Review 1662: The Poison Thread

Dorothea Trueblood is a youngish Victorian heiress who prefers to spend her days pursuing charitable causes rather than in socializing. Her conservative father wants her to marry as highly as possible, but she has secretly engaged herself to a police constable. Something keeps her from breaking the news to her father, even though she is of age.

She is fascinated by phrenology, so one of her charities is Oakgate Prison, where she visits prisoners in hopes of measuring their heads. Therefore, she is excited when Ruth Butterham, a young maid who murdered her employer, comes to the prison.

Ruth begins to tell Dottie her story, and it’s not long before Dottie realizes that Ruth is telling her she killed people by putting bad thoughts into the sewing she was doing for them. Dottie doesn’t find an enlarged organ of deceit in Ruth, but she can only assume she is lying.

This gothic novel has quite a lot going for it. It pins you to the page while you wonder where it is going. I was suspicious of Dottie at first, thinking her interest in Ruth a bit salacious. But I liked Ruth more. This is quite a nice dark book.

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Review 1661: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land

When I made up my current Classics Club list, I reflected that I had never read a book by P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. So, I picked this one.

Sabrina is eleven years old when World War II begins worrying her parents. When a bomb comes close to their house in Sussex, her parents decide to send Sabrina and her younger brother James to America to stay with Aunt Harriet.

Sabrina keeps a diary, so she records her thoughts, badly spelled, on their journey by ship to Canada and by plane to New York, and then of their life in the United States. Along with them travels their parents’ friend Pel, a famous writer, and her baby Romulus.

This novel is funny and charming and ultimately touching, as the children experience new things, are homesick, and worry about the situation at home. It does have some slight political incorrectness, given that it was written in 1941. However, I liked it very much.

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A New Challenge: Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order

Angela Thirkell

For a long time, I have been saying I was going to read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series in order, but I just continue to pick them up randomly. I think there would be some benefit to reading them in order, because although each one seems to focus on different people and different plots, I’m sure I would better understand the relationships if I read them in order. So, I finally decided to do it and to announce it in case anyone wants to do it with me.

We’ll see how far we get along, as I understand that the post-war books are not as good as the others. I propose to announce each book at the beginning of the month and post its review at the end, starting in June. I would appreciate the company of anyone who wants to read along with me. I realize that for some people one book a month is a big commitment or even a difficult rate to read. However, there are lots of Barsetshire novels and to read one every two months would take this project five years into the future.

Since I have already posted reviews on a few of these books, I won’t repost my original reviews, but I will make comments on any insights I have gained since the last review. Even if you don’t want to go along with me, if you would like to jump in with comments on the books you have read or read one or two at the same time, any participation is appreciated.

Although I will post reminders of what the next book is, for now, here is the list:

  1. High Rising
  2. Wild Strawberries
  3. The Demon in the House
  4. August Folly
  5. Summer Half
  6. Pomfret Towers
  7. The Brandons
  8. Before Lunch
  9. Cheerfulness Breaks In
  10. Northbridge Rectory
  11. Marling Hall
  12. Growing Up
  13. The Headmistress
  14. Miss Bunting
  15. Peace Breaks Out
  16. Private Enterprise
  17. Love Among the Ruins
  18. The Old Bank House
  19. County Chronicle
  20. The Duke’s Daughter
  21. Happy Returns
  22. Jutland Cottage
  23. What Did It Mean?
  24. Enter Sir Robert
  25. Never Too Late
  26. A Double Affair
  27. Close Quarters
  28. Love at All Ages
  29. Three Score and Ten

So, if anyone wants to get a head start on June, the first book is obviously High Rising. I made a tag, #ThirkellBar, for those who want to use Twitter. I don’t.

Review 1660: Breakfast with the Nikolides

Because of the war, Louise and her children are forced to return to her husband Charles in India for the first time in many years. There, they take up what is apparently a toxic relationship.

Louise is a fearful, sometimes hysterical woman who seems to dislike Emily, her 12-year-old daughter. Louise considers her sly and deceptive when in actuality Emily is very truthful but seems unable to behave naturally with Louise. Emily loves India, but Louise only sees its dirty and ugly sides, not its charm.

The situation between husband and wife and between mother and child comes to a head over Emily’s dog, Don. In a crucial moment, Louise chooses to lie to Emily rather than tell her the truth as Charles advises.

In general, I liked this colorful novel, which, as always with Godden’s India novels, is luminous in its descriptions and sympathetic to its characters. However, for modern audiences there is a recounting of a rape scene that is handled in a very problematic way. For me, it detracted a good deal from my enjoyment of the novel.

