Review 2177: Fortune

Fortune, shortlisted for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, is set in late 1920’s Trinidad. People have been jumping out of windows in New York, but there is an oil boom in Texas, and Eddie Wade foresees another one in Trinidad.

Sonny Chatterjee has oil seeping into the soil of his cocoa plantation, and his plants are dying. Charles Macleod of Apex Industries has been trying to get an oil lease from him, but he has seen the destruction caused by the large oil companies and refuses to let that happen to the land his father worked so hard to buy. However, Eddie convinces him that his smaller company will take more care and give Sonny a better deal, so Sonny agrees that if Eddie can come up with the $10K to get started, he can. The trouble is, Eddie has no money.

Eddie’s truck breaks down on the way into town, so he walks. Local businessman Tito Fernandes picks him up and trusts him instantly. Even though Tito is in serious difficulties because of his stock market investments, he finds the money Eddie needs.

The back cover of the novel makes clear that the fly in the ointment will be provided by Tito’s much younger wife Ada, and the affair that begins between her and Eddie. This novel is based on a real event—a fire in 1928. Smyth has changed the name of one historical person from Bobbie to Eddie, but it’s not clear just how much else is fictional. Certainly, I found the love triangle aspect uninteresting and unimaginative, but I guess if it really happened . . . .

The fact is that I didn’t actually care about any of these characters. Further, the writing is close to being spare, but it lacks the specificity and vividness of most spare writing, so I can only call it trimmed. It’s more mundane in nature. The setting itself occasionally comes to life but more often does not. I didn’t feel like I knew what it was like to be in Trinidad at this supposedly exciting time.

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Review 2175: White Shadow

In this second book of Roy Jacobsen’s Barrøy trilogy, it is World War II and the Nazi’s have invaded Norway. The small island of Barrøy, the home of Ingrid’s family, has been evacuated. Ingrid has been living on the main island working in the canning factory, and her family is dispersed.

One day Ingrid defies the Germans and gets on a boat to row back to Barrøy. She goes into her family home without paying much attention to signs that someone has been in it, and it’s as if her brain refuses to see at first that there are dead bodies on the shore. A German ship carrying Russian prisoners has been bombed. She spends a day covering and burying bodies but eventually finds one man alive—a Russian, badly injured, up in the loft of the house.

Ingrid takes care of him but also must keep him safe from the Germans, who are observing her from the main island. She also is trying to bring the farm back into shape and fish to feed them.

The novel takes us to the end of the war, during which Ingrid has a difficult time.

Jacobsen tells this story with his usual pure, spare prose, a moving novel about human transcendence over great difficulty. I just love this series.

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Review 2170: The Road

When I briefly researched to find out what the second book in John Ehle’s Mountain series was, I came up with The Road. However, the end of the novel indicates that one other book precedes it, and Goodreads lists it as #4, the last one. (Looking back, I see I found a site that recommended they be read in that order, with the last one second.) In any case, the novels don’t seem to be closely linked, only featuring the same families.

The Road begins 100 years after The Land Breakers, in 1876. Weatherby Wright, an engineer born and raised in the mountains, has been tasked with building a railroad from the eastern part of North Carolina up the mountains to the Swannanoa Gap. This railroad will help the mountain dwellers take their crops to market and make medical and other kinds of help available to them. However, no one knows if the effort can be successful.

Most of the novel focuses on Wright and the details of this difficult project. He is dependent mostly on convict labor and hires as the project accountant Hal Cumberland. Another plot is the romance between Cumberland and a mountain girl, Henry Anna Plover.

The novel is powerful at times but at other times reads like a series of anecdotes passed down in the family that don’t really link up into a coherent story. The character of Weatherby is not always involved because of health reasons.

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Review 2163: All the Horses of Iceland

In the 12th century, Jór tells the story of how Eyvind of Eyri traveled to Central Asia three centuries before, bringing back horses that formed the stock for the horses of Iceland.

Eyvind is a trader who joins up with a band of Khazar traders on their way to Khazaria. When he sees the small, fiery horses of Central Asia, he decides to try to buy some to take back to Iceland. He is helped in these goals by his encounters with a ghost who is haunting the people of a qan.

This beautiful little novella is told in the style of myth about a time of cultural change. It is poetically written and really lovely.

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Review 2162: Shrines of Gaiety

It’s 1926. Ma Coker is being released from jail, and it’s like a circus in front of the prison. Nellie Coker is the head of a crime family in London, the owner of five clubs that Frobisher, the new broom at the police station, thinks are responsible for the disappearance of quite a few girls.

Miss Gwendolyn Kelling has unexpectedly inherited some money, so she quits her job in York as a librarian and decides to search for her friend’s sister, Florence Ingram, and Freda Murgatroyd, both 14, who have gone to London to make their fortunes, Freda being positive that she is going to be a star. When she goes to the police station, Frobisher asks her to visit one of the Coker clubs to report what she can observe.

