Review 1512: Classics Club Spin! Challenge

I’ve been hearing about Vita Sackville-West for years, so when I made up my latest Classics Club list, I chose this book from a list of Virago titles. It was then chosen for me in the lastest Spin.

Challenge is the fictionalized story of Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis, which she disguised in the book by turning it into a heterosexual love affair. She wrote the novel as a romantic adventure, and apparently Trefusis sat with her to make sure it was accurate (which doesn’t surprise me, having read the book).

This history is interesting, but I have to say, this is one silly book. First of all, the adventure plot is just plain ridiculous. During a time when the island of Crete is an independent state, it rules an archipelago of islands whose inhabitants want to be independent of it. They are of Italian descent and have been mistreated by the Greek government in Herakleion. (I’m spelling it the way Sackville-West does.) Julian Devanant, whose wealthy family owns property on the islands, returns from England at 19 to have the islanders turn to him for help. Yeah, right. He promises his help but does exactly nothing except go back to England on his father’s command. Two years later, he returns and gets actively involved in rebellion.

That’s the adventure part. An introduction to my version of the novel states that modern readers will probably be more interested in the romance, but I found it unconvincing. Julian has a long-standing friendship with his cousin Eve, but when he returns from England the second time, he notices she has become very seductive and toys with the affections of men. She is hidng the secret that she is madly in love with Julian by pretending indifference.

That may make sense, but I felt that everything about Eve, as well about other parts of the novel, was murky. By this, I mean that many assertions are made about how special Eve is, how intelligent, and so on, but the novel doesn’t actually show any of these qualities, or contain, for example, any conversations showing her intelligence. An awful lot of this novel takes place out of sight. For example, the first scene where Julian goes in to see Eve, he just goes in. Their reunion is left out. When you finally meet Eve, she seems selfish and uncaring as well as possibly bipolar, she changes so quickly from one extreme to another. (Of course, she’s also described as selfish and uncaring, so what’s to love?) She is described as mature and then acts immaturely. Then, as Julian’s lover, she is insanely unreasonable and sees his involvement in the rebellion as just something that takes his attention away from her. There is really nothing except her looks to make anyone love her.

Similarly, Julian gets involved with the islanders without even seeming to understand their difficulties, and the difficulties are never really explained. He is tutored about the situation by a priest named Paul and by Kato, a famous singer. But we never hear any of these conversations, we just hear that he is tutored. In addition, most of the action at the end of the novel takes place off stage. I personally have a problem in fiction that makes statements about things without showing or explaining them. The author comes off as someone who either hasn’t fully imagined these things or cannot.

Sackville-West is a good writer, and her descriptions are very good, but there is too much in this novel that is just stated, leaving me feeling that Sackville-West herself didn’t feel up to either fully examining the political situation or really conveying what her lover was like.

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Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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Review 1373: The Queen of the Caribbean

I was intrigued enough when I wrote my Classic Author Focus article on Emilio Salgari for The Classics Club that I ordered one of his books. Salgari was an early 20th century adventure novelist whose work inspired other writers and film makers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my homework and ended up picking a book with an appealing cover and title. The problem was that it is the second in Salgari’s Black Corsair series. Unlike many old adventure series—I’m thinking of, for example, Tom Swift—The Queen of the Caribbean depends heavily on its predecessor, The Black Corsair, which I had of course never read.

I was a bit taken aback when I opened the book to find a modern map of Southern Mexico and Central America labeled “West Indies, 1600.” The only concession to the 1600’s was a hasty label “New Spain.” Panama, which wasn’t even a country until a couple of years before the book was published in 1905, was delineated. Apparently, Salgari or his publishers (assuming this was a map that appeared in the original publication and not a creation for the republished copy) chose to use modern place names, some of them even in English.

Other than that, Salgari appears to have some knowledge of pirates, sea-going, and the flora and fauna of Mexico and Florida. Unfortunately, he sometimes stops the action dead in its tracks to tell us about some plant or animal. In a way, this book reminds me of those of W. H. G. Kingston, which I had a small collection of that never reappeared after our move. However, Kingston was better at working his facts into the story.

