Review 2104: The Other Side of the Bridge

Mary Lawson’s milieu is the tough life in remote northern Ontario. In The Other Side of the Bridge, she examines the relationships between parents and children and between brothers.

In the late 1930s, Arthur and Jake Dunn are a farmer’s sons. Jake was born after their mother had several miscarriages, and she has been so worried about him that he has not been made to work the farm, while Arthur works hard to help his father. Jake gets by on charm and recklessness, while Arthur tries to protect his mother by lying about the various fixes Jakes gets himself into. Arthur, who is quiet, solid, and dutiful, realizes at one point that Jake is purposefully making trouble for him.

Although his mother loves only Jake, Arthur has the moral high ground until a fateful accident on a bridge.

In the 1950s, Ian Christopherson is a high school student whose mother has left him and his father. He is harboring hatred for his mother for leaving and a disinclination to become a doctor like his father just because it’s expected. He also has a crush on Laura Dunn, Arthur Dunn’s wife, and asks for a summer job on the farm just so he can sometimes be around her. The couple seems content, but their relationship is more complex than he realizes until brother Jake comes home after having been gone for 15 years.

This novel is deeply affecting, dealing with long-suppressed emotions and intricate relationships. It is written in beautifully spare prose. Another great book from Lawson, who deserves a lot more attention than she seems to be getting.

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Review 2098: Yoked with a Lamb

After reading several Clavering books, I’ve decided that one of her strengths is in depicting a warm family and village life. It comes slowly in Yoked with a Lamb.

The village of Haystown in Southern Scotland is shocked and excited to learn that the Lockharts are returning to the area—all of them, including Andrew, who ran off with another woman several years ago. Andrew and Lucy are trying again and moving back to his beloved home. Lucy Lockhart has asked Andrew’s cousin, Kate Heron, to oversee preparations to open the house.

Although Lucy and the children are supposed to arrive there before Andrew, one day he stops by on his way north. Kate spends some time with him and his good friend Robin Anstruther. She begins to be attracted to Robin when she learns that he also was madly in love with the woman Andrew ran off with.

Kate thinks Andrew has treated Lucy abominably, but as the family gathers, she sees that Lucy constantly finds fault with him and throws his past in his face. She also tends to boss her children around and deprive them of small pleasures for no apparent reason. As Andrew and Lucy try to work out their problems, Kate tries to deal with her feelings for Robin.

I am enjoying the Furrowed Middlebrow reprints of Molly Clavering’s work very much. She was a neighbor and friend of the better-known D. E. Stevenson, but I have found Clavering’s books slightly more substantial.

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Review 2096: The Raven’s Children

I thought Yulia Yakovleva’s Punishment of a Hunter was an excellent 1930’s-era Russian mystery, so I looked for more. But all I could find was The Raven’s Children, a children’s book.

In Stalinist Soviet Union, seven-year-old Shura lives with his older sister Tanya, his baby brother Bobka, and his parents. All of them are patriots, but one night his father disappears. The next day, their mother behaves oddly, packing a suitcase, saying she quit her job, but she doesn’t tell them anything. The family unusually has a two-room apartment with Shura and Tanya’s bedroom accessed by a wardrobe so the second room is not obvious. That night Shura is awakened to see someone being taken away in a black car. The next morning, their mother and Bobka are gone, and Shura overhears a neighbor saying that they were taken away by the Black Raven. Their neighbors won’t speak to them except the timid old lady down the hall, who gives them a purse of money from their mother with instructions to go to their aunt.

Neither child wants to go to the aunt, so they spend the day wandering around talking to the birds (who talk back), trying to find the Black Raven. Gradually, they understand that their parents are thought to be spies and traitors. They think there must be some mistake and if they find the Black Raven they can tell him so. Then when they arrive home at their apartment that night, they find their neighbor living in it.

I always go under an assumption that the age of the protagonist in a children’s book is roughly the age of its intended audience. That being said, I think that children that age would understand very little of this book and be terrified by some of it. And I’m not a person who thinks children shouldn’t be scared by books.

For one thing, Yakovleva slowly brings in an element of magical realism. The talking animals and even Shura becoming invisible and having people walk through him was okay. But Yakovleva makes metaphors become real, so ears and eyes appearing in the walls are really creepy. But the worms are the worst. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but some characters, once disappeared, stay disappeared.

