Day 917: Neverwhere

Cover for NeverwhereI haven’t read any Neil Gaiman except a book about a witch that he wrote with Terry Pratchett. That one was very silly, but I thought I should read some more Gaiman since he is so popular. I should maybe mention that fantasy is not usually my genre, with notable exceptions.

Richard Mayhew is happy with his life. He is a successful young investment counselor and is engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman. One night when they are on the way out for an important dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he finds an injured girl lying on the sidewalk. The girl is filthy, and Richard’s fiancée wants him to call an ambulance and leave her there. But Richard picks her up and takes her to his apartment.

We have already met the girl, being chased by two villains named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar through dirty dark tunnels. When the two men come to Richard’s apartment looking for the girl, he says she is not there.

The girl’s name is Door, and she asks Richard if he will go somewhere for her and fetch the Marquis de Carabas. Doing this favor takes him to a strange world underneath London. Richard returns Door to the Marquis, but once she is gone, he realizes he can’t return to his own world. When he tries to, people can’t see him. He finds he has no job, no fiancée, and his flat is in the midst of being let to someone else. He returns to the other world to get help from Door.

Door is the daughter of Lord Portico, a family famous for opening things. Recently, her entire family was slaughtered by Croup and Vandemar, and she wants to find out who ordered it and why. When she returns home to find her father’s diary, it tells her to go to Islington, a legendary angel. Richard finds himself accompanying Door, the Marquis, and Door’s bodyguard Hunter on a dangerous quest through this alternate world that makes its home in the London underground, with characters whose names play on the names of underground stations.

At times this novel seems quite juvenile. In fact, partway through I started trying to figure out if it was intended for adults at all. This is because the humor often seems to be aimed at 14-year-old boys, for example, a villain who is constantly eating live slugs and pigeons. But the Introduction states that it is meant for adults, to do for them what books like the Chronicles of Narnia did for Gaiman as a child.

For this adult, anyway, it fails. I was mildly sympathetic to Richard’s plight, but the book doesn’t do enough with the characters to get us more interested in them. And I wasn’t enamored of Gaiman’s vision of a filthy, mud-filled underworld of strange beings.

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Day 892: Wild Strawberries

Cover for Wild StrawberriesThis title does not refer to the Ingmar Bergman film but to the second (or third, depending on where you look) Barsetshire novel by Angela Thirkell. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed lately, Wild Strawberries was written before World War II. It is a delightful and gentle comedy with a romantic triangle.

Wild Strawberries is about a summer with the Leslies. Lady Emily is universally adored, a vague woman always leaving a trail of her possessions behind. She is also a managing type whose attempts to arrange things that are already decided repeatedly throw the family into chaos. The novel opens with a hilarious scene in which the family is late for service and disrupts the sermon while Lady Emily tries to tell everyone where to sit. Lady Emily is the mother whose passing is much lamented in Enter Sir Robert, which I reviewed a few months ago.

And if I am not mistaken, Agnes, a daughter of the house, is the same Lady Graham who is a major character in Enter Sir Robert, and as in that novel, Robert is continually referred to but not present. Agnes is a young mother with three children, kind but silly, and entirely obsessed with the children.

Other members of the household are Mr. Leslie, gruff but kind, sons John and David, and grandson Martin. Martin is the son of the Leslies’ deceased oldest son. John is a widower who has been mourning his wife Gay. David is a charming but selfish playboy.

The Leslies have invited Mary Preston to spend the summer with them while her mother recuperates at a spa on the Continent. Mary is Agnes’s niece by marriage, and her affections play a major part in the plot. She is a young, naive girl who is immediately charmed by David. John, on the other hand, falls in love with her when he hears her singing. We find ourselves rooting for John, but in Thirkell’s novels, the characters we like best are not always successful in love.

Providing humor are a visit from Mr. Holt, a toady to the upper class and expert on gardens, who invites himself to visit the Leslies, and the establishment at the vicarage of a French family. Seventeen-year-old Martin gets himself embroiled in a demonstration to restore the French monarchy, and Mr. Holt finds himself rewarded for his gate-crashing by being entertained by Agnes and her children.

This is a delightful novel with sympathetic and engaging characters and a great deal of humor. I enjoyed it very much.

I have to say that my Moyer Bell edition (not the one pictured above) was riddled with typographical errors, including a chapter that literally ended in the middle of a word, to be completed after the next chapter title. I just picked this up at a used bookstore, but next time I buy Thirkell, I will look for a Virago edition.

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Day 883: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Cover for Salmon Fishing in the YemenI enjoyed the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a light romantic comedy, so I picked up the novel. Although most of the same elements are there, the novel is a bit darker and more satirical, the emphasis on government idiocy.

Dr. Alfred Jones is a scientist for the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. He loves his work but is taken aback when he receives a letter about assisting with a project to establish salmon in the Yemen, to be sponsored by a wealthy sheik. Fred thinks the idea is scientifically absurd and ignores it.