The Black Corsair is pursuing his enemy, Van Guld, who betrayed his followers in battle. Later, after the Black Corsair and his brothers turned pirate in pursuit of their enemy, Van Guld was responsible for the deaths of the corsair’s brothers. All this apparently happened in the first book. In The Queen of the Caribbean, this pursuit leads them to attack Vera Cruz, an event that actually happened. During the search in Vera Cruz for Van Guld, the Black Corsair hears rumors that his lady love, who he thought was dead, may be alive.

Although the Black Corsair behaves nobly, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the mayhem wrought upon innocent people by his pirate friends. Perhaps Salgari was attempting to portray pirates more realistically than is usual in adventure fiction. He seems, however, to have an admiration for what are essentially bloodthirsty cutthroats. I don’t think I’m applying my 21st century standards here, because I’ve managed to enjoy many other adventure novels, including ones about pirates. The characters in this one are cardboard figures being put through their paces.

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Day 1247: The Return of John McNab

Cover for The Return of John McNabAndrew Greig seems to like to base his novels on Scottish texts, legends, or history, and The Return of John McNab is no exception. This novel is a reworking of a classic novel by John Buchan, John McNab.

I am not familiar with this novel, but I got the idea right away. In the original, three men announce they are going to go poaching, that is, catch a salmon, shoot a grouse, and shoot a stag on three different estates and deliver the game to the grounds of the estate. (I know this isn’t the proper Brit terminology. I’m using “estate” in its American meaning of a large property owned by a wealthy person.) This wager is meant as a protest against the ownership and use of large portions of land in the Highlands for only a few wealthy people. These men call themselves John McNab.

Neil Lindores proposes to do the same thing, aided by his friends Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland. He does not count, however, on attracting the attention of Kirsty Fowler, a local journalist.

With plenty of close calls, the adventure begins, but the men’s final target is Balmoral. The Prince of Wales is in residence, and the security people are apt to believe that the well-publicized challenge is a threat hidden within a stunt.

This novel is an earlier book by Greig. It is entertaining enough, but it does not feature the brilliance of some of his later works. It’s strictly an adventure/romance novel.

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Day 1010: The Antiquary

Cover for The AntiquaryThe Antiquary was considered Scott’s gothic novel, but I felt it was more a romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The only gothic elements involve trickery and a ruined abbey. This novel was Scott’s favorite, as well. It is not mine, but it does have a good deal of humor.

The antiquary is Mr. Oldbuck, loquacious to a fault, a man who likes to lecture others on the history of every object that he sees and every subject in conversation. He befriends a young man he meets on a journey, Mr. Lovel, who arrives in the area on undisclosed business.

Mr. Oldbuck has a friend, Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur handles his money poorly and is in the thrall of a German conman, Herr Dousterswivel, who is trying to further deplete him. Mr. Lovel has formerly met Miss Wardour and proposed to her, but she has turned him down because of his lack of birth.

There are several plot lines in The Antiquary—the machinations of the German, the state of Mr. Lovel’s romance, and a terrible secret of the house of Glenallen that begins to emerge upon the death of the countess.

The dialogue for this novel is in Scottish dialect except for the well-born characters, and there is a good deal of humor around the characters of Mr. Oldbuck and of the rustics.  A beggar named Edie Ochiltree acts as a deux ex machina so often that I began to think the novel should have been called The Beggar. I enjoyed this novel, just not as much as I  have some others of Scott’s.

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Day 994: The Lovers of Yvonne

Cover for Lovers of YvonneThe Sieur Gaston de Luynes is a soldier of fortune whose fortunes haven’t worked out so well at the beginning of The Lovers of Yvonne. Almost destitute, he was lucky enough to be hired by Cardinal Mazarin to teach his nephew Andrea de Mancini arms. But in the first chapter of the novel, the Cardinal fires Luynes after Andrea becomes drunk, blaming Luynes for his nephew’s behavior.

More dangerously, Andrea, who is a very young man, has been challenged to a duel. The Cardinal orders Luynes to make sure the duel doesn’t occur. The only way Luynes can see to honorably do that is to injure the other combatant, Eugène de Canaples, first. So, he duly insults Canaples and then handily beats him in a duel, making sure to wound him.

