bookish young girl whose family is one of the many migrant families found in California during the Great Depression. They are constantly on the move, trying to make ends meet, and there is little room in such a life for the beauty or solitude Robin craves. But then a stroke of luck -- her father finds work at the McCurdy ranch and Robin makes an important friend in a little old woman named Bridget.

Despite the mystery behind the old Palmeras House and Robin's insistence on befriending the bruja, there's nothing particularly frightening or ominous about the story. I say this because the title of the book itself sounds mysterious and the current edition looks (imho) pretty darn ominous!


Instead of being about scary things, The Velvet Room much more about the (gently told) hard truths of a childhood lived during the Depression and also about finding a place to be yourself without losing the ones you love. Truth be told, The Velvet Room reminded me quite a lot of of Doris Gates' Blue Willow, in that they share similar settings and both deal with longing and belonging. I'm pretty sure if you enjoyed the one, you will enjoy the other. I certainly enjoyed this book and wish it had a sequel. 4 out of 5 secret diaries.

The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder w/ illus. by Alton Raible (Atheneum, 1965)

26 July 2014

Oscar Wilde & A Death of No Importance


Oscar Wilde & A Death of No Importance is the first book in The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries series by Gyles Brandreth and was my library's July book discussion selection. I've always been tremendously fond of Oscar Wilde and a novel in which he stars as an amateur detective sounded like just my cup of tea.

It was ... okay. The period detail is well done with a good feel for London at the end of the Victorian Age. The scandalous hints of sexual impropriety are treated delicately and appropriately for the time (even if it is a bit frustrating for the modern day reader). Meeting fictional versions of Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard was vastly entertaining. Wilde, a little less so. I enjoyed him very much as a character when he was being Oscar Wilde the Poet, Playwright, and Epigrammatist. But Oscar Wilde as Sherlock Holmes was a disappointment.

When Oscar is acting as Holmes, we are treated to stereotypical scenes of Holmesian brilliance. You know, the scene where we encounter a new character and Holmes immediately starts saying brilliant things he should have no way of knowing about the person? Often it has little to do with the overarching story and everything to do with showing of Holmes' scintillating deductive skills. There's nothing wrong with a scene like that, if it is carefully and sparingly used, but there's too much of it in Oscar Wilde & A Death of No Importance and it often seems to come out of the blue. Switch off Wilde. Switch on Holmes. Switch off Holmes. Switch on Wilde.

Also, as the clues Wilde-Holmes bases his deductions on in such scenes are frequently not made evident to the reader it makes it impossible for the reader make similar deductions. It forces reading to become a very passive experience -- with the reader just along for the ride -- and I am an active reader. My brain is constantly firing away, trying to figure out character motives and plot direction well ahead of whatever and/or whenever the narrator may chose to tell me. Riding along on Sherlock Holmes' or Oscar Wildes' coattails is just downright frustrating. It makes me say nasty things like "Oh, no, here come's another Mr. Clever Dick moment."

And yet, for all the clever dick moments, neither the motive behind and nor the means of murder were particularly clever or believable. There was also a definite squick factor to the murder's aftermath that jarred with the delicate way Wilde and friends' sexual improprieties were handled.

Will I read more in this series? No. Am I full of regret for having read it? No. Three out of five vermillion-coloured ties.

Oscar Wilde & A Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

18 July 2014

Nightwood


She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured and it not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man's image is a figure of doom.

A preface by Jeanette Winterson! An introduction by T.S. Eliot! I approached Nightwood with high hopes ... and they were cruelly dashed against a wall of dull and impenetrable text. The novel begins with the birth of Felix, jumps ahead thirty-odd years, introduces us to circus people, introduces us to the "doctor," and then (finally! on page 38!) we meet Robin Vote. But do we? The obfuscated prose is so dominated by Felix and the "doctor" that I was unsure how to "read" Robin except as a nervy woman who should never have married or, heaven help them all, had a baby.

And then we meet Nora ... and I just gave up. Skipped ahead to the last two chapters, mumbled "what?" a lot to myself, and put the novel aside.

