Review 1409: Brookland

Prue Winship grows up the oldest daughter of a gin distiller in 18th century Brooklyn. Her father having failed to have sons, he brings her into the distillery as an apprentice when she is 14, and she learns to run it. She doesn’t expect, though, that her father’s early death will leave her and her sister Temperance in charge of it.

Despite the preoccupations of running a business, Prue has another dream—to build a bridge across the East River into New York. Many have tried to design one, but nothing has been proposed that would not obstruct water traffic for hours. Prue thinks she has an idea that would work.

This seems like it would be a book I would enjoy, but I could not get going in it. I gave it an effort, but after six days of reading, I still wasn’t into it and hadn’t reached the halfway mark. (Usually six days is enough for me to read most works of fiction, no matter how long. Often in six days I have read two or three novels.) I still had about 300 pages to read when I decided to stop. I couldn’t put my finger on my problem. The novel was well written and on an interesting subject. However, it was very slow moving and kept relating the heroine’s dreams. There is nothing more boring than a dream in fiction, I think. Finally, I dimly remember reading a book on this same subject, the distillery and the bridge, years ago, although I am fairly sure it was not this one. So, not the book for me despite its good reviews in the press.

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Review 1399: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

In 1785, Jonah Hancock is a merchant who is waiting for his ship to arrive. It is delayed, and he has heard nothing for a long time, but such is the life of a merchant. Finally, his captain arrives but without his ship, which he has sold to purchase, of all things, a mermaid.

Mr. Hancock doesn’t quite know what to do with the wizened, grimacing creature with the fish tail, especially as it is dead and Captain Jones has sold his ship for £2000 less than it is worth. But the Captain blithely believes the mermaid will make his fortune—he should exhibit it.

Angelica Neal’s protector recently died, leaving her with nothing. Her friend, Mrs. Frost, worried about their household expenses, urges her to return to the house of Mrs. Chappell, the bordello owner, but Angelica is hoping to attract a protector rather than to fall back in debt to Mrs. Chappell. Unfortunately, she falls in love at the party Mrs. Chappell gives to exhibit Mr. Hancock’s mermaid, with a young lieutenant who doesn’t come into his fortune for years.

I enjoyed this peculiar novel, which seems solely a historical novel but contains a whimsical dash of the supernatural. I was interested in both Angelica and Mr. Hancock as characters, as well as some of the others. There is an odd subplot about a girl who runs off from Mrs. Chappell that, while not unfinished, takes some part of the narration and then vanishes from the book until the end. I wasn’t sure of the point of that story line.

In fact, the entire novel sort of meanders past the point where you think it will end, making for an unexpected last 100 pages.

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Review 1343: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Cover for Humphry ClinkerWhen I was making up my latest Classics Club list, I looked for some 18th century fiction to add to it. The result was this peculiar novel by the Scottish author and poet, Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was known for picaresque novels, but I wouldn’t exactly call this novel that. In fact, I don’t know what to call it. The novel it reminds me most of is The Pickwick Papers,  because it is about a group of amusing people on a road trip.

Written in letter form, it starts out as a social satire. Matthew Bramble is a middle-aged hypochondriac who sets off with his family for a tour of the watering holes of England. His travelling companions are his nephew, Jeremy Melford, an Oxonian; his frippery niece, Lydia Melford; and his sister, Tabitha, who is on the hunt for a husband.

The novel begins by poking fun at the characters and the eccentric people they meet as they do the rounds of the watering holes. When they reach London, this becomes political and literary satire as well as social satire, as Jeremy visits literary salons and Matthew looks into politics.

However, the novel changes character when they travel north to Scotland. Through the polemics of a Scots lieutenant they befriend, Mr. Lismahago, we learn about the condition of the Scots peasantry and industry. These letters read almost like textbooks. Meanwhile, Smollett even introduces himself as a very minor character. Later, as the group travels south again, humor returns.

The novel is virtually plotless, the only continuing thread the fate of Lydia’s love affair with a travelling player. Humphry Clinker doesn’t even appear until 100 pages in. It was the contention of an essay I read that this novel is an example of the kind where the servant knows more than the master, but I don’t agree. Actually Humphry is pretty much an idiot.

I had a hard time finishing this novel. The humor didn’t appeal to me, nor was I enough informed about the time and place to understand some of the satire, for example, against certain literary figures who were probably recognizable at the time. The introduction calls the novel a snapshot of the whole of Britain at a time when everything was beginning to change with the onset of the Industrial Age. I have also read it is a commentary about Colonialism, but that only seems to apply to the Scottish section. I guess both of these topics might be interesting to some more informed readers.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1150: Snowdrift and Other Stories

Cover for Snowdrift and Other StoriesI keep saying I love Georgette Heyer, so of course when a volume of her short stories appeared on Netgalley, I requested it. Originally, the story collection was released as Pistols for Two, so I’m sure I read it years before but did not remember the stories.