However, this fight attracts a mob, which chases Luynes with the object of hurting him. He is only able to escape by jumping into the carriage of a woman passing by. He falls madly in love with this woman, who unfortunately is Yvonne Canaples, the sister of his victim.

If this weren’t bad enough, the Cardinal informs him that he has arranged a marriage between Yvonne and Andrea. He tells him he will see him hanged if he finds him anywhere near Choisy, where the de Canaples live. But Luynes likes Andrea, so when invited to go along with him, he does. It’s a good thing, too, because several other suitors are on the way there, most notably the Marquis de St. Auban.

This novel is Sabatini’s first, and it is full of intrigue, sword fights, and kidnappings. Sabatini had only lived in England ten years before writing it, but the English is impeccable, his sixth language. Although Sabatini was himself disappointed in this novel, it is entertaining.

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Day 990: Cripps the Carrier

Cover for Cripps the CarrierAlthough Cripps the Carrier has behind it a serious adventure plot, it is mostly a comedy of rustic characters in a rural countryside around Oxford. One of these characters is Zachary Cripps, an honest, god-fearing carrier of goods, who acts as a deux ex machina.

But the novel begins with the disappearance of Grace, the beloved young daughter of Squire Oglander. No one even knows she is gone when Hetty Cripps, coming along by a deserted quarry with an evil reputation, sees some men burying a woman. It is a freezing night, and by the time the weather has let up enough to dig her up, the girl’s face has been smashed by the rocks. But the body that is buried has a mass of hair that appears to be Grace’s.

So, Grace is presumed dead, and her elderly father is stricken with grief. Only her suitor, Russel Overshot, won’t believe she is dead.

We soon learn that she is not dead. She is hidden away and believes she is following her father’s orders. Who is keeping Grace, though, and why?

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel—some rustic humor, some adventure, some danger, a dastardly villain, and some likable characters. Until recently, of R. D. Blackmore’s novels, I had only read Lorna Doone, but I enjoyed reading this, and I will continue to seek out more Blackmore.

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Day 980: Guy Mannering

Cover for Guy ManneringGuy Mannering is the second of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, set in Scotland and featuring Scottish dialect and folklore. It is a romping adventure, with smugglers, hidden caves, a kidnapped child, a gypsy queen, a hidden identity, and murder.

The novel begins in the 1760’s with a visit by Mannering as a young man to Ellangowan, an estate on the southwest cost of Scotland. Mannering arrives there on a rambling tour in time for the birth of Harry Bertram, the son of the Laird of Ellangowan. Mannering is an amateur astrologer, and he casts the baby’s horoscope, revealing that he will encounter dangers at the ages of 5 and 21. Then Mannering disappears from the story for 21 years.

The tragedy of the household occurs when Harry is five. He disappears after being the inadvertent witness to the murder of a customs officer. The family assumes he has been murdered. His foolish father being overwrought by grief, the estate is plundered by his agent Glossin, and Bertram is bankrupted.

Mannering comes back on the scene after many years as an army officer in India. He arrives in time to witness the sale of the Bertram estate to Glossin. It cannot be saved from its debtors without a male heir, and there is only Lucy Bertram, born the day her brother disappeared. In his fury at Glossin, Bertram has a fit and dies, leaving Lucy without home or money. Since Mannering’s daughter will be joining him in a nearby manor, he offers Lucy a home.

Mannering has his own troubles with his daughter Julia. In India, he had reason to believe that a young officer, Vanbeest Brown, was courting his wife, so he challenged him to a duel and wounded him. But Brown was actually courting Mannering’s daughter, and her guardian has caught her meeting secretly with him. Mannering summons Julia to join him, but Brown soon follows.

It is when Brown arrives in the locality that the plot heats up, for he begins finding things familiar, and he meets a mysterious gypsy woman named Meg Merrilies who makes some mysterious pronouncements. Of course, it soon obvious that Brown is the long-lost heir to Ellangowan. But he has the enmity of local villains, who are afraid he can accuse them of murder and malfeasance against him, as well as circumstances that appear to convict him of a crime. Moreover, he doesn’t know who he is, and once he knows, how will he prove it?