Basically, I'm just smart enough to know I'm not smart enough to appreciate Nightwood. I'm sure, for the right reader, it's phenomenal. However, it left me feeling as if I'd spent the evening battering my head against a wall.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (New Directions, 2006)

11 May 2014

Reading Rambo’s Splendorous Lady Audley’s Secret Readalong: Chapters V-IX


Helen Talboys is dead! Oh, no! Poor George! &etc. George and Robert head to Ventnor to see the grave of poor dead Helen Talboys and meet up with her father, Captain Maldon, and the child. He receives a lock of hair from his father-in-law’s landlady and (quelle surprise) the hair is like-but-not-quite-like his dear dead wife’s hair (“It changes in illness.” Seriously? We believe that?) and a moving account of her death. George decides to run away to Australia, but first he’ll draw up a document appointing Robert Audley as guardian to little George Talboys. Then he finds he can’t leave (that ship has literally sailed) and eventually ends spending the winter in St. Petersburg with Robert (Russia in the winter -- best cure for depression, ever).

A year later, George is looking a bit better and Robert decides they’ll visit his uncle’s house, Figtree Court (randomly want to point out that fig is a biblical contender for the forbidden fruit … no idea if it matters to the story or not but FACTOID), but then Lady Audley won’t have them (great hulking brutes that they are) and they stay in a local inn. They fish and loll about and dine … and they keep not seeing Lady Audley. Finally, Robert sees his family passing in their carriage and is quite smitten (because love among cousins is not enough for this novel) with his aunt’s beauty.

Back at Figtree Court, Lady Audley remarks on Phoebe’s similar looks (time to find a new job, Phoebe!) and sends her to London to run “a little errand.” Coincidentally (?), Lady Audley receives a telegraph from an old friend who is dying … in London! (Yes, I googled West Brompton). So Lady Audley and husband are off to London to see her poor dear sick friend and, once again, George doesn’t get to meet *cough* his dead wife *cough* Lady Audley.

Robert and George visit the house, anyway, and Alicia shows them the secret way (presume the same one alluded to in the first chapter, but sounds much bigger so idk) to get into her ladyship’s locked boudoir. Because that’s what genteel guests do? Crawl on their hands and knees along secret passages to see her lady-ship’s gowns and hairbrushes?

And the portrait! The portrait that, when paired with rustling ivy and “last cold flicker of twilight,” seems positively ominous. The lurid brightness, the sinister light, the almost wicked look, the raging furnace of color and the folds of the gown that look like flame – they all suggest damnation and hellfire to me. Certainly, the Lady Audley of this painting sounds nothing like the fair, childlike and innocent beauty the novel has thus far presented us with. Masks and metaphors and Dorian Gray-esque shizzle. SO MUCH FUN. (But maybe that’s because I’m 100% Team Not-Dead-Yet Helen Talboys?).

Anyway, George reacts strangely to the portrait and, later that evening, seems to go off his nut during a thunderstorm. Robert’s all “don’t be afraid of a little lighting, old chap” (in my head, Robert always sounds like Bertie Wooster as played by Hugh Laurie), but George is almost violent in his behavior, stomping out of the inn, and walking around in the rain like some moody Byronic hero. But the storm (and George’s mood), passes with the night and the two go fishing. Except, once Robert falls asleep on the river bank, George goes off in the direction of Figtree Court.

No-one sees George but a servant who mentions m’lady is in the lime-walk and yet when m’lady comes back, she comes from the meadow behind the house (THE WELL!) and behaves as if George Talboys' visit is completely unknown to her. And then, later when Lady Audley asks whether she's been idle that afternoon, Phoebe is all:
"No, my lady, I have been altering the blue dress. It is rather dark on this side of the house, so I took it up to my own room, and worked at the window."
Oh, Phoebe, you are so dead! Because what does Phoebe's bedroom overlook? The well,"only visible from the garret windows at the back of the west wing."

01 May 2014

Reading Rambo’s Splendorous Lady Audley’s Secret Readalong: Chapters I-IV


Reading Rambo is hosting a readalong of Lady Audley's Secret, which I signed up for largely because the Wilkie Collins The Moonstone readalong was ridiculous fun. Also, I've had a yen to read Lady Audley's Secret ever since I saw it mentioned in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. Oh, I was aware of it long before then – presume it was mentioned in one or more of the pseudo-historical romance novels I gobbled up in my preteens – but Betsy and Tacy made it sound desirable. What can I say? I want to read what my literary crushes read.

