Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order: #17 Love Among the Ruins + #16 Private Enterprise Wrap-Up

I know I’m losing participants, but thanks to those who are keeping up or made comments about Private Enterprise, the first post-war book in the series. Those who participated were

Our book for October is Love Among the Ruins. I will be posting my review on Monday, October 31. I hope that one or two people will read along with me, as I am getting into completely uncharted waters.

And here’s our little emblem.

Review 2039: Alien Hearts

It’s hard for me to start this review without a swear word. A lot of discussion goes on in this novel about the nature of love and the difference between men and women, but to my mind, neither Maupassant nor his characters have a clue. But maybe that’s what I should expect from a man who died of syphilis at 43.

André Mariolle is a young, rich dilettante who is introduced into the salon of Madame de Burne, who is known for her flirtations that only go so far. Her salon is peopled with artists and musicians, and Mariolle is an outlier, but she embarks on a flirtation as she would with any new man in her circle. However, this time the two fall in love and begin an affaire.

Mariolle isn’t happy for long, though, because he wants her to be as madly in love with him as he is with her. We get lots of descriptions of heart rendings.

The Introduction to the novel includes a quote about it from Tolstoy: “In this last novel the author does not know who is to be loved and who is to be hated, nor does the reader know it, consequently he does not believe in the events described and is not interested in them.” Yes.

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Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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Review 2037: #ThirkellBar! Private Enterprise

Private Enterprise is Thirkell’s first wholly post-war Barsetshire novel. It reflects the confusion and discomfort caused by government measures that make things seem more difficult even than during the war.

The novel begins with Noel and Lydia Merton. Noel is back at his law firm, and they are now parents of two small children. To them for part of the summer holidays comes Colin Keith, Lydia’s brother, whom we first met in Summer Half. It is immediately apparent that he has fallen in love, with Mrs. Arbuthnot, a young widow. He is trying to find a house for her and her sister-in-law, Miss Arbuthnot, near Barsetshire.

Colin makes a fool of himself over Mrs. Arbuthnot but manages to find the two women a house. They move in and are quickly welcomed into the community. Again, we meet or hear about quite a few of the characters from previous books, including Mrs. Brandon and Francis Brandon, her son. Mrs. Brandon has gotten older, but we remember how young men used to fall in love with her and Noel Merton enjoyed flirting with her. We’re told several times that Mrs. Arbuthnot resembles her.

Unfortunately, Colin is not the only person who makes a fool of himself over Mrs. Arbuthnot. In the meantime, Miss Arbuthnot, older and less expectant, has her own quiet romance.

I noticed Thirkell’s snobbishness more in this novel than the previous ones, maybe because the others were more fun. It is clear that things are changing for the entitled classes and they don’t like it. Still, this novel seems an accurate record of life for these families (and to some extent of those of the less privileged) in post-World War II England, and I am still enjoying hearing about my favorite characters.

A comment about my edition. In the series up to this book, I have been reading the Virago editions, but Virago chose not to issue the post-war books, so I will have to finish the series reading Moyer Bell editions. As always with Moyer Bell, I am spotting lots of typos that seem to result from machine-reading a word wrong and substituting one that doesn’t make sense. Those are trivial, though, compared to the odd selection of the cover design and pictures at the beginning of each chapter. They are all by John Everett Millais, a Pre-Raphaelite artist. I have nothing against the Pre-Raphaelites, but they were a Victorian movement, and Millais was dead by the beginning of the 20th century. The women depicted in his paintings are dressed completely wrong for post-World War II England, of course, which makes me wonder why these paintings were selected for this novel. It’s a very odd choice. Perhaps the editors thought the novel took place after the Boer War?

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Review 2036: A Slow Fire Burning

Laura Kilbride often has poor judgment, such as when she spent the night with Daniel Sutherland. That night turned ugly, and she was seen by the writer Theo Myerson leaving the area with blood on her face. She says she didn’t kill Daniel, but an accident in her youth has left her with a condition that causes her to react inappropriately, and the detectives think her behavior is odd.

