Review 1789: The Postscript Murders

This second Harbinder Kaur novel begins with the apparently natural death of 90-year-old Peggy Smith. Peggy was a sprightly old lady with an interest in crime fiction who used to record everyone who passed her apartment.

Her carer, Natalka, thinks there might be something wrong about Peggy’s death. When she and a neighbor, Benedict, are packing up some of Peggy’s things, they notice that several mystery writers have thanked Peggy for her help. Then someone holds them up with a gun and takes a copy of an old murder mystery.

Dex Challoner is one of the writers who thanked Peggy. Natalka, Benedict, and Peggy’s friend Edwin talk Harbinder into attending a book event for Dex, and he admits that Peggy used to help him come up with interesting murders. He makes an appointment to meet with them later, but the next day he is found dead, shot in the head in his home.

This novel was certainly a page turner, so much so that I read most of it in one day. It has a light cozy feel to it, and clues galore. I found it an enjoyable read.

The Stranger Diaries

The Stone Circle

The Dark Angel

Review 1788: Miss Plum and Miss Penny

At 40, Miss Penny leads a full life in the village. She has her village activities and her two close friends, Hubert, the vicar, a timid widower with a son, and Stanley, a self-pleasing fussy man. Miss Penny always receives a birthday letter from George, the suitor her parents disapproved of, but this year it doesn’t arrive. Miss Penny is hurt and begins to wonder what her life would be if she had left with George.

On her way to the movies, Miss Penny stops a woman from drowning herself in the duck pond. When she finds out the woman has no money and nowhere to go, she takes her home and is soon nursing her through an illness. Miss Plum turns out to be a whiny neurotic who bursts into tears and complains about her hard life. She also shows a tendency to hero-worship Miss Penny.

This darkish comedy shows an insight into human character, for you needn’t make the mistake of thinking Miss Penny’s efforts are rewarded with gratitude. In fact, she is soon consumed by only one thought—how to get Miss Plum out of her house.

This fun novel is filled with eccentric characters. I enjoyed it a lot and was happy to read it for my Classics Club list.

O, The Brave Music

The Stone of Chastity

All Done By Kindness

Review 1785: The Half-Crown House

The Half-Crown House is Fountain Court, a once-stately home that has fallen into disrepair after years of money and estate mismanagement and crippling death taxes. Its heir is Victor Hornbeam, a little boy who is coming to live there for the first time, his widowed mother preparing to marry. The property has been supported for years by Victor’s young aunt, Henrietta, who opens the house for viewing, and her cousin Charles, wounded during the war, who runs a market garden. They are struggling to support the estate so that they can hand over something to Victor when he comes of age. The only other family member living in the house is their grandmother, now bedridden, whose ferocious spending and mismanagement has bankrupted the family.

As the novel opens, Victor is arriving on one of the visitor’s days. Henrietta has a wealthy American suitor who wants to buy one of the valuable paintings, and she is hoping to sell it. However, that morning her grandmother tells her that it, along with many of the other paintings and jewels in the house, is a worthless copy that she had made when she needed to sell the original to pay her debts.

The household is wondering if Henrietta will marry the American, but it was apparent to me early on that her heart lay elsewhere. That only increases the little bit of suspense around this decision.

This novel is a meandering one. At times, it is much more concerned with the past elegance of the house and the events of the long-dead Hornbeams than with the living, for it goes off into little vignettes either through the memories of its inhabitants or during the descriptions of its current state. Thus, it particularizes the postwar state of the country, when many large homes were being dismantled or sold.

It’s an odd little book that reminded me a bit of Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary and a couple of Rumer Godden novels that center around a house over the generations.

Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

China Court

A Harp in Lowndes Square

Review 1782: The Toll-Gate

I was rereading some Georgette Heyer novels last winter as I replaced some of my ratty old 70’s copies, and I remembered The Toll-Gate as one of my least favorite of her romances. I was confused, however, for the novel was amusing and had a fun adventure plot.