Niven Coker, Nellie’s oldest son, by coincidence comes upon Miss Kelling on the street after she has been mugged. He gives her a ride to her ladies hotel, and afterwards she receives her purse.

Frobisher has been asking at the office for Maddox, one of the inspectors, but he has been on sick leave. Frobisher is sure Maddox is corrupt, but what he doesn’t know is that Maddox is putting the final pieces in place to take over Nellie Coker’s clubs. To start with, there is arson.

Maddox isn’t the only one after the Coker empire. There’s also Mr. Azzopardi, who begins by trying to exploit the weaknesses of Nellie’s youngest son, Ramsey.

There are some dark deeds in this novel, but it is written with a lightness that conveys more the fevered fun seeking of the time. For a crime family, the Cokers are curiously benign, and Nellie Coker seems to be three steps ahead of everyone else. The novel is more of an ensemble piece and doesn’t have a main character, although we admire Miss Kelling and also the plucky but naïve Freda. Although ostensibly a crime novel, I found it more a portrait of a particular period and enjoyed it very much. Atkinson has based some of it on the life of Kate Mayrick, the owner of clubs in Soho.

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Review 2161: The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare

After the death of her father toward the end of World War II, Alice Young finds out that Evertell, the farm that has been in her family for generations, was not sold as she thought but is waiting for her to decide what to do with it. She has not been there since her mother died under painful circumstances, and she doesn’t want to keep it. However, her thirteen-year-old daughter Penn has been depressed since her own father’s death three years before, and she hopes the trip to evaluate the farm will perk her up. She also hopes the money will help pay for Penn to attend the private school she expressed interest in several years ago.

When Alice and Penn arrive at the large but dilapidated farm, Penn is enchanted. She is also enchanted by the stories Alice tells her about the family’s descent from Eleanor Dare, an original settler of the doomed Roanoke colony. Unfortunately, it was the theft of a stone, said to be engraved by Eleanor Dare to explain where the survivors of the colony went, that finally drove Alice’s mother over the edge of sanity. Penn is also fascinated by the commonplace book, written in by the female descendants of Eleanor over the centuries.

As Alice tries to improve her relationship with Penn, she is forced to face memories of her mother’s death and find the truth of family secrets.

It’s interesting to learn that this book was inspired by Brock’s fascination with the stone alleged to be engraved by Eleanor Dare, because the story of Dare, as imagined by Alice’s mother, was the least interesting part of this novel. Possibly, this is because of the matter-of-fact way it is told, with few details. The more modern story is told in alternating chapters from Alice’s or Penn’s point of view, and I found it extremely interesting and engaging. Brock proves to be an effective storyteller. I only thought it took Alice a long time to make the decision that seemed obvious from the beginning.

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Review 2160: The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is the fifth of Trollope’s Palliser novels and the most political so far. It follows two stories, one political and one not so much, but they intertwine.

The introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition says that Trollope wanted to write about politics but included a romance to make the book more acceptable to his readers. However, in this case, he admitted his idea of a romance was unfortunate. As a result, this novel was not as appreciated by his audience.

These days, we have bigger problems with this plot than Trollope’s contemporaries probably had. And that’s because of an anti-Semitism on the part of Mr. Wharton that seems so commonplace it’s not even commented on. As usual, I try not to judge older books by our standards, but be warned.

Instead of falling in with her family’s wishes and marrying Arthur Fletcher, who has been Emily Wharton’s friend since childhood, Emily falls in love with Ferdinand Lopez. Lopez has been generally accepted as a wealthy man and a gentleman, but no one knows anything about his family or his past.

Mr. Wharton is against the marriage, but the only reason he gives is that Lopez isn’t an Englishman and may even be a Jew. He doesn’t inquire into Lopez’s finances (which would have saved him a lot of trouble) or his background, but just refuses his permission until he finally gives up and allows Emily to marry. Slowly, we find out that Lopez has no money or any morals at all. Emily begins to learn what she has done on her honeymoon when Lopez insists that she ask her father for money after he has already given them £3000.

The political story concerns Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium. No one has been able to form a government, so the Duke is asked to attempt to form one, which of course would make him the Prime Minister. He tries to resist this honor, but he finally accepts it. At first he hates the position, because it doesn’t involve a lot of work on an important project, which is what he likes. He also has few social skills. He is upright and conscientious but not likable.

The Duchess at first determines to make a splash, so she begins endlessly entertaining. However, the Duke’s lack of appreciation for some of their guests begins to create problems, for example, when a man she invited to set up her archery range directly approaches the Duke for a political position and gets thrown out of the house.

One of her errors is to make Lopez a favorite, a decision which later causes problems for her husband. Despite its anti-Semitism, I found The Prime Minister to be an insightful depiction of marriage to an abuser, as Lopez separates Emily from her friends and family, belittles her, and makes all of his disappointments her fault. Even after he is gone, her behavior in thinking she has been shamed and must always bear that shame is true to the condition of an abused spouse.

