Review 1647: The 1936 Club! Jamaica Inn

When Mary Yellan’s mother is dying, she makes Mary promise to go live with her Aunt Patience in Bodmin. However, Aunt Patience’s reply to her letter after her mother’s death tells her that she no longer lives in Bodmin. Her uncle is the landlord of Jamaica Inn out on the moors.

When Mary tells the coach driver her destination, he advises her to stay in Bodmin. Jamaica Inn is a place of ill repute. Mary feels, though, that she must keep her promise to her mother.

She finds Jamaica Inn a ramshackle, brooding inn with no customers. Patience, her mother’s sister, has changed from a vivacious, pretty woman to a terrified drudge. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is an overbearing bully with signs of being a habitual drunk.

Days after arriving at the inn, Mary must help serve the most disreputable bunch of men she has ever seen. Later, Joss advises her to stay in her room with her covers over her head. But she looks out the window and sees evidence of smuggling.

But the secrets of Jamaica Inn go far beyond smuggling. Mary looks for a way to safely remove herself and her aunt. In the meantime, she meets and is attracted to Joss’s younger brother, Jem.

It’s been many years since I read this novel, which I reread for the 1936 Club. I found it to be a truly exciting thriller.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1640: The Pull of the Stars

Julia Power is a maternity nurse in Dublin during the 1917 flu epidemic. The Pull of the Stars covers three days in her life on a small maternity ward for flu patients. With the hospital staff depleted because of illness and the matron away, Julia has only the help of a new volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, for most of the time. During this period, she has to cope with several emergencies and some deaths.

The novel appears to be knowledgeable about the state of medicine at the time and of the ignorance of the common people. One young woman expects to deliver her baby through her belly button, for example.

I found this novel interesting but curiously unsatisfying. I liked the characters Julia and Bridie, but no others are very fully developed. The plot seemed predictable and even a bit manipulative. I never know with Donoghue if I’m going to be blown away or relatively unmoved. This novel is timely, but that may make its content of very graphic medical details uncomfortable for some.

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Review 1638: Utopia Avenue

I always look forward to a new book by David Mitchell. So, I read Utopia Avenue almost as soon as it arrived at my house.

Dean Moss has had a bad day. First, he is robbed of his rent and the money to reclaim his pawned guitar almost as soon as he leaves the bank. Then, his landlady threatens to throw him out. When he asks for his pay a few days early, his boss fires him. He is out on the street wondering where to go when Levon Frankland introduces himself. Levon is a manager who has heard him perform. He wants to build a band from scratch and takes him to hear a guitarist and drummer perform at a nearby club. The two are the only good things in an act headed by a washed-up performer. They are Jasper de Zoet (Mitchell fans will know that last name) and Griff, a drummer.

Elf Halloway has a popular folk EP out, but the EP she recorded as a duo with her boyfriend Bruce has not done so well. Then Bruce dumps her, a fact she’s so ashamed of that she lies to her family about it. The three musicians invite her to join their group, which will have an eclectic sound.

This novel follows the band’s adventures as it attempts to gain enough recognition to cut an album. It reflects the love of music that is apparent from most of Mitchell’s novels and also features the reappearance of some of his recurring characters.

Utopia Avenue vividly evokes the heady days of the rock scene in mid-1960’s England and the United States. It features encounters with numerous pop culture figures such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Mama Cass, Brian Jones, and many others.

If I fault the novel at all, I feel it salts these famous characters in a little too freely. Also, there are a few too many scenes where friends or complete strangers say exactly the right thing to a troubled band member.

However, the novel has a gripping subplot involving an invader into one character’s consciousness and overall, I enjoyed it.

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Review 1627: Hamnet

Hamnet explores the impulses that went into the writing of Hamlet as well as important moments in the marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. It focuses on grief from the death of a beloved son.

The similarity in the name of Shakespeare’s son to that of his most famous protagonist is obvious, but I wasn’t aware until this book came out that they were essentially the same name. O’Farrell’s newest book parallels scenes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne (called Agnes in the book) with the hours leading up to Hamnet’s death from bubonic plague. Then she deals with the aftermath.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked all the invention going on, as O’Farrell depicts Agnes as a sort of wild child/wise woman. Then I reflected that little is known of the couple and that I was reading fiction, after all. I don’t like it when a fiction writer knowingly distorts the truth, but O’Farrell stuck fairly closely to the few known facts. The result I found extremely touching. I admit that my initial reluctance to buy in changed to my being completely rapt. This is a deft, sensitive story that concentrates mostly on Agnes’s feelings and reactions.

