Review 1836: Rhododendron Pie

Ann Laventie comes from an artistic and elegant family, all of whom are witty and have excellent taste. All, that is, except for Ann, who thinks they are wonderful but likes ordinary things and people. While her family disdains their solid Sussex neighbors and stays away from them, she likes them, especially the large and noisy Gayford family. Still, she feels she must be at fault.

A young film maker, Gilbert Croy, comes to stay and pays Ann a lot of attention. After Ann’s sister Elizabeth moves to London, Ann goes to visit her, convinced that she is in love with Croy and determined to come back engaged. But once in London, she begins to notice things. Her brother Dick’s sculptures, for example, all look alike. She absolutely adores a girl that everyone in her siblings’ group of friends shuns.

Rhododendron Pie is Margery Sharp’s first novel, and it’s quite funny as it explores the bohemian world of her upbringing versus the more mundane. Ann is an appealing heroine, and frankly I liked the Gayfords a lot better than the Laventies, especially in their reaction to Ann’s engagement. Her mother, though, an invalid who is mostly just a presence in the novel, gives a wonderful speech at the end. A fun one from Margery Sharp. I’m glad to have read it for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1821: Berry and Co.

I hadn’t heard of Dornford Yates until a friend gave me a copy of Berry and Co. Apparently, Yates wrote a series of books about the same characters called the Berry books. This one was published in 1920.

The characters are Boy, the narrator, a major but certainly no longer serving; his sister Daphne, who is married to their cousin, Berry; and their cousins Jonah and Jill, all wealthy young people who live together at Whiteladies in Hampshire.

There isn’t really much of a plot to Berry and Co. In fact, I would have taken it for a collection of short stories except that it is clearly labeled a novel. Each chapter consists of a little adventure or some sort of prank, and the only recurring plot has to do with Boy flirting with a series of young women until he finally settles on one.

The novel is certainly meant to be funny and light-hearted, similar perhaps to Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series. Now, I do love a Jeeves and Wooster, but I did not much enjoy Berry and his pals. In fact, the reason I bring in the Jeeves books is because comparing them helped me understand why I liked one much more than the other.

Of course, Bertie Wooster and his pals are always getting themselves in ridiculous situations or pulling pranks similar to the ones in this novel. Here’s the difference. Bertie is essentially brainless, but he is also good-hearted. Almost all of his tangles result from him trying to help out a similarly dim-witted pal.

Berry and his friends, however, are highly intelligent, and their pranks tend to be mean-spirited. Sometimes, they are aimed at nasty characters, but other times these idle people, who have to be pushing 30 by 1920, just don’t like the way someone looks or is dressed. In other words, it’s a class thing.

I didn’t enjoy most of these jokes, which seemed juvenile, like something they would have done in college. Further, the zippy narration is periodically interrupted by rather florid descriptions of the scenery that don’t seem to belong to the same novel.

The characters, with the exception of Berry, aren’t very distinctive. They all engage in the same kind of banter, and a lot of time is spent with them rolling in laughter or trying to suppress it. Frankly, my favorite character was Noddy, a Sealyham terrier with a lot of personality.

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Review 1818: Quichotte

I was fairly sure I was going to hate Quichotte. I did not much like Midnight’s Children or Don Quixote for that matter, which Quichotte retells. However, this novel is part of my Booker project, so I opened it with hope.

Quichotte is Ismail Smile, an elderly consumer of all things TV who becomes infatuated with Salma R, a young TV star. He decides to go on a quest to earn the love of his beloved. This is a road trip, and for a partner he takes Sancho, his imaginary son. To add another layer, Quichotte is himself an imaginary character, created by Brother, a writer of spy novels who has decided to change his genre.

This novel is one full of circumlocution. As we meet each character—and we meet a lot of them—we go off on the tangent of that person’s life story. Further, there are lots of subplots, for example, the one about Smile’s cousin and employer, whose pharmaceutical company has developed a drug even more dangerous than OxyContin and who has himself developed a similar model to that of the makers of Oxy, delivering it in huge quantities to small rural communities.

