Review 1581: Somewhere in England

When I received a review copy of Somewhere in England from Furrowed Middlebrow, I realized that it was a sequel. So, I ordered the previous book, the delightful Nothing to Report, to read and review first.

To introduce the plot of Somewhere in England, I have to include a spoiler or two for the previous book. The novel begins with 18-year-old Pippa Johnson, who is about to take a position in a war hospital established in the family home of Mary Morrison, the main character of the previous book. In between novels, Mary Morrison married Kit Hungerford, who had purchased her family home. Now, Mary Hungerford is administering the hospital.

The first part of the novel has to do with Pippa meeting the hospital staff and villagers. It is more concerned with the social side of things than the war work as we meet familiar characters again. Elisabeth, who made her debut the summer of 1939 in the previous book, is a nurse whose fiancé has died, and she is rude to young Pippa. Lalage is friendly and will make a good nurse, but her sister Rosemary and mother Marcelle continue with their selfish ways. Most people, though, are occupied with some kind of war work.

The second part of the novel returns to the point of view of Mary, who is constantly dealing with difficult situations all the while worried for her husband overseas.

I enjoyed this novel, but it is hard to describe. It was fun to revisit the characters of Nothing to Report and see how they’re doing during the war. I think that as a sequel it stands well enough alone, but my enjoyment was enhanced by having read Nothing to Report first.

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Review 1580: Barometer Rising

I got interested in the 1917 Halifax Explosion through my friend Naomi of Consumed by Ink. She has a page of books she’s read about the event, from which I selected this novel, written in 1941.

Penny Wain believes that her fiancé, Neil Macrae, died in action in France. She is aware there is more to it than that, but no one will tell her what it is, even her father, Colonel Wain, who was Neil’s commanding officer. But then, her father hated Neil. Penny has been working as a ship designer and has just had a design accepted by the Admiralty.

Penny has an admirer, Angus Murray, a doctor who is home on leave because of an injury. Angus is a lot older than Penny and is considered washed up because of his drinking, but Penny sees more in him.

What Penny does not know is that Neil is in Halifax. He was due to be courtmartialed for disobeying orders when the shed he was in was hit by artillery. He awakened with amnesia, having been mistaken for another soldier. Now, he is searching for a man he hopes will prove him innocent of the original charges.

This novel begins a few days before the cataclysmic event and ends a few days after. The description of the event itself, which caused an earthquake, a tidal wave, and an enormous wind, is impressive. Although I personally think Penny chose the wrong guy, I found this novel very interesting and involving.

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Classics Club Spin #25

It’s time for another Classics Club spin. The way it works is that Classics Club members pick 20 numbered books from their lists and post these lists by Sunday. The Classics Club selects a number, and that’s the next book you read, for a deadline of January 30. I’m glad of the long period this time, not because I usually have trouble finishing but because I plan my schedule of posts out about six weeks, so often I have to make adjustments to my schedule to add in my book for the spin. Not so this time. I think this change is a good idea anyway, because there are people who have difficulty getting the book read on time for the spin.

Without further ado, here is my list for the spin. I see I no longer have 20 books left to read, so I will have to repeat some:

  1. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  3. Evelina by Fanny Burney
  4. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  5. The Prince by Machiavelli
  6. The Viscounte de Braglonne by Alexandre Dumas
  7. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  8. Edward III by Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  10. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith
  11. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  12. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  14. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  15. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  16. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  17. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  18. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  19. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  20. August Folly by Angela Thirkell

Review 1579: A Room Full of Bones

Dr. Ruth Galloway is asked to attend the opening of a coffin that was found in the remains of a medieval church. It is marked as if it is the coffin of St. Augustine Smith, but the saint was supposedly buried in the cathedral. However, that coffin was found to be empty.

When Ruth shows up for the ceremony at the little museum belonging to Lord Smith, she at first thinks no one is there. Then she finds the body of the curator, Neil Topham, lying next to the coffin.

