Review 1540: The Uninhabited House

Miss Blake is an eccentric figure whose arrival is looked forward to by the clerks in Mr. Craven’s office, including Harry Patterson, the narrator. She only arrives when the tenants have unexpectedly left her niece’s house, which is all too often. For the house has a reputation.

Miss Blake and her ward Helena have been a charge on poor, kind-hearted Mr. Craven since the death of Robert Elmsdale, Helena’s father. Thought to be wealthy, he was found to be in considerable debt when he died. Now, the house in which he died is supposedly haunted. Mr. Craven doesn’t believe in ghosts and supposes someone is trying to keep the house from being occupied.

After a disastrous lawsuit resulting from the early vacancy of the house by a tenant, Miss Blake declares she will pay £50 to anyone who can solve the mystery of the house. Although Miss Blake has never paid any of Mr. Craven’s bills, Mr. Craven is so desperate to relinquish Miss Blake’s account that he vows to pay the money to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Patterson finds himself in need of money, because he has fallen in love with Helena Elmsdale. So, he volunteers to stay in the house and try to discover its secrets.

This is a joyful little novel despite its theme. Patterson tells the story with plenty of gentle, good-natured humor, and his affection for Mr. Craven is very clear. The mystery is perhaps not too confounding, but the book itself is a pleasure to read, with eccentric characters and lots of atmosphere. Is it a ghost story as well as a mystery? I’ll never tell.

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Review 1539: Mary Lavelle

It was interesting to me to learn that Mary Lavelle had been banned in Ireland as an immoral book, for in its own way, it’s very moral. Still, I guess it was shocking for 1936.

Mary is a young Irish woman who is engaged to be married to a kind and worthy young man who must wait to marry her until he can earn enough. His prospects are good, but he is paid a niggardly wage by his miser father.

Almost on a whim and despite her fiancé’s objections, Mary decides to take a governess job for a year in Spain, and the beginning of the novel finds her on the way there by train. Spain is not as she imagined it, but from the first she likes it. The Areavaga family are gracious and kind, and their three daughters soon like Mary very much. She makes some friends within a group of British governesses she meets at the local café, although she is sometimes shocked at their behavior and their airs of superiority toward the Spanish.

Mary is unconsciously beautiful and innocent. She is immediately attractive to Pablo Areavaga, her charges’ father, but he is too principled to show it. Trouble comes, though, with the arrival of Juanito, Areavaga’s married son, for Juanito falls in love with her at first sight.

I have read two books now by O’Brien, and both gave me a sense of a ferocious intelligence. Both are set in Spain, and in both, she examines the conflict between religion, principle, and emotional drives. The descriptions of the scenery and people of Spain are vivid and sometimes lyrical. This is another good book from my Classics Club list.

One comment on my new edition of Virago Modern Classics. Almost as soon as I began reading the book, the last six or eight pages fell out. Thereafter, I was constantly tucking them back in, afraid I was going to lose them.

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Classics Club Spin #24

Apparently it’s time for another Classics Club Spin. For the spin, each Classics Club member posts a list of 20 books from their Classics Club list. On August 9, the club picks a number which determines the book the member will read by September 30.

So, here is my list! I find I only have about 20 books left to read!

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

Have you read any of these? Which do you hope I’ll get?

If I Gave the Award

Now that I have reviewed Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, the last of the shortlist for the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I explore whether the judges got it right. The winner for that year was The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, so I think I’ll start with that one.

Myers’ novel was based on true events, charting the course of a group of 18th century coin clippers and counterfeiters who organize their remote Yorkshire valley around this activity. This novel is lyrically written and atmospheric, but I didn’t like its brutality or its faint favoritism toward the criminals.

It is much more evocative of its period, though, than Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a disappointing novel by one of my favorite authors. Also a tale featuring gangsters, I didn’t feel that it very effectively evoked the time and place of the New York naval yards during World War II.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is Rachel Malik’s touching exploration of the mysterious life of her grandmother that is also set during and after World War II. I found it much more evocative in its setting on remote British farms but maybe a little slight compared to some of the other novels.

