Day 1242: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

Cover for Lady Rose and Mrs MemmaryLady Rose and Mrs Memmary is an odd little book. It shows its naive heroine in the grip of Romanticism until she learns what the real world is like.

The novel begins in the 1930’s, when it was written. A couple and their friend are touring the area and come upon Keepsfield, a beautiful old Scottish house, which is available to let. They ask if they can tour the house and are taken around by Mrs Memmary, the old caretaker. As they tour the house, Helen Dacre gets Mrs Memmary to tell her about the life of Lady Rose, the Countess of Lochule, who owns the house.

Lady Rose has been brought up on stories of Rob Roy and Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is an extremely romantic and enthusiastic girl from a life of privilege but not luxury, the daughter of an Earl. Her parents make no bones during her debut in 1873 that their job is to marry her to a man of equal fortune and position in society.

We see little vignettes of Lady Rose’s life from the age of six until she marries Sir Hector Galowrie when she is seventeen. Her parents don’t pay attention, however, to the idea of matching Rose in temperament.

By the time the visitors appear at the house, much has changed for the aristocracy of England and Scotland. The owners of fine mansions can no longer afford to live in them. This is the story of the attitudes of her peers once Lady Rose decides she has done her duty, but it is also the story of the fall of the aristocracy.

For such messages, the novel is written in an extremely sentimental style, with gushing descriptions of the house and landscape and chapters ending in poetry. I don’t think it is altogether successful, but it is interesting as a document of the times.

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Day 1241: Calamity in Kent

Cover for Calamity in KentReporter Jimmy London is on vacation in the seaside town of Broadgate recovering from an illness when he meets a man behaving oddly. This man is the operator of the Broadgate Lift, a cliff railway. He has discovered a body in the locked lift.

Jimmy is happy to be on the spot of a scoop, so he investigates while he sends the operator to the police. He is delighted to find that his old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, will be on the case. Shelley offers to exchange information with him if he will help investigate.

A classic locked door novel with a twist, the book was heavy going for me, for some reason. I think it was because if anyone made a point or explained anything, Rowland found a way, usually through Jimmy’s questions, to repeat it, as if he assumed his readers are dolts. As with many older mysteries, there’s not much characterization. So, a meh for this mystery.

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Day 1240: The New Sweet Style

Cover for The New Sweet StyleI’ve had The New Sweet Style on my reading list for a long time now, ever since reading a glowing review. I’ve also heard Aksyonov referred to as one of the best contemporary Russian writers. (We’re being flexible with our definition of contemporary here, since this book was written in 1998.)

Sasha Korbach is a dissident theatre performer in Soviet Russia who is kicked out of the country in 1982. Famous in Europe, he comes to the United States expecting a rousing reception. However, because of a mistake about the date of his arrival, he ends up subsisting with a group of underemployed Russian immigrants. A move to Los Angeles results in an even greater comedown in the world.

Then Sasha falls in love with Nora Mansour, the daughter of a wealthy fourth cousin. Sasha scrambles to earn enough money to continue his bicoastal affair.

Told in a jokey, ironic tone, this story seems as if it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe something got lost in translation, because I didn’t find it funny at all. For some reason, we’re meant to have sympathy for this character, who seems to have no personality at all but just lets himself be helplessly battered by the plot. Even upon his first arrival, he makes no effort to contact anyone in the American theater scene and sneaks out of a performance of his own work, and he won’t accept help from his wealthy relatives. At one point, he prefers to become a drug dealer. The plot veers from the realistic to the absurdist. There is a description of his theater act that makes it sound manic and ridiculous rather than amazing, as it is received. There’s nothing really to grab onto with no sense of character, no interest in the protagonist’s adventures, just a lot of pointless mockery.

For some reason, the tone of the novel reminds me of Nabokov, with lots of literary allusions but without his breath-taking prose. Instead, the English is sometimes awkward and often sexist. Sadly, I have to report that I did not finish this novel, although I read more than half of it. It just wasn’t interesting enough to me to finish it.

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Day 1239: Michael O’Halloran

Cover for Michael O'HalloranSome of Gene Stratton-Porter’s more well-known novels have been favorites since I was a girl and favorites of my mother before me. I’m speaking particularly of A Girl of the Limberlost, Laddie, A True Blue Story, and to a lesser extent, Freckles. In most of her novels (Laddie is an exception), she features disadvantaged young people who improve their lives through honest hard work, perseverance, and a love of nature. (Laddie wins his girl through honest hard work, perseverance, and a love of nature.) Stratton-Porter has a tendency toward melodrama that I think wasn’t unusual for popular fiction of the time, and most of the time you just go with the flow. So, I was pleased to find Michael O’Halloran, a novel from 1915 that I had never read, in a used bookstore.