The genre for this novel is fantasy and of course satire. Fantasy is not my genre, and although I wouldn’t have thought the same was true about satire, I have not enjoyed the satirical entries on the various shortlists. They all feel the same to me: ponderous, overblown, and written by old men. Definitely lacking subtlety. Even the reviewer from The Guardian remarked that the book was funny but not as funny as Rushdie thought it was. That is exactly how I feel about it, except I didn’t think it was very funny. I sensed Rushdie winking all the time.

Still, I was enjoying parts of the novel, although it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then Sancho decided he wanted to be a real boy, and guess who popped up? Jiminy Cricket. At that point I had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room (only because it was a library book), and I stopped reading.

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Review 1808: The House in the Cerulean Sea

I have to confess to having picked this book out because of its cover and title. What a great word “cerulean” is.

Linus Baker is a caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He goes completely by the book, which may be why he is selected for an unusual task—to investigate the orphanage on the island of Marsyas where seven magical orphans live under the tutelage of Dr. Parnassus. He is instructed to report everything.

On the island, he meets Dr. Parnassus as well as Ms. Chapelwhite, a sprite who helps with the cooking and care of the house and children, and the seven orphans. These unusual children include Lucy, the six-year-old Antichrist.

This novel is well written and occasionally amusing, but I don’t read much fantasy, and when I do, I have high requirements for it. This isn’t really my genre. But my biggest problem with it was trying to decide who it was written for. It reads like a children’s book and its sense of humor is juvenile. However, Linus and Dr. Parnassus have conversations on such topics as Kant and I think it was Schopenhauer that would certainly be above most kids’ heads, and he uses vocabulary (like “self-flagellation”) that seems aimed at adults. In addition, the novel features a love story between two middle-aged men, which doesn’t seem as if it would appeal to even gay children, so more for adults. But the tone of the piece smacks of children’s literature, and not necessarily good children’s literature.

Finally, though, the novel was just too saccharine to appeal to me. I ended up reading about 2/3 of it but eventually decided that I wasn’t invested in the outcome. The kids were cute but kind of one-dimensional, although I thought the concept of Lucy was clever and sometimes funny.

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Review 1806: Harlequin House

When Mr. Partridge decides he needs a holiday, he just walks off from the Peters Lending Library, leaving it closed. He may be an older man with a shape like an egg, but he is lawless. Wandering around the seaside town of Dormouth Bay, he spots Lisbeth Campion and follows her. Lisbeth is the type of girl that men are always following. He not only follows her, he has tea with her and her aunt.

Later that night, he sees Lisbeth getting into a car with a man. He gets in the back. Finding they have landed in London at midnight, he learns that Lisbeth has been looking for her brother, Ronnie, who through a misunderstanding, of course, has been in prison for delivering cocaine and is just out. Ronnie claims he thought it was baking powder.

Although Lisbeth is engaged to a fine, upstanding captain in the army, Captain Brocard wants to ship Ronnie to Canada with a small pension, as he has never successfully kept a job. Lisbeth has other plans, though: to rehabilitate Ronnie so that the captain returns to find him an upstanding citizen with a job.

Using Mr. Partridge’s five pounds, the three find a modest lodging in Paddington and set out to find jobs. And they find very odd ones.

Harlequin House is a charming, silly comedy. It made me laugh.

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Review 1801: Classics Club Dare! The Grand Sophy

The latest Classics Club Dare is to read something romantic for February, so I have chosen The Grand Sophy from my list.

When Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey unexpectedly arrives at Lord Ombersley’s home to ask his sister to take charge of his daughter Sophy for a while, he discovers a depressed household. Lord Ombersley’s gambling debts had almost overrun the establishment until his son and heir, Charles Rivenhall, inherited a fortune from a distant relative. Charles “did something with the mortgages” and paid off the debts, and now he is trying to get the household to economize.

Charles is also engaged to Eugenia Wraxton, whose outward sweetness hides a self-righteous and meddling disposition. Her plans to occupy the family home after the wedding depress everyone except Charles.

By the time Sophy arrives, the announcement of her cousin Cecilia’s engagement to Lord Charlbury has been delayed by his having contracted mumps. Cecilia now thinks herself in love with Augustus Fawnhope, a devastatingly handsome but vague young man who fancies himself a poet.

