Review 2170: The Road

When I briefly researched to find out what the second book in John Ehle’s Mountain series was, I came up with The Road. However, the end of the novel indicates that one other book precedes it, and Goodreads lists it as #4, the last one. (Looking back, I see I found a site that recommended they be read in that order, with the last one second.) In any case, the novels don’t seem to be closely linked, only featuring the same families.

The Road begins 100 years after The Land Breakers, in 1876. Weatherby Wright, an engineer born and raised in the mountains, has been tasked with building a railroad from the eastern part of North Carolina up the mountains to the Swannanoa Gap. This railroad will help the mountain dwellers take their crops to market and make medical and other kinds of help available to them. However, no one knows if the effort can be successful.

Most of the novel focuses on Wright and the details of this difficult project. He is dependent mostly on convict labor and hires as the project accountant Hal Cumberland. Another plot is the romance between Cumberland and a mountain girl, Henry Anna Plover.

The novel is powerful at times but at other times reads like a series of anecdotes passed down in the family that don’t really link up into a coherent story. The character of Weatherby is not always involved because of health reasons.

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Review 2169: The House on Half Moon Street

In Victorian London, Leo Stanhope is leading a difficult existence as a clerk for a hospital mortuary. His only extravagance is a weekly trip to the whorehouse, where he meets Maria, with whom he is madly in love. She is one of only a few people who knows his secret—that he was born a girl but has always believed he’s a boy. At 15, he left a comfortable home to live as a man.

One day the body of a murdered woman arrives at the mortuary. It is Maria, who did not turn up for the date they had for Saturday. Leo is soon brought in for questioning, but he is let go, and he becomes obsessed with trying to find Maria’s killer. He believes that her death may be related to that of another corpse brought in a few days before.

Of course, Leo finds that almost nothing Maria told him about herself was true, and that leads me to the first general discomfort I had with this novel even before Maria’s body turned up. That is, I really hate the trope of a young man being obsessed with a woman who is leading him on, especially one who exhibits stalker behaviors. If that wasn’t bad enough, Reeve puts Leo through so much physical and mental torment before he’s through that it made me very uncomfortable.

I think the mystery was complex and interesting, but Leo, who is self-obsessed and humorless, reminded me a lot of C. J. Sansom’s depressing hero, Matthew Shardlake. At one point, another character tries to point out that he is not only jeopardizing his own life but hers, but he thinks only of himself and continues to go on the same way.

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Review 2167: Weir of Hermiston. Some Unfinished Stories

I wasn’t aware when I picked up Weir of Hermiston that it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s last and unfinished novel. But unlike The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only nine chapters of it exist. It has been packaged in the slim volume I found, dated 1925, with several other unfinished novels or stories, but of the others only one or two chapters or partial chapters exist. Between most of the fragments is a note from the editor containing what is known about the fragment and Stevenson’s intentions.

Weir of Hermiston tells the story of Archie Weir, whose mother brought him up to fear and distrust his father, the Lord Justice-Clerk. As a young man, Archie reacts in a disgraceful way, possibly treasonous, to a hanging, so his father sends him to his estate in Hermiston to learn to run it. Archie is ashamed and is not socially adept, so he becomes a bit of a recluse. However, he meets Christina, a cousin, and begins to fall in love with her. He is joined by Frank, a financially embarrassed friend, who decides to give him some competition for Christina. Things aren’t looking good when the fragment ends.

The next fragment is Heathercat, about a young boy whose mother keeps disobeying the law in regard to religion—I didn’t really understand the details—to the point where his father is being ruined by fines. She is using her son, whose nickname is Heathercat, to run illegal errands and keep guard on illegal services of worship. The notes explain that this novel was going to be based on a true story about a young boy who was married to an older girl to prevent her being forced to marry someone else.

Other stories are about a beautiful wife of a wine seller who falls in love with an aristocratic customer, a prince, presumably Prince Charlie, who tires of waiting around and decides to act; a man who takes over the household of a friend who has fled the country; and so on. The fragments are set in Scotland, England, or France during the 15th to 17th centuries, except Weir of Hermiston, which is set in the 19th.

I forgot to add that my copy begins with a description of Stevenson’s death and funeral, written by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who was apparently very fond of him.

I found a book composed of fragments to be frustrating, but it made me want to read more of Stevenson’s adult novels.

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Review 2160: The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is the fifth of Trollope’s Palliser novels and the most political so far. It follows two stories, one political and one not so much, but they intertwine.

The introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition says that Trollope wanted to write about politics but included a romance to make the book more acceptable to his readers. However, in this case, he admitted his idea of a romance was unfortunate. As a result, this novel was not as appreciated by his audience.

These days, we have bigger problems with this plot than Trollope’s contemporaries probably had. And that’s because of an anti-Semitism on the part of Mr. Wharton that seems so commonplace it’s not even commented on. As usual, I try not to judge older books by our standards, but be warned.

