Review 1386: Once Upon a River

Here we are with another novel that was difficult for me to rate. On the one hand, it is more fairy tale-like than is usually my taste. On the other hand, it kept my attention. Yet again, it presents us with a mystery that isn’t very difficult to solve.

In an inn along the Thames at an unspecified period in time, the patrons and owners occupy themselves with telling tales. One dark night, however, a tale comes right to the house. A man staggers in, all beaten and bloody, carrying what appears to be a puppet. It turns out to be a little girl, apparently dead. Indeed, when the local nurse, Rita, is summoned, she sees that the girl has dilated pupils and no pulse. But something doesn’t seem right, and the girl comes back to life.

She doesn’t speak, however, and no one knows who she is. The injured man, Henry Daunt, only saw her in the flood before he lost his boat.

Soon, there are several possible identities for the girl. Robert Armstrong finds a letter for his son, Robin, from a woman begging for help for her and his daughter. When Robert goes to her, she has just committed suicide and no one knows what happened to her four-year-old daughter, Alice. Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, says the girl is her sister, Ann. Then the Vaughns claim her. Two years ago, their daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped. When they paid the ransom, the girl was not returned.

There are problems with all these stories. Robert Armstrong has never seen his grandchild, and his son, Robin, seems to be unsure whether the girl is Alice. Sadly, Robin is frequently up to no good. Lily is far too old, in her forties, to have a four-year-old sister. Finally, although Helena Vaughn is convinced the girl is Amelia, Anthony Vaughn, Rita can see, clearly doesn’t believe it.

Lots of secrets come out before we learn who the girl is, or rather, because I thought it was obvious, have it confirmed. In addition, there are lots of subplots, like a stolen pig, a runaway boy, a mysterious visitor, that all somehow related to the book’s central mystery.

The novel has some really rotten bad guys, as all fairy tales must have. It also has some very likable characters, in particular, Henry Daunt, Rita, and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong. I think that readers who enjoy fairy tales will like this book and some others will, too.

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Review 1381: Miss Ranskill Comes Home

When I read that Miss Ranskill Comes Home is about a woman stranded on a desert island, I thought of some romantic comedies from the 50’s. But the novel is more serious than that. It’s about a woman struggling to find her place in a world completely changed.

The novel opens with Miss Ranskill burying the Carpenter, which is what she called the man who was her companion on the desert island where they both have been stranded since falling overboard. The Carpenter died, but he left her the boat he’d been building. When she casts off, hoping to encounter a ship, she occupies herself with the stories they used to tell each other about going home.

Miss Ranskill is picked up by a ship, but World War II has begun since she was lost. She doesn’t understand how the world works or have any papers. She gets off to a bad start after she arrives in England when she leaves her escort out of embarrassment. Even when she returns to her sister, she is made to feel like an encumbrance. Having lived literally stripped to the essentials, she doesn’t feel much sympathy for wartime bureaucracy or the pleasure some seem to take in their deprivations.

This novel is an unusual one. At times I didn’t buy what happened to Miss Ranskill after she returned home, particularly her reception. I also got irritated with her seeming determination to ignore the rules of wartime, even if some of them were silly. Still, this is a thoughtful examination of some of the attitudes of that time and ultimately a touching story.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1369: The Craftsman

Thirty years ago, Florence Lovelady’s career took off when she helped capture Larry Glassbrook, a coffin maker who was burying teenagers alive. Something made her continue to visit Larry in prison, though, and now he has died. With her teenage son, Ben, she has returned to the village of Sabden, in Lancashire, for his funeral.

When Florence, or Flossie, as she is known there, goes to visit the Glassbrook house, where she was a lodger years ago, she finds a clay picture of herself. A clay picture is like a voodoo doll, used in dark magic, and was a feature of the earlier murders. This discovery makes Flossie re-evaluate the truths about the earlier murders. Although Larry confessed to the crimes, did he have an accomplice? Did he even commit the murders?

Sabden sits at the bottom of Pendle Hill, a location famous for witches. The novel returns to the past to follow the investigation of the first crimes, during which Flossie encountered a coven of white witches. Then it returns to the present, where Flossie is threatened again.

