Review 1701: The Wanderers

The Wanderers is the second book in Pears’ West Country Trilogy. After the startling events at the end of The Horseman, 13-year-old Leo Sercombe is on his own. Almost starving, he is rescued by gypsies. Thus begins a wandering life.

Lottie lives an odd life on her father’s estate. She is angry with him because of his treatment of the Sercombes, so she keeps very much to herself. Reluctantly, she engages with society, but she is most interested in studying biology.

Like most middle books, The Wanderers seems a little unfocused because it can’t by definition have a climax. It is interesting enough and devotes the same kind of minute observation as in the first book to such subjects as castrating sheep.

We are obviously working toward the First World War and presumably some kind of reunion for Leo and Lottie as the class gulf between them broadens. And yet, of course, it will soon narrow again.

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Review 1700: #ThirkellBar! Wild Strawberries Recap

Cover for Wild Strawberries

It’s time for our reviews of the second Barsetshire novel, as we read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series in order! In this case, I had already reviewed Wild Strawberries some time ago.

I looked at my original review of Wild Strawberries to see if I have anything to add for this reread. I don’t, except to point out how vividly Thirkell has depicted her characters. Lady Emily, for example, is equally adorable and frustrating. That first scene in church is a comic masterpiece, enough to make even the reader impatient with her, yet her family shows no sign of frustration, only affection. Most of Thirkell’s characters are funny, even our heroine Mary in her childish infatuation with David, and some of them, like managing Madame Boulle or finagling Mr. Holt, are hilarious. Or Agnes, so infatuated with her children that she heartily bores everyone else. Only John remains as the straight man.

I liked this book even more this time through but found the ridiculous errors in my Moyer Bell edition, which didn’t even employ a spell-checker, even more frustrating. Sadly, the Virago edition was not yet out in paperback when I reread this one (now it is).

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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Review 1692: The Horseman

I was in the midst of putting a hold on Tim Pears’ The Redeemed to read for my Walter Scott prize project when I noticed that it was the third in his West Country Trilogy. The prize judges have an annoying habit of picking books for their shortlist that are well into a series, and I have paid the price before of trying to read just the nominated book, which you would assume would stand on its own. But sometimes not, so I went ahead and got the first two books of the trilogy as well. The Horseman is the first.

It is 1911. Leo Sercombe is the son of a carter on Lord Prideaux’s country estate in Western England. Leo is twelve and speaks seldom, but he has a strong love for and interest in horses. He frequently slacks off from school to help work on the various farms that make up the estate, and he is beginning to attract the attention of the estate’s head groom for his talent with horses.

Sharing his love of horses is the lord’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lottie, whom Leo occasionally encounters.

The novel minutely observes everyday life in an early 20th century rural setting, particularly the work. Although it is occasionally lyrical, the writing is mostly spare. I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying it but somehow kept reading, even though terminology and process sometimes escaped me. I was actually intending to read a completely different book next, as I often do with series, but the ending, which is sudden and unexpected, made me want to read the next book immediately. If it’s a fast-paced novel you are looking for, this one is not for you, as it is more concerned with detail.

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Review 1690: Tension

When Sir Julian, who is on the board of the local commercial and technical college, mentions the name of the new Lady Superintendent to his wife, she recognizes it. She believes Miss Marchrose is the young woman who jilted her cousin.

Lady Rossiter’s belief in her own kindness conceals her meddlesome and ill-natured personality even from herself. She dislikes Miss Marchrose on sight. When she sees a friendship growing between Miss Marchrose and Mark Easter, the popular Superintendent, she makes it her business to spread insinuations about Miss Marchrose’s character.

Sir Julian likes Miss Marchrose and disapproves of his wife’s interference in the running of the college. I kept waiting for him to step in and stop her.

This novel, while it sparkles with wit and contains several comic characters, is about the serious subject of the damage of loose talk and gossip. Don’t look for a silly romantic novel here. I was rapt by this novel, as I found Miss Marchrose gallant and detested Lady Rossiter’s hypocrisy and self-deception.

That being said, the novel contains some very funny characters, for example, silly Iris Easter, the author of a novel entitled Why Ben! A Story of the Sexes, and her pseudo-Scottish lover, Douglas Garrett, or Mark Easter’s horrendously behaved children, Ruthie and Ambrose, alias Peekaboo. This is another excellent book from the British Library Women Writers series.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1685: Our Endless Numbered Days

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy’s father James spends his time talking with his survivalist friends while her mother, Ute, prepares for a concert tour. Ute has been gone several weeks when James tells Peggy they are going on vacation. They travel from London to Germany camping in a tent, finally arriving at a small cabin that is falling down. James tells Peggy that everyone is dead and they are the only people left in the world, which has been destroyed.

