Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order: #21 Happy Returns + #20 The Duke’s Daughter Wrap-Up

Cover for Happy Returns

Since I know that at least one person who had been reading along was no longer able to find reasonably priced copies of the books, I got a lot more comments on the last book than I expected. I hope that happy situation continues. Anyway, my thanks to the following people who participated in discussing The Duke’s Daughter:

  • No one so far

The next book is Happy Returns, which I read all the way back in 2015 and don’t remember at all (except that someone is running for parliament). It’ll be interesting to me to see whether I view that book differently now that I am more familiar with the characters. I will be reviewing that book on Tuesday, February 28! Hope you will join me.

And here’s our little emblem.

Review 2111: #ThirkellBar! The Duke’s Daughter

This entry in the Barsetshire series opens with characters’ realization that Lucy Adams is carrying a child, but then it jumps forward. Around about the same time, Tom Grantly meets the dreadful Geoffrey Harvey and begins to have doubts about his farm work. He has been happy working on Martin Leslie’s farm with Emmy Graham, but he doesn’t think there’s a career in it. So, he takes a job working for Harvey in the Red Tape and Sealing Wax Department. However, Harvey is known for making his underlings’ lives miserable, and within a year, Tom is ready to quit but doesn’t know how to explain to his father that he wants to change his career yet again.

Commander Cecil Waring has returned to the Priory to take up residence in his part of the house after taking in some shrapnel that the Navy doctors couldn’t find. It is floating around in his body and will either emerge or kill him. In the other part of the house, Philip White and his wife Leslie, Cecil’s sister, are having such success with their prep school that they are looking around for a bigger building.

Cecil meets Lady Cora Palliser, the Duke of Omnium’s daughter, and is much struck by her. However, he thinks she’s paying too much attention to Tom.

The new Lord Lufton makes everyone’s acquaintance. He is young, shy, and overwhelmed by his new responsibilities. He is also very kind and is at first attracted by Clarissa Graham until he sees her behaving rudely to Charles Belton.

Fans of the series may be pleased to find that this novel features the reappearance of almost every character who has ever appeared, with the added attraction of no less than four betrothals. Mrs. Morland, the author of a popular series of novels, always says they are all alike. Perhaps the Barsetshire novels are, too, but their charm is in finding out what happens to characters we know and in meeting new ones.

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Review 2110: Classic Club Spin Result! The Saga of Gösta Berling

The Saga of Gösta Berling begins with the story of a young minister. He has been so depressed by his difficult job and his gloomy house in a remote region of Sweden that he has begun drinking, going so far as to miss some Sunday services. His parishioners have complained, so the bishop and other senior clergymen have come to his parish to attend Sunday service and dismiss him. However, that morning he is sober and gives a passionate and inspiring sermon. The clergymen question the parishioners and they suddenly have no complaints. So, the clergymen give the minister a talking-to and depart. The young minister is Gösta Berling, and now he resolves to reform, to stop drinking and dedicate his life to others. But then one of his old drinking buddies, who drove away with the clergymen, tells him they won’t bother him again. He has given them a terrifying sleigh ride to the station and then threatened them. Gösta knows they won’t believe he didn’t have a hand in it. So, off he goes to become a defrocked priest, a vagrant wandering in the wilderness.

This bit is typical of what we find in this episodic novel, situations apparently resolved for the good, only to end in some ironic twist. It is an unusual novel, and the only thing I can think of that it reminds me of is Peer Gynt, except that Peer Gynt didn’t seem to have good intentions.

Years later, we find Gösta at Ekeby, the home of the majoress. She has a sad past but for years now has ruled Ekeby and its iron mines and farms through having married the major. She has given free room and board, indeed a wing of her house, to 12 cavaliers, who are required to do nothing except enjoy themselves and raise hell. The only catch is that each year, one of them dies. Gösta is one of the cavaliers.

On Christmas Eve, a “black gentleman” emerges from the chimney during the cavaliers’ party and convinces them that everything wrong with their lives is the fault of the majoress, that she has made a pact with the devil to get power. He particularly convinces Gösta even though the majoress rescued him from poverty. They make a pact with him to have control of Ekeby for one year, and if one of them acts unlike a cavalier in that time, he will have all their souls. So, on Christmas Day the cavaliers drive the majoress out of her house to wander the countryside.

