Day 1285: Miss Buncle’s Book

Cover for Miss Buncle's BookMiss Buncle’s investments have not been providing her an income, so she realizes she must do something. She decides to write a book. She submits it to a publisher, Mr. Abbott, who can’t decide whether it is a sly satire or a story written by a rather simple person. Nevertheless, he likes it and decides to publish it. In particular, he is impressed by the lifelike characters.

Miss Buncle always says she has no imagination and has simply described the people she knows. When the book comes out, all of her neighbors begin to recognize themselves, and many of them are not pleased. But no one knows who the author, John Smith, is. Some of the less likable people in the village decide to find out. The topper is that Miss Buncle has imagined futures for some of her characters, and they start to behave as she predicted.

This is a delightful novel, a fun, light read. It’s the perfect thing to go with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. I can see why so many people have loved it. I read it for my Classics Club list.

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Day 1278: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Cover for The Forty Days of Musa DaghBest Book of Five!
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire decided to make a scapegoat of its Armenian subjects. It declared all Armenians to be subversive and began “relocating” them to the deserts of Syria. Those who did not die on the way from starvation or mistreatment starved to death upon arrival. In this way, the Turks rid themselves of 1.5 million Armenians, a fact the Turkish government still denies.

In the shadow of the mountain named Musa Dagh, the inhabitants of seven villages decided not to go. After the villages received the news that they would soon be relocated, they sneaked supplies and livestock up into the mountain. Then, the day before the evacuation, they walked up onto Musa Dagh. There, for forty days, they managed to defeat the Turkish army’s attacks until they were rescued by the French navy. Although there were casualties, more than five thousand people were rescued.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is considered Franz Werfel’s masterpiece—his fictional account of the event. The main character is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy man raised in Europe who has recently returned to this family home after the death of his older brother. He is a reserve army officer, and when he reports to the regional capital to find out why he hasn’t been called up, he hears disquieting rumors.

Back home, he consults with village leaders until the arrival of Aram Tomasian, a Protestant pastor who was relocated with his family from another village. He and his family have been allowed to travel to his father’s village, the authorities thinking it will not affect his fate. But he is able to tell the villagers what is happening during the relocations.

Gabriel has been trying to save his French wife, Juliette, and his son, Stephan. But now he proposes that the villagers ascend Musa Dagh and defend themselves. Only the followers of one church decide to cooperate with the Turks.

At 800+ pages, this novel is very long, but completely absorbing. Werfel’s characters are not heroes but complex people. The novel is suspenseful because even though we know the result for the village as a whole, we don’t know what will happen to the individual characters. The villagers have deserters, loss of their livestock, a fire in their grainery, and other hazards to navigate. I don’t know any other way to explain it but to say this. This novel is fantastic. It is absolutely what I look for in a good novel, where I can immerse myself in another world for a short while.

P. S. If you are interested in reading more about the Armenian genocide, another touching novel is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières.

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Day 1276: The Haunted Hotel

Cover for The Haunted HotelWilkie Collins’s The Haunted Hotel was the spooky book I read for the Classics Club Dare that will also do for the R.I.P. Challenge.

* * *

His family is shocked when Lord Montbarry jilts his gentle cousin, Agnes, and marries the infamous Countess Narona. Agnes herself cannot explain the behavior of the Countess when she meets her in London. The Countess seems horror struck by Agnes and says she will be her undoing.

Lord Montbarry and his new wife go off with her brother, Baron Rivar, to live in Venice. It is not long before the family hears, first, of the disappearance of Ferrari, Lord Montbarry’s courier and the husband of Agnes’s former ladies maid, and then of Lord Montbarry’s death from bronchitis. Lord Montbarry’s fortune is entailed, but he leaves a large life insurance award to his widow. Although the insurance company conducts an investigation into the death, they can find nothing wrong.

Lord Montbarry’s younger brother, Henry Westwick, has been trying to court Agnes, but she is still in love with her former fiancé. In the meantime, he occupies himself with investments, including in the hotel that used to be the villa where his brother died. After the hotel opens, one family member after another stays there, in room 14, all having bad experiences. What happened in that hotel?

Frankly, this short novel has neither the entertaining narratives of The Moonstone nor the intriguing plot of The Woman in White. It is a potboiler, not one of Collins’s best. The hero and heroine aren’t much more than cardboard figures. The only character of interest is Countess Narona herself. The plot is predictable, the novel not scary, and the truth, although creepy, is not told to maximize the effect. On the scary scale, it gets a low mark.

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Day 1273: The 1944 Club! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were SistersBest Book of Five!
I was going to save my review of They Were Sisters for our February Literary Wives club, but I saw it was also published in 1944, so applied to the 1944 Club! So, for Literary Wives, I will just have to refer back to this review and then make my further comments about the depiction of wives in fiction.

I previously read another book published in 1944. Here is its link:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

* * *

Lucy’s sisters, Vera and Charlotte, are much younger than she, so much so that she was largely responsible for raising them when their mother died. Lucy never thought she would marry, but she is, happily, to William, who is a bit eccentric. She has misgivings, though, about her sisters’ choices of husbands, especially Charlotte’s.

Vera’s husband, Brian, is solid and devoted. Lucy likes him, but Vera, who is a stunning beauty, seems to be bored with him. She has a constant entourage of male followers and loves to entertain. They have two daughters, Meriel and Sarah. Meriel is close to her father and paternal grandmother, who hates Vera and is always trying to make trouble. Sarah is closer to her mother, but she is the volatile one, who has trouble making friends.