Yakovleva wrote this novel because her grandfather had similar experiences as a child during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. This novel might work as a teaching tool, but I would advise it to be with discussions with an adult who has read up on the period. Otherwise, I don’t think children are going to understand this novel.

By the way, several adult Goodreads readers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on, and at least one of them said she was from a former Soviet country.

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Review 2095: We

I am pretty well up on the 19th century Russian novelists, so when I was making my Classics Club list, I asked my husband to recommend someone more recent. He mentioned We.

The introduction calls Zamyatin an inconvenient citizen of both the czarist and Communist regimes, because he believed in complete freedom for the individual. His novel We is the granddaddy of dystopian novels and an inspiration to Orwell.

D-50 is a good citizen of the OneWorld, where everyone eats, sleeps, and works in unison. He is also the creator of INTEGRAL, which is going to be shot off into space to make the entire universe uniformly happy. He is writing a record to explain to the citizens of the universe why they should want to be uniform.

He thinks he is happy with O-90, whom he periodically requests for sex (the one time when they’re allowed to close the blinds of their glass apartments) until he meets I-330. There’s something mocking about her, and he thinks she’s up to something. Then she begins dragging him into situations that he should report her for to the Guardians. But he doesn’t, and soon he is madly in love with her and behaving strangely.

This novel is both dystopian fiction and a satire of some of the beliefs of Communism. At times, it is quite fevered in tone, and I wasn’t always sure what was going on. Characterization doesn’t even make sense in such a novel, so Zamyatin picks out weird facial features to identify people. Not my genre, but interesting.

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Review 2093: #ThirkellBar! County Chronicle

In introducing County Chronicle, I find it impossible to avoid spoilers for those who have not read the previous book, The Old Bank House. So, beware.

The novel begins where the previous one left off, if not slightly before that, with Lucy Marling wondering how her parents are going to take her engagement to Sam Adams, the wealthy older ironmonger who is not from her class. They take it comparatively well. It is her beloved brother Oliver who tries to flatten her excitement with his disapproval, so that Lucy realizes for the first time how selfish he is.

Speaking of selfish men, Francis Brandon is now happily married, but he’s been taking his mother for granted and is even rude to her. His mild-mannered wife Peggy is distressed by it but doesn’t have the courage to say anything. Others are beginning to notice, and Mrs. Brandon realizes it was a mistake for them all to live together.

Isabel Dale, a cousin of Robin Dale, takes a job with Mrs. Marling to help her with Lucy’s wedding and stays on to help her with her correspondence. She also sometimes helps Oliver with his book.

Although the Barsetshire set have tended to stay away from the Omnium Castle crowd, Francis and Peggy Brandon have been spending time there doing amateur theatrics with Lady Cora and Lord Silverbridge, the Duke’s heir. We find the ducal family impoverished but very nice. Eventually, Isabel and Oliver are introduced to the family by Roddy Wickham.

Although I didn’t like this one quite so much as The Old Bank House, it was still good. Several characters’ problems are resolved in a satisfying way, and the two romances are as sweet as they are understated.

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Review 2088: Mrs. Tim Flies Home

I intended to read the Mrs. Tim books in order, but that hasn’t quite worked out, and I received this one just in time for Dean Street Press in December.

Hester Christie (Mrs. Tim) reluctantly leaves her husband in Kenya, where he is now posted, to form a household in England that her children can return to for the summer holidays. But en route she stops for two days in Rome. There she is unexpectedly met by family friend Tony Morley. Her couple days of sightseeing with him create a misunderstanding that travels all the way back to England to cause trouble for her through the person of Mrs. Alston, whom she met on the plane from Kenya to Rome.

Mrs. Tim has found a house in Old Quinings called the Small House. Although she loves the house, she finds she has a troublesome back neighbor and a landlady who isn’t to be trusted. She also meets some pleasant neighbors and helps out a young man in his romance with a nice young girl. She solves a mystery and finds out why some of the villagers are treating her oddly.

This book is another breezy entry in the Mrs. Tim series, written in the form of letters to her husband. It gets a little patronizing toward the ancient Romans (conveniently forgetting about the Inquisition), but they’re dead so they won’t mind. Otherwise, it’s an entertaining read.

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

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Review 2084: Babbacombe’s

I asked Dean Street Press to rush me some books so that I could participate in Dean Street Press in December, and they have responded beautifully. Here’s a review of a book I received on Tuesday.

