Review 1527: They Were Counted

They Were Counted is the first volume in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, about the decline of Hungary leading up to World War I. This book follows the events in the lives of two cousins, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy. Both are noblemen who feel like outsiders in Hungarian society, Balint because he is Transylvanian and Laszlo because his prospects are not so good.

Balint has been working in the diplomatic service, but he decides to run for Parliament, never suspecting after he wins that votes have been bought on his behalf. He is dismayed to find that the Hungarian Parliament’s two parties are more concerned with scoring off each other than with getting anything done. Early on, too, there are hints that Parliament’s independence is threatened by the Austrian King Franz Joseph.

Likewise, when Balint decides to take more interest in running his estate, he has no idea that the lawyer Azbej, who has been helping his mother run the estate, has been making so much money off it. When he goes to Translyvania for forest management and with ideas about improvements for the peasant villages, he is unable to make much progress as he is seen as a Hungarian interloper.

Finally, Balint has discovered that he is in love with his old friend, Adrienne. Unfortunately, she has married since he was working abroad. Moreover, she has been sexually mistreated by her husband.

Lazslo is a musician who has withdrawn from law school and devoted himself to catching up on his musical studies. He is also in love with his cousin Klara but has no idea that her stepmother will not accept him as Klara’s suitor. Laszlo’s plans to become a composer are derailed when he gets involved with gambling.

This novel paints a picture of Transylvanian and Hungarian society of the time, with descriptions so vivid that I felt as if Bánffy was describing people, rooms, and landscapes that he knew, as he probably was. There are lots of characters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who all of them are. I also found it a little difficult to understand the politics. Still, I found the novel very interesting.

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Review 1522: A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell’s fiancé was killed during the First World War, and twenty years later she’s one of the many single women in Winchester. Even though there are so many, they haven’t gained any respect, it seems. Violet has managed to free herself from her difficult mother by arranging a work transfer from Southampton to Winchester, but so far she hasn’t made much of a life for herself.

When she stumbles upon a private ceremony in Winchester Cathedral, she gets interested in the work of the broderers, a group of women who embroider kneelers and seat cushions for the cathedral. She joins the group and soon has made friends with an office worker because of it. Although Violet is at first hyper aware of other people’s attitudes, through her new friendships she begins to become more accepting and take more risks.

I was reasonably interested in Violet’s journey, but this novel seemed unfocused to me. For example, although people are inconsistent, Violet’s extreme awareness of what other people think does not seem to mesh well with a woman who occasionally goes out to pick up men for sex. This characteristic seems much too modern for the woman Violet was at the beginning of the book, although the affair at the end is more plausible. Also, as to the two preoccupations of the novel, embroidery and bell ringing, it was as though Chevalier couldn’t decide which to write about. She did a better job at bell ringing than did Dorothy Sayers in The Nine Tailors, which I found incomprehensible (not the mystery, just the information about the bells), but I think that perhaps two focuses is one too many.

Maybe to Chevalier the cathedral said cushions and bells to her, but she wasn’t really writing about the cathedral. In any case, I’m trying to poorly express that I found this novel mildly interesting but also unsatisfying.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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Review 1517: House of Glass

Clara is born with bones so fragile that as she grows, they can snap for the slightest reason. Her mother and stepfather keep her inside a home filled with padded corners until she is an adult. When they judge that she is finally able to come out, she is slightly misshapen through injuries that didn’t heal well.

Shaken after her mother’s death, Clara finds comfort in visiting Kew Gardens and learning about the plants. Her voracious curiosity tends her to spend a lot of time talking to the foreman of the glasshouse. Eventually, he offers her a job. A wealthy man wants to establish his own glasshouse to rival that of Kew. Will she take a job overseeing the planting and establishment of this garden?

Clara decides to take the job at Shadowbrook, where she is received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bale. The owner of the house, Mr. Fox, is often away on business, and even when he is home he doesn’t like to be disturbed in his rooms on the upper floor.

Clara finds there are rumors in the village about the house and its former occupants, the Pettigrews. Mrs. Bale seems to be under some strain, and she eventually reports that the house is haunted by Vivenne Pettigrew. Clara doesn’t believe in ghosts and begins trying to learn about the Pettigrews. Those who are willing to talk about Vivienne seem to be describing a different person than she imagines from the few words spoken by those who knew her.

Ever since Fletcher’s marvelous Corrag, I have been waiting for her to write something as good. This novel comes very close. It starts out as a ghost story but goes much farther, exploring women’s role in pre-World War I society. It is atmospheric and wonderfully written, with an assertive and appealing heroine. I recommend it highly.

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Review 1514: The Sum of Things

The Sum of Things is the last book in Olivia Manning’s The Fortunes of War, the third volume of The Levant Trilogy. Like the last two volumes, the novel alternates point of view between the young soldier, Simon Boulderstone, and the young wife, Harriet Pringle. In this last volume, we also get Guy Pringle’s point of view.

At the end of the last book, Harriet was to set sail unwillingly on the Queen of Sparta to return home. Guy thought it would be best for her health, and Harriet only agreed because she was despairing of her marriage. However, at the last minute she did not embark, instead taking a transport to Syria with an acquaintance to visit Adrian Pratt.