Charlotte married Geoffrey. As a young man, he was constantly pulling pranks, and Lucy couldn’t see what Charlotte saw in him. As a husband, he is hypercritical and verbally abusive, teaching his daughters, Margaret and Judith, to disrespect their mother.

1944 club logoThe three women have been apart for years when they get together at the beginning of the book. After that visit, Vera and Lucy vow to keep in better contact with Charlotte because they are worried about her. Only Lucy pursues this, however, and through her efforts falls completely for Judith as a child. Although Charlotte avoids Lucy as she loses herself to alcoholism, Judith becomes a regular visitor to Lucy and William’s home, where she sees a more normal home life than the one she has. She also makes unlikely friends with her cousin, Sarah.

This novel is an insightful study of the bonds of sisters, despite their differences. It is a lovely book, also about how the act of caring on Lucy’s part has ramifications beyond her own sisters’ lives. Again, Whipple gets better and better. I will be sad when I will have read all of her books.

More about this book in February for Literary Wives!

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Day 1269: Greenery Street

Cover for Greenery StreetThe way I work my blog is that, as I finish a novel, I write up my notes in a book diary. Every five reviews, I pick out my next five books from those notes, and generally speaking, I run about six months behind what I have read.

Obviously, there’s room for error in this system, and I have made one with Greenery Street. I kept expecting my review to turn up, and finally, the other day, I looked the novel up on Goodreads to see when I finished reading it. More than a year ago! I looked back in my journals to see if I inadvertently skipped it, only to find that I apparently forgot to write it up. What a shame for this delightful novel!

Greenery Street is a story of ordinary life in a couple’s first home, written in 1925. It begins on a day in April when newly engaged Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster wander into Greenery Street in search of a house and find a very small and pleasant one. Then it jumps back to cover their meeting and engagement.

The novel details the everyday life of this newly married couple. There is nothing particularly unusual about their lives (well, not for their time—not too many young wives spend their days shopping, socializing, and supervising the help anymore), but they are rendered in interesting detail and humor, small disagreements and the normal ups and downs of a new marriage. The end of the book is telegraphed from the beginning, when we’re told the house would be too small for three. However, the journey is delightful.

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Day 1267: Alas, Poor Lady

Cover for Alas, Poor LadyBest of Five!
A Footman for the Peacock was a strange little book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the much longer Alas, Poor Lady. It turned out to be an astonishingly feminist novel for being published in 1937.

At the beginning of the novel, Miss Scrimgeour, an elderly woman, receives the charitable gift of a two-room flat and an annuity for life. One of the women involved in the charity realizes that Miss Scrimgeour is a gentlewoman, of the same class as herself, and that she previously had no income at all. She exclaims, “How did that happen?” This novel answers that question.

It begins in 1870, when Grace Scrimgeour is born into a wealthy family. She is the youngest of six sisters, born almost a generation behind her last sister, but she is not the youngest child. Two years later, the Scrimgeour’s only son is born.

All the girls are raised to become wives and mothers. At least the oldest girls are sent away to school, but after Charlie is born, Grace’s upbringing is neglected and she is left to be educated by a governess who is not very competent.

The two girls marry, but it becomes clear that Mary and Queenie will not. Mary attempts to be useful by offering to teach Grace and Charlie, but her attempts to find herself an occupation are rebuffed by her parents.

As biddable, affectionate Grace nears her debut, Captain Scrimgeour spends more and more of his money on Charlie, selling out of stable financial funds to do so. Grace’s unmarried sisters become a problem once she is “out,” because most hostesses don’t want to entertain six Scrimgeours, so they leave Grace off their invitation lists. Her parents are now too elderly to see she has proper opportunities to meet someone, and neither of her married sisters take her in hand.

The novel follows the downward trend of the family’s finances, especially after Mrs. Scrimgeour is left in charge, herself having never received any instruction about finances. Clearly, tough times are ahead for the three unmarried sisters.

This novel shows painfully the origins of the destitute lady spinster—how everything in her upbringing works against her ability to support herself. Painfully ironic for the reader, who can see where things are trending, is a scene in which the newly widowed Mrs. Scrimgeour, blithely pledging £500 for a bed in the hospital for children, money she cannot afford, ignores a plea to help indigent gentlewomen, thinking the women are shiftless.

This novel is touching and eye-opening. The two most sympathetic characters are Grace, even more so her valiant sister Mary. But there is also a delightful family Grace goes to work for later.

Although I found this novel sad, it was enthralling and affecting. I highly recommend it. Another great novel from Persephone Press.

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Day 1263: The Provincial Lady in London

Cover for The Provincial Lady in LondonFans of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady should also enjoy The Provincial Lady in London, which is humorous in the same vein. The narrator, having made a surprising amount of money with her first novel, decides to buy a flat in London and to write there, free from the interruptions of daily life.

If only. Instead, we meet an entirely new set of characters. Emma is always dragging the narrator off to literary events and forcing her to speak on little or no notice. Pamela Pringle, who the narrator knows from a girl, has since had at least three husbands and uses the narrator as an alibi to her current husband while she is out with her boyfriends.

At home, Vicky has decided she wants to go to school and dispense with the services of Mademoiselle, which results in some painful scenes, almost as bad as those with the succession of cooks. For times when the children are home from school, they hire a tutor, whom the narrator refers to as Casabianca. I had to look that up to get it.

The narrator and her taciturn husband, Robert, navigate family vacations in France, dismal parties, church fêtes, casinoes, and unbalanced checkbooks while the narrator makes just as much fun of herself as anyone else. Amusing stuff!

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