Instead of falling in with her family’s wishes and marrying Arthur Fletcher, who has been Emily Wharton’s friend since childhood, Emily falls in love with Ferdinand Lopez. Lopez has been generally accepted as a wealthy man and a gentleman, but no one knows anything about his family or his past.

Mr. Wharton is against the marriage, but the only reason he gives is that Lopez isn’t an Englishman and may even be a Jew. He doesn’t inquire into Lopez’s finances (which would have saved him a lot of trouble) or his background, but just refuses his permission until he finally gives up and allows Emily to marry. Slowly, we find out that Lopez has no money or any morals at all. Emily begins to learn what she has done on her honeymoon when Lopez insists that she ask her father for money after he has already given them £3000.

The political story concerns Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium. No one has been able to form a government, so the Duke is asked to attempt to form one, which of course would make him the Prime Minister. He tries to resist this honor, but he finally accepts it. At first he hates the position, because it doesn’t involve a lot of work on an important project, which is what he likes. He also has few social skills. He is upright and conscientious but not likable.

The Duchess at first determines to make a splash, so she begins endlessly entertaining. However, the Duke’s lack of appreciation for some of their guests begins to create problems, for example, when a man she invited to set up her archery range directly approaches the Duke for a political position and gets thrown out of the house.

One of her errors is to make Lopez a favorite, a decision which later causes problems for her husband. Despite its anti-Semitism, I found The Prime Minister to be an insightful depiction of marriage to an abuser, as Lopez separates Emily from her friends and family, belittles her, and makes all of his disappointments her fault. Even after he is gone, her behavior in thinking she has been shamed and must always bear that shame is true to the condition of an abused spouse.

I didn’t enjoy the political story quite so much but felt it to be insightful about people’s behavior in a political environment. I also like the ebullient, incisive Duchess.

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Review 2152: #1940 Club! The Corinthian

Since this is my first post for the 1940 Club, I’ll include my list of other books published in 1940 that I have already reviewed:

I was happy to reread The Corinthian for the club because I hadn’t read it in some time. It is one of Heyer’s sillier, unlikelier plots, and I found it delightful.

Richard Wyndham is handsome, wealthy, impeccable in appearance, and bored. When a family deputation informs him it’s time he got married and tells him Melissa Brandon considers herself all but engaged to him, he calls on her. He finds an icy, self-possessed young lady ready to make a marriage of convenience to help her family financially. With the prospect of calling on her father the next morning, Richard goes out and gets drunk.

During his subsequent rambles, he spots a boy climbing out of an upper-story window on a rope of knotted sheets that is unfortunately too short. When he catches the boy, he finds he is a girl. Pen Creed is escaping her family, as her aunt is trying to force her to marry her cousin for her money. When Richard finds Pen will not go home, he decides to accompany her to make sure nothing happens to her. She is on the way to the home of her old friend, Piers Luttrell, who vowed to marry her five years ago.

Richard finds himself experiencing many new things, starting with a stagecoach ride during which the coach is overturned. They meet a thief on the stage and soon learn that someone has stolen the famed Brandon diamonds. As if that wasn’t enough, they find a murdered man, assist a damsel in distress, and end up telling many fibs. Richard soon enough realizes he’s in love with Pen, but he can’t say so while she’s under his protection—and perhaps she’s still in love with Piers.

Heyer is always amusing and I had a lot of fun with this one.

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Review 2146: Country Dance

In the mid-19th century, Ann Goodman is a young woman whose shepherd father is English and whose mother is Welsh. At the beginning of this novella, Ann lives in Wales near the English border. Although she speaks and understands Welsh, she’s been raised by her father to despise the Welsh. She is promised to Gabriel Ford, an English shepherd who is jealous of her.

Ann has been living with her cousins for 15 years when her father summons her to the English side of the border to help care for her ailing mother. At that time, Gabriel gives her a journal so she can write what she is doing and he can check up on her. Ann faithfully records her life, giving us great insight into farm life at the time.

Ann’s father works for a Welsh farmer, Evan ap Evans. Evans begins to pay attention to her, but she avoids him or is rude to him and says she hates Welshmen. When Gabriel comes to visit her, Evans speaks an endearment to her in Welsh, which makes Gabriel break up with her.

After her mother’s death, her father sends her back again to her cousins—in fact, never shows her any affection—and Gabriel attempts to court her. But Ann is angry that he wouldn’t take her word that nothing was going on with Evans, and also that when Evans tried to put things right, Gabriel attacked him.