Sophy arrives like a breath of fresh air. She brings a monkey and a parrot to entertain the children, a shy greyhound, and a fabulous black steed to ride. She immediately realizes that the family needs her help. And she never shirks her obligations.

Sophy is a firecracker of a heroine, and The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer’s most beloved novels. There is lots of fun to be had as Sophy’s stratagems twist and turn the plot. The novel is a re-read for me for the Classics Club, but I loved it this time just as much as I did the first time I read it.

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Review 1768: Venetia

I didn’t remember Venetia as being one of my favorite Georgette Heyer books, but actually I liked it very much. It features a sparkling heroine.

Venetia Lanyon has lived almost secluded in the Yorkshire countryside. When her mother died, her father became a recluse and refused permission when the time came for Venetia to be brought out by her aunt. Now 25, since her father’s death she has been taking care of her brother’s estate until he returns from the wars, at which time she plans to take a house with her younger brother, Aubrey. Although she has two suitors, she cares for neither of them and believes she will need to be there for Aubrey, who has a bad hip and does not relish meeting people.

The Lanyons’ neighbor, Lord Damerel, is seldom home and has such a bad reputation that when they were children Venetia and her brothers called him the Wicked Baron. Venetia is out picking berries one day when she meets Damerel. He at first mistakes her for a village girl and kisses her. However, he soon finds his mistake and doesn’t know what to make of her reaction. Fairly quickly, they find themselves friends.

Of course, this will never do, think her friends and relations, and we’re off for another funny romp with Heyer.

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Review 1761: #ThirkellBar! Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret Towers

It’s time to talk about the sixth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, Pomfret Towers. Who read it and what did you think?

This novel is another one that I reviewed several years ago, so I will not repeat the plot synopsis and review but simply supply a link to the original review.

What struck me this time around was how sweet a story this is, with Thirkell creating characters we like tremendously but not forgetting a couple we can dislike. Yet, she’s subtle about all of this and shows a little sympathy for one of the most irritating characters.

Little Alice, so young and shy, is both a sympathetic character and one who provides some good-natured comedy. For example, her reaction to being invited to Pomfret Towers for the weekend—a terrifying prospect—is to hope the house burns down overnight before she has to go. She is silly and adolescent in her attachment to the odious Julian Rivers and very brave when she finally sees through him.

On the other side is Mrs. Rivers, so full of herself as a Writer of popular novels that sound dreadful, so managing in a house where she is not the hostess, and so irritating in her attempts to throw together her daughter Phoebe and the mild-mannered Gillie Foster, the heir to the earldom. But when she is humiliated by her son at the end of the novel, Thirkell deftly makes us feel sorry for her (but not for Julian).

I liked practically everyone in this novel, even Lord Pomfret, known for his rudeness. Another charming novel by Thirkell.

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Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a na├»ve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1725: Cluny Brown

Best of Ten!

Mr. Porritt, the plumber, is worried about his niece, young Cluny Brown, because, he says, she does not know her place. Why, the other day she went to the Ritz just to see what it was like. When he catches Cluny about to take a bath in a gentleman’s lovely bathtub after she made a plumbing call, Mr. Porritt decides to take advice and send Cluny into service.

She ends up as a parlor maid in Devonshire for Lady Carmel and Sir Henry. There, although she’s not very adept at being a parlor maid, she finds she likes the country and she befriends a golden lab belonging to Colonel Duff-Graham, who allows her to take the dog out for walks.

In the meantime, Lady Carmel’s son Andrew has met Mr. Belinski, an eminent man of letters who has had to abruptly flee Poland and is barely getting by. Andrew invites Mr. Belinski to stay at his parents’ manor, where he can write. Andrew himself is preparing to propose to the beautiful Betty Cream.

Cluny is struck by Mr. Wilson, the chemist, and he rearranges his shop’s closing day to take walks with her. There’s something about Cluny, who is direct and forthright and doesn’t seem to understand customary boundaries.

This is a wonderful comic novel, absolutely delightful, and my first by Margery Sharp (I have reviewed one that I read after this one). I’ll be looking for more.

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