Day 906: Enchanted Islands

Cover for Enchanted IslandsEnchanted Islands is a novel based on the lives of Frances and Ainsley Conway, an American couple who lived on the Galapagos Islands in the late 1930’s and the 40’s. Although based on two memoirs written by Frances Conway, Amend has expanded the novel to cover most of Frances’s life and her friendship with Rosalie Mendel, all presumably fictional.

This book is a rather odd one. It begins with Frances and Rosalie in their old age and then returns in time to their childhood in Wisconsin. It spends some time there, following them until Frances’s late teens, when she discovers Rosalie with her own boyfriend and flees. Then it glosses over the next 20 years until Frances meets Rosalie again in California and later marries Ainsley. After that, Frances and Ainsley go on a spying mission for the Navy, something Frances is never able to tell her friends about.

The result creates a sort of divided effect. First, sections of the novel are either full of Rosalie or have no Rosalie, which made me wonder, why even bother with her? Why not just write about Galapagos? The other parts seem to belong to a different novel.

Then there is Galapagos, which Amend simplifies to the island Floreana when actually the Conways lived on three different islands. The existence there seems harsh, bleak, and lonely. There is little description of scenery or anything else to make us understand why, according to Amend, they came to love it. In fact, there is very little going on there, even including the spying.

I felt a distance from all these characters. Although we learn a lot about Frances, we don’t ever feel as if we understand her, and Ainsley is a sort of charming enigma. Most of the time, we don’t even like Rosalie.

link to NetgalleySo, a middling reaction to this novel. I was interested enough to finish it, but only mildly interested. I thought there was no sense of place in any of the settings. The characters didn’t seem like real people. The cover of the novel is lovely, but the islands seemed in no way enchanting. Did Amend bother to visit them, or is she just not good at description? Or are they not lovely?

Amend comments that she is a novelist first and only a mediocre historian. That remark irritated me, because I think that’s what’s wrong with with many historical novels. If authors aren’t willing to do the research to bring a time and place to life, maybe they should stick to contemporary fiction.

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Day 905: The Rector and The Doctor’s Family

Cover for The Rector and The Doctor's FamilyThe Rector and The Doctor’s Family is in fact a collection of two novellas in Mrs. Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford, the first two works, I believe. Out of order, I have already reviewed two of this series—Miss Marjoribanks, which I found delightful, and Salem Chapel, which was funny and moving. Fortunately, although these novels have some characters in common, they don’t depend upon one another except for incidentals and the occasional reappearance of characters.

The Rector, a very short work that is mostly a character study, begins on a comic note but then becomes more serious. Before Mr. Proctor, the new rector, arrives, everyone wonders whether he will be high church or low church. Upon his arrival, all Carlingford finds that they can’t tell what he is. Instead, they wonder if he will marry Miss Woodhouse.

Mr. Proctor knows nothing of women and is upset by the notion that he might marry, even though he first learns of this idea from his elderly mother. Soon, though, there is something more to concern him. Called in to comfort a dying parishioner, Mr. Proctor finds himself useless. His 15 years at All Souls College have not prepared him for certain of his duties. All his essays on religious doctrine are no help. Mr. Proctor is appalled, and doesn’t know what to do, and he is humbled when he sees that the young Perpetual Curate does.

The main character of The Doctor’s Family is young Dr. Edward Rider, who is trying to build a practice in Carlingford. He is a little bitter because his poor financial position obliged him the year before to give up the idea of marrying Bessie Christian, but instead he gained a more unwelcome burden. His shiftless older brother Fred returned from Australia five months earlier and has been lounging around the doctor’s home drinking and smoking ever since. Edward Rider has been all the more resentful because Fred’s behavior apparently cost him his previous practice.

To this unhappy household some unexpected visitors arrive. Edward is shocked to learn that Fred left behind him in Australia a wife, Susan, and three children. They have journeyed to find Fred, accompanied by Susan’s astonishing sister Netty. Edward is immediately attracted by Netty, who is small and dynamic. Fred’s wife Susan is lethargic and stupid and quickly shows a disposition to blame her family’s situation on Edward. Netty removes the household to its own lodgings and runs it single-handedly, taking on all the responsibilities of the family for the two lazy and irresponsible parents.