Back the second time from the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Staple has been intending to settle down. His mother and sister have accordingly presented a string of attractive, eligible girls, but Jack hasn’t been interested. He says he doesn’t want to get married until he receives “a leveller.”

On going to visit a friend, he loses his way and comes to a toll-gate that is manned at night by a terrified young boy. The boy tells Jack that his father told him to mind the toll-gate for an hour, and he hasn’t been back. The boy is terrified of a man his father sometimes meets during the night. Jack decides to stay with the boy until his father returns. Then the next morning, he receives his leveller, in the person of Nell Stornaway.

This novel is just delightful, and I don’t understand how I misremembered it so badly.

The Talisman Ring

Sprig Muslin

Faro’s Daughter

Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1777: In the Eye of the Sun

Recently, I remembered liking Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, so I decided to see if she had written anything else. What I turned up was In the Eye of the Sun, which her Wikipedia page confusingly calls her debut novel, even though she wrote one earlier.

In the Eye of the Sun is the story of the maturing of a young Egyptian woman, told over a period of 13 years. The daughter of two university professors, Asya wants to get a Ph.D. in English literature and teach at Cairo University. The novel looks back to 1979 when she is studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education before beginning at the university and follows her until shortly after she finishes her Ph.D.

Although the novel deals with many subjects—cultural collision, Near Eastern politics, family, sexuality among them—it primarily concerns Asya’s relationship with Saif, who eventually becomes her husband. Asya meets Saif early in her university career and falls madly in love with him. The two want to marry, but her parents insist that they wait until she graduates. They don’t even allow them to become engaged for a couple of years.

At first, their relationship is intense, even though it does not involve intercourse because Saif wants to wait. However, Asya feels him pulling away from her as soon as they are engaged. She has caught him in a few pointless lies, but she doesn’t challenge him with them. However, he stops wanting to discuss anything of substance. Asya does not attempt any kind of discussion of these issues, though, before they are married. Nor does she discuss them with anyone else.

At their marriage, things become even more complicated, because Asya finds sex so painful that after a few attempts Saif stops trying. They never fully consummate their marriage. Even when Asya begs him to try, Saif seems more content to treat her as a sort of doll, picking out clothes and buying jewelry for her. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when he takes a job in Syria while she goes to attend a university in Northern England. There, she finds the surroundings cold and uncongenial and her studies in linguistics difficult.

This novel is quite long, but it is involving and extremely honest. Although a primarily sympathetic character, Asya can be quite annoying in her personal contradictions, for she doggedly continues intellectual disagreements while seldom broaching personal issues. She is brilliant while being occasionally terribly neurotic. I strongly felt that this was an autobiographical novel. If so, Soueif’s honesty is extraordinary.

The Map of Love

The Wife

Under the Lemon Trees

Review 1775: My Lover’s Lover

At the beginning of My Lover’s Lover, I thought O’Farrell was writing an updated version of Rebecca, and indeed she references the movie early in the book. However, if she had that in mind at all, she moves away from it.

Lily meets Marcus at a party and feels an attraction to him. When he mentions that he needs a flat mate, she asks if she can take the room. However, when she goes to see it, she is surprised to find it still full of another woman’s possessions. She takes the room in the renovated Victorian warehouse with Marcus and his friend Aidan, but she becomes obsessed with Marcus’s old lover, Sinead. Although he refuses to talk about Sinead, Lily understands him to have told her Sinead is dead. Once Lily and Marcus become lovers, Sinead begins haunting her, appearing in the flat.

But Sinead isn’t dead. Once Lily finds that out, she goes to see her to ask her what happened. Then the story is told of the beginning and the end of their relationship.

This is another beautifully written, insightful tale by O’Farrell. Sadly, I think I have now read all her books. I’m going to have to wait for the next one to come out.