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Review 1617: The Western Wind

On Shrove Tuesday 1491, Henry Carter awakens the local priest of the village of Oakham, John Reve, to tell him he’s seen a body floating in the river. For four days, Tom Newman has been known to be drowned, but the villagers have not been able to recover the body. When John and Henry return to the river, however, the body is gone.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Newman’s death was other than an accident or suicide, the dean, who has taken it upon himself to investigate, is convinced that Newman was murdered. His reasoning is that Newman, as the wealthiest, most productive man in town, is unlikely to have committed suicide and that there was no reason for him to be by the broken village bridge so early in the morning unless he was meeting someone. Before the day is out, the dean has selected two possible murderers and is trying to force Reve to pick one, even though Reve believes neither is guilty.

The novel moves backward in time to the day of the drowning, during which time the villagers’ secrets are revealed—John Reve’s among them. The novel is deeply interesting for its view into the thinking and superstitions of the Medieval mind. I read this absorbing novel for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1610: The Talisman

The Talisman is one of Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels set during the Crusades. In terms of how much it’s based in actual history, I would say not much. For one thing, Scott has bought the myth of the Knights Templar being evil and makes the Templar Grand Master the villain of this novel. However, my 1907 edition of the novel is being marketed as a boys’ adventure story, so its roots are more in the tradition of the old-fashioned romance, in the medieval sense of the word, than based in actual history. I know very little about the Crusades but enough to have spotted several things that were wrong. However, I also don’t know what sources Scott may have been using for his historical background.

On the crusade with Richard the Lion Heart, Sir Kenneth is a poor Scottish knight of no illustrious family who has fallen in love with Edith Plantagenet, a lady far above his station. King Richard being ill, Sir Kenneth travels to see a holy man and healer whom the court ladies are visiting. While he is there, Edith gives him a sign of her favor.

He returns to the Christian camp bringing Saladin’s doctor with him to cure Richard. Richard is quickly cured and almost immediately gets involved in a dispute about his banner. The jealous Austrian Duke has placed his banner next to Richard’s and Richard is furious. He removes the Duke’s banner quite rudely and orders Sir Kenneth to guard his own.

Sir Kenneth is guarding the banner when he receives a message from Lady Edith asking him to come to her immediately. At first, he refuses, but then he thinks this may be his only chance to see her, and he will be gone only a few minutes. He decides to leave his dog to guard the banner. But when he arrives, he finds out that Queen Berengaria has summoned him in Edith’s name as part of a bet and a joke. Kenneth returns to his post to find the banner gone and his dog wounded. Now he’s in big trouble for disobeying orders.

Aside from this silly plot, there is also the one where King Richard’s Christian rivals are plotting against him. Eventually, they send an assassin after him.

This novel is a farrago of nonsense that just gets sillier as it goes on, and it is also written very floridly, combining archaic-sounding speeches with the flowery, elaborate speech of the East. Interestingly enough, Scott was heavily criticized for inventing a Plantagenet (Edith) but not for the more egregious historical errors in this novel. It is not Scott at his best.

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Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1603: The Glass Woman

It’s November 1686 in Stykkishólmur, Iceland. After an earthquake, the ice splits open and disgorges a woman’s body.

Three months earlier, Rósa and her mother are near starvation after the death of her father Magnús, the Bishop of Skálholt. He could have been a powerful and wealthy man, but he preferred to give away all he owned. Despite his generosity, no one is willing to give a single thing to help the women except Páll, Rósa’s childhood friend.

Then Rósa’s mother hears that Jón Eiriksson, a powerful man from a village in the north, is looking for a wife. There are weird rumors about the death of his first wife, but with her mother coughing blood, Rósa decides to marry him.

When she arrives in Stykkishólmur, however, Jón seems to have become unexpectedly stern. He hardly spends any time with her and wants her to stay away from the village. The loft in the house is locked, and he tells her to stay out of it. The villagers seem to be afraid of him and his apprentice, Pétur. Rósa, alone night after night, thinks she hears something moving in the loft and imagines someone moving through her rooms at night.

This Icelandic version of the Bluebeard story is highly atmospheric, and I was very interested in it. However, in some ways I found it unsatisfying. I didn’t like the ending and thought that the situation could have been cleared up easily with the truth. Also, the character of Páll is undefined. At first, it seems he will be a minor character, but he ends up being more important, and as such, should have a personality. Overall, though, I found the customs and beliefs of the time and place interesting, and I liked Rósa.

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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.

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