A certainly atmospheric novel that was cold and creepy was The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath. Poor Joan Grice is just mourning the loss of her husband when she makes a horrifying discovery about him. This novel is set just after World War II.

I liked Sugar Money by Jane Harris a lot. I especially liked its sprightly narration by Lucien, a 13-year-old slave who is sent with his brother on a dangerous mission. I felt it was much more realistic than many other novels I have read lately about the evils of slavery.

At times when I am doing this feature, I realize that I don’t like very many of the books. In this case, I really liked four of them, so my choice is simply based on which one I liked most. That one is Grace by Paul Lynch, about a young girl who must fend for herself during the Irish famine. It’s a harrowing story, told in beautiful, mesmerizing prose.

 

Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1537: The Moth Catcher

The body of a young man is discovered beside the road in a remote valley near Kimmerston. He was house sitting for Major and Mrs. Carswell while they are in Australia. When the investigative team goes to the attic apartment where he was staying, they find the body of a middle-aged man in a suit.

The house sitter was a researcher named Patrick Randle, but Vera Stanhope’s team is unable for some time to figure out the identity of the second man or the order in which the two were killed. When they finally identify the second man as Martin Benton, the IT person for a local charity, they have a hard time figuring out what the two have in common. They eventually identify an interest in moths.

In this valley, the only residents are the owners of three barn conversions nearby. Yet, the six people who live there, three sets of retirees, claim not to know either Randle or Benton.

Cleeves always presents real puzzles, and this one’s a doozy. Although the clues are there, I couldn’t figure this one out at all. There’s a slight cheat, in that information discovered 50 pages from the end isn’t divulged until the end, but frankly, even if it was, I’m not sure I’d make the connection. A good mystery, as usual.

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Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

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Review 1535: The House at Sea’s End

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in by DCI Harry Nelson when a group of archaeologists studying a Norfolk cliff find a collapsed cleft containing bones. There are six bodies, their hands bound. Ruth thinks they are recent, within the last hundred years, and all men.

Ruth’s university determines that the men were German, and Harry’s team begins concentrating on a time during World War II when the Home Guard of the village, Broughton Sea’s End, was preparing for a German invasion. The Home Guard men were led by Buster Hastings, father of the current owner of Sea’s End House, near where the body was found.

In the meantime, Ruth is struggling with the balance between her work, at the university and for the police, and her baby daughter, Kate. She is also concerned because Michelle, Harry’s wife, has been trying to befriend her, unaware that Kate is the result of a harrowing night during Ruth’s first case with Harry.

Aside from one ridiculously easy clue, I found this mystery much harder to guess than the first two. I continue to be interested in the characters and the setting, although it looks like we may be in for major melodrama in the next book. I like the concept of this series, which is inspired by the profession of Griffith’s husband.

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Review 1534: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson started out writing travel books that were notable for his humor and the many factiods and interesting stories he told about the places he visited. I imagine him with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything.

More recently, he has tackled other subjects, and his newest book is about the human body. In this book, he approaches the body system by system to explain what it does and how miraculous it is. As usual, he relates stories about the various people who made discoveries about the body and includes lots of factoids.

This book is entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the book for me. I have a personal black hole when it comes to subjects such as health and medicine (also religion). Although I was mildly interested in it and found lots of passages to read to my husband (who is interested in that kind of thing, although not religion), I decided not to finish it. I think it is a good book, though, for those who are more interested in the topic or like lots of interesting facts.

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Review 1533: The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye

A mysterious man dances with Sheila Delancy at the Hunt Ball, the same night the Crown Prince of Clorania is rumored to be there. Some months later, a young woman is murdered in a dentist’s chair in Seabourne, and Detective Bannister is called away from his vacation to take charge.

A few weeks before, Anthony Bathurst is requested by the Crown Prince of Clorania to look into a case. Someone is attempting to blackmail him over an affair with a young woman. Soon, Bathurst begins to suspect that the two cases are related.

While I enjoyed the first book in this series, I thought this one was a bit of a cheat. That’s because only one piece of information links the killer to the case, and we don’t get to hear that conversation. The plot has a clever concept, but there’s no way a reader could guess the solution.

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