Review 1604: The Stone of Chastity

The Stone of Chastity is a bit of comic froth, poking fun at small village life. It is a farrago of nonsense populated by eccentric characters.

Nicholas Pounce is a recent Oxford graduate who has yet to find a purpose in life and isn’t trying very hard to find one. So, his uncle, Professor Pounce, announces that Nicholas can be his unpaid research assistant in a special project.

Professor Pounce has found an intriguing reference to folklore in an old diary. It asserts that there is a stone in a brook in the village of Gillenham, the Stone of Chastity. If a chaste woman steps on it, she can get across the brook, but if an unchaste woman steps on it, she will fall into the water. Note that no one seems to be testing the men.

When Nicholas and his mother arrive at the Old Manor in Gillenham, the house the professor has taken, they find Professor Pounce already in residence along with a sultry beauty, Carmen Smith, whose presence is unexplained.

The first thing Professor Pounce does is make up a questionnaire and have Nicholas distribute it throughout the village. Although the professor asks if people have heard about the stone, he also asks about the recipients’ chastity and seems unable to understand that the villagers may be offended.

They are, and a lot of resentment begins to build, especially among the cohorts of Mrs. Pye, an angry and fanatical Nonconformist. Also offended is the vicar’s wife, who has the Boy Scouts collect all the surveys and destroy them. The professor only gets one back, but it contains electrifying information: not only has the recipient heard of the Stone of Chastity, she has it in her scullery!

I have to admit this novel is funny, although much of its humor is slightly politically incorrect these days. It is funny enough that even this recap is making me laugh. Aside from the silly subject matter, it pokes fun at the rustic villagers as well as the researchers, although it bases a lot of its humor on class.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

Related Posts

All Done by Kindness

Not at Home

Love in a Cold Climate

Review 1602: Friday on My Mind

Because I read the Frieda Klein mystery that comes after this one first, I was aware of a plot point in Friday on My Mind, but writing about it is not really a spoiler, because it happens in the first few pages. That point is that Sandy, Frieda’s ex-lover, is found dead in the Thames with his throat cut and Frieda’s hospital bracelet on his wrist.

Frieda had broken up with him several months ago, but recently he had been trying to contact her. Friends said he was in a state of agitation. He had come to her office with her belongings and shouted at her when he wasn’t allowed in. Frieda is the police’s suspect, and when they find Sandy’s wallet in her home, they plan to arrest her.

Frieda thinks her nemesis, Dean Reeve, has killed Sandy, as he’s killed other of her enemies, and is framing her. She feels that the police will not investigate further, so she flees, determined to find the murderer herself.

As usual, this is a complex mystery with interesting characters. It also has a gripping ending, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I liked Sandy, and I was bothered by how unlike himself he was behaving after the breakup, as well as by his murder.

Related Posts

Thursday’s Children

Waiting for Wednesday

Tuesday’s Gone

Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

Related Posts

The Squire

Family Roundabout

Nothing to Report

Review 1600: The Splendid and the Vile

Most of the books I’ve read by Erik Larson have juxtaposed two seemingly unrelated events and shown how they affected each other. In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson takes a different tack, deciding to write about Churchill during the Blitz. His book fairly closely follows Churchill from his first days as Prime Minister until the United States entered the war. It also follows some people closely connected with Churchill as well as others who kept diaries during the war, including some of the German high command. This is his juxtaposition, the British versus the Germans.

Because the book is based on diary entries as well as other sources and follows events almost day by day, it feels very personal and interesting. Aside from some regular people asked to keep diaries during the war, readers get to know John Colville, Churchill’s secretary; Mary Churchill, Churchill’s teenage daughter; as well as Göring and Goebbels. There are colorful characters on both sides, not least Churchill himself.

Although I have a general knowledge of this war, this book is more particular while still being absorbing and sometimes even entertaining.

Related Posts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

Review 1599: The Mayor of Casterbridge

At a small county fair in the early 1800’s, a drunken Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, his wife and her daughter come seeking him, the sailor having disappeared at sea and the two being nearly destitute. When they arrive at Casterbridge, they find he is wealthy and the town’s mayor.

To his credit, Henchard looked for his wife and child twenty years ago, but they had emigrated to Canada. Wanting to make amends, he suggests that Susan Newson, as his wife calls herself, and Elizabeth Jane stay in Casterbridge. He will appear to court Susan and will marry her.

At the same time, he meets a young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, and likes him so much that he offers him a job. But Henchard has a hasty temper and a jealous, unforgiving nature, and as Donald becomes successful, Henchard takes a dislike to him that grows into enmity. A final issue is caused by another incident from Henchard’s past.