As Ann relates her everyday activities, a feeling of dread grows in the reader. It’s no surprise to us that things go badly wrong, because the Introduction tells us so. But Evans, the author not the shepherd, gives this simple story depth by bringing in Ann’s ambivalence about her Welsh/English mixed heritage. This is a deceptively simple, sparely written story that I enjoyed reading for this month’s Reading Wales

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Review 2144: The Underground Railroad

Cora is a slave on a brutal Georgia plantation. When a new slave on the plantation, Caesar, tells her he is going to escape and invites her to come, she at first refuses. But later her master’s brother inherits the plantation and sets his eye on her, so she and Caesar escape using a branch of the underground railroad.

Up to this point the book is grim and realistic, but Whitehead makes his underground railroad an actual train, destination unknown, and here the novel departs from reality so that Whitehead can make points about the evils of slavery and racism in all its incarnations.

Caesar and Cora arrive in what seems to be a utopian South Carolina, where the state has decided to educate and train slaves who have been freed. But there’s a deeper, darker subtext to the plan.

Determined to capture Cora is Ridgeway, an infamous slave-catcher. Cora’s mother Mabel disappeared when Cora was a girl, never to be seen again, and he took it as a personal failing. So, he’s determined to catch Cora, and he eventually turns up in South Carolina.

I have to admit I have problems sometimes with magical realism, and the combination of a real train and a South Carolina that never existed ground me to a halt. However, as Cora’s adventures continued, eventually I was charmed again and found the novel a powerful work of imagination.

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Review 2133: The Secret River

Kate Grenville started out writing a nonfiction account of her great-great-great grandfather’s family, but she ended up with too many questions. So, she fictionalized their story and combined it with what she had read about other Australian pioneers.

William Thornhill grows up in poverty in early 19th century London, but he sees a future for himself when Mr. Middleton, a waterman on the Thames, takes him on as an apprentice. William has grown up with Sal Middleton, his boss’s daughter, and he marries her shortly after he reaches journeyman status. However, things go wrong for Middleton, and William finds his livelihood is much more difficult to earn. Finally, he is caught stealing part of a cargo to support his family.

Although he is sentenced to death for theft, William manages to get his sentence reduced to transportation, and his family is allowed to accompany him. In Australia, although life is primitive, it doesn’t take him long to realize he can make money there and maybe return to England in style. However, when he takes a job ferrying goods from a river where settlers have begun farming, he sees a piece of land he can own by settling on it.

Now begins a conflict, with William realizing he will never return to England and Sal only wanting to return. The conflict is heightened when some of the settlers have clashes with the aboriginal people.

I was certainly engaged by this novel, and I felt that Grenville did a good job of portraying the conflicts with the aborigines. Grenville’s characters are flawed but totally believable. She looks unflinchingly at Australia’s brutal origin story, which is very similar to our own.

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Review 2128: Phineas Redux

In summarizing Phineas Redux, the fourth of Trollope’s Palliser novels, I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the previous books, so if you’re planning to read them, beware. All of the books so far in the series have shared characters but been reasonably independent. In fact, it didn’t much matter that I read the first two out of order. Although you could probably read this one by itself, it begins to tie the events and characters from the previous novels more closely.

Phineas Finn has been working at a government job in Ireland since we last saw him two books ago. However, after a short marriage, his wife Mary has died, and his friends, who think there will be a change in government, ask him to run for a seat in Parliament. He does and loses by only a few votes, but there are indications of bribery on the other side, so the election is challenged and Phineas must wait until January for the result.

Phineas has not seen his friend Laura Kennedy since she left her husband and went to Dresden to live with her father. However, she begs him to visit her. Before he leaves for Dresden, he is summoned by Kennedy, he believes to take a message to Laura. But all Kennedy does is berate Laura, tell Phineas it is her duty to return, and allege that she and Phineas are having an affair. They are not, but Phineas feels he owes Laura friendship. Unfortunately, Laura has learned too late that she married the wrong man.

Phineas gets his seat in Parliament, but he has managed to offend the editor of the equivalent of a tabloid newspaper, who brings him a libelous letter from Kennedy that he intends to print. Phineas goes to Kennedy about it, but Kennedy tries to shoot him. The editor is compelled not to print the letter but begins attacking Phineas in print, making suggestions about his relations with Laura and referring to the attack as if Phineas is to blame. The result is that he doesn’t receive a paid position in government as he expected, and he is still very poor.

In the meantime, Phineas’s friend Mrs. Max Goesler has befriended the failing Duke of Omnium. She has refused his proposal of marriage but continued to visit him. When he dies, she finds he has left her a large sum of money and his jewels, none of which she wants. As a result of his death, Plantagenet Palliser becomes the Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora the Duchess. Plantagenet is mostly upset because his new position forces him into the House of Lords and out of the House of Commons, where he feels he has been doing important work.

Things are not going well for Phineas, and they are about to get worse, even to threaten his life.

In this book, I found the parliamentary issues a little harder to follow, but I was not expecting what is essentially a murder mystery. Once that plot got started, I was rivetted.

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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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