Review 1565: A Struggle for Fame

After reading The Uninhabited House, I looked for more books by Charlotte Riddell and came across the Recovered Voices series published by Tramp Press and this book, A Struggle for Fame. A Struggle for Fame is Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel about the publishing industry.

Although Glen Westley is the main character in the novel, it follows the progress of two Irish young people who meet on the ship from Ireland and both end up in London’s literary milieu. Through poor investments, Glen’s father has lost the family home and all his money. She determines that they will travel to London so she can try to make a living as a writer.

On the ship, they meet Barney Kelly, a young chancer who is looking for a way to make money.

Glen works hard at good literary fiction and is repeatedly rebuffed by editors even while being told she has promise. Barney, on the other hand, falls into an opportunity to write articles for a journal. The novel makes clear that Glen has much more ability than Barney, but he is able to make a living at writing much earlier than Glen. It is clear from the beginning that the novel is about Glen’s rise and fall, but we are drawn in to see what happens.

A lot of characters are vividly drawn and quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. It is fairly obvious that Riddell is depicting, sometimes satirically, publishers and authors she knew. Although written in 1883, the novel has observations about gender and ability that still apply today.

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Review 1561: #1956 Club! Sprig Muslin

Seven years ago, Sir Gareth Ludlow’s fiancée died tragically. Since then, he hasn’t met any woman who would make him forget her. He knows it’s his duty to marry, though, so he decides to propose to his shy friend Lady Hester Theale.

On his way to Lady Hester, he meets a beautiful young lady in some difficulty. He learns that in trying to force her grandfather to let her marry, she has run off with the aim of becoming a governess. When her supposed employer turned her away, she presented herself at the inn where he meets her proposing herself as a chambermaid.

Gareth is afraid that Amanda is too inexperienced to know what dangers she may encounter, but she will not tell him her grandfather’s name, so he takes her to Hester. Hester’s family assumes he has brought along his mistress, and her roué uncle spirits Amanda away the next morning.

Sprig Muslin is Heyer at her most ridiculous and fun, as Amanda’s fibs land her and Sir Gareth into serious trouble, requiring, of course, more and more fibs. As usual, her characters are lovable and her wit engaging. I always love reading Heyer, This one, I reread for the 1956 Club.

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Review 1525: Manga Classics Les Misérables

I never wanted to read Les Misérables after seeing an old movie that started out with Jean Valjean bashing in the head of a kindly priest who had taken him in, all during an attempt to steal the church silver. That made me turn it off. However, just for grins, I decided to give the Manga Classics version a try.

This, of course, is the story of the redemption of the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean and his pursuit by the policeman Javert, set against the background of the Paris Uprising.

Obviously, I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original even though I have also seen the musical, but there are a lot of characters, so I’m guessing they made a good attempt. The art is not as beautiful as I’ve found in a few graphic novels (although it’s classic Manga style), but the characters are well drawn and easy to tell apart, and the story is easy to follow. I haven’t read any other Manga, so I can only compare it to other types of graphic novels, and it is definitely more dependent upon text than some that I have read (but not all).

As to the quality of the edition, there were some pages in which the tops of the letters were chopped off, although you could still read them.

Did I enjoy it? It was okay. The story seems full of schmaltz, but it was interesting enough for me to consider putting the original on my next Classics Club list.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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Review 1476: Immortal Wife

Irving Stone was extremely popular in the mid-20th century for mostly biographical fiction. His most famous novels are The Agony and the Ecstacy about Michelangelo and Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Immortal Wife is his second book, about the life of Jessie Benton Fremont, the wife of explorer John C. Fremont.

Jessie Fremont certainly had an exciting life, even though a lot of her time was spent waiting. She was actively involved in her husband’s professional life. The work she did of helping her father write his reports when she was unmarried, she continued with the reports Fremont submitted after his explorations. She lived on an Indian reservation during his second expedition. She was one of the first white women to travel to San Francisco via a trek across Panama. She lived in untamed San Francisco and later Mariposa during the lawless days of the Gold Rush. When Fremont lost a fortune through unwise partnerships, she supported the family by writing stories.

Fremont was a controversial figure, and Jessie was partly to blame for a lot of the controversy. Upon his first command, she prevented him from receiving orders that would have made him turn back, and he was courtmartialed later partially because of this incident. Her advice resulted in more than one incident like this. Partially because of an attitude that the couple knew best, their fortunes underwent many ups and downs. Jessie was quite interfering in her attempts to help her husband, and they made many enemies.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Part of my problem with it wasn’t fair, because I don’t believe in judging a book out of its time. But it was so accepting of Manifest Destiny, the right of the United States to the lands of the west. Fremont essentially starts a war as an excuse to steal California from Mexico, stating that Mexico wasn’t doing anything with it. Comments after an expedition that he had stood on top of a mountain in the Wind River region where no one stood before obviously meant no white men. This kind of thing grated on me for the first quarter of the novel.

On the positive side, the novel is interesting and well researched. On the negative side, at 400 dense pages, it is a bit longer than it needs to be through many episodes of Jessie’s heart-rendings about her marriage. Finally, although Stone clearly meant Jessie to be a sympathetic character, I didn’t like her much.

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Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1460: The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.

Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.

Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.

This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.

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Review 1459: The Charterhouse of Parma

I found a nice hardcopy edition of The Charterhouse of Parma a while back and finally decided to read it. I have to conclude that I am not a fan of Stendahl. I read The Red and the Black a few years ago and deeply disliked its hero, who is essentially a sociopath.

The Charterhouse of Parma is about the life of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio, the second son of the Marchese and Marchesa del Dongo. When Fabrizio is a boy, the region where he lives, near Lake Como, goes back and forth between occupation by the French and rule by Austria. Although Fabrizio’s father is a conservative devoted to the Austrian king, Fabrizio grows up with romantic stories about Napoleon’s exploits. When he is a young man, extremely naïve and stupid, he runs off to fight for Napoleon just in time for Waterloo. He doesn’t even know how to join the army so ends up being mistaken for a spy and having so many ridiculous exploits that I thought I was reading a comedy. I wasn’t. In any case, this adventure results in his being accused by his elder brother of being a spy for the French so that he can no longer reside in Austria, which includes portions of Italy.

Meanwhile, his beloved aunt, the Countess Pietranara, is widowed. She eventually meets Count Mosca, a powerful person in the government of Parma, who falls in love with her. He offers to quit his position and move to Milan to be her impoverished lover (he is married) or to have her marry Duke Sanseverina in name only so that she can respectably move to Parma and be at court—and also be his mistress. She chooses the latter plan.

After Fabrizio’s return from the front, Duchess Sanseverina and Count Mosca try to help Fabrizio gain some position worthy of his birth. They choose the church and advise him how to behave. But Fabrizio is struggling between his instincts and his conscience and consistently falls into one mishap after another.

When I tell you that Tolstoy modelled his description of Waterloo—the least interesting part of War and Peace, which I consistently skipped over—after Stendahl’s, and when I say further that Waterloo, to me, was one of the most interesting parts of this book, you will guess how much I enjoyed it. Actually, I should say the first half of the book, because I finally stopped reading. I did not find Fabrizio interesting and didn’t really care what happened to him.

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