Anyway, the first week covers Chapters I-IV which can be summarized (rather ominously) thus:

A charming lady.
A May-December marriage.
An embittered daughter.
A husband returned from abroad.
A barrister.
A servant on the make.
A baby's shoe.
An old well.
A secretive lady.

Hurrah! What fun! Lady Audley is such an annoyingly perfect paragon of Victorian womanhood that I rather want her to be guilty of something terrible. And yet, at the same time, I don't. Because it's a Victorian Man's World and I'd like to see a woman, even if she is a flaxen-curled china doll, get one over on the establishment.

Also, who can really blame Helen Talboys for committing bigamy? Her husband skived off to parts unknown and the entire time he was gone (three and a half years!) he never bothered to drop Helen a line to tell her he was alive or send send any money home. How long should she have waited? Penniless? Just her, the baby, and her drunken dad? No surprise Helen'd go looking for work. And, as a married woman with a baby, she couldn't go out for well-paying genteel position! It just wasn't done. So Helen Talboys became Lucy Graham, governess in a surgeon's household.

And what if her employer's rich neighbor takes a shine to Miss Lucy Graham? So long as he understands she cannot love him, why not marry him? It's a risk, but odds are Helen Talboys' husband is never coming back. I don't know that I'd have had the guts to do it and I Helen/Lucy for chancing it.

But we all know the big issue isn't Helen Talboys faking her death or assuming the false identity of Lucy Graham or marrying someone whilst already married ... the big issue is the old well, just how weak and doll-like Helen/Lucy really is, and how much she wants to stay Lady Audley.

So who do we think we end up in the well? George Talboys? Phoebe Marks? Luke Marks? Robert Audley? All of them? I admit I've read ahead so I am pretty darn certain one of them is in the well, but there's no reason more bodies can't fit ...


Reading Lady Audley's Secret, I frequently get the sense that Helen Talboys/Lucy Graham/Lady Audley is just a Russian nesting doll of false identity and I find myself wondering who she really is at her heart. Will we be introduced to Helen before she was Mrs. Talboys? Before she was George Talboys' "gentle, innocent, loving little wife" and just "a penniless little girl, the daughter of a tipsy old half-pay lieutenant?"

On a totally random note, I hope the pale governess from the Argus has a happy future, because thirty-three year old Victorian governesses deserve happiness.

Also, I apologize for the lack of gifs, but I am old and the ways of awesome-gif-finding are beyond my ken.

22 November 2013

High Rising


It was nearly dark when Laura crossed the green and walked down the willow avenue beside the brook. It was a lonely walk, and had a slightly haunted reputation, which occasionally caused one of Mr. Knox's maids to have hysterics and give notice. But, being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back. At the far end stood the Knoxes' house, lonely among the water-meadows, often surrounded by thick white mists, a little sinister, but Laura was not imaginative except in the matter of plot and incident.

High Rising is the first of Thirkell's Barsetshire novels and centers around Laura Morland, a widow and author of popular thrillers, and her circle of friends. Her neighbor and dear friend, George Knox, has recently taken on a secretary, Miss Grey ("The Incubus"), and Laura's other friends are dead cert Grey means to get her claws into Knox and make him marry her ... but surely Laura can do something about that!

Overall, an enjoyable romp. Not only is Laura a well-wrought protagonist, but Thirkell has padded her novel with a whole crew of wonderful secondary characters -- including Laura's train-obsessed young son, Tony, and her devoted secretary, Miss Todd. Alas The Incubus, the villain of the piece, was probably the most weakly rendered character and it was difficult for me to dislike her as much as I was supposed to. Instead, I found myself disliking all the other characters for their willingness to close rank against her. Don't get me wrong, The Incubus was a wicked girl ... I just don't know why and the casual dismissal of her behavior ("neurotic," "wonky," and "a bad egg") just frustrated me.

Also High Rising, even more so than Wild Strawberries, is clearly a product of the 1930s and there's so much casual racism in it (seriously, it all feels entirely off-hand and everyday) that I found some passages hard going. And so, as enjoyable as I found the novel overall, I am rather reluctant to pick up another Barsetshire novel any time soon. Maybe some Monica Dickens? It's been awhile ...