I didn’t enjoy the political story quite so much but felt it to be insightful about people’s behavior in a political environment. I also like the ebullient, incisive Duchess.

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Review 2159: Miss Iceland

I was so entranced by Miss Iceland that I ended up reading it all in one day.

It’s 1963, and Hekla is leaving home at 21 to go live in Reykjavik and become a writer. She has plans to stay with her best friend Jón John Johnsson, while he is at sea, and she also has another friend there, Ísey, a young mother.

Hekla gets a job waitressing in a hotel restaurant, but when middle-aged men try to grope her, she is told to put up with it. One man repeatedly tries to get her to enter a Miss Iceland competition. She is not interested but later learns that another girl who entered was raped by one of the presenters. She really only wants to write, read, and visit her friends.

She loves Jón John, but he is gay, and apparently 1960s Iceland is no place for a gay man. He brings her clothes from Hull and dreams of escape.

Ísey also has ambitions to be a writer and fears that she will only have more children. Soon, she is pregnant again.

Hekla finds that in Iceland, poets are men. She gets a boyfriend, Starkadur, who is a poet and works in a library. She hides from him that she is a published poet, and when she asks about Mokka, the café where the poets hang out, she is told they don’t welcome girlfriends. When Starkadur finds out she is not only a poet but more gifted than he is, he begins obsessing and can no longer write. Still, he wants to marry her and buys her a cookbook for Christmas.

I can’t really describe what was so fascinating about this book. Hekla herself is quite detached, although not from her friends. I think it was because the story seemed real, not at all contrived. The ending is a little abrupt and unexpected, but I liked the story and wanted there to be more. The novel explores friendship, the urge to create, and the search for self-expression. It’s both delicate and powerful.

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Review 2152: #1940 Club! The Corinthian

Since this is my first post for the 1940 Club, I’ll include my list of other books published in 1940 that I have already reviewed:

I was happy to reread The Corinthian for the club because I hadn’t read it in some time. It is one of Heyer’s sillier, unlikelier plots, and I found it delightful.

Richard Wyndham is handsome, wealthy, impeccable in appearance, and bored. When a family deputation informs him it’s time he got married and tells him Melissa Brandon considers herself all but engaged to him, he calls on her. He finds an icy, self-possessed young lady ready to make a marriage of convenience to help her family financially. With the prospect of calling on her father the next morning, Richard goes out and gets drunk.

During his subsequent rambles, he spots a boy climbing out of an upper-story window on a rope of knotted sheets that is unfortunately too short. When he catches the boy, he finds he is a girl. Pen Creed is escaping her family, as her aunt is trying to force her to marry her cousin for her money. When Richard finds Pen will not go home, he decides to accompany her to make sure nothing happens to her. She is on the way to the home of her old friend, Piers Luttrell, who vowed to marry her five years ago.

Richard finds himself experiencing many new things, starting with a stagecoach ride during which the coach is overturned. They meet a thief on the stage and soon learn that someone has stolen the famed Brandon diamonds. As if that wasn’t enough, they find a murdered man, assist a damsel in distress, and end up telling many fibs. Richard soon enough realizes he’s in love with Pen, but he can’t say so while she’s under his protection—and perhaps she’s still in love with Piers.

Heyer is always amusing and I had a lot of fun with this one.

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Review 2146: Country Dance

In the mid-19th century, Ann Goodman is a young woman whose shepherd father is English and whose mother is Welsh. At the beginning of this novella, Ann lives in Wales near the English border. Although she speaks and understands Welsh, she’s been raised by her father to despise the Welsh. She is promised to Gabriel Ford, an English shepherd who is jealous of her.

Ann has been living with her cousins for 15 years when her father summons her to the English side of the border to help care for her ailing mother. At that time, Gabriel gives her a journal so she can write what she is doing and he can check up on her. Ann faithfully records her life, giving us great insight into farm life at the time.

Ann’s father works for a Welsh farmer, Evan ap Evans. Evans begins to pay attention to her, but she avoids him or is rude to him and says she hates Welshmen. When Gabriel comes to visit her, Evans speaks an endearment to her in Welsh, which makes Gabriel break up with her.

After her mother’s death, her father sends her back again to her cousins—in fact, never shows her any affection—and Gabriel attempts to court her. But Ann is angry that he wouldn’t take her word that nothing was going on with Evans, and also that when Evans tried to put things right, Gabriel attacked him.

As Ann relates her everyday activities, a feeling of dread grows in the reader. It’s no surprise to us that things go badly wrong, because the Introduction tells us so. But Evans, the author not the shepherd, gives this simple story depth by bringing in Ann’s ambivalence about her Welsh/English mixed heritage. This is a deceptively simple, sparely written story that I enjoyed reading for this month’s Reading Wales

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