Henchard is not a likable character. Although he is often repentent of his actions, his temper creates situations, like the sale of his wife, that lead to his downfall. This is an interesting novel for Hardy, whose main characters, although flawed, are usually more sympathetic. Still, it is an absorbing and dramatic story about a man who is his own worst enemy.

Related Posts

Far from the Madding Crowd

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

That Lass o’Lowrie’s

Review 1597: A Dying Fall

One day after forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway hears of the death in a fire of an old school friend, Dan Golding, she receives a letter from him asking her to come look at some bones he’s found. He also expresses fear but does not say what he’s afraid of.

Ruth asks DCI Harry Nelson if he would find out whether there was anything suspicious about Dan’s death. He finds that Dan was murdered, flammable material stuffed through his letterbox and his front door locked on the outside.

Ruth then receives a call from Dan’s department head, Clayton Henry, asking her to look at the bones. The university is near Blackpool, and Ruth is embarrassed to learn that Harry is going there for a vacation with his family, but she decides to go anyway. She immediately begins receiving threatening texts.

When Ruth arrives at the university with her daughter Kate and friend Cathbad, she soon learns that Dan thought he found the bones of King Arthur in the ruins of a Roman town. The tomb is certainly convincing, but when Ruth sees the bones, she realizes they’ve been switched. So, where are the original bones and what’s going on?

This jaunt out of Norfolk is atmospheric, and the idea for the mystery is clever and original. I guessed the identity of the murderer but only because the person seemed the least likely suspect. It looks like there will be some shifting around of recurring characters, too, which happens in real life but seldom in mystery series and should be refreshing. As usual, I enjoyed this mystery.

Related Posts

The Crossing Places

The Janus Stone

The House at Sea’s End

Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

Related Posts

Persuasion

The Making of a Marchioness

Murder at Mansfield Park

Review 1589: My Husband Simon

According to Simon Thomas’s Afterword for My Husband Simon, the publicity for it posed the heroine’s dilemma as wife vs. mistress. And that’s just typical, isn’t it? When the real choice was marriage vs. not just a writing career but the ability to be a good writer.

Simon’s Afterword discusses the class element of the novel, which comes out in nuances an American reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on, at least not all of them. (For example, I didn’t get the distinction between Pardon? and Why? until I read the Afterword, although I understood there was something wrong with Pardon?)

Nevertheless, it’s clear from the beginning that Nevis Falconer, a young writer with one very good book out, and the man she chooses to marry, Simon Quinn, are singularly poorly suited. Nevis enjoys sophisticated, witty people who know about books and culture. Simon is actually proud of his ignorance and prefers the country and physical activity. The attraction is physical, and the two consummate it almost the day they meet. Then they immediately get married.

Four years later, there’s trouble in paradise. The couple alternates arguments with love making for a highly volatile relationship. But the worst thing is, Nevis hasn’t written anything good the whole time. And Simon and his family make insulting remarks about her career. He speaks of her doing nothing all day and is continually on at her about the state of the house.

This novel, published in 1931, takes a very serious look at the dilemma of working women of the time, especially those in the arts, a dilemma that still exists in many ways. Although I couldn’t really understand Nevis’s attraction to Simon—to me, he belittled her too much—the ways of sexual attraction are enigmatic.

Panter-Downes is a lovely writer, and I enjoyed this novel very much.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

Related Posts

One Fine Day

The Home-Maker

The Blazing World

Review 1584: Milly Darrell

When Mary Crofton attends a charmless school to learn to be a governess, she is befriended by an heiress, Milly Darrell. Milly is a beautiful and good-natured girl whose life becomes complicated when her widowed father remarries.

Augusta Darrell doesn’t like Milly, but the situation changes for the worse with the reappearance in the area of a neighbor, Angus Egerton. Before he returns, the girls hear the story of his falling out with his mother after he fell in love with a girl of low birth. When his mother prevented the marriage, he swore never to return while his mother was alive and was said to have lived dissolutely. His mother dead, he returns to try to repair his dilapidated estate.

It is easy to guess that Mrs. Darrell has something to do with this story but not so easy to see how that will affect the plot. This thickens when Milly and Angus fall in love with each other.

This novella is a typical sensation work of its time. It is short and fun to read. For some reason, though, the publisher has chosen to add an alternate ending which, while not materially different from the original, is a travesty of purple prose—an indication of a lack of discrimination on their part.

Related Posts

Aurora Floyd

The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow

Diana Tempest

Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

Related Posts

Wolf Hall

Bring Up the Bodies

Queen’s Play