High Rising by Angela Thirkell (Virago Press, 2012)

23 September 2013

Mariana


I've fallen into one of those moods where, while I'm gobbling up books as if they were warm oatmeal cookies, I don't feel like talking about them. Last month I could probably have written screens-worth of love to Monica Dickens' Mariana, but the best I can say now is "It was a sweet book and I enjoyed it very much. It didn’t hold much in the way of surprises, but that was fine." And, yet, I loved the novel as I was reading it and think anyone who enjoys quiet, pre-World War II "women's" novels or films would also love Mariana. There's comedy and romance and family drama and a beloved country house and Paris before the Nazis and, oh, it's just grand.

Mariana is, essentially, a quiet book about growing up. We begin nearly at the end and then quickly move back to Mariana's childhood before slowly moving forward again. It was a little dangerous, I thought, of Dickens to begin the book at its end as it gave a bit of child Mariana's future away. I knew, for example, that the grown-up Mariana couldn't possibly end up with Pierre or in France at all, for that matter. So that was a third of the novel I could have easily skimmed ... but I didn't, because Dickens knows how to write.

Indeed, one of my favorite sections was in the third I could have skimmed. Mariana brought Pierre home to her family and very quickly realized he "wouldn't suit," but felt that there was nothing she could do about that and so would just have to learn to get on (there's a good reason why she feels she must marry Pierre so don't get judgy). It was a sudden and rather bleak growing-up to go through and other heroines might have descended into crying jags or the vapors or cried off, but Mariana was made of sterner stuff. Possibly, she's just very British?

She could not conceive of the sort of marriage that seemed to appeal to some people, based on violent quarrels and exciting reconciliations, but there were so many things in herself she would have to suppress. She suddenly felt old, as if she had finished with her youth, which was unreasonable, since she was going to marry someone essentially young and gay.

(Of course, Mariana isn't a tragedy, doesn't settle for Pierre, and the novel ends on a happier note).

Mariana by Monica Dickens (Persephone Books, 2008)

21 September 2013

Wild Strawberries


Wild Strawberries is one of those seemingly cozy, genteelly comfortable novels, set in the British countryside back in the near mythic day when an upper-class family needn't worry for funds or servants. It's the second book in a long series call The Barsetshire Novels (after Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire -- yet another Victorian TBR) and they’re all, on the surface, about genteel county families doing genteel county family things. I didn’t read the first novel in the series, High Rising, but that didn't interfere with the pure pleasure I experienced reading Wild Strawberries.

The plot in a nutshell: Agnes's niece, Mary, is come down to Rushwater House for a long visit and falls for the charming lay-about David (who takes her attraction as his due), while his older brother John (a widower) slowly falls for her. Meanwhile, Lady Emily's grandson Martin has fallen in with a family of French Royalists staying at the vicarage for the summer.

Now you've read that you probably believe Wild Strawberries is a comical romance, but it is not really. Although it has strong romantic and comedic themes, it also has elements of sharp satire and drama. Regardless, it is hilariously entertaining and I really wish the BBC would turn it into a television miniseries as it's the kind of thing which would appeal to many different kinds of readers/viewers. Also, I keep seeing Imelda Staunton as Lady Emily.

I know Lady Emily, if she were a real person, would drive me up the wall. But, as a fictional character, she was a delight. She was so ... managing ... but always most ineffectively and the cloud of chaos that followed her about (in the form of trailing shawls, misplaced spectacles, errant footstools, yarn, embroidery, and anything else that happens to be in her orbit) was just a hoot. I loved that her resigned (but not unloving) family would come along behind her, collecting all the bits she dropped or left behind.


While I really enjoyed Wild Strawberries and recommend it, the novel is still clearly a product of the 1930s and not without startling moments of racism. Even though I reminded myself such things were (probably) perfectly common in their time, the "nigger touch" scene was still a complete shock and hard to shake. Which can either be blamed on my own naiveté as a reader of historical fiction or on Thirkell's skill at creating characters that seemed real enough that I expected them to behave like my contemporaries.