This event is only two or three chapters into the book, but by this time there had already been several episodes in which Gösta proved himself charismatic but mercurial and unreliable. I was getting disgusted with him and took a break from the novel.

But coming back to it, I began to appreciate Lagerlöf’s extravagant prose style and vivid descriptions. It’s clear that she loves the Värmland area of Sweden, which was her home and the setting of the novel. Plus, I got more involved in the action of the novel, which has the feel of stories of the past being told around a fire.

Still, I found Lagerlöf’s idea of a fitting ending as well as the religious overtones fairly off-putting. So, a so-so for Gösta. I read this novel for my Classics Club list.

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Review 2109: Orphans of the Carnival

After reading Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, I had high expectations for Orphans of the Carnival, especially as it had in common the carnival setting. However, my reactions to this novel were much more mixed.

The subject of the novel is a woman who really existed, Julia Pastrana, a 19th century performer. Julia was more than a performer, though. She was a famous “freak” at a time when such shows were popular. She is described only here and there and in pieces so that we slowly get an idea of what she looked like, but she was labeled an ape-woman, among other names.

The novel opens as Julia has decided to take up a showman’s offer and leave her home in Mexico, where she works as a servant, to travel to New Orleans to work in a sideshow. But her hunger for travel and adventure is stifled, because her boss wants her to stay out of view except when she’s on exhibit, discouraging her from even walking around heavily veiled, as she usually does.

Julia eventually changes agents and quickly becomes world famous, being an accomplished performer and speaking several languages. But she yearns for a fulfilling private life.

The trouble is, Birch didn’t succeed in making Julia an interesting personality. This problem may be because she was a real person and Birch didn’t want to take too many liberties, but sometimes I want to say to authors, “Your characters aren’t inherently interesting even if you put them in interesting situations. You have to make them interesting.” Further, she doesn’t do much with the carnival setting.

Birch also uses at least one anachronism when she puts Julia in pantyhose. Pantyhose wasn’t actually invented until 1959 and was called “panty legs” at first. The term “pantyhose” didn’t become common until the mid-1960’s.

There is also a present-time story about a woman who fills her apartment with lots of odd objects she’s picked up. There seems to be no connection between the two story lines until the very end of the book. However, when they do link up, the connecting is haunting.

The end of the novel is very much the best part of the book, but otherwise I had trouble staying with it and read two other books in between starting and finishing it. This for me means I am having trouble concentrating on the one I’m reading.

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11th Anniversary! Top Ten Books of the Year!

It’s my 11th anniversary for this blog, and as is my habit, I am using it to post my top ten books of the year. This year’s books are all fiction, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual is that six of them are historical novels, and a few others are partially historical. Only one is set in the current time (the other nonhistorical novels in the recent past). Of the historical novels, most are set in the 20th century, but one each is set in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Five of the books are by women, five by men, and two involve the supernatural. Four books are set in the United States, two in Scotland, and one each in Australia, Madagascar, France, and an island in the Indian Ocean off what would become Australia.

This year’s choice was difficult, because I read some really good books, but here they are, in the order in which I posted the reviews:

Here’s wishing you a year of happy reading!

Review 2108: The Paris Apartment

Jess needs to leave London quickly, so she calls her brother Ben in Paris and announces she is coming for a visit. He tells her it’s not a good time but ends up giving her instructions to his apartment.

All doesn’t go well for her travel plans, and she ends up arriving late. However, she can’t get Ben to buzz her in or raise him on her phone. She ends up following someone in and picking the lock to his apartment.

When Ben doesn’t appear the next morning, Jess begins asking about him. The neighbors, though, are hostile and unhelpful. The building itself is old and unusual, surrounding a courtyard with each apartment occupying a single floor. It seems much more expensive than Ben, a journalist, can afford. Moreover, in the apartment Jess has found a spot smelling strongly of bleach and a cat with blood on its fur.

