Review 1657: The Wouldbegoods

In my return to my project of reading the collected works of E. Nesbit, among others, I realized I had forgotten how charming and funny her first Bastable novel, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, was. The Wouldbegoods is the second entry in the Bastable series.

The Bastable children have a habit of unwittingly causing havoc, and after a disastrous attempt to make a jungle while acting The Jungle Book, the children and their guests, Danny and Daisy, are shipped off to the country to stay with the uncle of Albert (referred to as Albert-next-door in The Treasure Seekers). Albert’s uncle is a writer usually installed in his study, which gives the children lots of unsupervised scope to get into trouble. So, they decide to form a society called the Wouldbegoods to try to be good. Of course, their attempts all go sadly awry.

Their decision to hand out free lemonade to passersby results in a fight with some unruly men and boys. Giving a tramp some coins ends up with them being trapped at the top of a tower. All their attempts at play go out of control, such as when they create a zoo in the paddock and the dogs chase the sheep into a stream.

One of the biggest charms of this novel as well as its predecessor is the “anonymous” narration by Oswald, who has obviously read a lot of florid literature. I think this series is funny for children but even funnier for adults, because the children have a naïve way of believing legends or taking things literally that will tickle adults while children may not see what’s coming. These books are delightful.

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Review 1656: Edward II

I haven’t read any Christopher Marlowe plays since college, so when I made up my Classics Club list, I picked Edward II, because I didn’t remember reading it. And it’s true, it didn’t ring any bells except through reading fiction about his reign until I got to the part about the line in Latin that could be read in two ways.

The play begins with the return, after Edward’s accession, of his favorite Gaveston, who had been banished to France. Edward has summoned him with a love letter, and Gaveston tells us straight out that he’s going to use Edward’s homosexuality to manipulate him. And he does. Almost the first thing Edward does is throw the Bishop of Coventry into jail and give all his possessions to Gaveston. Although Mortimer, in particular, is bothered by how “basely born” Gaveston is, the main complaint is his greed: “While soldiers mutiny for want of pay/He wears a lord’s revenue on his back.” Basically, he’s bankrupting the kingdom.

Further, Edward is slighting his queen, Isabella of France, who seems at first an innocent victim. But things are going to get a lot more interesting.

In Marlowe’s plays, government is usually corrupt. He’s not very interested in appeasing power. Usually, this corruption is a result of greed or sex—in this case both.

I have always found Shakespeare to be a great deal more poetic than Marlowe, but Marlowe’s plays have their power. This one also has the benefit of being a great deal more true to the actual events than most of Shakespeare’s history plays are, but of course Shakespeare was interested in appeasing power.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1654: The Panopticon

Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1653: The Parisian

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus in Palestine. His father more or less deserted him with his second marriage after his mother’s death and lives in Cairo, visiting a few times a year. When Midhat is 19, in 1914, his father decides he should study medicine in France and arranges for him to stay with a French professor of anthropology, Frédéric Molineu, in Montpellier.

Unfortunately, Midhat falls in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeanette. Although his feelings seem to be returned, Midhat discovers a betrayal that makes him flee Montpellier for Paris. In Paris, he works on developing a reputation as a bon vivant and womanizer, only peripherally involved in his friends’ discussions about Arab nationalism.

Nonetheless, returning to Nablus, he almost immediately adopts the life his father demands, learning how to run the Nablus store in preparation for moving to Cairo and finding a wife. Events, however, will turn the course of his life again.

Although the novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism against the British and French, which sounds interesting, as well as the time period of World War I, Hammad is hampered by her choice of main character, for Midhat is so self-absorbed through most of this book that he hardly seems to know what’s going on around him. This detachment affects the readers’ relationship to the novel, making me feel detached from its actions. Further, although there is a weak link between the first part of the book and the rest, there seemed to be little connection except that Midhat’s self-absorption is related to this character he has created for himself, the Parisian. I found the love affair unconvincing in any case.

For a historical novel set in an interesting time and place, there is very little sense of that time or place. So, not a big recommendation from me for this novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project. It is well written, but although important things happen in the novel, the action is at such a remove that it feels as if nothing is happening, if that makes any sense.

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Review 1652: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

In the opening of The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan talks about his uneasiness with the narrow focus of his historical studies in school, to Europe and the countries affecting Europe. This struck a chord with me, because I remember discussing this with my father when I was in high school. “Why don’t we learn about China or Japan?” I remember asking, and I didn’t even think of Central Asia or the Middle East. So, The Silk Roads seemed as if it would be very interesting to me.

Frankopan shows that while Europe was a backwater, the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East were vibrant with trade, of goods, culture, and ideas. His thesis is that this area of the world has long been its heart and is becoming so again.

The subject matter of this book is interesting, in a way that changes one’s preconceptions. Frankopan’s writing style, though, is clear but very matter of fact, with no attempt to be stylistically interesting or eloquent.

