Review 1851: The House of Whispers

Hester Why travels to the Cornish coast to take up a position as a lady’s maid. Right away, we know something is wrong, because Hester is traveling under an assumed name and is drinking. When she arrives at Morvoren House, it seems a strange household. The mistress, Louise Pinecroft, is a frail woman who hardly speaks and refuses to leave a drawing room full of china, even though the room is freezing. Aside from an adopted daughter who, although adult, is treated like a child, there are only servants, including Creeda, a disturbing woman who is obsessed with fairies.

Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father arrive at Morvoren House. Dr. Pinecroft has purchased the house because it sits above some caves on a beach. He has a theory that clean, damp sea air could cure consumptives, so he has arranged for some consumptive convicts to live in huts built in the caves below the house. Neither Louise nor her father is thinking very clearly, because their entire family recently died of consumption, after which Dr. Pinecroft lost all his patients because he couldn’t save his family.

This gothic novel is set in two unnamed periods, most likely in the 19th century. It is about two women whose need to be needed basically shipwrecks their lives. It is fairly creepy, although I thought the ending was kind of all over the place. Still, Purcell knows how to write a page-turner.

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Review 1850: Simon the Fiddler

I read Enemy Women a while back, another Jiles novel set during the American Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is set towards the end of the war and in its aftermath.

Simon Boudlin is a master fiddler who has been playing in East Texas trying to dodge the conscription men. He has a dream of earning enough money to buy a piece of land and settle down with a wife. However, the conscription men get him, and he finds himself toward the end of the war on Brazos de Santiago in the Confederate Army.

The men are soon in a strange position, because the war is officially over but no one has disbanded them. Then for no apparent reason, the Union army attacks them, resulting in many casualties. Later, we learn the attack was made because Union General Web wanted to earn some glory in battle. The Confederates manage to gain back their island, and then they surrender.

Simon, along with several other musicians, is asked to play for the officers during a celebration of the end of the war. So, it’s a mixed group of Union and Confederate musicians who play. Then, Simon spots a girl. She’s the Irish governess for General Webb’s daughter. Her name is Doris, and Simon learns that the General doesn’t let any young men near her.

Simon teams up with three of the musicians to form a band. Their plan is to go to Galveston and make money. So, they steal a boat and navigate to the ruined city of Galveston—Simon; Patrick, a boy boudrain player; Damon, a penny whistle player; and Dorotheo, a guitarist. But all the time, Simon is planning to buy his land and marry Doris.

This is a wandering tale full of incident and the flavor of a largely untamed Texas. It is written sparely, with occasional lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Texas landscape. I liked this novel a lot and plan to look for more by Jiles, particularly News of the World, which I have managed to miss.

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Review 1846: Classics Club Spin Book! The Dead Secret

The latest Classics Club Spin ended up with The Dead Secret as the book I should read. It is Wilkie Collins’ first full-length novel but unfortunately not his best.

Mrs. Treverton is on her deathbed at Porthgenna Tower, but she has a secret. She wants to disclose it to her husband but can’t bring herself to do it. So, she forces her maid, Sarah Leeson, to write it down. She makes Sarah promise not to destroy the confession or remove it from the house, but she dies before she can make her promise to give it to her husband. So, Sarah hides it in a ruined wing of the house and then flees.

Fifteen or sixteen years later, Mrs. Treverton’s daughter Rosamond is a young wife. She and her blind husband, Leonard Frankland, are on their way to Cornwall to take up residence at Porthgenna Tower, where Rosamond has not lived since she was five. They intend to renovate the house, including the ruined north wing, but they have had to stop their journey because Rosamond has gone into premature labor.

The local doctor, in seeking a nurse for the new mother and son, consults a householder only to have her housekeeper, Mrs. Jazeph, unexpectedly volunteer to do it herself. However, Mrs. Jazeph’s odd behavior that evening causes her to be dismissed. Before leaving, she tells Rosamond to stay out of the Myrtle Room.

With a ruined old mansion on the coast of Cornwall that is possibly haunted and a secret too awful to tell, this novel promises to be all that a sensation novel should be. However, Collins is clearly learning here, for this novel is dripping with sentimentality and soppiness. Moreover, the behavior of the maid (it’s not hard to guess who she is) is so exaggerated that I could hardly stand to read about her at times. Collins took Dickens for his model, and Rosamond is a typical type for Dickens—sweet, a little foolish at times, loving, needing the guidance of her morally correct husband. Without having spent enough time with Sarah for us to care much for her—in fact, at times her behavior is extremely irritating—he spends too long a time with a supposedly heart-rending scene.

The secret isn’t very hard to guess, nor are the events of the plot difficult to predict. This isn’t a terrible novel, but Collins has written better ones.

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Review 1844: Karolina and the Torn Curtain

I was interested in reading more foreign novels, so for some reason I picked Polish and then just googled a list of books. I picked a novel I thought was written by a woman only to find out that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for two gay men. I would scold myself for sloppy research, but I enjoyed this mystery, although it is second in a series and I prefer to start with the first. However, I don’t think you miss much if you start with this one except maybe more introduction to the main characters.

The novel is set in 1895 Crakow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the respectable wife of a professor at the Jagellonian University. However, she has another occupation—solving crimes.

Zofia’s maid Karolina has disappeared from her house without explanation, and later her body is found in the river, where she has been thrown after being shot. The autopsy reveals she has also been violated.

When Zofia investigates, she learns that Karolina had met a young man, an engineer, who wanted to marry her and take her to America. Looking into it further, it appears that Karolina was lured by a white slaver, and the police claim to have identified him and shot him during an attempted escape. But then Zofia’s other maid Franciszka sees Karolina’s boyfriend in a crowd.

