Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

Kim

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Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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Review 1687: The Sea-Hawk

Sir Oliver Tressilian is in a good place. As one of Elizabeth I’s privateers, he has made a fortune and gained the Queen’s favor. He is also engaged to marry the woman he loves, Rosamund Godolphin, or at least she has promised herself to him. When he calls on her brother Peter to ask for her hand, though, Peter refuses it, determined to keep up the feud begun between their parents. Indeed, he is insulting to the proud Sir Tressilian, so much so that Oliver would have killed him had he not promised Rosamund he would not.

Peter’s refusal seems of little moment to Oliver, because Rosamund will soon be of age. When Oliver’s brother Lionel returns home, however, he has fought with Peter without witnesses and killed him. Oliver promises to protect him but later learns that the wounded Lionel left a trail of blood to his door and everyone thinks Oliver murdered Peter. When Oliver tries to speak to Rosamund, she refuses to hear him. He is able to prove he is innocent to a magistrate and a minister because he has no wounds, but Rosamund will not listen.

Lionel becomes frightened that Oliver will tell the truth, so he arranges with a shady sea captain, Jasper Leigh, to kidnap Oliver and sell him into slavery. Jasper Leigh actually intends to let Oliver buy himself back, but their ship is taken by Spain and both Oliver and Jasper end up as galley slaves.

When next we meet him, Oliver is named Sakr El-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk, for his famous acts of piracy. He has adopted Islam and is a chief of Asad-ed-Din, Basha of Algiers. He learns that his brother and Sir John Killigrew have had him declared dead and Lionel has taken over his property and his former fiancée. Upon hearing this, Sir Oliver sends a messenger to Rosamund with the proof of his innocence in her brother’s death, but she throws it unread into the fire. Oliver is overcome with anger against both Lionel and Rosamund. How will it end?

I thought this was a very interesting swashbuckler, mainly because both the hero and heroine have more dimensions than in the usual adventure tale. There are times when both of them behave very badly, and I especially disliked Rosamund for much of the book because she was so quick to distrust Oliver. However she is also more brave and self-possessed than the majority of adventure story heroines. They get into some seriously exciting situations.

This is my last book from my second Classics Club list, which I have finished a couple of weeks late, so I’ll be publishing another list tomorrow.

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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 1610: The Talisman

The Talisman is one of Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels set during the Crusades. In terms of how much it’s based in actual history, I would say not much. For one thing, Scott has bought the myth of the Knights Templar being evil and makes the Templar Grand Master the villain of this novel. However, my 1907 edition of the novel is being marketed as a boys’ adventure story, so its roots are more in the tradition of the old-fashioned romance, in the medieval sense of the word, than based in actual history. I know very little about the Crusades but enough to have spotted several things that were wrong. However, I also don’t know what sources Scott may have been using for his historical background.

On the crusade with Richard the Lion Heart, Sir Kenneth is a poor Scottish knight of no illustrious family who has fallen in love with Edith Plantagenet, a lady far above his station. King Richard being ill, Sir Kenneth travels to see a holy man and healer whom the court ladies are visiting. While he is there, Edith gives him a sign of her favor.

He returns to the Christian camp bringing Saladin’s doctor with him to cure Richard. Richard is quickly cured and almost immediately gets involved in a dispute about his banner. The jealous Austrian Duke has placed his banner next to Richard’s and Richard is furious. He removes the Duke’s banner quite rudely and orders Sir Kenneth to guard his own.

Sir Kenneth is guarding the banner when he receives a message from Lady Edith asking him to come to her immediately. At first, he refuses, but then he thinks this may be his only chance to see her, and he will be gone only a few minutes. He decides to leave his dog to guard the banner. But when he arrives, he finds out that Queen Berengaria has summoned him in Edith’s name as part of a bet and a joke. Kenneth returns to his post to find the banner gone and his dog wounded. Now he’s in big trouble for disobeying orders.

Aside from this silly plot, there is also the one where King Richard’s Christian rivals are plotting against him. Eventually, they send an assassin after him.

This novel is a farrago of nonsense that just gets sillier as it goes on, and it is also written very floridly, combining archaic-sounding speeches with the flowery, elaborate speech of the East. Interestingly enough, Scott was heavily criticized for inventing a Plantagenet (Edith) but not for the more egregious historical errors in this novel. It is not Scott at his best.

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Review 1587: Captain Paul

Quite a few years ago now, I bought the collected works of several 19th century writers in ebook form from Delphi Classics and resolved to read them all, starting from the earliest works. I didn’t get very far—read one or two novels by each—before life got in the way of my project and I forgot it. But recently, I thought I would occasionally interject one of those novels into my regular reading, and the first one is Captain Paul by Alexandre Dumas, his second novel.

Now, this novel is quiet peculiar, for Dumas was inspired for it by James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pilot, which is about John Paul Jones. I haven’t read The Pilot, but it seems that Dumas has taken some liberties with Jones’s life if not with Cooper’s book. In particular, while naming his character Paul Jones, as Cooper apparently does in his book, and using some actual episodes from John Paul Jones’s life, he makes him a Frenchman (he was, of course, Scottish-American), and he gives him an entirely fictional but romantic lineage as the illegitimate son of a French count (although JPJ was born on an estate, the son of a gardener, so maybe Dumas was making some sort of assertion about his birth).