Each of these stories is a romance in miniature. They involve some of Heyer’s hallmarks—cases of mistaken identity, elopements gone wrong, accidental encounters, and a couple of duels. Appealing heroines meet attractive men usually while they are engaged in some mistaken folly.

link to NetgalleyThese are delightful, light stories, perfect for a rainy day and a cup of tea. This is a very short review, but if you like a charming romance laced with humor, you can’t go wrong with Georgette Heyer.

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Day 1132: The Quality of Mercy

Cover for The Quality of MercyThe Quality of Mercy was another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. It concerns issues of slavery that were coming to the fore in 18th century England.

I did not become that involved with this novel, but that was not necessarily because of the novel itself. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that this novel was a sequel to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I had not read. After reading four C. J. Sansom mysteries just so that I could read Heartstone in context, I decided not to go back and read Sacred Hunger first, reasoning that a book should be able to stand on its own. It was fairly easy to figure out what had happened in that novel, but perhaps I missed some background for the characters that would have added to the enjoyment of this one.

Much of The Quality of Mercy has to do with action that took place in Sacred Hunger, and to write this review, I am forced into spoilers for the previous novel. A ship filled with slaves was on its way to the Caribbean when the captain decided to throw some sick slaves overboard. A lawsuit in the current novel contends that the aim was to be able to claim insurance on the slaves that would not apply if they died onboard. The reason given for “jettisoning the cargo” was that the ship was running out of water, but the insurance company’s lawyers have witnesses who say that wasn’t true. In any case, the slaves rose up, assisted by some of the sailors, and took over the ship. The slaves and sailors landed in Florida, where they lived together for 12 years.

But Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, made a vow to find these men after his father committed suicide because the incident ruined him. In Sacred Hunger he was successful in finding the men, and now the sailors involved are on trial for mutiny.

Frederick Ashton is a dedicated abolitionist who is attempting to defend the sailors in order to further the abolitionist cause. Both he and Kemp are zealots in their own ways. Ashton believes that nothing is more important that his cause and makes a request of his sister, Jane, that she considers unworthy of him when he realizes Kemp is attracted to her. Kemp is the type of person who always believes that what he wants is right. He was unstoppable in hunting down the sailors, who included his own cousin.

In the meantime, Sullivan, one of the sailors and an Irish fiddler, was able to walk out of jail when he substituted for a hired fiddler at a party in the jail. Trusting and feckless, he has vowed to go to Durham to see the family of one of his shipmates, who died in Florida. He does not know that Kemp is also on his way to Durham to examine the mine where his shipmate’s family is employed.

Although the novel is certainly well written and interesting, something held me back from being totally involved in the story. Maybe I would have been more interested if I had read the first book, but I’m not sure. I did not like either Kemp or Ashton, although Kemp undergoes some softening during this novel.

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Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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Day 1090: The Vicar of Wakefield

Cover for The Vicar of WakefieldI originally selected The Vicar of Wakefield for my Classics Club list because I was trying to choose a few works from different centuries. For the 18th century, I selected this novel and a few others.

Apparently, there is some debate among scholars about whether to take this novel straightforwardly as a sentimental work or to view it as a satire of sentimental novels. Since it reminds me of nothing so much as Candide, I take it as a satire. Even the title is confusing, since the vicar leaves Wakefield for another town early in the novel.

Reverend Primrose leads a comfortable life with his family as the Vicar of Wakefield. His own private fortune is enough that he has made over his salary to various charities. However, early in the novel, he loses his fortune when the merchant he has invested it with runs off. At that point, he leaves Wakefield and his considerable salary for a much smaller salary in another town. Why he does this instead of using his salary for himself is unclear.

Although the family is now poor, Primrose is determined that they can still live happily if they simplify their lives. However, some of his family are not willing to simplify, and their troubles are not over. His oldest boy, George, has had his engagement broken off by his fiancée’s father. And things even get worse. From here on, every decision they make turns out poorly, touching everyone in the family. In fact, though trusting and ready to see the good side of everyone, Primrose shows himself to be remarkably poor in judgment. The family is cheated, deceived, and persecuted by enemies. All the time, though, Primrose tries to see the good in every situation.

This short novel moves along nicely and has a charming though inconsistent narrator in Reverend Primrose. Its narrative is occasionally interrupted, though, by philosophizing and sermonizing, which I found tedious. Some of the plot twists and masquerades are easy to predict, but overall the novel is lively and a bit silly.

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