My latest haul (finally) from the British Library Press

After several requests, I finally got another package of review copies from the British Library Crime Classics and Women Writers series. I’m not sure what went wrong with the first few requests, as each time they said they would send some books. Unfortunately, I got more Crime Classics than Women Writers books, when I thought it would be the other way around. However, I am looking forward to some delicious reading.

Review 1854: The Weather at Tregulla

Una Beaumont (again, the publishers got the name wrong on the cover) is 19 and very much still a sulky teenager. She finds her home in a small Cornish village to be absolutely boring. Her father, Captain Beaumont, had promised her that she could live in London and study to be an actress. However, her mother has unexpectedly died and her money was entailed, so the Captain can no longer afford to send Una. Even her distraught father notices that she is more upset by this than by her mother’s death.

The weather in Tregulla is tumultuous, at least in regard to several love affairs. Una meets Terrence Willows, an artist leasing a cottage in the neighborhood, and his sister Emmeline. Terrence is a bit of a bounder, but Una immediately falls in love with him. Emmeline has the kind of looks admired by Una’s friend Barnabas, and she has in fact moved to the area in hopes of getting him to marry her, even though she hadn’t met him before. She is tired of the chaotic existence of her brother and his friends, but when she thinks of Barnabas, she always thinks of his parents’ estate first. Barnabas, although believing he is cautious, is smitten. Finally, his brother Hugo is in love with Una.

At first, I didn’t think I was going to like this novel as well as I did others by Gibbons. I didn’t like Una, and the novel has several more unlikable characters. However, Gibbons is a great storyteller and satirist, and her characters are believably written. Further, some of them improve, particularly Una.

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Review 1853: The Broken Shore

Recovering from severe injuries inflicted in an encounter with a dangerous killer, Detective Joe Cashin has left a big-city homicide squad for his home town in a small Australian port. He is living in the wreck of his grandfather’s house.

His superior officer orders him to take charge in the assault on Charles Bourgoyne. An old man but still powerful and respected, Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home and is in critical condition. The initial hypothesis is that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, as his expensive wrist watch is missing.

Cashin’s role is resented by Detective Hopgood, because the crime happened in Cromarty, in Hopgood’s jurisdiction. When they get a tip that three Aboriginal teenagers from the area tried to hock a watch of the same brand as Bourgoyne’s, Hopgood manages to botch their apprehension so that two of the boys are killed. Cashin is told to take leave, but he continues to pursue the case.

This is a dark and moody mystery written in Temple’s usual fluid and witty prose. It’s quite gripping.

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If I Gave the Award

I’ve now reviewed all the shortlisted books for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, so it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. In this case, I can’t begin with the book I disliked most, because I liked all of them. In fact, that’s the difficulty, to choose between these worthy candidates.

I very recently reviewed The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte, about the German occupation of Tolstoy’s estate during World War II. I enjoyed this novel but didn’t like the letters that skipped ahead of the plot and felt the novel was somehow slight.

I also enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, which explored the ways that gender influenced the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and looked at the women who helped create the dictionary. I found the novel touching and interesting, although a few of the plot points were predictable.

The freshest book in my memory of is A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville. I found this novel about how a woman learns how to work within a difficult marriage and helps found the sheep industry in Australia vivid and deeply interesting. Of course, the husband gets all the credit.

One of my favorite writers is Maggie O’Farrell. Her novel Hamnet is about the death of William Shakespeare’s and Anne Hathaway’s son and its influence on the writing of Hamlet. I found it to be deft and sensitive, although at first I wasn’t comfortable with how much O’Farrell was making up about Hathaway.

But speaking of favorite authors, along with many people, I was waiting for the last entry in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. That book, The Mirror and the Light, follows Cromwell’s life as he serves Henry VIII and tries to keep him from his worst excesses. It begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and of course, ends with his own death. It had me in tears, which is my best gauge of how much I enjoy a book. This novel was the winner of the award for 2021, and I think the judges got it right.

Review 1852: A Room Made of Leaves

Even from the Editor’s Notes of what purports to be Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoirs, we get a hint of what’s coming—the husband getting the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia while the wife did all the work. The husband revered as an important founder of the nation when he was actually disliked and hated during his life and was away for many years.

As Elizabeth grows, she loses her family—her beloved father to death, her mother to a second marriage, her grandfather to her own marriage. She learns to hide her real self behind a docile, submissive mask. When she meets Ensign James Macarthur, part of her sees him for who he is, but she is curious and has no prospects, and her curiosity ends in her pregnancy. Her first lesson in her husband’s character comes before marriage—James is more interested in the pursuit than the capture.

James is in fact ferociously ambitious, but his touchiness about his lack of breeding makes him angry enough to work against himself. Elizabeth learns he is vengeful and likes to weave vast conspiracies to advance himself and bring down others. But his judgment is poor.

