Day 1159: A Christmas Party

Cover for A Christmas PartyThis is the second time recently that I’ve thought a new book by Georgette Heyer has been published, only to find it has not. instead, some of her existing work is being republished under different titles. In this case, Envious Casca, one of her mysteries, has been republished as A Christmas Party.

Fortunately, I always enjoy Heyer, and I read Envious Casca so long ago that I didn’t remember it. However, I didn’t really need a second copy of the novel, so here’s a warning to you.

Wealthy curmudgeon Nathaniel Herriard has no interest in Christmas, but his brother Joseph thinks it would be nice to have an old-fashioned Christmas house party. In an inept attempt to heal family rifts, he invites his nephew, Stephen, whose fianceé Nathaniel disapproves of, and that fianceé, Valerie. He also invites his niece, Paula, who has been badgering Nathaniel to back a play she wants to star in, and Paula brings the playwright, Willoughby Roydon. Also attending is Nathaniel’s business partner, Mr. Mottisfont, who has been arguing with Nathaniel about something. Mathilda Clare, Stephen and Paula’s cousin, has arrived uninvited, and of course Joseph’s placid wife, Maud, is present.

On Christmas Eve, after several tiffs with the various guests, Nathaniel is found dead in his locked bedroom, having been stabbed. Inspector Hemingway cannot find any way that the murderer could have entered or left the room. That being said, things don’t look good for Stephen, who is Nathaniel’s heir.

I was immediately suspicious of one character, and my instincts proved right, but I still couldn’t figure out how the murder was committed. There was a broad hint about that, however, in something trivial that keeps being mentioned. I knew it was a hint but was too lazy to look it up. I don’t really think, though, that the puzzle is the point with Heyer’s mysteries. Instead, it is her entertaining characters and her wit. I enjoyed this mystery, and Inspector Hemingway seems to be a worthy successor to Inspector Hannasyde.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsLately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1157: This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Cover for This Is a Poem That Heals FishI read about This Is a Poem That Heals Fish on Brain Pickings and had to have it for my great nephew. It was difficult to find a copy (but no longer is).

Lolo at the bicycle shop

The book has a simple story. Arthur’s fish Leon is bored almost to death. When Arthur asks his mother what to do, she says, “Hurry, give him a poem!”

So, Arthur spends the rest of the book trying to find out what a poem is, getting advice from various people and animals in the neighborhood. For example, Lolo at the bicycle shop says “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” From everyone’s comments, Arthur makes his own poem at the end of the book.

This is a lovely book, with beautiful, modern illustrations and ideas that make you ponder. Although I am giving it to a four-year-old, I think it could be appreciated by any age.

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Day 1156: Bramton Wick

Cover for Bramton WickI so enjoyed A Winter Away that I looked for more novels by Elizabeth Fair immediately. I found that they are being reprinted in a nice edition by Furrowed Middlebrow. Bramton Wick is Fair’s first novel, set in a village in post-World War II England. It is a gentle domestic novel with a bit of an edge.

Although the novel features several eccentric denizens of the village, it centers around Laura and Gillian Cole. Mrs. Cole and her family used to be the owners of Endbury, one of the large homes in the area, until Mr. Cole died and they had to sell. Mrs. Cole, although she dislikes the current owner of Endbury, Lady Masters, has begun to notice that Lady Masters’ son Toby has a liking for Laura.

Neighbors Miss Selbourne and her friend “Tiger” Garrett raise dogs in a cheerfully disordered household. Miss Selbourne has noticed, though, that whenever there is something unpleasant to be done, Tiger gets ill.

The neighborhood isn’t short of elderly women, for the Miss Cleeves are also nearby. The Miss Cleeves are penniless and dependent upon their landlord, Miles Corton, for help. Miss Cleeve is profoundly deaf, one sister is a religious fanatic, and the other sister sprinkles her malicious gossip with untruths.

Gillian, Mrs. Cole’s other daughter who is a war widow, has decided to take under her wing the wealthy new resident of the village. Mr. Greenley is from new money. He dresses like a parody of an English country gentleman and has not been welcomed to the village. Gillian thinks he just needs a little help fitting in.

This novel is gently comic, reminding me of Angela Thirkell without quite so much sharpness and snobbery. As Laura tries to figure out what she wants from life, we are greatly entertained by the antics of her neighbors.