But government officials in the prime minister’s office get wind of the project and see it as a possible source of good publicity about the relationship between the U.K. and the Middle East. The outcome is that Fred is ordered to follow through on the project.

Fred is pleasantly surprised at the apparent competence of the project manager, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, but it is when he meets the sheik that he begins to have an interest in the project. The sheik is a devoted fisherman who has an outlandish but possibly feasible plan for his project.

Fred’s marriage isn’t going smoothly. His no-nonsense wife Mary has accepted a temporary posting to Geneva without consulting him. She is far better paid than he is and is dismissive in her attitudes toward his career, even when a political shift toward the project gets him fired and he is taken on by Harriet’s company at a lot higher salary.

Harriet also has some personal problems. Her fiancé Robert has been posted somewhere in the Middle East, and she is no longer receiving his letters. Nor can she get any information about him from the Marines.

This novel is epistolary, told completely in emails, Fred’s diary entries, letters, transcripts of interviews, and newspaper articles. It is occasionally funny, almost ridiculously satirical, and a little bit sweet. However, if you are hoping for the movie ending, you will be disappointed, because in the movies, the boy always has to get the girl, especially if he’s played by Ewan McGregor. In fiction, things can be more complicated.

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Day 876: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

Cover for Diary of a Provincial LadyBest Book of the Week!
The Diary of a Provincial Lady was popular again quite a few years ago, but I didn’t read it then. Now that I have read it, I wish I’d read it earlier.

Considering that I have little in common with a 1930’s suburban upper-class English housewife and mother struggling with servant problems, I found this novel very funny.

The novel begins with a visit from Lady B., for whom the narrator’s husband Robert works as a land agent. Lady B. is in turn patronizing and demanding, first nearly sitting on the indoor bulbs, then questioning where the narrator got them and telling her where she should have got them, then telling her it’s too late to plant them anyway. The bulbs appear throughout the novel as a running joke. They get moved to the basement and then to the attic, are over-watered and under-watered, get stepped on by Robert when he is bringing down the suitcases, and are nibbled by mice. What they don’t do is bloom.

The house is made lively by a constant stream of visitors, including Our Vicar’s Wife, who always must be getting along but stays another hour. Another less pleasing visitor is the hearty Miss Pankerton, who barges her way into invitations and thinks nothing of bringing along an extra three people and two dogs on what was supposed to be a family picnic.

The narrator has two lively children—Robin, who makes frequent visits from prep school, and Vicky, who is at  home with a very French governess, Mademoiselle. I had to break out Google Translate for Mademoiselle, who continually manages to insult her employer and persists in being overly dramatic.

The narrator’s husband is taciturn except when complaining about expenses or the condition of the house, but he never denies her and is often kind. Many paragraphs, though, end with “Robert said nothing,” which begins to be very funny after a while. In fact, there is a lot that Robert finds nothing to say about. Meanwhile, the poor narrator is constantly scrambling for money, hocking her grandmother’s jewels and so on, to be able to keep up a decent appearance.

To some extent Delafield is depicting types but they also seem like real people, very funny real people. Delafield’s sense of humor is dry. Particularly amusing are her memos to herself and her queries. For example, after arguing with the children about washing up for tea:

(Mem: Have sometimes considered—though idly—writing letter to The Times to find out if any recorded instances exist of parents and children whose views on this subject coincide. Topic of far wider appeal than many of those so exhaustively dealt with.)

All I can say is, I can’t tell you how many times a page I chuckled, or just plain laughed out loud.

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Day 828: Sex and Stravinsky

Cover for Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky is about two families that live far apart from each other but eventually meet. Caroline and Josh live in England with their daughter Zoe, while Hattie and Herman live in South Africa with their daughter Cat.

Caroline is Australian, tall, beautiful, and vastly capable. All her life she has been striving to please her mother, who continues to favor her other daughter Janet. Caroline leaves Australia to study in England and eventually marries Josh, a small, mild-mannered theatre academic. They struggle financially for their first few years. They are just able to afford their own house when Caroline’s mother moves to England without warning. She demands that they buy her a house and give her an allowance, and they seem unable to resist her commands. So, they continue struggling, living in a bus even though they have two professional salaries.

Hattie was Josh’s girlfriend until she met Herman. She was a ballerina despite the lack of support from her family. But when she married Herman, she started teaching and began writing a series of children’s books about a girl who wants to dance. Herman, a wealthy businessman, is away on business most of the time, and Hattie’s teenage daughter Cat treats her with contempt.

Caroline and Josh’s daughter Zoe has always wanted to learn ballet, and she adores the ballet series written by Hattie, who was Josh’s first love. But Caroline thinks Zoe is being silly about wanting to dance, even though Josh’s career deals heavily with ballet. Caroline says that in any case they can’t afford ballet lessons.