Virago is republishing many of Thirkell's works as Virago Modern Classics and they are just lovely to look at. If you're more a book buyer than a borrower, those are the editions I'd recommend you get. Heck, High Rising and Wild Strawberries even come with introductions by Alexander McCall Smith.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell (Carroll & Graf, 1989)

23 August 2013

The Golden Cage


Torrès is also the author of Women's Barracks -- the first lesbian pulp novel and something I've been trying to through my library system ever since I read Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969. A novel about lesbians serving among de Gaulle's Free French forces during World War II? A novel that was condemned by the 1952 House Select Committee into Current Pornographic Materials? Of course I want to read it.

But, while I wait for a copy, I read The Golden Cage.

The Golden Cage begins with a young Polish girl on "the last train" out of Spain with her family in 1940. Constantly on the run (dad is a deserter and they're all nominally Jewish), the family is currently heading to Brazil via Lisbon. Unfortunately, at the Portuguese border, the train travelers all find they will not be allowed to travel on to Lisbon, but will be diverted to a seaside resort called Figueira da Foz. There, they are assured, they will be most comfortable and if they wish to pass on to Lisbon from Figueira, why then they need just fill out the necessary paperwork and wait!

And wait.

And, while they wait, they have petit affairs and dramas to distract them from what is happening beyond the beach resort, where it is always sunny and the war seems like a bad dream. Teenage Emmanuel falls for a worldly actress who is also the mistress of studly Rodrigo who was once the lover of Pascale who is now the wife of Antoine who is obsessed with the Free French Army and his wife's proto-romance with Debby, the cowboy-boot-wearing baby dyke. And other iterations of lust and longing.

Despite all the bed-hopping and lustful flirtations, The Golden Cage never feels even remotely titillating. Like a bad pantomime, the characters seem to be going through the motions. We're told too often about Pascale's unhealthy desires (and bad housekeeping ... as if bad housekeeping were code for nascent lesbianism) and Rodridgo's depravity -- he sleeps with men and women (sometimes at the same time!), likes candles and velvet draperies (who doesn't?), and owns an impressive porn collection -- but not shown what that means in the form of, say, character development or plot. It's possible The Golden Cage is just too subtle for my jaded 21st century queer feminist sensibilities, but it just feels ho-hum. A lot of people who wouldn't normally have much in common find themselves trapped together in paradise and proceed to have a lot of sex, because what else is there to do? Even that terse summation makes it sound more exciting than it is.

Admittedly, it's not just sex -- there's a lot of daily drama over who might know what about getting visas, and a few dust-ups over religion (no-one likes the Jewish Catholics), and Janka's dad might be moon-lighting as an abortionist -- but none if it seems to really signify anything. It's just ... people doing stuff before they go on to do (probably similar) stuff somewhere else?

Also, the lesbians never get it on. Everyone else gets it on (some of it quite rapey), but not the lesbians. Matter-of-fact, it seems like lesbianism is very much a stage for the two characters and they're both on their way to being happy heterosexual ladies.

BLARG.

The Golden Cage written by Tereska Torrès w/ trans by Meyer Levin (The Dial Press, 1959)

28 June 2013

Odd Girl Out


In a 1950s college town somewhere in Midwestern America, two sorority girls fall in love. Of course, their love must remain secret and that secrecy works Laura into knots. Younger than Beth, Laura is less assured and willingly plays the child in their relationship ... which made me a little crazy, by the way, but this is a pulp novel from the 50s and the whole dominant/butch/submissive/femme fandango was probably expected. (That said, the novel is surprisingly chaste).

Of course, Odd Girl Out can't just be two girls in love. No, A Man Must Come Between Them. While Charlie squires Laura around a few times out of duty to both their fathers, it's clear he's quite taken with Beth. And Beth seems to encourage him. Which absolutely freaks Laura out and causes her to react pettishly and with great melodrama. The rest of the novel explores the melodramatic (that word cannot be used to often in discussing this novel) messiness of the Laura-Beth-Charlie triangle.