This is a fast-paced, enthralling book. It wasn’t as creepy as it was probably meant to be, but I enjoyed both police investigations. This is a good, solid thriller with a twist.

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Review 1366: Guard Your Daughters

About every nine months to a year, I sign up for a six-month subscription with Persephone Press. I have enjoyed most of these books and have found several delightful. Such was the case with Guard Your Daughters, originally published in 1953.

Morgan loves her home and family, but her family is very isolated. Her sister, Pandora, is married, but none of the other four girls have opportunities to meet people, particularly men. Their father is a famous mystery writer who tends to remain aloof from his fans, but the actual problem is their mother. They adore her, but her mental problems require her to have absolute calm.

When Gregory’s car breaks down outside the house, Morgan insists he stay for supper and then is hard-pressed to come up with a meal because of the straits of post-war England. All seems to go well until the girl’s mother meets Gregory and declares he is not to be invited back.

Chafing under a life of restriction, Morgan hopes to be allowed to visit Pandora. However, their mother decides that Cressida is to go instead.

On a jaunt to the movies with her youngest sister, Teresa, the girls are offered a ride by Patrick, a cousin of nearby Lord Malfrey. When he finds out who their father is, he is excited to meet him. All goes well until they find out Patrick has ulterior motives.

This novel is charming, reminding me a little bit of I Capture the Castle or Cold Comfort Farm. It is light, with a more serious ending, and you come to care for this eccentric family.

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Review 1363: Into the Water

Jules has been estranged from her sister, Nel, since she was thirteen. That’s why, when Nel called her asking for help, she didn’t even bother listening. Now Nel is dead, having fallen from the top of a cliff into the river in the Drowning Pool, the location of several suicides by women as well as witch drownings centuries before.

When Jules travels to Beckford to take charge of her fifteen-year-old niece, Lena, she finds a lot of rumors going around. Louise Whittaker, whose daughter, Katie, died in the same place as Nel a few months ago, thinks Nel was responsible for her daughter’s death because of her research into the Drowning Pool. Is there a connection between the deaths, and did Nel commit suicide? Nickie Sage, the local psychic, thinks the police should be looking at an earlier death, that of Lauren Slatter, who died at the Drowning Pool when her son Sean was six.

I have to say that Hawkins is good at throwing in plot twists and keeping your attention. Although this novel is probably classified as a thriller, it is not so much suspenseful as it is complex. It keeps you guessing.

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Review 1362: Begin Again

In the 1930’s, generational social changes away the Victorian age occurred, including sexual and social liberation. Begin Again follows four young women recently down from Oxford as they try to redefine themselves in the light of these changes.

Leslie is living at home, but she regularly visits her friends Jane and Florence in London. She has a romantic idea about the freedoms the two girls have and wants to get a place of her own in London, an artist’s studio, using her inheritance. Her mother doesn’t want her to use up her inheritance and has suggested she live with her aunt. Leslie, in truth, would like a little opposition to her plans instead of her mother’s acceptance and prefers complete independence to living with her aunt.

Jane and Florence are living the realities of the independent life, which means no servants and often very little food. Jane takes everything in her stride and doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings for anything or anyone. Unfortunately, this includes her boyfriend, Henry, who wants constant assurances of her devotion.

Florence, however, hates her office job and sometimes feels miserable about her and Jane’s lack of comforts. She feels that the girls who started work straight out of school have the advantage over her and that her Oxford education is not valued at work.

Sylvia lives in her parents’ home but has a lover, Claude. Despite their mutual devotion, Sylvia has kept Claud away from her family, assuming they will not get along. She believes in being absolutely honest and behaving honestly rather than worrying about how others are affected by this honesty. Her younger sister, Henrietta, has been taking Sylvia’s beliefs seriously, maybe more seriously than Sylvia intends, and is thinking of embarking on an affair with a middle-aged married man.

Each of the girls has to adjust her theoretical views about life to deal with reality. This is a sometimes amusing, true-to-life novel about how naive, idealistic young women learn to adapt between the gaps of Victorian and Edwardian values and Oxfordian theories and real life. I enjoyed it very much. The characters are depicted affectionately and seem very real.

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