When Josh goes to a conference in South Africa, he reconnects with Hattie. Caroline finds out something shocking about her mother that sends her flying to South Africa to find Josh; Hattie finds out her lodger has a secret identity.

Trapido’s novels are witty and engaging. I always love them. They are sparkling with amusing dialogue, they have likable and not so likable characters, but ones that seem to be real people. Trapido continues to be one of my favorite writers.

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Day 778: This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Cover for This Is Your Life, Harriet ChanceA few years ago, I read Jonathan Evison’s West of Here. This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is nothing like it. It’s a somewhat whimsically told story of the whole of one woman’s difficult life.

Harriet Chance is a widow nearing 80 whose husband died a few months before from Alzheimer’s. She gets a call from a cruise company telling her that her husband booked a cruise to Alaska for two. At first, she has no intention of going, but then she decides to take her best friend, Mildred.

Her friends and family are a little concerned, because she claims she is being haunted by her husband, Bernard. Harriet is a little worried that they want her to enter the retirement community where Mildred lives. She loves her home and doesn’t want to leave. Besides, Bernard is haunting her.

When Mildred’s son arrives to pick Harriet up for the cruise, she learns that Mildred isn’t coming after all. Instead, Dwight gives her a letter to open on the ship. Harriet isn’t going to like what it says.

link to NetgalleyTold in a way that is supposed to remind us of the old TV show, “This Is Your Life,” the novel skips backward and forward to scenes from Harriet’s ordinary-seeming but painful life. This narrative technique is anchored by the story of the cruise, which is told linearly.

I found this novel touching, although in some ways the narrative style creates distance from the story. It’s a serious story told as if it’s a comedy, with bumbling, repentant Bernard as a chorus in ghost form.

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Day 743: Happy Returns

Cover for Happy ReturnsHappy Returns is one of Angela Thirkell’s books set in Barsetshire, the setting also of Anthony Trollope’s novels. Thirkell’s novels were written in the 1930’s-50’s and feature, in large part, pleasant and well-meaning characters, gentle romances, and problems bravely dealt with, particularly during and after the war.

Happy Returns is set in 1951 and 1952, just before and after Winston Churchill’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister. Much of the conversation at the beginning of the novel is about the government, called Them, the depredations its taxes have made to the neighborhood, and the characters’ hope that there will be an election that will bring Churchill into office.

The situation of Lady Lufton is one of the focuses of this novel. Her husband is recently dead at an early age, and she is struggling with grief and apathy. The family fortunes have suffered so from death taxes that she is forced to lease half her house to a tenant, Mr. MacFadyen of Amalgamated Vedge. She is concerned because her son, the young Lord Lufton, can’t afford to rent a better place when he goes up to London for Parliament and has to stay with a miserly relative, who does not feed him well in exchange for his ration card. Frankly, the gentle Lord Lufton fears he is too poor to marry.

Charles Belton is another important character. He has been engaged for a year to Clarissa Graham, but they show no sign of marrying. Clarissa has been behaving petulantly, so that Charles has begun to doubt that she wants to marry him. It takes his friend Eric Swan to notice that Clarissa is actually madly in love with Charles and fears he doesn’t love her back.

Swan, a schoolteacher, doesn’t seem very ambitious, but he is actually considering trying for a place at Oxford. But then he meets Grace Grantly and falls in love with her. At this time, fellows at Oxford couldn’t be married, so he decides to put his plans on hold and see what develops.

The whole neighborhood notices that Francis Brandon hasn’t been treating his nice wife Peggy very well lately. She, along with several other women in the novel, is very pregnant and despite her husband’s behavior keeps her good humor.

As an example of the flavor of this book, Lady Lufton and Lord Lufton are having a conversation when Mr. MacFadyen comes in. Mr. MacFadyen observes sympathetically that some of Lady Lufton’s comments are of the type to make a young man impatient, but Lord Lufton always replies gently and patiently.

Most of the characters in Happy Returns are nice people, except maybe the Bishop, who never actually appears. Throughout the entire novel, Mrs. Joram is planning a party but is waiting for the Bishop and his wife to depart for Madeira so she won’t have to invite them. The Bishop is apparently so disliked by many people that when he finally leaves for Madeira and his ship is overtaken by a storm, almost every character wishes for a shipwreck.

I enjoyed this novel with its depiction of the hardships of post-World War II Britain. My only problem with it was the plethora of characters, for I could not keep track of who they all were and what their relationships were. Probably someone following the series from the beginning would not have this problem. I have read several of the books, but that was a long time ago.

There are also quite a few cultural and literary references I didn’t get—and probably many jokes. For the tone of the novel, although it has touching moments, is one of humor, with many funny asides addressed directly to the reader about what will or will not be further explained. I think a fair comparison for someone who is not familiar with Thirkell’s work would be the novels of Nancy Mitford, although they are more obviously unrealistic and caricatured.

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