Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order: #3 The Demon in the House + #2 Wild Strawberries Wrap-up

Thanks to everyone who participated in reading the second book in the Barsetshire Series, Wild Strawberries! Please let me know if I missed anyone:

We didn’t have a lot of participants this time. I hope more will join us for the next book, which is The Demon in the House. Unfortunately, Virago hasn’t issued a new edition. I will be reading that this month and posting my review on Tuesday, August 31. I hope you will read along with me! Feel free to post your review links or make comments even if you read the novels at a different time.

And here’s our little badge, should you care to copy it.

Review 1701: The Wanderers

The Wanderers is the second book in Pears’ West Country Trilogy. After the startling events at the end of The Horseman, 13-year-old Leo Sercombe is on his own. Almost starving, he is rescued by gypsies. Thus begins a wandering life.

Lottie lives an odd life on her father’s estate. She is angry with him because of his treatment of the Sercombes, so she keeps very much to herself. Reluctantly, she engages with society, but she is most interested in studying biology.

Like most middle books, The Wanderers seems a little unfocused because it can’t by definition have a climax. It is interesting enough and devotes the same kind of minute observation as in the first book to such subjects as castrating sheep.

We are obviously working toward the First World War and presumably some kind of reunion for Leo and Lottie as the class gulf between them broadens. And yet, of course, it will soon narrow again.

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Review 1700: #ThirkellBar! Wild Strawberries Recap

Cover for Wild Strawberries

It’s time for our reviews of the second Barsetshire novel, as we read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series in order! In this case, I had already reviewed Wild Strawberries some time ago.

I looked at my original review of Wild Strawberries to see if I have anything to add for this reread. I don’t, except to point out how vividly Thirkell has depicted her characters. Lady Emily, for example, is equally adorable and frustrating. That first scene in church is a comic masterpiece, enough to make even the reader impatient with her, yet her family shows no sign of frustration, only affection. Most of Thirkell’s characters are funny, even our heroine Mary in her childish infatuation with David, and some of them, like managing Madame Boulle or finagling Mr. Holt, are hilarious. Or Agnes, so infatuated with her children that she heartily bores everyone else. Only John remains as the straight man.

I liked this book even more this time through but found the ridiculous errors in my Moyer Bell edition, which didn’t even employ a spell-checker, even more frustrating. Sadly, the Virago edition was not yet out in paperback when I reread this one (now it is).

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Review 1699: Two-Way Murder

The night of the Hunt Ball is a foggy one indeed. Nick Brent gives visitor Ian Macbane a lift to the dance. On the way home, though, he has a far different companion, Dilys Maine, a beautiful young woman whose strict father did not give her permission to go to the ball. In the fog, the car nearly runs over something huddled in the road. When Nick finds it is a body, he urges Dilys to run home by herself so she won’t have to give evidence.

Nick can’t turn around or back all the way down the narrow lane, so he goes to the nearest farmhouse to call the police, that of Michael Reeve. Finding no one home, he breaks in through a pantry window to make the call. However, someone comes in and attacks him.

Things don’t look good for Reeve. An older constable identifies the body as his brother Norman, who left ten years ago, but Reeve denies it is him. The body was almost certainly driven over by Reeve’s car, but Reeve says he often parks it on the verge with the keys in. His family having past run-ins with the police, he’s not inclined to cooperate.

But Inspector Waring of the C. I. D. thinks things are more complex than they look. He believes they center around Dilys Maine and the rivals for her affection.

The Introduction to this novel informs us that this is the first time it has been in print, the unpublished manuscript having been part of the author’s estate. That makes it a real prize for the British Library Crime Classics series. The Introduction further comments that for many years E. C. R. Lorac’s novels were only available to collectors. I’m enjoying them very much and am glad they are being republished.

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

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Review 1698: Bad Debts

My husband and I binge-watched all of the Jack Irish series and movies early during the pandemic. That led me to look for the first Jack Irish book, Bad Debts.

Jack Irish is a lawyer who has moved from high-powered cases to investigations and more mundane law work after the murder of his wife. He doesn’t immediately return the call of an ex-client, Danny McKillop, because he frankly doesn’t remember him. He misses another phone call from McKillop saying he’s in trouble and asking Jack to meet him in a pub parking lot. Jack looks up his file and finds that McKillop was found guilty of a hit and run of a political activist, while he was drunk. When Jack tries to contact McKillop, he learns he is dead, having been shot by police in the parking lot where he asked Jack to meet him.

Jack figures he probably didn’t do a great job of defending McKillop, since he was drunk most of the time after his wife’s murder. The evidence against him seemed solid: McKillop was found passed out in his car with Jeppeson’s DNA on the hood. But when Jack talks to Danny’s brother, he says that Danny was seen passed out some distance from his car shortly before the hit and run. McKillop’s wife says he had been a model citizen since he got out of jail, contrary to the police explanation of the shooting.

Jack decides to investigate the original incident, opening up a big can of worms.

This is an enjoyable novel, tightly plotted, full of action yet witty and well-written, a little more hard-boiled than I usually read but with appealing characters. The setting is a gritty Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most investigators in fiction, Jack has a well-developed other life, working horse-racing deals with Harry Strang and his colleague Cam, hanging out with the guys at the local, and learning woodworking from a master. And he meets Linda Hillier, an attractive reporter. I will definitely read more.

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1696: V2

Just a note first: The description of V2 on Goodreads made me wonder if the publicist actually read the book. It describes one of the main characters, Kay Caton-Walsh, as an ex-actress when she is actually an ex-university student, and it says she becomes a spy. I always assume these descriptions come from the book jacket, but in this case the jacket is more truthful. I just happened to notice this, so I went over and looked at the description on Amazon, and it is the same as the one on Goodreads. Hmm.

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Kay Caton-Walsh, a WAAF, is having a liaison with her married lover, who is also the air commodore, when the area is hit by a Nazi V2 rocket. Her lover is dispatched to the hospital while she returns to work, disturbed by his refusal to let her accompany him to the hospital. A photo interpreter in Intelligence, she and her sector are attempting to locate the V2 launch site in the Netherlands. When the commodore treats her dismissively afterwards, she decides to volunteer for a position with a group of WAAFs in Belgium who will be trying to locate the launch sites by computing the rocket’s parabola.

Dr. Rudi Graf is a rocket engineer who has worked with Werner von Braun since he was 16. He has tried to concentrate on the mechanics of the rockets, but he is becoming disillusioned about the conduct of the war and sickened by the behavior of the Nazis. The novel alternately follows these two characters as they work on the same project from the two sides.

Although I am a devoted Harris fan, I don’t think this is one of his best. For one thing, it doesn’t build suspense as most of Harris’s books do. For another, I am dismayed by this trend I’ve noticed of depicting sympathetic German soldiers from World War II. Although I realize they were not all actively engaged in horrible acts, Graf really is. His dream of space flight has been converted into flinging rockets at civilians. Luckily, the program wasn’t that successful. Still, it killed hundreds of people on the British side and enslaved many more on the other side of the Channel.

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Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

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Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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