This is an entertaining adventure novel about the wild borderlands of Scotland. It has some fine villains, upright heroes, and an amusing couple of comic characters, one being the farmer Dandy Dinmont, a terrier breeder, whose name has since been taken for a breed of terriers.

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Day 951: Christowell, A Dartmoor Tale

Cover for ChristowellR. D. Blackmore is best known as the author of Lorna Doone. I found that novel so enchanting that recently I decided to look for others by Blackmore. He is known, like Thomas Hardy, for his depictions of country life, his West England settings, and his personification of the countryside. But unlike Hardy, he is known for adventure plots.

Blackmore was a horticulturalist and fruit grower, as is his main character “Captain Larks,” in Christowell. Captain Larks is a middle-aged man living in retirement with his daughter Rose. Although they nominally live in the village of Christowell, Captain Larks only admits a few chosen visitors to his property, across the drawbridge over the Christowell River.

But the outside world is about to come in anyway, first through an accident. Dickie Touchwood, a young sportsman who is out ratting on Dartmoor, falls over a cliff and through one of Captain Lark’s greenhouses. Nursed by Rose, he decides he is in love with her. Another young man, Jack Westcombe, meets them while fishing in the river and also falls in love with Rose.

Captain Larks has some kind of shadow over his past to do with when he was in the military. Because of this, he refuses to meet Colonel Westcombe, Jack’s father, even though he clearly knows and likes him. Colonel Westcombe also seems at a loss for how to treat Captain Larks.

But the Captain has an enemy he does not even suspect. A red-faced man named Mr. Gaston is having him watched and has stolen some mail directed to him.

All of this activity is connected with Captain Larks’s former life. He finds that, instead of avoiding the issue of his past, the truth of it must come out.

Although there are many scenes of the rural life of Christowell, including a fascinating treetop dance, this novel also has plenty of adventure, featuring a dangerous housebreaker living on the moor, a threatened kidnapping and murder, a chase across the moor, and a horrendous storm. Some vernacular made it occasionally hard to understand, but in general I found it enjoyable.

Unfortunately, most of Blackmore’s books are out of print. I purchased an old used book in preference to reading a print on demand book. While looking for a copy, I noticed that the print on demand publishers have found a way to make more money by breaking up old novels into several volumes, often unnecessarily.

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Day 944: Checkmate

Cover for CheckmateBest Book of the Week!
I thought I finished reviewing Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series ages ago, so it was with some surprise that I discovered I never reviewed the last book. Here it is!

* * *

In this last book of the Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond has returned from Russia to France. Although I have concentrated in my previous reviews on the swashbuckling and intrigue of the novels, I have not mentioned the shadows that haunt Lymond, particularly the question of his parentage. This question was brought forward in an earlier book by the appearance of the mysterious Marthé, who looks exactly like him. These shadows have put him under tremendous pressure in the last couple of novels, culminating in horrendous migraines and even temporary blindness.

Another problem is his marriage to Philippa Somerville in a previous novel. He married her to save her reputation when they were travelling together, but both of them have since found that they are in love with the other. However, he considers his reputation and lineage to be too besmirched to keep her as his wife, so he has not told her of his feelings, and they have been trying to get an annulment. Their marriage has been in name only.

In any case, Lymond is now fighting the English for France in the Hapsburg-Valois war, a position he has taken on to hurry along his annulment from Philippa. As the wife of a Scottish nobleman, Philippa has been ordered to attend Mary Queen of Scots in France as Mary prepares for her marriage to the French Dauphin.

In trying to help Lymond find out the truth about his past, Philippa places herself in horrible danger and subsequently has a breakdown. Lymond leaves his post to care for her, and they discover their feelings for each other. But the result of her trauma is that Philippa feels unable to be more intimate with him, so Lymond eventually asks leave to go back to battle and preferably his own death.

It is much more difficult to review this final book without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say that Lymond’s questions about the Dame of Doubtance prophecies and his own heritage are answered, there is plenty of action, and a satisfying conclusion. All the tangled knots that appeared in the previous books are untied. In any case, if you’ve been reading the series, you are already hooked, and will be unhappy, like me, to see the series end.

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