Day 1044: The Lark

Cover for The LarkThe Lark was E. Nesbit’s last novel for adults, and it is a delightful romp with lovable characters. I had been reading her books in order, but because of the recommendation of a friend, I skipped to this one. Written in 1922, it is set in post-WW I England.

The novel begins with a few scenes set several years before the main action. Exuberant 15-year-old Jane Quested finds an old book with a spell for seeing her true love, and she is determined to try it in the garden at night. John Rochester has just been advised by his mother to marry the wealthy Hilda Antrobus. (Jane and Rochester. Can this be a coincidence?) John is walking in the woods after missing his train and happens to come upon the scene just after Jane finishes her spell. She thinks she’s seen a vision of her future.

The war intercedes, and Jane and her cousin Lucilla are still in school at the end of it, both of them orphaned. They are surprised to get a sudden summons from their guardian, Arthur Panton. They are delivered to their new home, a small house called Hope Cottage, where they learn that Panton has lost all their money in investments and is leaving the country. He has left them with the house and 500 pounds.

Instead of being discouraged, Jane declares that they will live life as a lark, and the first thing to do is find a way to make money. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do anything.

One morning Jane hands out flowers to the workmen on their way to work. One of them suggests she sell the flowers. So, she and Lucilla begin selling flowers out of their garden but soon find the garden isn’t big enough. The next thing to do is to find a place that is.

Of course, John Rochester appears on the scene, as the nephew of the man whose house they want to lease. But Jane is determined not to be side-tracked by a vision from making her own way in life.

This novel is lively and full of enjoyable characters, as Jane and Lucilla attempt to earn their living and so meet all kinds of interesting people. It is a light-hearted novel that I enjoyed immensely.

At the suggestion of my friend Deb, I’m attaching a link for The Lark online, since it is difficult to find: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/N10292048.pdf. I myself bought E. Nesbit’s complete works from Delphi Classics, also in the form of an ebook (the only disadvantage, in my opinion). If you live in the U. K., it looks like there are some newly printed paperback copies available.

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Day 1043: A Great Reckoning

Cover for A Great ReckoningA Great Reckoning is the latest in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mystery series. Gamache has found retirement too unchallenging, so he has taken the position as head of the Sureté Academy. He has noticed that cadets graduating from the academy are ill-trained and thuggish and realizes that the corruption he eradicated from the Sureté itself has infected the academy.

He fires many of the professors but decides to keep the second in command, Serge Leduc, where he can see him. He also invites his ex-friend and enemy, Michel Brèbeuf, to join the faculty as an example of failed corruption.

While going through a box in Three Pines, someone finds an old orienteering map that had been walled up in the cabin that became the bistro. It has several mysteries about it. Gamache makes copies of the map for four of the cadets and challenges them to solve the mysteries of the map.

Then Leduc is found dead, shot in the temple with his own gun in his rooms at the school. Although Gamache cannot be on the case, he notices that Leduc had a copy of the map in the drawer of his bed table.

Gamache’s first instinct is to protect the four cadets, who were among Leduc’s inner circle. So, he takes them to Three Pines and has them continue to work on the puzzle of the map.

Meanwhile, Deputy Commissioner Gélinas of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been brought in to the case as an independent observer. He shortly decides that Gamache himself is guilty of murder.

Although I always find these mysteries complex and like the characters, I think I’m beginning to tire of this series. We’re in a rut with the main characters of the village. We hear the same jokes and repeat the scenes when strangers realize this village houses both a famous poet and a famous painter. And why do murder mysteries always resort to that hoary plot of the main character being accused of murder?

But for this novel explicitly, there is a key plot point that stretches credibility. I won’t say what it is except that it is something Leduc has been doing with the cadets. It’s as if Penny tried to imagine the most horrible, while not obvious, thing she could think of without thinking it through. Let’s say that there’s no way Leduc could have been doing this for years without someone dying. Even though he is called a stupid sadist, even he would know it and not risk it.

Finally, just a small point, but with this cover, the series has lost its award, bestowed by me, for most beautiful book covers for a series. The cover is all right, but it doesn’t meet the standards of the previous covers.

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Day 1042: Troy Chimneys

troy-chimneysTroy Chimneys is a curious novel. Written in the 1950’s by a contemporary of the modernist Elizabeth Taylor, Troy Chimneys is set in the early 19th century and feels more like a Victorian novel except for the complexity of the morality. As such, I preferred it over the spare works of Taylor.