I think I’ve read enough Lucy Foley. Her plots are puzzling enough, but her style gets old. All the books I’ve read by her are narrated the same way—in short chapters moving back and forth in time and changing narrators. Her style seemed unusual at first but it doesn’t change from book to book.

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Review 2107: Spring

Spring is the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Like with most of Smith’s books, there is a point where I say, “What the f— is she on about?” and a point where I say, “Oh.”

Richard Lease is an older man, a filmmaker who has done good work. He is grieving after his old friend Paddy’s death. Paddy had been his screenwriter, a woman who supported and inspired him and a good friend. He is further upset because the screenwriter assigned for his next film is trying to turn a delicate work about two famous writers who never actually met each other into a story about a hot affair.

Supposed to be at a meeting about this film in London, Richard takes a train in the opposite direction and gets off in Scotland, thinking about throwing himself under the train.

About halfway through the novel, it suddenly focuses to a seemingly unrelated story. Brittany is a security guard in a detention facility for illegal immigrants. She, like many of the other guards, has started to become callous and treat the detainees as if they were criminals.

She has heard a rumor about a little girl who walked into a facility and spoke to the director. The next day the toilets were spotlessly cleaned. Then one day on her way to work, she meets the child she thinks is that girl. The child Florence wants to know how to get to the place in Scotland shown on an old postcard she has. Suddenly, Brittany finds herself going along.

The novel is obviously about how we treat immigrants, but it makes comments about other things, like social media, on the way. There were times when its digressions got on my nerves and particularly one that I skipped once I had its measure. But somehow even when I’m frustrated by her, Smith always manages to pull me into her story and impress me with her intelligence.

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Review 2106: The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvan Headley called The Mere Wife her novel about monsters in suburbia. It certainly is, but it’s also loosely based on the Old English epic poem Beowulf, only about women, not men.

Dana Mills is a U. S. Marine fighting in a desert country when she is captured and appears to be publicly executed on television. She awakens in the middle of the desert six months pregnant with no memory of what happened. Since she can’t tell the conditions under which she was impregnated, the Marines put her in prison stateside. She escapes and returns to her home town, which her family has lived in for generations, only to find it demolished with a suburb built on top of it.

Dana finds her way to caves in the mountain surrounded by the suburb. Inside the mountain is a train station from when the town was thriving. Living in the cave, she has her baby, but she is traumatized by PTSD and thinks he is a monster.

Seven years go by, during which Dana has been training her son, Gren, to survive, which she believes includes staying away from other people. But Gren sneaks out and makes friends with a boy in the nearest house, Dylan, who has been both spoiled and restricted and neglected. When Dana finds out about this friendship, she has only dread. Despite her efforts to keep him away, Gren sneaks out and attends a New Years party. Willa, Dana’s mother, has been aware that something has been in her house, a wild animal, she thinks. When Dana comes to fry to fetch Gren home, a series of overreactions on her part and that of Dylan’s parents result in catastrophe. Soon the police are hunting down Dana and her son. Enter a macho policeman named Ben Wolff.

This is really a rough read. Stylistically, it’s beautiful and poetic, but it is also harsh and cynical. The question Headley forces on you is, Who is the monster? Well, there are lots of them.

The novel features a chorus of women and a strong distaste for men as well as for hypocrisy.

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Review 2105: The Royal Secret

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now the widowed Mrs. Hakesby, meet Mr. Van Riebeeck at the theater, Marwood has no idea that his investigation of someone selling state secrets will involve him. Cat, who has carried on her husband’s architectural business since his death two years before, has thought she would never be drawn to a man, but she is to Van Riebeeck.

When Marwood’s investigation begins to focus on Van Riebeeck, he tries to warn Cat, but she just thinks he is jealous, which he is. In the meantime, Cat is working on plans for a chicken house for the King’s sister, Madame, and is asked to take them and a model to France.

Van Riebeeck has already killed three people and proposed marriage to Cat before he disappears. But since one of the murdered is Marwood’s own footboy, he is determined to find him.

This is another excellent entry in the Marwood/Lovett series. The main characters remain interesting, and Taylor involves them in some intriguing plots. I am enjoying them.

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