Day 1129: Consider the Lilies

Cover for Consider the LiliesWhile I was looking for a cover image for Money to Burn, I noticed that someone has been republishing Elizabeth Cadell’s novels (with horrible covers) and that there were several I’d never heard of. I went ahead and ordered three. This is the first one.

I have long read Cadell’s novels when I wanted something very light and funny. In general, they are mild romances with good dialogue, a touch of mystery, and a plethora of eccentric characters. Often they take place in a family setting.

A writer who produced more than 50 books from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, Cadell did not always produce work that was uniformly good. Unfortunately, Consider the Lilies, which she published as Harriet Ainsworth, is not one of her best. This novel is a murder mystery, which is unusual for Cadell.

Caroline is visiting her sister Kathryn and family for Easter when the vicar’s sister, Miss Burnley, asks Kathryn to do her a favor by asking Mrs. Lauder to donate some lilies for the Easter service. Mrs. Lauder has loads of lilies, but she has never been known to donate any or to give anything else, for that matter. Kathryn, however, is the only person from the village that Mrs. Lauder will receive, so Kathryn goes, taking Caroline with her. Mrs. Lauder, a wheelchair-bound invalid who is nasty to all, refuses.

Guy and Kathryn Heywood receive a surprising visit from Miss Parry, Mrs. Lauder’s companion. She asks Guy to read a letter that she believes threatens Mrs. Lauder and wants advice for what to do about it. Guy suggests she do nothing, since the letter was not addressed to her, but to Mrs. Lauder, and is ambiguous.

Later, Miss Parry reports that the letter was stolen from her purse, and not too long after that, Mrs. Lauder is found dead. Her wheelchair appears to have slipped off the veranda and she fell out of it. But Inspector Avery Freeland seems to think the death is suspicious.

This novel is not a murder mystery in the sense that we follow the investigation very closely. Rather, it is about how the murder affects the Heywoods, who live next door. They are on hand to witness a few strange incidents, and they are shocked to find that two people in their household may know something. The novel is also not a proper mystery, because there is no way anyone could guess the culprit, who appears so slightly in the novel as to be almost unnoticeable.

Further, Cadell’s trademark character development is lacking. We have very little sense of any of the characters, even the main ones. so, this book was a disappointment. This is the third book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1127: Merry Hall

Cover for Merry HallMerry Hall is a delightful book that I never would have heard of had I not participated in the 1951 Club. The organizers are going to pick a year in the 1960’s for the next club, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on their blogs.

Shortly after World War II, journalist Beverley Nichols decided he must have a garden. Merry Hall is the story of his search for a property and his decision to buy a somewhat decrepit Georgian manor house. But it is more particularly about everything related to the garden.

Nichols’s descriptions of flowers and trees are lyrical and his stories charming and funny. After viewing the disarray of the ornamental gardens at the manor, he is stunned by the order and beauty of the kitchen garden but has difficulty interesting the gardener, Mr. Oldfield, in the creation of a new ornamental garden. He has to fight the ghost of Mr. Stebbing, the previous owner, who has execrable taste, every time he wants to change something. His neighbor, Miss Emily, thinks Mr. Stebbing had wonderful taste and flinches every time she notices something Nichols has changed. She also makes frequent demands for Nichols’s vegetables, even requesting him, on no acquaintance at all, to drive them to her house as if he were a grocer.

Where taste is concerned, Nichols also has his battles with Our Rose, famous for her “creative” floral displays, which Nichols abhors. Other amusing characters dot the pages of the memoir, in particular, his friend Marius, who is so erudite that Nichols rarely knows what he’s talking about.

In between Nichols’s amusing stories of his friends and his cats, “One” and “Four,” is the heart of the book—Nichols’s love for growing things, color, and beauty, eloquently expressed. Here he is after a section about his water garden:

There had been times when one wondered if it was really worthwhile. All this was forgotten now; I had my reward in that silver thread of water, sparkling in the moonlight.