Miles Lufton is an ambitious man, but he has no fortune or title, so he must make his own way. He becomes a member of parliament and so must please people and curry favor.

Mr. Lufton sees himself as two different people. The ambitious, political Lufton who is always diplomatic and conciliating and has sometimes had to associate with the wrong people he calls Pronto, after a character in a play. The more retiring, thoughtful Lufton, who has no particular ambition and tends to the naive he calls Miles. Lufton dreams of the day when he has earned enough money that he can retire to his home, Troy Chimneys, and become wholly Miles.

After only one adventure in romance when he was young, Pronto has been content with flirtation (well, almost). But he finally realizes he is in love with a serious, intelligent spinster named Caroline. Caroline has had the perception to notice the two Luftons, but she has a different opinion of them than Lufton does.

The introduction of my Virago edition states that, like Taylor, Kennedy was examining virtue in this novel. That seems rather stuffy sounding, but the novel is quite enjoyable, full of ironies.

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Day 1041: Enon

Cover for EnonEnon is the second novel by Paul Harding and it follows the story of the same family as in his first novel, Tinkers. That novel was about George Crosby and his memories of his epileptic father. Enon is about George’s grandson, Charlie Crosby, and his life in the village of Enon.

At the beginning of Enon, Charlie’s beloved 13-year-old daughter Kate is killed when her bicycle is hit by a car. Soon after, without much attempt to work anything out, Charlie’s wife Susan returns to her parents’ home and he never hears from her again. Charlie begins a downward spiral into grief, anger, and an addiction to pain killers.

In some respects, Enon is a little more accessible than Tinkers. It is characterized by the same beautiful prose, especially in the descriptions of nature. Further, the setting in the old New England village with its sense of history is fully imagined.

Yet, I wasn’t so interested in watching Charlie fall apart, nor did I enjoy his hallucinogenic dreams about Kate, where she turns to obsidian, for example. I’m starting to realize I don’t enjoy reading about dreams in fiction.

I was also nonplussed by Charlie’s relationship to Susan. No wonder their marriage fell apart. Although they seem to be a happy family at the beginning of the novel, Susan is always somewhere folding clothes while Charlie and Kate go off on adventures. I was surprised when she left just a few days after Kate’s death, but it became clear she wasn’t important to her own family.

So, if this subject matter attracts you, you might enjoy this book more than I did.

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Day 1040: The Orchardist

Cover for The OrchardistOn Tuesday, I meant to say that my review was my tribute to Valentine’s Day, with an unusual story of love. Well, here is another one.

Talmadge is a man with a sad history. When he was still a boy in 1857, his father died in a mining town in Oregon. He and his mother and sister then walked all the way along the Columbia River to Wenatchee, Washington. They created an orchard from the start of two diseased apple trees.

Talmadge’s mother died in 1860, when he was 12, and after that, he and his sister Elsbeth were everything to each other. But then when he was 17, his sister went into the forest to gather herbs and was never seen again. Talmadge searched for her for years.

At the opening of the novel, Talmadge is in his 40’s. He has lived his subsequent life alone, working his orchard. He has friends, particularly Caroline Middey, an herbalist, and Clee, a Nez Perce horse trader whom Talmadge and Elsbeth were friends with since they were children. Every year, he and his men stop by with their horses to work the harvest.

One day in town, Talmadge spots two wild young girls who appear to be homeless. Although barely in their teens, they are both pregnant. They find their way to the valley where Talmadge has his orchard, and he leaves food out for them. Although he tries to make a shelter for them, they stay outside. The girls are named Jane and Della.

Talmadge hears someone is offering a reward for the girls. He does not intend to turn them in but travels to see what type of person this Michaelson is. He finds Michaelson runs a brothel for young girls and is an erratic opium smoker.

Michaelson eventually finds the girls, just after they have their babies. The result is disaster. Della has lost twins in childbirth, but the resulting tragedy leaves Jane dead and Jane’s child Angelene alone with Talmadge and Della.

The rest of the novel is driven by Talmadge’s sense that it is his duty to keep Della and Angelene safe. But Della is a wild girl whose actions are controlled by her unrecognized grief. She learns how to ride and finally goes off to work with Clee and his men. But she proves too unruly for them.

This novel is deeply interesting and beautifully written. It is also incredibly sad. It is about the loneliness of the human condition, about our ties to one another, about responsibilities to other people.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerThe Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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