Another odd witness is the woman who discovered the body, Miriam Lewis, whose narrowboat is next to Daniel’s. She hasn’t told the police that she bears a grudge against Theo Myerson, who stole significant portions of her memoir for his best-selling thriller. And Theo happens to be Daniel’s uncle.

Carla and Theo’s marriage did not survive the death of their young son when he was in the care of Angela Sutherland, Daniel’s mother. This accident happened many years ago, but Carla and Theo were never able to forgive Angela, and Angela has recently died.

There are more secrets to come out before the murder is solved. Hawkins does a good job of keeping the pace moving while keeping the readers on the edges of their seats.

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Review 2035: The Appeal

Janice Hallett, and others obviously, thought she was being original when she decided to write a murder mystery entirely in texts, emails, and documents. Maybe she was, but it seems she couldn’t have chosen a more cumbersome way to convey her story. At almost 450 pages, the novel has about 200 pages of plot, and no one is killed until 100 pages from the end.

Further, Hallett cheats by leaving out some of the correspondence until the end. But my biggest problem with the novel is the complete lack of plausibility of the situation. A professor gives two students the task of analyzing the case, but he is hiding information from them and asking them questions he already knows the answer to, not asking them to find evidence of who really is the murderer. I wonder what kind of class the author could have been envisioning.

The plot is this: an amateur theater company is putting on a play. However, the usual director, Martin Hayward, asks his son James to take over because his granddaughter Poppy has cancer, and he is involved in fund raising to pay for an experimental treatment.

Two newcomers to town, Kal and Sam Greenwood, try out for parts in the play at the urging of Isabel Beck, a clingy girl who is Sam’s coworker and new bestie. But there is something unexplained about the Greenwoods, who have just returned from working as aid workers in Africa. Sam also seems hostile to Tish Bhatoa, the doctor who is arranging Poppy’s treatment.

One side-effect of its approach is that the novel also contains about 100 pages of exposition of the murder, which bogs things down so much that, unbelievably, I finally gave up on it less then 50 pages from the end because I couldn’t take it anymore.

What is most unlikely, though, is the role of the police. There isn’t one! There are two minor events involving the police, but their reports are so amateurish as to be unbelievable. What kind of police report takes down testimony without bothering to take the name of the witness?

Then, finally, the victim is killed. Hallett withholds the victim’s name, and in fact one of the puzzles set by the professor is to figure out who is killed! What nonsense! After the murder, there is no evidence of a police investigation except the documents, and lots of questions are unanswered that the police would have to investigate.

A great deal is made of the status of the characters in terms of class. I didn’t understand things this way at all. For example, one student states that no one listens to Isabel because she is low status. No one listens to her because she’s silly!

Finally, the theory of murder is presented, as far as I could tell, with absolutely no proof. I say “as far as I could tell” because I finally stopped reading. What balderdash! I can’t believe this book was so popular.

This year I forgot about Readers Imbibing Peril for September, but I have some nice chilling books coming up!

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Little Life

With my review of The Year of the Runaways, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2015. So, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. My reactions to the shortlist of that year were really mixed. There were a couple books I intensely disliked, one that I thought was pointless, one that was interesting but didn’t really pull me in, and two that were excellent.

The winner for the year was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its ramifications years later. I found it brutal and sexist and couldn’t even figure out which of many dead people the seven killings referred to. Though it was the first book in this shortlist that I read, I knew even then I wouldn’t be picking it as my favorite.

My next least favorite book was The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, about what happens between brothers after a prophecy. I found this book interesting because of its insight into Nigerian village culture and life, but I also found it extremely and graphically violent. Worse, I found Obioma’s writing immature, with unusual metaphors that often didn’t work well and his love for long, overblown sentences.

I didn’t see any point at all in Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, about U, a corporate anthropologist, whose job is to observe, connect, and deconstruct all known human activity. I’m sure it is meant ironically, but the novel seemed an exercise in Absurdism to me. It almost had a plot, but then it petered out at the end.

