Review 1650: The River

Harriet and her family live along the river in a town in India. Harriet is dismayed at the changes in her sister Bea, who is becoming a young lady and is no longer fun to play with. Her brother Bogey spends his time looking at insects and animals in the garden. Victoria is just a baby. Harriet spends some time each day writing in her book that she keeps hidden away, and she also is fascinated by her parents’ guest, Captain John, who was injured in WWI. Captain John, however, likes Bea best.

This little novel has a plot, but it is mostly atmospheric and descriptive, of the garden and house, of life on the river. I was just a short way in when I realized that I had seen the movie based on it by Jean Renoir. I said, “If there’s a snake, I’ve seen this.” There was a snake.

The semi-autobiographical novel is about Harriet waking up from childhood and complete self-involvement and learning to become a writer. It is beautiful and touching.

My Virago Modern Classics version also included two short stories, “Red Doe,” about Ibrahim, a bakriwar nomad who is on the way to another encampment to claim a wife, and “The Little Black Ram,” about Jassouf, a bad boy who is tamed by being give a black ram to care for.

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Review 1648: Joanna Godden

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like Joanna very much, in this novel that is essentially a character study. She is large and brash. She likes to wear bright colors and to impress people. She is a fine figure of a woman.

As a young woman, she inherits her father’s sheep farm on Walland Marsh in far southeastern Kent. From the first, she will take no advice. She’ll run her farm the way she wants, and she scandalizes the neighborhood for firing her father’s shepherd of 28 years, for painting her wagons and her house yellow, and for other such offences against tradition.

At first, she makes some costly mistakes in her willingness to experiment. She hires a shepherd just because she likes his looks, but he is too docile and inexperienced to warn her when she’s about to make a big mistake in breeding. She sends her little sister Ellen away to a posh boarding school and gets back a sulky, discontented young woman who thinks she is too good for the farm.

I couldn’t help growing to love this heroine, though. She is bumptious but well-intentioned, pushy but kind. By the end of the novel, I was touched and sorry it was coming to a close. I read it for my Classics Club list and hope to find more by the author.

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Review 1644: The 1936 Club! August Folly

This week it’s time for the 1936 Club, hosted by Stuck in a Book. For my first book published in 1936, I am delighted to review August Folly by Angela Thirkell. As usual with my first posting for the club, I am also listing the links for the books published in 1936 that I have reviewed previously:

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Louise Palmer, who likes to manage things, has decided to put on a Greek play. This endeavor will involve the participation of most of the young people around the village of Worsted, including her summer guests, the Deans. Richard Tebbins, just up from Oxford with a poor third, is at the age when everything his parents do irritates him (although that’s usually earlier, in my experience). However, when he sets eyes on Mrs. Dean, his parents’ contemporary, he falls into puppy love. Mr. Fanshawe, the Deans’ guest, seems to be a confirmed bachelor, but he has always only loved young Helen Dean. However, he fears he is too old for her. These are just a few of the characters and subplots of Angela Thirkell’s fourth Barsetshire novel.

Sometime, I would like to read these novels in order, because although each one concentrates on different characters, they have characters that reappear in different books—presumably also plot lines. However, I used to randomly encounter the novels in bookstores and just picked up whatever I found.

August Folly is one of the more fun books, featuring eccentric academics, delightful children, realistic but absurd romances, and a cat, a donkey, and a bull. It is froth at its best. I was happy to revisit it for the 1936 Club and my Classics Club list.

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Review 1640: The Pull of the Stars

Julia Power is a maternity nurse in Dublin during the 1917 flu epidemic. The Pull of the Stars covers three days in her life on a small maternity ward for flu patients. With the hospital staff depleted because of illness and the matron away, Julia has only the help of a new volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, for most of the time. During this period, she has to cope with several emergencies and some deaths.

The novel appears to be knowledgeable about the state of medicine at the time and of the ignorance of the common people. One young woman expects to deliver her baby through her belly button, for example.

I found this novel interesting but curiously unsatisfying. I liked the characters Julia and Bridie, but no others are very fully developed. The plot seemed predictable and even a bit manipulative. I never know with Donoghue if I’m going to be blown away or relatively unmoved. This novel is timely, but that may make its content of very graphic medical details uncomfortable for some.

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Review 1631: Mrs. Tim Gets a Job

It turns out that Mrs. Tim Gets a Job is part of a series. Unfortunately, because I’d rather read series books in order, I never find this out until I mark that I’m reading it in Goodreads. Luckily, the novel seems to stand perfectly well on its own.

The Second World War is over, but Mrs. Tim’s husband is still stationed in Cairo and won’t be getting home anytime soon. Mrs. Tim’s two children are off at school, and she finds herself at loose ends. So, without really consulting her, a friend arranges a job for her at a hotel in Scotland. At first, Mrs. Tim is inclined to turn down the job, but then she gets a letter from her landlord giving her notice to move out.

With trepidation, she sets out to work for Miss Clutterbuck, who she understands is a difficult person. Miss Clutterbuck has been forced to open her family home to the public, and she has a rude manner. Mrs. Tim finds that part of her duties is to talk to the guests, because Miss Clutterbuck can’t bear them.

This novel is written in a light style as a diary, reminding me very much of the Provincial Lady series except gentler and with less overt humor. We follow Mrs. Tim’s progress as she grows to appreciate Miss Clutterbuck, learns how to deal with a housemaid who hates her, and straightens out a guest’s love life. I enjoyed this book very much.

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Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1614: A Pink Front Door

Stella Gibbons’s books always start out seeming to be froth, but there is an edge to them, I’ve found. Still, she handles her characters’ foibles with compassion.