She doesn’t know that the Queen of Sparta was torpedoed with only one passenger surviving. Back in Cairo, Guy believes her to be dead and starts to realize he neglected her.

Also at the end of the last book, Simon hit a mine. He finds himself in a hospital for paraplegics with the fear that he may be permanently paralyzed.

When Harriet reaches Syria, she finds Adrian Pratt gone, transferred to another post. Only then does she begin to wonder what she will do, as she has very little money.

This was a satisfying and effective conclusion to the six-volume series about the adventures of Guy and Harriet during the war. Although I started out not liking Harriet, the characters grew on me and I was always interested to see what would happen to them.

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Review 1501: Pachinko

In 1932, 16-year-old Sunja is fascinated by Hansee, a debonair Korean who lives in Japan but visits her small village in Korea to buy fish. Sunja has an affair with him, but when she learns she is pregnant, he tells her he has a wife and children in Japan but wants her to be his Korean wife. While realizing she will disgrace her family, she does not agree.

Isak, a frail Christian minister, comes to stay at Sunja’s mother’s boarding house on his way to Japan, but he soon falls ill with tuberculosis. Sunja and her mother Yangjin nurse him back to health. When he understands Sunja’s predicament, he offers to marry her to give her child a father. So, the couple leave for Japan, where the novel follows the fates of them and their descendents for the next fifty plus years.

At the time of the beginning of the novel, Japan ruled Korea, and the Japanese treated the Koreans as second-class citizens in their own country. In Japan, the Koreans are considered dirty and lazy and are forced to live in ghettos. They are discriminated against, and most are not allowed to become citizens even if born there.

This novel is an interesting story about the difficulties Koreans had living in Japan. It is the type of novel that is more interested in what happens to this family, though, than in creating well-rounded characters. I liked it but did not love it.

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Review 1498: The Danger Tree

The Danger Tree is the first volume of The Levant Trilogy, the second half of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War. It begins with the adventures of a new character, Simon Boulderstone, a subaltern in the army who has missed his transport to his unit in Egypt. During the course of a day in Cairo, he meets Harriet Pringle, who seems at first as though she is going to be a minor character.

However, the book alternates chapters between Simon’s experiences in the desert and Harriet and Guy Pringle’s in Cairo and Alexandria. The last book of the Balkan Trilogy left the Pringles in Cairo after they fled Athens. It’s a year later. When they arrived in Cairo, Guy found Colin Gracey, his nemesis from Athens, in charge of the Organization, for which Guy works. Gracey is neglectful of his position, a characteristic that Guy despises, and has gone off traveling, so Guy has trouble meeting with him to ask about a position. Gracey has again employed the unqualified Dubedat and Toby Lush while ignoring the very qualified Guy.

Guy stupidly then offends Gracey by writing a limerick about him, which he hears of. As a result, Guy is finally posted to an unimportant school in Alexandria nearer to the front, and Harriet is stuck in Cairo living in one room in a pension and working for the American embassy.

The focus of Harriet’s portion of the book is the uncertainty in Cairo, as the Europeans wait for an attack from Rommel. For Simon’s section, it is the confusion he finds at the front.

This book made an interesting start to the second trilogy. I’m happy to follow Guy and Harriet a while longer as they make their way through World War II.

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Review 1494: #1920Club! Chéri

I haven’t read any Colette for a long time, so I thought it would be fun to read Chéri for the 1920 Club. It is the story of Léa, a middle-aged but beautiful courtesan, and her young lover, called Chéri, set in 1913.

Léa has been with her spoiled, childish lover since he was a very young man, but now his mother, Madame Peloux, thinks it’s time he was married. So, he and Léa prepare to part. Once parted, though, they both realize that they loved the other more than they thought.

Colette’s world of wealthy and stylish early 20th century Parisians is in some ways more foreign to me than stories about cultures much further removed. I couldn’t help feeling how sterile are lives lived only for pleasure. Also, I don’t really understand the attraction of a young man who behaves like a petulant child. But this is part of the realization that Léa finally has, that it’s about time he grew up.

The descriptions of people, rooms, and clothing are evocative and lovely. Despite my not being over fond of it, this is a masterly examination of the human heart.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1477: The Collector’s Apprentice

I find that as I read more, I have a lot less patience with mediocre fiction. Either a novel has to grab me immediately or I have to feel that I am reading good fiction. So, I had only about 50 pages of patience for The Collector’s Apprentice.

Vivienne has taken on an alias after her fiancé, George, scammed her father and other investors of their money. Even though she doesn’t believe George was guilty (he told her a Swiss banker cheated everyone), she has been blamed for it and ostracized from her family. She finds herself with no means of support in 1922 Paris.

She has to put up with about five pages of hardship before being hired as a translator for Edwin, a collector of fine art from the United States. As her ambition was to curate her father’s collection, this job is perfect for her.

I was willing to put up with the chick-lit-like features of this novel because of my interest in the art world it seemed to be approaching. However, soon it became clear that we were going to get entangled with George again, and I found that not at all interesting. So, I quit reading.

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