I liked The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota a little bit better. Written as if it was 19th century social realism, it is about several young Indian men who illegally immigrate to England with unrealistic expectations of their job prospects. It’s pretty grim, though, and it gets worse before it gets better. Its social realist style leaves you detached from its characters.

Cover for A Spool of Blue Thread

Now, we get to the good stuff. I just loved A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. About a family that gathers to decide what to do about their aging and faltering parents, I found it to be a lovely story about family stories and secrets, loving and forgiveness.

Finally, however, there is A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. A beautifully written novel, it centers around four young men who were roommates in college. Slowly, we learn the secrets of one mysterious character, Jude, around whom everything seems to center. This was a powerful and deeply touching novel.

So, I pick A Little Life, with strong recommendations for A Spool of Blue Thread.

Review 2034: The Year of the Runaways

The Year of the Runaways is another book I read for my Booker Prize project. It follows the fortunes of a group of young Indian men who are living illegally in England looking for work.

Tochi is a young man from a low-caste family who in India had been finally getting his head above water since he had bargained for an auto so that he could work as a taxi driver. But after an election where one party rabbled-roused on the slogan of “racial purity,” his entire family was murdered. He travels illegally to England to start again.

Alvar’s father’s shawl business isn’t doing well and his younger brother will soon have school fees to pay. He also wants to marry Lakhpreet, his friend Randeep’s sister. He is able to get a student visa for England with no intention of studying, because he has had to borrow money from a moneylender for his fare.

Randeep comes from a wealthier family, but his father, a government official, loses his job after a mental breakdown. Randeep is kicked out of college in India and attacked for sexually assaulting a girl because he is constantly misreading people’s reactions. To get to London, he enters into a visa marriage with Narinder, a devout Sikh.

All of these young men travel to England with completely unrealistic ideas of how much money they can make or how easy it will be to even find work. They end up living together in a house packed with illegal immigrants working for low wages at menial work, most often employed by their own countrymen. Those with families receive constant demands from them for more money. And things get worse.

This novel is a throw-back to the 19th century social realism genre. The story is compellingly told and illuminates the dilemma of the illegal immigrant. I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters, but I felt sorry for all of them.

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Review 2033: Astonish Me

I enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, although maybe I thought it was a little overhyped. However, I liked it well enough to look for something else by her and found Astonish Me.

When ballet dancer Joan sees Arslan Rusakov dance, she falls madly in love with him. A brief encounter leads to a correspondence, and a few years later, in 1975, Joan helps him defect from the USSR. Arslan is not faithful to her, however, and once he finds that she is not a good enough dancer to dance with him, he seems to lose interest.

Joan finds she is pregnant and decides to leave the dance life. She seduces her lifelong friend, Jacob, and marries him. They settle in to a suburban life in California.

Their son Harry develops the same kind of friendship with his neighbor Chloe that Jacob had with Joan—he worships her while she seems often embarrassed by him, yet appreciates his friendship. But as they reach their teens with both turning to ballet, it becomes obvious that Harry will be a great dancer while the jury is still out on Chloe.

At first, I was turned off by Joan’s decision to deceive Jacob. I felt it was particularly unlikely for that time. However, as the novel digs deeper into the fascinating world of dance, I found it more and more compelling. I liked, too, that Shipstead’s characters have their faults. They’re human, not perfect. If anything, I liked this novel better than Great Circle.

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Review 2032: The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is the latest British Library collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards. These stories are either set in Scotland or written by Scottish writers, like the first, “Markheim,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are arranged in chronological order by publication date, ranging from 1885 to 1974.

Some of the stories, like “The Field Bazaar” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are simple puzzles. In this one, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson how he knows what is in the letter he just received. Others, like “The Running of the Deer” by P. M. Hubbard, are about the supposition of crime. “Madame Ville d’Aubier” by Josephine Tey tells the story of the heavy atmosphere emanating from a woman at a bakery and how later this woman murdered her sons and husband. In “Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne, a man figures out the connection between apparently ghostly footsteps and an attempted murder.

I liked some of the stories more than others, but they altogether make an enjoyable collection for an escapist evening.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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