Michael, or Mickey, is a young newsboy. He has been living on his own since his mother went away ill. At the beginning of the novel, he takes on another youngster, a crippled girl named Peaches, whose grandmother has just died. Both children fear the state orphanage.

Mickey attracts the attention of Douglas Bruce, a lawyer, when he has a fight with another newsboy who tries to cheat him. Bruce is struck by his insistence that things be “square,” that is, honest. He wants to be Mickey’s “big brother” and help him make his way, but Mickey is too independent. He is also familiar with another man who has a “little brother,” Mr. Minturn. Mickey and a respectable woman witnessed a nanny battering the head of Mr. Minturn’s daughter against concrete and then coaching her two brothers in a lie when the little girl became unresponsive. After she died, Mickey and the woman tried to tell Mrs. Minturn about it, but she called them liars. Then they tried Mr. Minturn, but he did nothing.

It was at that point that the novel lost me. Bruce and his fianceé, Lesley Winton, already had a project to try to reconcile the Minturns to each other. After that story and their daughter’s death, I didn’t want to read about them, and I could see where the plot was leading me. Also, Stratton-Porter can have a tendency toward sappiness, especially when she depicts children. Mickey’s story was already quite saccharine. I was willing to put up with that until the Minturns turned up. With regret, I decided not to finish this novel.

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Day 1238: Raven Black

Cover for Raven BlackTo our delight, our local PBS station airs a lot of British and Australian mysteries. Even though most of them are older, we have not seen them before, so we are happy. Two series we have begun watching (and getting older ones from Netflix) are Vera and Shetland, both from the novels of Ann Cleeves. So, I looked for the first book in each series. Raven Black is the first novel of the series set in the Shetland Islands.

Magnus Tait is an old man hoping for visitors on Hogmanny. He hasn’t had any for years, though, ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl years ago. But this year is different. Two drunken teenage girls, Catherine and Sally, stop by on their way home from a party.

The next day, Magnus sees Catherine on the bus, and she walks home with him. The day after, her body is found lying in a field by a neighbor. She has been strangled with her own scarf.

Immediately, the islanders, even many of the police, assume Magnus killed her. Inspector Jimmy Perez isn’t so sure there are similarities in the cases, but he’s not in charge. Instead, it’s Inspector Taylor, over from the mainland.

Who could have killed Catherine? Was it Mr. Scott, her teacher, who invited her over after school to discuss extracurricular reading? Robert Isbister, a grown man that Sally likes, has been asking questions about Catherine. She was seen talking to Duncan Hunter, an ex-school friend of Perez’s, at one of his wild parties. Or was it Magnus?

This novel is absorbing, although I thought it could have been more atmospheric, given the setting. I liked Jimmy Perez, though, and I never guessed the murderer or the motive. (I missed the first episode of this series on TV, which was this one.) That, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often.

As an aside, I love the theme music for Shetland, and just rereading this review before publication has brought it to mind.

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Day 1237: Little Fires Everywhere

Cover for Little Fires EverywhereOne Saturday morning, Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, sets fire to the house and leaves. As in her previous novel, Ng begins with the end of the novel to show how it comes to pass.

We don’t really get to Izzy right away, however. We start with Mrs. Richardson and her duplex house in Shaker Heights. Although the family doesn’t need the rent from the duplex, Mrs. Richardson likes to think she is helping someone worthy by leasing the apartments to the right person. In this case, she rents one to Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl.

Mia and Pearl have lived a wandering life, settling in a city as long as it takes Mia to finish a project and then moving on. Mia makes some money from her work and occasionally takes a part-time job to supplement their meager income. Upon arriving in Shaker Heights, however, Mia has unexpectedly announced that they can stay. She also reluctantly accepts a part-time job as a house cleaner and cook that Mrs. Richardson pushes on her.

The plot gets moving around a situation that seemingly has little to do with either Mia or Mrs. Richardson. Mrs. Richardson’s friend Mrs. McCullough is close to adopting a little girl of Chinese heritage when the baby’s mother, who has been searching for her, sues for custody.

When Mrs. Richardson figures out that it was Mia who told the mother who had the baby, she begins investigating Mia. It is her self-righteousness as well as her misunderstanding of some of the facts she gleans that mount up and provoke Izzy’s outburst.

At first, I was a little impatient with this novel. Ng certainly understands the adolescent psyche, but in many ways, this novel seemed too similar to her previous one, Everything I Never Told You. She knows how to tell a story, however, and she understands complexity in relationships, so ultimately I was swept up.

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