There are several plots in this novel, but Ruth isn’t as directly involved in them as in previous books. There is the mystery of who killed the curator. Then, an Australian indigenous man named Bob Woonunga rents the house next to Ruth’s while he attempts to get Lord Danford Smith to return some aboriginal skulls. Later, Lord Smith mysteriously dies after a short fever and hallucinations. While the police investigate these deaths, they are also trying to find the source of some high-quality drugs in the area.

Ruth herself has been keeping away from DCI Harry Nelson, the father of her daughter, since his wife Michelle figured out the situation. She runs into Max, an archaeologist who was interested in her when she was pregnant, and begins a tentative relationship.

This mystery was much more difficult to guess because of its many plot threads. Actually, it wasn’t so much a mystery as a thriller, with the police in danger instead of Ruth. Still, I remain interested in these characters and happy to read another in the series.

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Review 1578: After the Party

In 1938, Phyllis Forrester and her family return to England from a long period of living abroad. Phyllis has been yearning to be near her two sisters, so they settle down on the Sussex coast.

Through her sisters, Phyllis gets involved with two different sets of people, with some overlap. Her socialite and snobbish sister Patricia introduces her to an upperclass group interested in social events. Her activist sister Nina is involved in the new Peace Party that runs educational classes and camps for youngsters. It’s not too difficult to figure out that their revered leader is Oswald Mosley.

It’s difficult to decide whether Phyllis is an unreliable narrator through innocence, obliviousness, or lying. I think most likely both of the first two. Certainly, this novel downplays the most negative aspects of Mosley’s party. Anti-semitism is mentioned but is not emphasized, and Phyllis denies the group is Fascist, which of course is what Mosley thought would be best for England. No mention at all is made of the blackshirts or links to Germany. But perhaps Connolly trapped herself into this point of view by using Phyllis as the narrator. In any case, for me the effect was a sort of whitewashing of this movement.

The novel starts slowly and takes a long time to get to its meat, which is the imprisonment of Phyllis and her husband without any due process. If Phyllis can be believed, her activities were fairly benign and this imprisonment was uncalled for. It also involves a betrayal.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Phyllis or really anyone in her circle. The socialites early on are involved in an incident of throwing a terrified pig off a balcony, which some of them seem to think is funny. Although Phyllis doesn’t seem to think it was funny, she also doesn’t seem horrified by it, either. It’s not clear to me what the author’s intent is toward any of her characters unless she is criticizing the class as a whole, both in their leisure and political activities. If so, the criticism is muted.

Periodically, we hear from Phyllis in 1979 when she is being interviewed by someone. If anything, her views have become more right wing. I found this novel rather unsatisfying. Is it a sympathetic one for someone unfairly imprisoned or does it chillingly depict these upperclass people? The novel is one I read for my Walter Scott project.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for Solace

Having posted my review of There but for the, I find that I’ve reviewed all of the shortlisted books for the 2012 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature where I explore whether I think that judges got it right.

Occasionally I don’t know which book to start with, but in this case it’s a pretty easy choice. I’ll start with the winner, You & Me by Padgett Powell. Sometimes, I think that critics and judges get so tired of the same old thing that they like books just because they’re different. This may be a classic example. It’s supposed to be a take-off on Waiting for Godot, as if Waiting for Godot needed one. I found it utterly unfunny and boring and thought it was the worst book in the bunch.

There but for the by Ali Smith was much better, but I found it annoying at times. A series of linked stories that are sometimes touching, the novel also featured some verbal gymnastics that I found tiring after a while, especially in the last section.

Cover for Snowdrops

Now, we come to Solace by Brenda McKeon, about the relationship between a man and his son in rural Ireland. I am torn between this one and the next shortlisted book. I found Solace interesting and insightful, also touching.

I think I’m going for Snowdrops by A. D. Miller as my choice. This novel is about the horrible results of a young British lawyer’s infatuation with a Russian girl and his resulting willful blindness during the wild 2000’s in Russia. It is a slowly developing but absorbing thriller. I liked it a lot.

Review 1577: There but for the

I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Ali Smith, but at first the premise of There but for the seemed a little too absurdist for me. The novel is really four separate stories that are related to the event in the first story and share characters.