Posted to Gibraltar, James sees the possibility of a posting at the newly established prison in New South Wales as an opportunity and believes the brochures extolling the new colony. Elizabeth is skeptical, but she handles James poorly and finds herself on her way, again pregnant and with a new baby. However, eventually she discovers opportunity when James finagles 100 acres of Australian land by his manipulations of the governor. She and her two convict servants begin establishing a herd of sheep.

I found this novel vivid and deeply interesting, as Elizabeth learns how to handle her horrible husband and make a satisfying life for herself and her children. The novel evokes the raw early days of the 18th century colony as well as, occasionally, its beauties. I read it for my Walter Scott project and liked it very much.

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Review 1851: The House of Whispers

Hester Why travels to the Cornish coast to take up a position as a lady’s maid. Right away, we know something is wrong, because Hester is traveling under an assumed name and is drinking. When she arrives at Morvoren House, it seems a strange household. The mistress, Louise Pinecroft, is a frail woman who hardly speaks and refuses to leave a drawing room full of china, even though the room is freezing. Aside from an adopted daughter who, although adult, is treated like a child, there are only servants, including Creeda, a disturbing woman who is obsessed with fairies.

Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father arrive at Morvoren House. Dr. Pinecroft has purchased the house because it sits above some caves on a beach. He has a theory that clean, damp sea air could cure consumptives, so he has arranged for some consumptive convicts to live in huts built in the caves below the house. Neither Louise nor her father is thinking very clearly, because their entire family recently died of consumption, after which Dr. Pinecroft lost all his patients because he couldn’t save his family.

This gothic novel is set in two unnamed periods, most likely in the 19th century. It is about two women whose need to be needed basically shipwrecks their lives. It is fairly creepy, although I thought the ending was kind of all over the place. Still, Purcell knows how to write a page-turner.

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Review 1850: Simon the Fiddler

I read Enemy Women a while back, another Jiles novel set during the American Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is set towards the end of the war and in its aftermath.

Simon Boudlin is a master fiddler who has been playing in East Texas trying to dodge the conscription men. He has a dream of earning enough money to buy a piece of land and settle down with a wife. However, the conscription men get him, and he finds himself toward the end of the war on Brazos de Santiago in the Confederate Army.

The men are soon in a strange position, because the war is officially over but no one has disbanded them. Then for no apparent reason, the Union army attacks them, resulting in many casualties. Later, we learn the attack was made because Union General Web wanted to earn some glory in battle. The Confederates manage to gain back their island, and then they surrender.

Simon, along with several other musicians, is asked to play for the officers during a celebration of the end of the war. So, it’s a mixed group of Union and Confederate musicians who play. Then, Simon spots a girl. She’s the Irish governess for General Webb’s daughter. Her name is Doris, and Simon learns that the General doesn’t let any young men near her.

Simon teams up with three of the musicians to form a band. Their plan is to go to Galveston and make money. So, they steal a boat and navigate to the ruined city of Galveston—Simon; Patrick, a boy boudrain player; Damon, a penny whistle player; and Dorotheo, a guitarist. But all the time, Simon is planning to buy his land and marry Doris.

This is a wandering tale full of incident and the flavor of a largely untamed Texas. It is written sparely, with occasional lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Texas landscape. I liked this novel a lot and plan to look for more by Jiles, particularly News of the World, which I have managed to miss.

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Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order: #12 Growing Up + #11 Marling Hall Wrap-Up

Thanks to everyone who participated in or commented on this month’s reading of Marling Hall, in which we caught up on some familiar characters and met some new ones. Participants were

The book for May is Growing Up, for which I will be posting my review on Tuesday, May 31. This is another new one for me, so I’m excited. I believe it features the return of one of my favorite characters, Lydia Merton.

And here’s our badge.

Review 1849: Much Dithering

Jocelyn Renshawe is a young widow who has always done what is expected of her, that expectation arising from two older ladies, Mrs. Pallfrey, her aunt, and the Honourable August Renshawe, her mother-in-law. She leads a quiet life, mostly doing good works. At the beginning of the novel, she is about to suffer a visit from her mother, Ermyntrude.

Ermyntrude is the most selfish being in this novel, which is full of them. She finds her daughter a bore, and her only reason for visiting her is because she is what Lambert calls a “baby-stealer” and what we would call a cougar. She is interested in cementing her affair with Adrian Murchison-Bellaby, whose parents have just taken a house near the village of Much Dithering, where Jocelyn lives. Ermyntrude wants to show Adrian’s parents how suitable she would be as a wife. However, when Adrian meets Jocelyn, Ermytrude is unable to see that he falls in love with her daughter.

In a thunderstorm on the way back from one of her good deeds, Jocelyn accepts a ride from a stranger who is having trouble finding Much Dithering. He is Gervase Blyth, who has unexplained business in the area.

Soon, Jocelyn unaccountably has three men in love with her. But the one she prefers is most likely to force her out of her protective shell.

It’s not very hard to guess the outcomes of this entertaining light novel, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. Its characters’ foibles are all too human, but still funny. This was a perfect light read for me from my Classics Club list.

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