Review 1386: Once Upon a River

Here we are with another novel that was difficult for me to rate. On the one hand, it is more fairy tale-like than is usually my taste. On the other hand, it kept my attention. Yet again, it presents us with a mystery that isn’t very difficult to solve.

In an inn along the Thames at an unspecified period in time, the patrons and owners occupy themselves with telling tales. One dark night, however, a tale comes right to the house. A man staggers in, all beaten and bloody, carrying what appears to be a puppet. It turns out to be a little girl, apparently dead. Indeed, when the local nurse, Rita, is summoned, she sees that the girl has dilated pupils and no pulse. But something doesn’t seem right, and the girl comes back to life.

She doesn’t speak, however, and no one knows who she is. The injured man, Henry Daunt, only saw her in the flood before he lost his boat.

Soon, there are several possible identities for the girl. Robert Armstrong finds a letter for his son, Robin, from a woman begging for help for her and his daughter. When Robert goes to her, she has just committed suicide and no one knows what happened to her four-year-old daughter, Alice. Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, says the girl is her sister, Ann. Then the Vaughns claim her. Two years ago, their daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped. When they paid the ransom, the girl was not returned.

There are problems with all these stories. Robert Armstrong has never seen his grandchild, and his son, Robin, seems to be unsure whether the girl is Alice. Sadly, Robin is frequently up to no good. Lily is far too old, in her forties, to have a four-year-old sister. Finally, although Helena Vaughn is convinced the girl is Amelia, Anthony Vaughn, Rita can see, clearly doesn’t believe it.

Lots of secrets come out before we learn who the girl is, or rather, because I thought it was obvious, have it confirmed. In addition, there are lots of subplots, like a stolen pig, a runaway boy, a mysterious visitor, that all somehow related to the book’s central mystery.

The novel has some really rotten bad guys, as all fairy tales must have. It also has some very likable characters, in particular, Henry Daunt, Rita, and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong. I think that readers who enjoy fairy tales will like this book and some others will, too.

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Review 1385: The Miniaturist

I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

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Review 1384: The Spoilt City

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Spoilt City is the second book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I was confused about why this series had two series names until I read recently that this trilogy along with her Levant Trilogy are called The Fortunes of War.

The war, of course, is World War II. The Spoilt City begins during the summer of 1940 in Bucharest. When newly married Harriet Pringle arrived in the city less than a year before, it was opulent in its wealth, and Romania being agriculturally rich, loaded with good food. Although the country is neutral, it has been sending most of its food to Germany, and now it is becoming difficult to find anything good to eat.

King Carol has been trying to maneuver between threats from Germany and Russia. Romania has been an English ally, but when Russia is rumored to be ready to invade, Carol throws his lot in with the Germans. They immediately cede large portions of Transylvania to Hungary. The Iron Guard, an outlawed group of Fascists, reappear in the streets, and Germans begin arriving. People begin calling for Carol’s abdication. The English, who were formerly welcome, begin to feel threatened.

Harriet, who has married on three weeks’ acquaintance, is beginning to understand her husband, Guy. While he is popular with everyone and has an open, gregarious nature, he glosses over difficulties that she must tend to. He has offered the impoverished Prince Yakimov a place to stay while he acted in Guy’s play. When the play is over, Harriet doesn’t know how to get rid of him. Later, Yakimov repays this hospitality with a foolish betrayal.

The impending Drucker trial is all anyone talks about. Drucker, a wealthy Jew, is facing trumped-up charges after refusing to hand over his oil leases to the King’s mistress. Much of the family money is in the name of his son, Sasha, who has been forced into the army. Sasha, formerly Guy’s pupil, deserts and comes to Guy for help. Guy and Harriet hide him in a room on the roof, another danger to them.

Now that things have got going, I found this second book a lot more interesting than the first. I didn’t really like Harriet in the first book but found her much more likable in the second. With such a naïve and impractical husband, she is often faced with having to take care of unpleasantness. I am looking forward to the third novel and will probably also read the Levant Trilogy.

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Just a Bit of Shameless Bragging

My British blogging friend Simon of Stuck in a Book just featured me along with another blogger (Ruthiella of Booked For Life) in his series “My Life in Books.” If you’re at all remotely interested, here is the link for the interview. This was quite a lot of fun, although I found the question where you try to guess what a person is like from the books they mentioned a little intimidating. You hate to be wrong! I also found it hard to recommend a book just based on this information.

Review 1383: Educated

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about being raised by a bipolar, survivalist fundamentalist Mormon father and his subservient wife in the depths of rural Idaho. Westover and her younger siblings were home-schooled after her father’s paranoia led him to withdraw his children from school. This home schooling was something I have feared for many home-schooled children when their education is not supervised. Their mother began by trying to have school each day, but their father insisted on dragging the kids out to his junkyard to work. Finally, their mother settled for teaching them to read, and the only educated children in the family became so by their own efforts.

Westover’s father did not observe any work safety practices in the junkyard. Since he didn’t believe in medical care except for his wife’s herbal remedies, some accidents resulted in severe injuries for his children and himself.

Aside from Westover’s difficulties in getting a formal education, this book is more about the toll it took for her to go against her family’s teachings enough to do it—a woman’s place being in the home. Even more so, it is about her struggle with her own view of herself, especially after her sister asks her to support her when she tells the family that her brother Shawn is abusive. Westover must figure out who she is in the absence of her family. She must re-examine her own past to learn the lessons about her family—that her mother put her subservience to her father before the safety of their children; that their father would rather disown one child than face the reality of another’s abusive nature, and that some of her siblings will turn against her, too; even that most of her father’s ideas are actually not true.

This is an amazing and enthralling book. Westover’s journey from a college student who never heard of the Holocaust to a doctorate in history and a commensurate growth in self-awareness is inspiring.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeI just reviewed The Sport of Kings, which was the last book I read of the shortlisted books for the 2017 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. This means that it’s time for my regular feature, where I give my opinion of whether the judges got it right.

If you were paying attention to my last review, you probably already know that The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan doesn’t get my vote. I found it overblown and rambling, as well as depicting a bunch of detestable characters. Of course, I’m not a big fan of Southern Gothic.

Similarly, although I liked What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell better, I wasn’t that interested in the all too familiar story of a man falling in love with a prostitute nor in the explicit sexuality. The section about the narrator’s relationship with his father was more interesting.

Cover for The Lesser BohemiansNow, let’s get to the good stuff. I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a fascinating biographical depiction of the life of Samuel Beckett during World War II. It wasn’t very venturesome in other respects, though.

That’s why, I’m guessing, the winner for 2017 was Eimer McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. And I have to say, although I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a great novel, I enjoyed the quirky, inventive narrative style of The Lesser Bohemians. It’s a toss-up for me, so we’ll say the James Tait Black people got it right.

 

 

Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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