In the novel, Captain Paul, unaccountably donning two disguises in the first few pages, takes onboard his ship a prisoner of France that he is supposed to deliver to the prison island of Cayenne. The crew is not supposed to speak to the prisoner, but his conduct during a battle with an English ship leads Captain Paul to ask for the story of the prisoner, Hector de Lusignan.

Six months later, Captain Paul visits Count Emmanuel d’Auray, who originally delivered Lusignan to the ship, to tell him he knows he imprisoned Lusignan unlawfully. Lusignan’s crime was to fall in love, without fortune, with d’Auray’s sister, Marguerite, and have a child with her. While d’Auray got rid of Lusignan, his mother, the Marchioness, removed Marguerite’s child. Now, they are trying to force her to marry a fop who has promised d’Auray a commission. Captain Paul announces his intention to get Lusignan a pardon and remove Marguerite’s child from wherever it is hidden. But when he learns Marguerite still loves Lusignan, he decides to help the lovers.

There are more secrets to come, including Captain Paul’s own identity.

This is a short, fast-moving novel once you get over your bemusement about poor John Paul Jones. It is entertaining, but after all the action is over, Dumas couldn’t resist adding an Epilogue, which tells us how everyone ended up and also contains more of Jones’s real (maybe) exploits. The Epilogue, therefore, is about as long as two or three of the chapters, and everything bogs down tremendously. This is the addition of an inexperienced writer, and we all know he improved.

By the way, I believe that the figure depicted on the cover above (which is not the edition I read) is actually supposed to be Alexandre Dumas’s father, who was a famous general.

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Review 1559: In the Rocky Mountains

Quite a few years ago, I bought an old 19th-century boys’ adventure book, On the Banks of the Amazon by W. H. G. Kingston. In reading it, I was struck by its combination of adventure, interesting information about plants, animals and natives of the area, and engraved illustrations. As a result, I put together a small collection of these books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trying to find ones in the Our Boys’ Select Library edition of the first one.  (In case you’re wondering why there is a ship and a lion on the cover of a book about the Rockies, they all have the same cover.) I intended to read them all but never got to any of the others. Then when we moved to Washington, they got lost.

That was four years ago, and a few months ago my husband finally unearthed them from an unpacked box of his books. He brought In the Rocky Mountains up to show me, and I decided to read it.

Before the action of this book, Ralph and his sister Clarise were on their way west with their parents to start a new life, but both their parents died en route. Their wagon train was rescued by a group of men, and one of them turned out to be their Uncle Jeff, who had gone west years before and not been heard of again. Now, Ralph and Clarice, Clarice’s servant Rachel, and Uncle Jeff and his men live on a commodious ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, and Uncle Jeff and his men help supply settlers coming through the nearby pass.

A friendly native named Winnemak comes to warn them that a large band of “Arapahas” (by which I assume he means Arapahos) and Apaches have banded together (did they ever, I wonder) and plan to attack their compound. At first, Uncle Jeff is unworried, but the ranchers, along with a small group of cavalry, are overcome and must flee into the wilderness.

Most of this action is designed to lead us to Yellowstone, for the pass to the fort is overtaken by the enemy, so Ralph and his companions must go north, where they end up stranded for the winter in Yellowstone Valley. This leads us into descriptions of the wonders of Yellowstone.

This novel was published in 1901, a good 20 years after the other one I read, and I fear it isn’t quite as good. For one thing, although I try not to judge books by their times, there is a good deal more judgmental treatment of the indigenous peoples than in the book about the Amazon even though it is mixed with having some “good” native characters (which is of course defined by their friendliness to the “harmless” whites). It also expresses an uncritical affirmation of Manifest Destiny, containing a statement (sorry, I didn’t mark the passage to be able to quote directly) that the white men were doing nothing more than trying to get themselves some land when viciously attacked by the natives.

Okay, so maybe all that is to be expected, as well as the stereotypical treatment of the African-American servant and the Irish and German soldiers. On the other hand, the friendly natives express themselves in fluent and educated English, which is surprising for this book, with the exception of saying “Ugh!” as a greeting. (Did they really do that, do you think?)

A fairly minor error is made in illustrating and naming various deer Ralph sees. He talks about seeing wapiti, which is another name for elk, but the illustration is more like a standard deer. Then he clearly describes and illustrates a moose but calls it an elk. Oh dear. As far as I know, those names are not interchangeable. (A friend tells me now that this may be a mismatch between American names for these animals and British ones; however, the book is set in the U. S., so I think it should use the American names.)

I think the thing that for me interfered most with this adventure was a strong Christian message that comes through especially at the end. Ralph and Clarice convert Winnemak from his wicked ways, with no acknowledgment that these peoples have their own beliefs and religion that are just as valid, and Winnemak becomes a missionary. Ugh, as they (don’t) say. I can only suspect that as Kingston got older, he felt compelled to add a moral message. I don’t remember anything like that in On the Banks of the Amazon and I hope I don’t see it in the others, which I still intend to read.

I wrote my review a few months ago, and since then I read an old copy of Walter Scott’s The Talisman, also marketed as a boys’ book and published in 1907. I was really interested to notice in the advertising pages at the back of the book a title In the Heart of the Rockies by G. A. Henty, which appears to have at least a partially identical plot to W. H. G. Kingston’s book only calls its hero Tom instead of Ralph. I looked to see if the names were pseudonyms of the same writer, and they were not. The Kingston book was published a few years before the Henty book, so I’m wondering if a little plagiarism wasn’t going on.

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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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