Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 1044: The Lark

Cover for The LarkBest Book of the Week!
The Lark was E. Nesbit’s last novel for adults, and it is a delightful romp with lovable characters. I had been reading her books in order, but because of the recommendation of a friend, I skipped to this one. Written in 1922, it is set in post-WW I England.

The novel begins with a few scenes set several years before the main action. Exuberant 15-year-old Jane Quested finds an old book with a spell for seeing her true love, and she is determined to try it in the garden at night. John Rochester has just been advised by his mother to marry the wealthy Hilda Antrobus. (Jane and Rochester. Can this be a coincidence?) John is walking in the woods after missing his train and happens to come upon the scene just after Jane finishes her spell. She thinks she’s seen a vision of her future.

The war intercedes, and Jane and her cousin Lucilla are still in school at the end of it, both of them orphaned. They are surprised to get a sudden summons from their guardian, Arthur Panton. They are delivered to their new home, a small house called Hope Cottage, where they learn that Panton has lost all their money in investments and is leaving the country. He has left them with the house and 500 pounds.

Instead of being discouraged, Jane declares that they will live life as a lark, and the first thing to do is find a way to make money. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do anything.

One morning Jane hands out flowers to the workmen on their way to work. One of them suggests she sell the flowers. So, she and Lucilla begin selling flowers out of their garden but soon find the garden isn’t big enough. The next thing to do is to find a place that is.

Of course, John Rochester appears on the scene, as the nephew of the man whose house they want to lease. But Jane is determined not to be side-tracked by a vision from making her own way in life.

This novel is lively and full of enjoyable characters, as Jane and Lucilla attempt to earn their living and so meet all kinds of interesting people. It is a light-hearted novel that I enjoyed immensely.

At the suggestion of my friend Deb, I’m attaching a link for The Lark online, since it is difficult to find: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/N10292048.pdf. I myself bought E. Nesbit’s complete works from Delphi Classics, also in the form of an ebook (the only disadvantage, in my opinion). If you live in the U. K., it looks like there are some newly printed paperback copies available.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 1024: Vittoria Cottage

vittoria-cottageVittoria Cottage is a gentle post-war romance with likable characters. Caroline Dering is a widow with three children. She was married at a very young age to a selfish, complaining man many years her senior, and the marriage was not a happy one. Now she is alone with her two teenage daughters, her son James being away in Malaysia.

Caroline meets Mr. Shepperton, a stranger to the village who doesn’t say much about himself. Caroline gets along with him very well, and he begins making himself at home with her family. Everyone likes him but her older daughter, Leda.

Leda, unfortunately, takes after her father. She soon announces her engagement to her childhood friend, Derek. Caroline and Derek’s father both have reservations because of the young people’s ages, but frankly Caroline does not believe they will be happy. Still, she and the admiral agree that the young couple can become engaged, as long as they don’t marry until Derek gets his degree.

But the central romance in the story is between Caroline and Robert Shepperton. Caroline falls in love with him and thinks he is in love with her. But then her sister Harriet arrives for a visit, and Caroline comes to believe he prefers Harriet.

It isn’t often that I develop an affection for a character within a few pages of meeting her, but that was how I felt about Caroline. The other characters are mostly engaging. This is a pleasant and touching little novel about post-war village life.

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Day 1019: The White Cottage Mystery

Cover for The White Cottage MysteryThe White Cottage Mystery is not one of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries, and there is a good reason for that. But explaining that remark gives away too much. This novella instead features W. T. Challoner and his son Jerry.

Jerry falls into the mystery when he offers a lift to an attractive girl who lives at the White Cottage. Just after he drops her off, when he is in conversation with a policeman, he hears a gun shot. Then a parlor maid runs out of the house asking for help.

It seems that someone has shot and killed a visitor to the house, Eric Crowther, the next door neighbor. Crowther was disliked by the entire household. However, the finger of guilt seems to point to Mr. Cellini, an occupant of Crowther’s house, who has fled to France.

About a third of the way through the book, I gave a sigh. Golden Age mystery writers seem to love larger-than-life plots, so when mention was made of a huge crime syndicate, I thought, why can’t this be a straightforward mystery? But the syndicate turns out to be a red herring, I don’t mind saying.

link to NetgalleyThe solution to the mystery turns out to be quite surprising. Challoner unearths some juicy secrets, and the situation is complicated by Jerry falling in love with Norah Bayliss, the sister of the house’s owner.

The cover of the new Bloombury Reader edition is retro and lovely. It reminds me of some of the covers coming out lately from Poison Pen Press and the British Crime Series.

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