More interesting to me than the triangle -- it seemed safe to presume it was just a matter of time before Charlie "won" -- was the Fall of Emily. Emily is Beth and Laura's seemingly boy-crazy roommate. She has her heart set on being Bud's girl and doesn't hide her desire or later goings-on very well. This gets her in trouble with her sorority (motto: "appear chaste at all times") and then further (entirely inadvertent) shenanigans caused her to be expelled and completely Ruined. Bud makes out fine, of course, because It's A (Straight) Man's World.

Yeah, who'd think a pulp novel would make me want to punch so many people? At least Laura comes into her own at the end. Beth makes her choice, too, but I'd like to see whether she's still happy with that choice ten years on.

If you're going to read Odd Girl Out, I strongly recommend getting your hands on the Cleis Press edition as it comes with an introduction by the author and the cover art is much more attractive. Also, the Naiad editions contains several annoying typographical errors which I hope have been fixed in the Cleis edition.

Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon (Naiad Press, 1986)

28 November 2012

Miss Clare Remembers


I used to pooh-pooh the Miss Read books as ridiculously twee and rusticated, but time seems to have worn me down, because I now find them rather charming. Oh, the classism and racism are still there, but they don't make me want to set anyone's thatch on fire. Maybe, because I've lost most of my idealism and see my time can be as deeply flawed and punishing as the time of Miss Read's Faireacre and Beech Green?

Anyway, I've been sick with a miserable chest cold since Sunday and was feeling pretty low and self-pitying when I found Miss Read's Miss Clare Remembers at the bottom of my (ridiculously large) pile of library loot. I didn't remember borrowing it, but there it was and due next Monday, too!

Figuring I could do with something gentle and twee, I opened Miss Clare Remembers ... and surfaced, bereft, hours later. Miss Clare Remembers was a bittersweet story of friendship that spanned seventy years -- surviving the end of Victoria's reign, the Boer War, two world wars, the death of agrarian England, and the development of the modern English public education system.

Thinking about it, that sounds rather hideous. Who wants to read fiction about the modern education system and three wars? Oh, but it's so well written! The fact of post-Victorian England woven so closely into the fiction of Miss Clare's life. It's impossible not to be fascinated. That said, I grew up on a diet of Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls -- I have a great affection for teachers in old-timey fiction. And fiction of this time period -- when we're moving from a seemingly static world to one that is constantly changing -- is also a great interest of mine. Really, it's no wonder I enjoyed Miss Clare Remembers.

And I think you would like it, too. Miss Clare Remembers is a gentle, truly enjoyable read. There's sadness and suffering, of course, but that just makes the joys that much deeper.

I suppose some people would think our lives have been narrow, and would feel sorry for us. But I think we've been two of the luckiest women alive -- to have lived all our lives in this dear small place and to have watched the children grow up and have children of their own, and always to have had our friends about us.

Miss Clare Remembers by Miss Read (Houghton Mifflin, 1963)

20 November 2012

A Girl's Life

Last week, I picked up a copy of Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers and I’m sure it’s brilliant, but I haven’t gotten past the introduction because there on the second page, amidst Blume’s references to Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and I am well pleased to know another 12-year-old read Bronte) was a brief mention of someone or something called “Marjorie Morningstar.” Whatever it was, just those two words together sounded fantastic -- like some long-limbed ingénue in a film from the 1930s:

Joan Bennett, a blonde ingénue in the 1930s
And it turned out I wasn’t too far from the truth. A quick Google search turned up the novel Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (and film starring Natalie Portman) about a respectable young Jewish woman in 1930s New York who dreams of becoming an actress. I’m only two chapters in, but I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Marjorie is young and full of dreams and ambition, but that youth and ambition clashes with the expectations of her nouveau bourgeois Eastern European immigrant family. While they clearly want her to be happy and successful, they have very different ... generational ... definitions of happiness and success.
She picked up the black dress of the chair and smoothed it gratefully. It had done its work well. Other girls had floundered through the dance in wretched tulles and flounces and taffetas, like the dresses her mother had tried for two weeks to buy for the great occasion. But she had fought for this tube of curving black crepe silk, high-necked enough to seem demure, and had won; she had captivated the son of a millionaire. That was how much her mother knew about clothes.
Does she sound a little like a heartless bitch in that excerpt? I don't think she's meant to be ... or at least no more than any other teenage girl hellbent on seizing her destiny with both hands.