Although I’m sure this is a simplistic statement, it seems as if there are two ways of approaching historical content. One is to relate it more as a series of stories. The other is to throw in every fact that supports your thesis. Unfortunately, at least the later chapters use the second approach, making the last few chapters sort of a slog for me. For example, most of the last chapter is just lists to show the ways Central Asia has become wealthy. I believe that Frankopan’s ideas are important, but I sometimes found this book putting me to sleep.

The irony is that Frankopan’s book is, after all, westerncentric, especially the last half, which focuses on the mistakes England and then the U. S. made in the Middle East.

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Review 1651: Three Weeks

I realized earlier this month that the deadline I set myself for finishing my Classics Club list is coming up this summer, with about a dozen books left. I’ve been reading lots of classic novels, just not necessarily the ones on my list. I have also read many of the ones on my list but just haven’t posted my reviews yet. So, I decided I was going to have to accelerate my schedule of reviewing and reading them in hopes of getting all my reviews posted on time. Here is one of them.

Elinor Glyn was a romance novelist at the turn of the 20th century whose works were considered scandalous at the time. Three Weeks is the story of a young English man who has an affair with an older Russian queen.

Naïve young Paul Verdayne fancies he is in love with the parson’s daughter, so his mother ships him off for a tour of the continent. He is young and sulky and hates Paris but, being a sportsman, enjoys Switzerland. While in Geneva, he becomes fascinated with a striking woman who is traveling only with her servants.

This mysterious woman, about ten years older than Paul, takes him in hand and begins opening his mind to art and ideas. Soon, they begin a torrid affair. But this affair must remain secret, because there is danger.

First, I found it difficult to buy that this sophisticated, cultured woman would fall madly in love with a gauche, uncultured young man whose only interest is his dog and horses and whose only attraction is his good looks.

Next, Glyn’s writing is florid and overwrought. It is often cloying and downright silly. The style resembles that of writers from the Romantic movement, which was well over by the time Glyn was writing. I have an idea that Glyn may be the type of writer Forster was mocking in A Room with a View.

Finally, the idea that Paul could become informed and educated just by spending three weeks with his mistress is ridiculous. The novel doesn’t say that he is interested in being more informed but that he comes back from his experience poised and culturally literate, enough so as to impress people with his elegance. Right.

In short, this is a really silly book.

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Review 1650: The River

Harriet and her family live along the river in a town in India. Harriet is dismayed at the changes in her sister Bea, who is becoming a young lady and is no longer fun to play with. Her brother Bogey spends his time looking at insects and animals in the garden. Victoria is just a baby. Harriet spends some time each day writing in her book that she keeps hidden away, and she also is fascinated by her parents’ guest, Captain John, who was injured in WWI. Captain John, however, likes Bea best.

This little novel has a plot, but it is mostly atmospheric and descriptive, of the garden and house, of life on the river. I was just a short way in when I realized that I had seen the movie based on it by Jean Renoir. I said, “If there’s a snake, I’ve seen this.” There was a snake.

The semi-autobiographical novel is about Harriet waking up from childhood and complete self-involvement and learning to become a writer. It is beautiful and touching.

My Virago Modern Classics version also included two short stories, “Red Doe,” about Ibrahim, a bakriwar nomad who is on the way to another encampment to claim a wife, and “The Little Black Ram,” about Jassouf, a bad boy who is tamed by being give a black ram to care for.

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Review 1649: The Hoarder (aka Mr. Flood’s Last Resort)

Best of Ten!
Let me just start out by saying I hate the trend of changing the name of a book from the British edition to the U. S. edition. In this case, I got caught out buying both versions of this novel just because I didn’t realize they were the same. I loved this novel, but I don’t need two copies of it. If they are going to do this, the least they could do is warn us in really big letters on the cover.

____________________________

As with Things in Jars, it took a bit of time before I plunged myself into the eccentric world of The Hoarder. But when I did, I was all in.

Maud Drennan is a care worker whose job it is to feed the difficult Cathal Flood and attempt to make some headway in cleaning his house, for the old man is a hoarder. There are odd rumors surrounding Flood, not only about his recent behavior—he is supposed to have tried to brain carer Sam Hebden with a hurley—but also about his past—his wife died after falling down the stairs.

Maud herself is a little eccentric. She is followed around by the ghosts of saints, particularly St. Dymphna and St. Valentine, and her best friend is Renata, an agoraphobic transgender woman with an elaborate wardrobe. It is Renata who suggests that perhaps it was Cathal Flood who pushed his wife down the stairs.

Certainly, something is going on, because Maud is approached by Gabriel Flood, Cathal’s son, who is looking for something in the house. Then, Renata and Maud discover that Gabriel had a sister, Maggie, who disappeared as a teenager. Maud’s sister, we learn, also disappeared, so Maud becomes immersed in an investigation and attempts to search the blocked-off portions of Cathal Flood’s house.

This novel is a bit gothic, a bit funny, a bit haunting, and Kidd’s writing is brilliant. Love this one. Need more.

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