In 1985, Peggy has been returned home to Ute and her brother Oscar, who was born after she and James left. She is struggling to adapt to the real world.

This novel reminded me very much of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, only with an added twist. Still, it is absolutely gripping, as James gradually loses touch with reality.

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Review 1684: #ThirkellBar! High Rising

I have long been saying I will read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels in order, but I just keep potting way at them as I encounter them. So finally, I decided to go back and read them all, in order, and I hope some others of you will join me at least part of the way. High Rising is the first one.

Mrs. Morland is a widow who has supported her three sons by writing what she calls “good bad books,” featuring skullduggery in the fashion industry. Her old friend, George Knox, is a widower and also an author, of serious historical works.

It is Laura Morland’s habit to work in London while her young son Tony is in school and come to High Rising when he is on holiday. When she and Tony arrive for the Christmas holidays, she learns there is a disturbing new resident at Low Rising. It is George’s new secretary, Una Grey, who is efficient and sweet to George but behaves officiously as if she were the mistress of the house even to George’s quiet adult daughter, Sybil. It is clear that Miss Grey is aiming at marriage with George, and she immediately treats Mrs. Morland as an enemy and rival.

The plot of High Rising is mostly concerned with this situation, but it also introduces more sympathetic characters. There is Miss Todd, who has been doing all the caretaking of her dying mother and works half-time as a secretary for Mrs. Morland. Dr. Ford is in love with her but thinks the difference in their ages makes him ineligible. Miss Todd herself believes she is the type of woman that men don’t marry.

Adrian Coates is Mrs. Morland’s editor. Although he is a good deal younger than she is, early in the novel he proposes. But Laura has no interest in marrying again and thinks he will make a much better match for Sybil Knox.

There are lots of characters, but one of the funniest is Tony, Laura’s single-minded young son. He is absolutely besotted with railways, and Thirkell does a great job of making him a believable motormouth of a boy.

Most of Thirkell’s books are notable for a subtle wit, but this one is a lot funnier than I remembered. I also felt really invested in the problems of these characters. This novel makes a nice start to the series.

So, who read High Rising along with me, and what did you think?

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Review 1669: Young Anne

Young Anne is Dorothy Whipple’s first novel but unfortunately is the last one I’ll be reviewing, because I’ve read and reviewed them all. Like many first novels, it is at least somewhat autobiographical.

We meet Anne at age five and see her again at eleven and eighteen before the bulk of the novel when she is an adult, but these ages are enough to get to know her. At five, she is prone to misunderstand her parents. Her father is severely critical of her while he spoils his oldest son. He is a martinet, and Anne becomes defiant of him as she grows older. Her mother doesn’t care about anything happening in the household.

As Anne gets older, she becomes quite naughty, but she is sent away to school because she laughs at her father while he is singing. This is shortly after she destroys her father’s copy of Boswell and knocks all the berries off a holly bush while getting carried away playing schoolteacher.

As a young woman, Anne loses her father, and the household is broken up. She is sent to live with her Aunt Orchard, who constantly complains about her ingratitude. Her only comfort is the maid, Emily, who has always been her staunch supporter and follows her to work in Aunt Orchard’s house. That and her friendships with Mildred and Mildred’s cousin George.

I found the character of Anne very appealing as she, in her straightforward way, has trouble navigating in society. Some of the scenes, especially with Mildred’s kind but social-climbing mother or the one where Aunt Orchard reveals her true self to the rector, are quite funny. This novel seemed true to life and was sometimes very touching. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1667: JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

JFK is a biography that makes you feel you really understand John F. Kennedy despite it being the type of biography not necessarily aimed at mass consumption. Although it is eloquently and clearly written, it contains about 150 pages of notes and sources. It examines the first 39 years of Kennedy’s life in a balanced fashion, showing both strengths and faults, and is absorbingly interesting. It also tries to dispel some of the myths about Kennedy’s political career, showing, for example, that his interest in politics began long before his older brother’s death, in answer to the belief that he entered politics at his father’s urging as a replacement for his dead brother.

Although a lot of people are fascinated by the Kennedys, I knew only the basic facts and found the home life of his family growing up to be a very strange one. First was their emphasis on competition and winning, one that was extreme and probably explains the tendency toward alcoholism in a few of its members (not JFK, who was not a drinker). A few details stood out—one that family members didn’t seem to have permanent bedrooms in Hyannis Port but treated the house more like a hotel. Very odd.

I was less interested in his development as a politician than I was in the earlier material, but still, even though I knew, for example, that Kennedy was not the vice presidential nomineee in 1956, Logevall was able to make the Democratic convention truly exciting.

Logevall is a Harvard historican whose last book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for history. This is a serious, well-researched biography that nevertheless offers much interest to the more casual reader.

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