Beth Carson is a little disappointed after leaving school with high honors to take the job her father has arranged at Babbacombe’s, the large department store where he’s been employed for 30 years, instead of going to secretarial school. However, money has always been tight in the Carson household, and she is eager to help contribute.

Despite things being tight, the family is reluctant to take on a paying guest—George’s orphaned niece, Dulcie. But George feels guilty about neglecting her even though he didn’t like her father. When Beth goes to the railway station to collect her, she meets a nice young man after she is tripped up by his dog.

Dulcie turns out to be an unpleasant surprise for the family, but Beth finds herself enjoying her job in the dress department, even though it is at first exhausting. Then one day she is stuck in the elevator with the man from the railway station and finds out he is David Babbcombe, the boss’s son. When Beth learns he doesn’t work but collects an allowance from his father, she says she’d be ashamed to take money she didn’t earn.

Smarting from this, David, who threw away an opportunity at Babbacombe’s once already, goes to his father’s office and asks for a position. His delighted father starts him at the bottom this time instead of the top—in the meat department. He also has a secret from his father, he has submitted plans for a plane he designed to the government.

As David pursues Beth, her scruples interfere. Her father believes people should stay in their places, and she is sure Mr. Babbacombe wouldn’t approve of David dating one of his shop girls. Also not helping is Dulcie, who has decided she wants to marry David.

I’m having an inconsistent reaction to Scarlett’s work, probably because I don’t read too many straight romances. Although I liked another of her Cinderella stories, Clothes-Pegs, I often find the devices meant to keep the couple apart until the end are a little clumsy. In this case, Beth is almost stupidly obsessed by what their fathers will think, and Mr. Babbacombe’s confusion of the two girls doesn’t seem like him at all. Also, it seems to be a trope with Scarlett’s plots to involve a jealous, mischief-making other woman, which is a 50’s cliché. Still, this is pleasant light reading.

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

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Review 2081: The Night Ship

In 1628, Mayken, the child of a wealthy Dutch merchant, sets sail on the Batavia to join her father in the Spice Islands after the death of her mother. She is accompanied by her nursemaid, Imke, but Imke being ill from the beginning of the voyage, Mayken soon has the run of the upper ship. Dressed in raggedy boys’ breeches, she also sometimes explores the depths of the ship.

In 1989, young Gil has gone to live on an island in the Indian Ocean with his fisherman grandfather after his mother’s death. Gil’s mother and her father Joss had been estranged, and Joss doesn’t seem happy to have him. The island is inhabited by fishermen who only live there during the fishing season and by archaeologists exploring the site of the sinking of the Batavia. There are rumors that the island is haunted by a girl who died after the shipwreck.

This novel is utterly fascinating. Kidd does a great job with her characters, especially the enchanting Mayken. The story of the Batavia, an actual shipwreck, is gut-wrenching, but Kidd makes her more modern story almost as interesting. This book is great.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2053: #1929 Club! The Last September

I chose The Last September for the 1929 Club because I believe I’ve only read one book by Elizabeth Bowen, and that was long ago in a literature class. It is mostly a character study of a young girl during a turbulent time in Irish history.

Lois Farquar is at the point in life where she is trying to find where she belongs. She is recently out of school and has an uncertain place in the home of her uncle, Sir Richard Naylor. The life of her family and their neighbors in County Cork seems to center around visits, tea parties, and tennis with the young people in the neighborhood, including young officers of the occupying British army.

The Naylors are expecting a long-awaited visit by the Montmorencys. Lois is especially interested to meet Mr. Montmorency because he was once a suitor to her mother and she hopes to have a special friendship with him. But Hugo Montmorency chose his wife Francie instead of Laura. Francie, about 10 years older than Hugo, has become invalidish, and Hugo is constantly disgruntled and sulky. He seems to disklike Lois.

Lois is also trying to figure out how she feels about Gerald Lesworth, a young subaltern who has been courting her. At first, she seems more interested in a crush on Miss Norton, another visitor.

The events in this novel seem so mundane that it’s hard to believe that at this time the country was at war. However, slowly this becomes obvious.

This novel is beautifully written, evoking a time and place that by the end of the novel is gone. It is sensitive and observant, occasionally a social satire, but a subtle one.

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