Now Edward has rid himself of his brother, but he haunts their household to see Netty and falls in love with her. But Netty won’t relinquish her duties. Who will do them if she doesn’t? she reasons. And she knows that Edward won’t be able to tolerate the situation with his brother’s family.

This little novel shows such a knowledge of human foibles. I was completely captivated by the story of Edward and Netty, even while realizing that Netty would not be thanked for her efforts. I was also not at all sure how the story would end, because Oliphant often surprises us.

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Day 904: Some Must Watch

Cover for Some Must WatchSome Must Watch is the novel that inspired the thrilling old movie The Spiral Staircase. Ethel Lina White, the author, was one of the early women mystery writers, another novel of hers being the basis of the movie The Lady Vanishes.

This novel centers around an isolated country house, the home of Professor Sebastian Warren, his mother, sister, son, and daughter-in-law. The main character is Helen Capel, a servant in the household.

At the beginning of the novel, Helen is coming back to the house at dusk. She is worried because she must pass through a desolate landscape and young women have been murdered in the district. Her way takes her through a plantation, but she changes direction because she thinks she sees a man lurking among the trees.

The novel takes place in the space of one night during a violent storm. At the beginning of the evening, everyone becomes alarmed because another dead woman is found dead near the local pub and Dr. Parry thinks she was killed in the same plantation where Helen saw someone. The house is full of people, so the Professor decides that they should all stay inside during the storm and not admit anyone, and they will be safe.

However, as the evening continues, one incident after another occurs that causes the people to leave the house. After a while, it seems to Helen as if some intelligence is working so that she will be alone to face the killer.

In some ways, this novel seemed rather crude, especially in the interactions between characters and the dialogue. I have run into this before with novels of a certain vintage and am not sure if it reflects people’s actual behavior and way of speaking at the time, the expectations of the genre, or simply the ability of the writer. Not very much attention is given to character development either. The focus is squarely on the plot. Still, I think the novel is interesting as representative of an early thriller.

Occasionally I comment on the publication quality of a book. I believe that my copy is an on demand publication by Between Things (not the one pictured above). Its biggest eccentricities are the starting of chapters on the left page and a typographic oddity of placing an underscore before and after phrases that I assumed were in italics in the original. There were a few other careless errors but not as many as I have noticed lately in some other regular press runs. Still, I am beginning to avoid on demand printing, if I recognize it ahead of time.

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Day 903: Some Do Not

Cover for Some Do NotBest Book of the Week!
Some Do Not is the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology “Parade’s End,” which is considered one of the great novels about World War I. For those who are interested, an excellent TV series came out a few years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch (or maybe for those who are interested in Benedict Cumberbatch).

When we first meet Christopher Tietjens in 1912 or so, he is separated from his wife Sylvia and on a golfing trip with MacMaster, his coworker and friend from school days. We eventually learn that Sylvia was having an affair with a married man when she met Tietjens, and the paternity of their son is in question. Sylvia has run off to Europe with a lover, but Christopher has just received a letter from her asking to come back.

Christopher Tietjens is a big clumsy man who is a sort of genius with facts and figures and works for the government. (That was the one weakness of the casting of Cumberbatch, who is neither big nor clumsy, in the part, as several times he is forced to refer to himself that way, which struck me as odd before I read the book.) He is also absolutely principled and honest. He agrees to take Sylvia back because that is how a gentleman behaves.

On this golfing trip, though, complications begin that are to affect the rest of his life. A member of the golfing party is General Campion, an idiotic but well-meaning man who likes Sylvia and so thinks that any problems in the marriage must be Christopher’s fault. When Christopher helps a couple of suffragettes escape from the police, the General immediately concludes that one of them, Valentine Wannop, must be Christopher’s mistress, even though Christopher has never met her before. Later on, similar misunderstandings contrive to blacken his reputation.