This mystery is quite convoluted and also fairly witty. One of the things modern audiences will find funny are some of the “scientific” ideas of the time—for example, that educating women affects their organs so that they can’t give birth. Another is the chapter subtitles, reminiscent of those in older novels except facetious.

I enjoyed this novel but didn’t feel the characters were that compelling. I’m not sure whether I will read another one.

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Review 1843: The Shape of Darkness

Newly recovered from a vicious bout of pneumonia, Agnes is still weak, but she is so poor she has returned to her job as a silhouette maker. Her mother is ailing, and she also has her nephew Cedric to support. Then she notices that her last few customers have been murdered—their throats slit.

Pearl is an 11-year-old albino who up until recently has been appearing as a ghost in her sister Myrtle’s seances. But Pearl seems to have a gift herself, so Myrtle has been advertising her as the White Sylph. Certainly something happens when she attempts to contact the spirits. She, though, doesn’t know what, because she passes out.

Agnes, worried that someone is targeting her business, decides that Pearl can help her.

Although I have been enjoying Purcell’s novels and this one is creepily Gothic, set as it is in old, dilapidated houses in Victorian Bath, it took me a while to get into it. However, I had patience that paid off. I had lots of theories about what was going on, but there’s no way I could have guessed the truth.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

Kim

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Review 1801: Classics Club Dare! The Grand Sophy

The latest Classics Club Dare is to read something romantic for February, so I have chosen The Grand Sophy from my list.

When Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey unexpectedly arrives at Lord Ombersley’s home to ask his sister to take charge of his daughter Sophy for a while, he discovers a depressed household. Lord Ombersley’s gambling debts had almost overrun the establishment until his son and heir, Charles Rivenhall, inherited a fortune from a distant relative. Charles “did something with the mortgages” and paid off the debts, and now he is trying to get the household to economize.

Charles is also engaged to Eugenia Wraxton, whose outward sweetness hides a self-righteous and meddling disposition. Her plans to occupy the family home after the wedding depress everyone except Charles.

By the time Sophy arrives, the announcement of her cousin Cecilia’s engagement to Lord Charlbury has been delayed by his having contracted mumps. Cecilia now thinks herself in love with Augustus Fawnhope, a devastatingly handsome but vague young man who fancies himself a poet.

Sophy arrives like a breath of fresh air. She brings a monkey and a parrot to entertain the children, a shy greyhound, and a fabulous black steed to ride. She immediately realizes that the family needs her help. And she never shirks her obligations.

Sophy is a firecracker of a heroine, and The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer’s most beloved novels. There is lots of fun to be had as Sophy’s stratagems twist and turn the plot. The novel is a re-read for me for the Classics Club, but I loved it this time just as much as I did the first time I read it.

Frederica

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Review 1799: Summer Will Show

I have enjoyed the two other books I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, but I am not as sure how I feel about Summer Will Show. According to the Introduction by Claire Harman, the two main characters bear a strong resemblance to Warner’s real-life companion, Valentine Ackland (Sophia) and herself (Minna). This may be the problem I have with this novel, because, as with Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, depicting a semblance of her own true-life relationship, I think perhaps the closeness of the relationship inhibits the writing. In this case, I didn’t really get the attraction between the two women. It didn’t seem convincing.

in 1848, Sophia Willoughby has been running her estate and raising her children on her own for some time. She has long tolerated her husband’s affairs, but when she hears of one with Minna Lemuel, she is enraged. Minna is famous as a sort of actress/prostitute/mountebank, and she is not only unattractive but older than Sophia. Sophia tells her husband Frederick he can stay in Paris.

Although Sophia is an extremely competent manager, she is impatient in many ways with her woman’s role. She wants to live a free life. She is not happy in society and has no friends. Although an attentive mother, she thinks her children are too soft and doesn’t coddle them. Then a mistaken attempt to toughen them up ends in their deaths.

With no one to care for, Sophia decides to go Paris and talk her husband into having another child with her. She arrives there as the Parisians are preparing for another revolution.

In searching for Frederick, Sophia meets Minna and is immediately captivated. In a short time, she is caring for her instead of a new child. Minna is a revolutionary, however, and although Sophia is skeptical of the movement, whose advocates seem to hang around Minna’s flat and do little, she is slowly drawn to Communism. In the meantime, Paris is starving.

Aside from what I felt was an unconvincing love affair, I wasn’t really interested in the revolutionary setting or the turn to Communism, which wasn’t very coherently explained. I was also appalled by Sophia’s treatment of Caspar, her husband’s illegitimate half-caste son. So, not so excited about this one.

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Review 1782: The Toll-Gate

I was rereading some Georgette Heyer novels last winter as I replaced some of my ratty old 70’s copies, and I remembered The Toll-Gate as one of my least favorite of her romances. I was confused, however, for the novel was amusing and had a fun adventure plot.

Back the second time from the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Staple has been intending to settle down. His mother and sister have accordingly presented a string of attractive, eligible girls, but Jack hasn’t been interested. He says he doesn’t want to get married until he receives “a leveller.”

On going to visit a friend, he loses his way and comes to a toll-gate that is manned at night by a terrified young boy. The boy tells Jack that his father told him to mind the toll-gate for an hour, and he hasn’t been back. The boy is terrified of a man his father sometimes meets during the night. Jack decides to stay with the boy until his father returns. Then the next morning, he receives his leveller, in the person of Nell Stornaway.

This novel is just delightful, and I don’t understand how I misremembered it so badly.

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Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

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