After You’d Gone

The Distance Between Us

This Must Be the Place

Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

The Poison Thread

This House Is Haunted

The Séance

Review 1773: A Civil Contract

Remembering back quite a few years to the last time I read A Civil Contract, I didn’t classify it as a favorite Heyer. As I was younger then and more romantic, I was disappointed in its plain and prosaic heroine. Now that I am more mature, I look at it with completely different eyes.

Adam Deveril is a dashing captain who has been serving in the Peninsular wars when he is abruptly called home because his father unexpectedly died. This death makes Adam Lord Lynton and leaves him heir to a huge amount of debt. Although the family has never been wealthy, Adam has had no idea just how his father’s spending habits and mismanagement have put the estate into debt.

Adam thinks there is no solution but to put his townhouse and the family estate on the market. Being a proud man, he ignores his businessman’s recommendation to look for a wealthy bride.

Adam also feels obliged to inform Lord Oversly of the state of affairs, since Adam had been hoping to wed his beautiful daughter, Julia. Oversly acknowledges that Adam can no longer be considered eligible to marry Julia but remarks that he and Julia probably aren’t well suited anyway. However, both Adam and Julia are heart-broken.

Oversly says he thinks he can help Adam. Soon, Adam is surprised to receive a visit from Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy but vulgar businessman. Chawleigh suggests that Adam’s financial problems can be solved if only he would marry Chawleigh’s daughter Jenny.

Adam’s pride does not permit him to consider this offer, but he agrees to meet Jenny. He finds her plain, plump, and matter-of-fact as well as poorly dressed. He does not even realize he has met her before, for she is a schoolfriend of Julia’s. Almost against his will, he marries her.

Maybe I’m giving away too much, but this is the story of how a young man learns to throw away his romantic illusions and begin to appreciate his thoughtful, supportive, affectionate wife. Thus, its intent is a little more serious than most of Heyer’s novels, and it also has a great deal to say, off and on, about the state of Europe at the time.

I had to laugh, because this time through I found myself impatient with Adam and Julia’s romantic yearnings and appreciated Jenny’s good qualities and hidden heartache a good deal more. The book is also not lacking in Heyer’s usual amusing dialogue, although most of it is between other characters than the two main ones.

The Convenient Marriage

Cotillion

Friday’s Child

Review 1771: Umbrella

Some of the reviews of Umbrella refer to modernism, as in “a magnificent celebration of modernist prose.” This kind of encomium shivers me timbers. And then I think, isn’t modernism over? Aren’t we into postmodernism now? Apparently not.

Umbrella has a plot, but don’t expect the book to leap into action, because it’s more concerned with its devices. Self uses few paragraphs, and the ones he inserts aren’t necessarily making the expected division, some of them positioned in the middle of a sentence. Self uses three points of view, but they shift without warning, sometimes in the middle of a word. Stream of consciousness is used abundantly and confusingly, and Self loves his allusions, most of which I did not get. What Self isn’t very concerned with is being easy on his readers.

The novel is inspired by Oliver Sach’s Awakenings. In 1971, psychiatrist Zack Busner realizes he has a group of patients who are post-encephalitic, and they are stuck repeating activities that are meaningful to them but at such fast or slow speeds that they are difficult to detect. He gets permission to administer L-DOPA to them, and they unfreeze, or wake up. Among them is Audrey Death, the oldest patient in the mental hospital.

Aside from following Dr. Busner as a young psychiatrist, we also follow him as an old man. We see from Audrey’s point of view as a girl and a young woman and from her young brother Stanley’s during World War I.

Sometimes the narrative gets carried away into ridiculous flights that last for pages, such as the one involving Stanley falling into a subterranean existence. I didn’t know what to make of it. Although critics have foamed at the mouth in admiration of this novel’s style, I’d call it self-indulgent. I had to make two attempts before I finally managed to read this novel.

This is one of the books I read for my Booker prize project.

Ducks, Newburyport

There but for the

As I Lay Dying