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Day 1155: Literary Wives! A Lady and Her Husband

Cover for A Lady and Her HusbandToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

A few months ago for Literary Wives, we read The Awakening, one of the first feminist novels, written in 1899. A Lady and Her Husband was written 18 years later and shows great advances in feminist thought.

As I started the novel, I thought it was going to be about Rosemary Heyham, who is just about to be married, but instead it is about the awakening of her mother, Mary, a gentle, conventional soul who has been married to James for nearly 30 years. The action of the novel stems from Rosemary’s recognition that her mother is facing empty nest syndrome but also because she thinks her mother needs outside stimulation. She goes to her father with the idea that he give Mary a job.

James decides to put Mary to work looking into the welfare of his female employees, particularly the waitresses who work in his chain of tea shops. He believes he is a stellar employer and she won’t find anything to complain about, so in a way, this job is make work.

But Mary takes her job seriously. At first she finds nothing wrong, but she is shocked when she investigates the living conditions of the girls. (Of course, this dates the work, because these days the things she looks at and has control of would not be an employer’s business.) When she finally goes to James with some ideas, she is surprised to find him reacting angrily. What she asks for first are a room in each shop where the girls can eat their lunches, shoes that are more comfortable, and permission to do the washing up sitting down. What she gets are the shoes, but the girls will have to buy their own.

As Mary pursues her work, eventually asking for raises for the girls, she begins to see James in a less rosy light. It is difficult for me to guess how a contemporary audience would view their relationship, but for me, even when it is loving at the beginning, he patronizes her shamefully. All of this eventually leads to a crisis, when Mary is forced to evaluate even her own marriage.

While I wouldn’t say I loved this novel, I found it fascinating. A lot of it follows the evolution of Mary’s ideas from total acceptance of her situation in life to more of an awareness of her duty to herself and others. It also exposes James’s self-justifications. After I read Samantha Ellis’s introduction to the Persephone edition, which provides biographical information about Amber Reeves, I felt that if I ever had a hero, she would be it. As a young women, she had an affair with the much older H. G. Wells, whose ideas about free love didn’t include the woman being equally free, but she grew out of it. He never did, apparently, grow out of her, though, but kept rewriting her into novel after novel, where he depicted her changing from a vibrant, intelligent lover to a subservient wife. She never did, though.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Mary has had a conventional marriage for her time. In the beginning of the novel, she sees that her role has to do with keeping house and caring for the children. She believes that only men are capable of understanding bigger issues. She loves her husband and takes care to present him with a placid home life.

However, largely because of his reaction to how she does the job he invented for her, she begins to re-evaluate her ideas about men and their relationship to women. She sees that men care more about things—their careers, their projects—more than they do about people. She begins to question her role in her marriage and in their business—in which she owns 50%—and to feel that she has a responsibility to make sure their employees aren’t treated badly.

She also begins to understand James’s self-justifications. As an example, when Mary, having seen how some of the waitresses live, points out that they are not receiving a living wage, both James and their son Trent remark that the girls just spend their money on ribbons. And she notices how James adroitly manages to blame a more serious marital problem on Mary herself.

Within the novel, Mary awakens from a woman who has been blinded by convention to a person who is more aware of the realities of life, who is able to think through her own difficulties and come to a solution.

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Day 1154: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

Cover for AgathaI occasionally read a graphic novel, but I am not at all attracted to the superhero kind. Although they generally have very polished illustrations, I don’t find them imaginative and am more attracted to unusual subjects.

Agatha is a biography in graphic novel form of Agatha Christie. It begins with her mysterious disappearance of 1926, something that has never been fully explained. (I confess, I prefer the Dr. Who explanation, in which she was off with the doctor fighting a giant alien wasp.) Then it covers the major events of her life from a girl. To add a touch of whimsy, her major detective characters appear occasionally to talk with her.

I’ve noticed that some graphic novels use the illustrations to tell parts of the story, while others depend heavily on the text. This novel is one of the latter. I would also comment that the illustrations are more workmanlike than beautiful. But they are interesting, colorful, and convey the story.

It’s difficult for me to rate a graphic novel as a book. This one, for example, makes no effort to build up to a climax as fiction would. It is more like a biography without the depth and without the effort to be accurate about details of the times. For example, when Christie is a nurse during World War I, they have her introducing herself to the patients, something that would not have been allowed.

All in all, I appreciate the subject matter, but I have been more impressed by some other graphic novels in terms of beauty of artwork and effectiveness of story line. So far, Hannah Berry is my favorite.

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