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Review 1659: The Less Dead

When Margo gets in touch with her birth family, her Aunt Nikki, Nikki tells Margo that her mother, Susan, was a prostitute and a junkie who was murdered in an alley at 19. Then she tells Margo she knows who did it and tries to get her to help find evidence. She is asking Margo to break the law and endanger her position as a medical doctor. Margo is horrified by the story and the request and gets away as fast as she can. What she doesn’t know is that meeting Nikki has brought her to the attention of Susan’s murderer. Soon, she has received a threatening letter like the ones Nikki has been getting.

Although set in the gritty neighborhoods of Glasgow like most of Mina’s fiction, The Less Dead is less grim than her earlier work, populated by likable characters such as Margo’s ex-boyfriend Joe and her bestie Lilah, as well as, eventually, Nikki and her friends. It is definitely creepy, though, and a satisfying thriller. Mina always knows how to spin a tale.

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Review 1658: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

My curiosity about this subject was piqued by seeing the movie starring Kiera Knightly. Predictably, the movie exaggerated the story of Georgiana’s home life and left out her role as a serious political negotiator. (Those scenes of her on the podium don’t really count.) For the Duchess of Devonshire was a complicated person, intelligent but too trusting, generous but also profligate, adored by most but not by her own husband, a savvy politician, a serious amateur scientist, an author who never published under her own name, and an important figure in 18th century social and political life whose legacy was either purposefully erased by rivals or too-proper Victorian descendants or overlooked by historians.

Georgiana’s home life was exciting enough to provoke the prim, for, married at 16 to a husband who was cold and unloving, she was full of insecurities that eventually led her to live most of her married life in a ménage with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her husband’s mistress. Although Bess Foster seldom missed an opportunity to undercut her even after her death because she envied her position, Georgiana always considered Bess her best friend despite her mother’s and children’s detestation of the woman (with good reason).

Aside from Georgiana’s loyal support of the Whig Party and Mr. Fox, who may have been her lover, an overarching concern of her life was debt. Georgiana and her family all shared the trait of an inability to live within their means, despite having fortunes at their disposal. Georgiana missed several opportunities for the Duke to settle her debts by being too ashamed to admit them all, so all her life she was constantly juggling money, borrowing from one person to pay another or gambling away money meant to pay her debts.

Georgiana was a flawed but fascinating woman, and this biography reveals not only her life but her times to the reader.

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Review 1657: The Wouldbegoods

In my return to my project of reading the collected works of E. Nesbit, among others, I realized I had forgotten how charming and funny her first Bastable novel, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, was. The Wouldbegoods is the second entry in the Bastable series.

The Bastable children have a habit of unwittingly causing havoc, and after a disastrous attempt to make a jungle while acting The Jungle Book, the children and their guests, Danny and Daisy, are shipped off to the country to stay with the uncle of Albert (referred to as Albert-next-door in The Treasure Seekers). Albert’s uncle is a writer usually installed in his study, which gives the children lots of unsupervised scope to get into trouble. So, they decide to form a society called the Wouldbegoods to try to be good. Of course, their attempts all go sadly awry.

Their decision to hand out free lemonade to passersby results in a fight with some unruly men and boys. Giving a tramp some coins ends up with them being trapped at the top of a tower. All their attempts at play go out of control, such as when they create a zoo in the paddock and the dogs chase the sheep into a stream.

One of the biggest charms of this novel as well as its predecessor is the “anonymous” narration by Oswald, who has obviously read a lot of florid literature. I think this series is funny for children but even funnier for adults, because the children have a naïve way of believing legends or taking things literally that will tickle adults while children may not see what’s coming. These books are delightful.

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Review 1656: Edward II

I haven’t read any Christopher Marlowe plays since college, so when I made up my Classics Club list, I picked Edward II, because I didn’t remember reading it. And it’s true, it didn’t ring any bells except through reading fiction about his reign until I got to the part about the line in Latin that could be read in two ways.

The play begins with the return, after Edward’s accession, of his favorite Gaveston, who had been banished to France. Edward has summoned him with a love letter, and Gaveston tells us straight out that he’s going to use Edward’s homosexuality to manipulate him. And he does. Almost the first thing Edward does is throw the Bishop of Coventry into jail and give all his possessions to Gaveston. Although Mortimer, in particular, is bothered by how “basely born” Gaveston is, the main complaint is his greed: “While soldiers mutiny for want of pay/He wears a lord’s revenue on his back.” Basically, he’s bankrupting the kingdom.

Further, Edward is slighting his queen, Isabella of France, who seems at first an innocent victim. But things are going to get a lot more interesting.

In Marlowe’s plays, government is usually corrupt. He’s not very interested in appeasing power. Usually, this corruption is a result of greed or sex—in this case both.

I have always found Shakespeare to be a great deal more poetic than Marlowe, but Marlowe’s plays have their power. This one also has the benefit of being a great deal more true to the actual events than most of Shakespeare’s history plays are, but of course Shakespeare was interested in appeasing power.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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