Egging everyone on is Sylvia, who takes a long time to understand the character of her husband. She believes he and Valentine must be lovers and even spreads the rumor that he is sharing a mistress with MacMaster. Mrs. Duchemin, whose husband is an academic with mental issues, is indeed having an affair with MacMaster, but Christopher’s only crime is to help MacMaster financially. Some of Sylvia’s ex-lovers or would-be lovers are also eager to harm him.

Christopher does fall in love with Valentine, but he doesn’t act on it because he is incapable of treating her dishonorably. With social ruin threatening him, he goes to war.

I tried out this first volume to see if I would like it after having watched the TV series. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the other three volumes. This is a great novel, about how a completely honorable but reticent man is misunderstood and dishonored by almost everyone around him.

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Day 902: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Cover for Who Was Changed and Who Was DeadWho Was Changed and Who Was Dead is another eccentric and original novel by Barbara Comyns. With its characters and plots, it contains more than a slight touch of the bizarre.

We meet the Willoweed family after the nearby river has flooded. Some of the family are wading on the lower floor of the house, and Ebin Willoweed has taken the girls out in the boat, from which they are observing the dead animals floating by.

The novel is almost entirely concerned with the Willoweeds. Ebin is a writer who lost his newspaper job years ago and hasn’t worked since. He lives in his mother’s ramshackle but enormous house with his three children, the entire household terrorized by his tyrannical mother.

The Willoweeds seem stuck in a monotonous existence. Ebin occupies some of his time by having an affair with the wife of the village baker. Emma, the oldest daughter, yearns for pretty clothes and shoes but has to be content with clumsy ones made in the village. Dennis and Hattie love playing in the river.

Then a mysterious malady strikes the village. People begin to run mad and commit suicide. No one knows who will die next.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is narrated with the same innocent simplicity of Comyns’ other novels, which deal with similar grotesque situations and characters. It’s one of the things that makes them so readable, yet so eerie.

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Day 901: As She Left It

Cover for As She Left ItAt some point, I decided that the heroine of As She Left It just got herself involved in trying to solve too many mysteries. So, I didn’t find this novel quite as good as I have McPherson’s others. Also, there is at least one whopping big coincidence.

Opal Jones has moved back to the house in Leeds where she grew up. Her mother recently died, and she then learned that the house was in her own name. Since her life is in some disarray, she decides to move back.

Opal hasn’t been to Leeds for 10 years, since she was 13. She also hasn’t been in touch with her alcoholic mother. She has been totally unaware that 10 years before, a little toddler, Craig, whom she used to babysit, disappeared when he was under the care of his grandparents, Dennis and Margaret. Through a series of misunderstandings, each of his grandparents thought the other was looking after him. Opal decides to try to find Craig.

Some other neighbors in her street are old men, members of a jazz band with whom Opal used to play the trumpet. One of the old men, Fishbo, says he hasn’t been in touch with his family in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Opal decides to try to find Fishbo’s family, despite warnings from his friends.

Opal also finds a puzzle in the posts of part of her bed. Needing something to sleep on, she has bought a magnificent bed for a very low price, not realizing until she got it home that the headboard and footboard are mismatched. In the posts of half the bed, she finds messages of distress, but she needs the other half of the bed to see the entire message. In trying to find the other half, she meets Norah, a little old lady suffering from dementia living in a house full of antiques. Soon she believes that someone is looting Norah’s house of its valuable furniture.

Having embroiled herself in these mysteries, Opal begins receiving threats, but she doesn’t know how the threats are connected with the mysteries. There is also the mystery of the person next door, whom she hears crying at night. Since she can’t believe her neighbors would have taken Craig, she wonders if his kidnapper has moved in next store. But then, all of her neighbors seem to be hiding something.

Although I liked Opal and was interested in the story, there just seemed to be too many threads to the plot. Overall, I think, it limited the possible suspense of the novel. The coincidence, too, of what happened to the other half of the bed is pretty unbelievable. But a lot of the puzzles are noise, to keep Opal from facing her past.

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