In A Pink Front Door, her heroine, Daisy Muir, is engaging, but she has one big flaw. She tends to make the problems of a set of misfits her own, much to the discomfort of her husband, James. At the beginning of the novel, she’s trying to keep one silly friend, Molly, from running after men, in particular an Eastern European refugee named Tibbs, who keeps losing both jobs and his lodging. Lodging is difficult to find in post-war London, and the next thing Daisy knows, she has Don, a man she barely remembers from Oxford, at her front door. Don and Katie and their three young children have just lost their lodgings, and Don hopes Daisy can help.

Daisy remembers “little Katie” from university, the most promising student of her year. Later, Katie reflects that she became stupid with love and made only a poor third. Don, however, is only a few months from finally taking his exams to qualify as a chemist, and Katie hopes to find a quiet place where he can work. If he passes, he can take a good job and they can begin a better life, but until now, they have been living in cramped, noisy, unpleasant quarters.

Daisy thinks of a former neighbor and friend of her father, Mrs. Cavendish, a horrible snob who has an entire upper floor free. Mrs. Cavendish, like many of the upper classes, has fallen on comparatively hard times and has lost her last servant. She agrees that the family can move in but insists that the hard-pressed Katie spend some time every day cleaning in exchange for the low rent that is all they can afford. The house is inconvenient. Katie must haul all their water and coal upstairs. It is also not laid out for children. But it is quiet, and Don is finally able to work.

While Daisy is embroiled in the difficulties of her friends’ lives, Molly has homed in on James and has begun dropping by Daisy’s house especially when Daisy isn’t there, making tea for James and babysitting James Too. James himself, usually tolerant of Daisy’s projects, has begun to lose his patience.

Gibbons has an eye for social follies and foibles, and she employs it here with effect. I enjoyed this novel and was touched by its conclusion.

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

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Review 1613: O, The Brave Music

Seven-year-old Ruan Ashley leads a bleak existence. Her unhappy mother seems to care little for her, preferring her sister Sylvia. Her father is a dour nonconformist minister. They have little money and live in a poor area of a Yorkshire factory town. Ruan is misunderstood, a dreamer who loves reading, especially poetry, and thirsts for beauty.

Things look up when Rosie, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, comes to visit with David, a boy Rosie’s father has adopted. They take her for a visit to their home up in the moors, where she and David run wild. Family illness calls for her to remain there for the summer.

Ruan’s life becomes one of loss, but it is also mixed with some times of great contentment. Daring it all, she remains herself, a person who refuses to conform to expectation.

This novel is touching as well as lyrical. It is a true ode to life, written in 1940 and looking back 40 years.

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

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Review 1612: Abigail

Gina is a fourteen-year-old girl who is adored by her father, General Vitaly, and has led a carefree life in Budapest. Then some changes occur. Her adored governess, Marcelle, must leave home because she is French and thus on the opposite side of World War II. Then, her father enters her into Matula, a school for girls in the provinces. He does this with no warning, and Gina is at a loss to understand why he has chosen a cheerless, strict Calvinist school.

Upon arrival, Gina is stripped of her possessions and given charmless garments to wear. Her hair is cut off. The other girls in her class seem friendly at first, but after a horrible first day, she has a melt-down and blurts out a class secret. After that, no one will speak to her.

One of the school traditions, at least among the girls, is that if you write a note asking for help and put it in the vase held by a statue named Abigail in the garden, she will help you. This tradition is one of the things Gina finds ridiculous in her first days, but after a while, she comes to believe that someone, perhaps one of the staff, probably is helping.

When Gina becomes so miserable at school that she can’t take it, she plots to run away. She is prevented by one of the teachers, König, whom she despises. Soon, her father comes to see her and tells her a secret, something that requires her to stay in the school. She realizes she must try to make peace with her classmates.

This may sound like a standard novel about life in school, but it is an adventure novel that actually becomes quite suspenseful. The identity of Abigail wasn’t very hard to guess. It is Gina who is oblivious to all the clues until the last sentence of the novel. There is certainly a cast to pick from, including Susanna, the beautiful and strict prefect; Mr. Kalmár, the handsome young teacher who is in love with her; and Gedeon Torma, the director, the source of the cheerlessness and strictness. This is also Mitsi Horn, a former student who is a legend at the school.

Despite knowing who Abigail was almost from minute one, I really enjoyed this novel. Gina, headstrong and oblivious, is still appealing, and the plot is an interesting one.

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Review 1608: Tea Is So Intoxicating

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a froth of a novel with silly characters but comments to make about marriage, snobbery, and class. No one here is very likable, but quite a bit is funny.

Retired Commander David Tompkins has purchased a picturesque but inconvenient thatched cottage and decides to run a tea shop from it. His wife Germayne thinks it’s a terrible idea, but nothing can dissuade him. He thinks he is a wonderful cook and has visions of a first-class tea shop; however, his pilot meal, meant to induce an investment from his friend George, is a disaster. In fact, David can’t cook, but he is convinced that he can produce his estimated 240 delicious teas a day.

There is some hope for the cooking, because a friend at his previous job sends along Mimi, a Viennese cake baker. Mimi does know how to bake a delicious cake, but she is the type of woman whom all men want to protect and all woman distrust on sight, apparently with cause.

Mrs. Arbroath used to run the village in 1910 and thinks it is still 1910, not 1950. She is determined to keep the tea shop from opening, claiming it will attract lots of riffraff. In addition, the owner of the local pub, who has opened a small tea garden (also opposed by Mrs. Arbroath), thinks they’ll be too much competition so has barred the Tompkins from his pub.

As all this becomes (I can’t help it) a tempest in a teapot, Charmayne begins to wonder if she shouldn’t have stayed with her first husband, Nigel.

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

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