In “There,” Anna is summoned by Gen Lee to Gen’s house, because Gen found Anna’s contact information in Miles’s jacket pocket. At a dinner party at Gen’s, Miles, whom Gen does not know, locked himself in a guest room and refuses to come out. At first, Anna barely remembers Miles from a trip to Europe when she was 18, 30 years before, but then she remembers his act of kindness.

In “But,” Mark Palmer, who took Miles to the Lee’s dinner party, recounts his initial meeting with Miles, notable for Miles’s kindness, and invites him to Lee’s party. Some of the conversation of the party is marked by astounding stupidity, rudeness, and bigotry by some of the guests, so much so that I found it hard to believe, especially as a mixed-race child was there.

In “For,” a dying old lady is determined not to be sent to a depressing nursing home she visited long ago. After the death of her youngest daughter, she has been visited every year by one of her daughter’s friends, even though she doesn’t like him. This year he doesn’t come, because he is Miles, locked up in the Lee’s spare room, outside of which has formed a circus-like gathering of observers. But Miles has sent a substitute.

In “The,” Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old who also attended the party, recounts her ideas and memories, particularly a meeting with Miles.

Almost despite myself, I got caught up in this novel even when impeded by its verbal gymnastics, which were sometimes amusing but often annoying. I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the semi-stream-of-consciousness approach to the last section. At first, it was fun, but eventually I got tired of it and felt it could use some editing.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project and found it inventive but a bit overwhelming. Too many ideas are thrown out to us, in the end.

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Review 1576: Smile of the Wolf

During a long winter night, Kjaran, a skjald, or poet, tells his host, Gunnar, about stories of a ghost on the farm of the recently deceased Hrapp Osmundsson. Gunnar, a Viking who retired to a farm and family, decides they should go kill the ghost.

At Hrapp Osmundsson’s farm, they find a ghost and challenge him to a battle. Gunnar kills him, and only then do they realize he is a neighbor, Erik Haraldsson, dressed as a ghost. He had been conspiring with Vigdis, the widow, to scare the neighbors off their lands so they could take them.

According to Icelandic law, the death would call for blood money paid to the man’s relatives, perhaps followed by a feud. But Vigdis urges the men not to report the death because of the shame to Erik of his deception. To not report the death is a worse crime than the killing, but Kjaran and Gunnar agree.

They soon learn what a mistake they’ve made, because Vigdis comes to Gunnar’s house and demands he put aside his wife and children and marry her. Gunnar refuses, and Vigdis begins making trouble that results in a feud and outlawry for Kjaran.

This gripping tale set in 10th century Iceland is modeled after the Icelandic sagas. Kjaran tells his story to someone who remains unidentified until the end. It is beautifully written, a memorable novel that is heart-breaking and powerful.

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Review 1575: Nothing to Report

The circumstances by which I came to read this novel were a bit different from usual. I received Somewhere in England by the same author as a review copy, but when I sat down to read it, I realized it was a sequel to Nothing to Report. So, I immediately sent off for this novel so that I could read them in order.

Mary Morrison, Button to her friends, is an unmarried middle-aged woman living in a village near London in 1939. She has been forced to sell the family home, which is now a school. From her cottage, she seems to be at the center of village life, often being called on for advice, running a woman’s society, and living a busy social life.

Her childhood friend, Catha, Lady Rollo, and her family have returned from years in India and want her to help them find a house. Catha’s youngest son, Tony, a surly university student and would-be revolutionary, is hanging around Mary Morrison’s house trying to avoid his family. Mary’s widowed sister-in-law, Marcelle, has just announced her plans to vacate London and move in with Mary, bringing her daughter Rosemary. Rosemary, in preparation for the move, has shipped her piano to Mary’s house. Mary herself has been trying to organize gas mask training. Finally, Catha’s daughter, Elizabeth, is preparing for her debut to society. In short, things are chaotic. Slowly, events work up to World War II, of course.

I was delighted to read this novel, which I found charming. It has some very funny scenes, such as Lady Rollo’s preparations for going to Ascot, and is at other times quite touching. I loved this book.

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