For you see, it really is a magic water. How otherwise could you describe it? Is it not the essence of all gardens’ sweetness? There is the dew of white violets in it, and the raindrops from their dark green leaves. There is the juice of apples in it and the savour of all the pears and plums that fell into the long grass in September, and were forgotten and grew as brown as the earth with which they mingled. There is the scent of snow in it—for snow, as you should be aware, has a distinct scent, and so for that matter, has the North wind. And there is the tang of ice . . . the ice that laid out its little mirrors of glass all through the orchard in the clear days of January, so that the sky might lean close and see its face.

I am not at all a gardener, although I hope to become a sort of one now that I live in the country, but Nichols’s descriptions had me googling flower names like mad. This is a lovely, lovely book, and I am so happy to have read it.

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Day 1126: The Unquiet Grave

Cover for The Unquiet GraveI have long admired several of Sharyn McCrumb’s “ballad series” mysteries, novels based upon old Appalachian ballads, some of which have a chilling supernatural element. I thought that The Unquiet Grave might be one of these, but instead it is more closely related to her The Ballad of Tom Dooley, which I thought had severe flaws.

The Unquiet Grave, like The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is about a true crime, in which Edward Shue was accused of murdering his wife, Zona, in 1897. The story of this incident, narrated by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, alternates with the narrative by attorney James P. D. Gardner, the resident in 1930 of a mental asylum. How these stories are connected isn’t explained until about halfway through the novel.

It is when Gardner starts telling his doctor about the case that the story began to lose me. For almost immediately, he maunders off into long stories about his boss at the time of the trial, Shue’s defending attorney, Dr. Rucker. I am sure that McCrumb’s intention, both in this novel and in Tom Dooley, is to tell colorful stories about the region, but the fault in both of these novels is that she gets readers interested in one story only to invoke the wandering memories of some old man, going off in twenty different directions.

link to NetgalleyI did not have the patience for this, so I gave Gardner’s section about 20 pages of time to get back on the subject. When he didn’t, having read more than half the book, I quit reading. I sympathize with what McCrumb is trying to do, trying to invoke the story-telling of an old man who knows a lot of local history, but she lost me twice using this same technique. I think she needs to find a better angle into these true stories of West Virginia.

This is the second book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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Day 1124: The Ivy Tree

Cover for The Ivy TreeThe Ivy Tree is the first book I’m reading for R.I.P.

Mary Grey is a Canadian who has recently moved to Northumberland when she encounters Connor Winslow on the Roman Wall. Connor mistakes her for his long-lost cousin Annabelle and seems so angry to see her that Mary is frightened. She has some difficulty convincing him of his mistake.

Later, Connor’s half-sister Lisa locates Mary at her workplace in Newcastle. Connor and Lisa want Mary to impersonate Annabelle to help insure that Con will inherit the family farm, Whitescar, from his great-uncle Matthew, who is in poor health. If Mary as Annabelle inherits the farm, she will give it to Con in exchange for a small income that will save her from poverty.

Mary agrees to the job because it doesn’t seem as if it will hurt anyone. The only other interested party, Annabelle’s cousin Julie, views the farm simply as a holiday home. But the impersonation may turn out to be more difficult than anticiapted, for Annabelle had her secrets. And Mary has some, too.

I have long been a huge fan of Mary Stewart. Recently, I turned a friend on to her, and our discussions made me eager for a Stewart fix. The Ivy Tree is one of her best, particularly because, on reread, when you understand a secret of the plot, almost every scene in the novel turns out to have a double meaning.

Stewart is known for her convincing characters and her gorgeous descriptions of the setting. This novel is lush with descriptions of the plants and rural geography of Northumbria. It has a great plot and is truly suspenseful. If you have never read anything by Mary Stewart, I can’t recommend her highly enough, particularly those of her novels written before the 1980’s and her Merlin series.

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