Review 1608: Tea Is So Intoxicating

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a froth of a novel with silly characters but comments to make about marriage, snobbery, and class. No one here is very likable, but quite a bit is funny.

Retired Commander David Tompkins has purchased a picturesque but inconvenient thatched cottage and decides to run a tea shop from it. His wife Germayne thinks it’s a terrible idea, but nothing can dissuade him. He thinks he is a wonderful cook and has visions of a first-class tea shop; however, his pilot meal, meant to induce an investment from his friend George, is a disaster. In fact, David can’t cook, but he is convinced that he can produce his estimated 240 delicious teas a day.

There is some hope for the cooking, because a friend at his previous job sends along Mimi, a Viennese cake baker. Mimi does know how to bake a delicious cake, but she is the type of woman whom all men want to protect and all woman distrust on sight, apparently with cause.

Mrs. Arbroath used to run the village in 1910 and thinks it is still 1910, not 1950. She is determined to keep the tea shop from opening, claiming it will attract lots of riffraff. In addition, the owner of the local pub, who has opened a small tea garden (also opposed by Mrs. Arbroath), thinks they’ll be too much competition so has barred the Tompkins from his pub.

As all this becomes (I can’t help it) a tempest in a teapot, Charmayne begins to wonder if she shouldn’t have stayed with her first husband, Nigel.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1604: The Stone of Chastity

The Stone of Chastity is a bit of comic froth, poking fun at small village life. It is a farrago of nonsense populated by eccentric characters.

Nicholas Pounce is a recent Oxford graduate who has yet to find a purpose in life and isn’t trying very hard to find one. So, his uncle, Professor Pounce, announces that Nicholas can be his unpaid research assistant in a special project.

Professor Pounce has found an intriguing reference to folklore in an old diary. It asserts that there is a stone in a brook in the village of Gillenham, the Stone of Chastity. If a chaste woman steps on it, she can get across the brook, but if an unchaste woman steps on it, she will fall into the water. Note that no one seems to be testing the men.

When Nicholas and his mother arrive at the Old Manor in Gillenham, the house the professor has taken, they find Professor Pounce already in residence along with a sultry beauty, Carmen Smith, whose presence is unexplained.

The first thing Professor Pounce does is make up a questionnaire and have Nicholas distribute it throughout the village. Although the professor asks if people have heard about the stone, he also asks about the recipients’ chastity and seems unable to understand that the villagers may be offended.

They are, and a lot of resentment begins to build, especially among the cohorts of Mrs. Pye, an angry and fanatical Nonconformist. Also offended is the vicar’s wife, who has the Boy Scouts collect all the surveys and destroy them. The professor only gets one back, but it contains electrifying information: not only has the recipient heard of the Stone of Chastity, she has it in her scullery!

I have to admit this novel is funny, although much of its humor is slightly politically incorrect these days. It is funny enough that even this recap is making me laugh. Aside from the silly subject matter, it pokes fun at the rustic villagers as well as the researchers, although it bases a lot of its humor on class.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1588: This Is Happiness

My first introduction to Niall Williams was his wonderful novel History of the Rain. That was so good that I confess to having found Four Letters of Love slightly disappointing, just because it wasn’t as good. This Is Happiness, however, is a gem of a novel.

As an old man, Noe Crowe recollects the summer when he was 17. He has been banished to the small village of Faha in West Clare County, because he left seminary school. While living with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, he’s supposed to find his way back to God.

First, it stops raining, in a village where it always rains. Then Christie arrives to help install the electricity. Christie, we sense, is a charismatic individual with lots of stories to tell. He has come with a mission, and it’s not electricity. He has heard Annie Moonie lives in Faha, and he wants to apologize to her for leaving her at the altar 50 years before.

In the meantime, Noe, in a village studded with eccentric characters, finds he has fallen in love with Sophie Troy, the doctor’s youngest daughter, or is he in love with Sophie and Charlie Troy, or is it with Sophie, Charlie, and Ronnie, all three of the doctor’s daughters?

The novel starts out funny and charming and it just gets better. Hoorah for another fine book by Niall Williams.

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Review 1575: Nothing to Report

Best of Ten!
The circumstances by which I came to read this novel were a bit different from usual. I received Somewhere in England by the same author as a review copy, but when I sat down to read it, I realized it was a sequel to Nothing to Report. So, I immediately sent off for this novel so that I could read them in order.

Mary Morrison, Button to her friends, is an unmarried middle-aged woman living in a village near London in 1939. She has been forced to sell the family home, which is now a school. From her cottage, she seems to be at the center of village life, often being called on for advice, running a woman’s society, and living a busy social life.

Her childhood friend, Catha, Lady Rollo, and her family have returned from years in India and want her to help them find a house. Catha’s youngest son, Tony, a surly university student and would-be revolutionary, is hanging around Mary Morrison’s house trying to avoid his family. Mary’s widowed sister-in-law, Marcelle, has just announced her plans to vacate London and move in with Mary, bringing her daughter Rosemary. Rosemary, in preparation for the move, has shipped her piano to Mary’s house. Mary herself has been trying to organize gas mask training. Finally, Catha’s daughter, Elizabeth, is preparing for her debut to society. In short, things are chaotic. Slowly, events work up to World War II, of course.

I was delighted to read this novel, which I found charming. It has some very funny scenes, such as Lady Rollo’s preparations for going to Ascot, and is at other times quite touching. I loved this book.

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Review 1561: #1956 Club! Sprig Muslin

Seven years ago, Sir Gareth Ludlow’s fiancée died tragically. Since then, he hasn’t met any woman who would make him forget her. He knows it’s his duty to marry, though, so he decides to propose to his shy friend Lady Hester Theale.

On his way to Lady Hester, he meets a beautiful young lady in some difficulty. He learns that in trying to force her grandfather to let her marry, she has run off with the aim of becoming a governess. When her supposed employer turned her away, she presented herself at the inn where he meets her proposing herself as a chambermaid.

Gareth is afraid that Amanda is too inexperienced to know what dangers she may encounter, but she will not tell him her grandfather’s name, so he takes her to Hester. Hester’s family assumes he has brought along his mistress, and her roué uncle spirits Amanda away the next morning.

Sprig Muslin is Heyer at her most ridiculous and fun, as Amanda’s fibs land her and Sir Gareth into serious trouble, requiring, of course, more and more fibs. As usual, her characters are lovable and her wit engaging. I always love reading Heyer, This one, I reread for the 1956 Club.

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Review 1560: #1956 Club! The Towers of Trebizond

Best of Ten!
The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.

Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.

This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.

The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.

This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.

I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.

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Review 1549: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Readers Imbibing Peril XV was just announced for books in September and October, and just by coincidence, here is my first entry.

Theodora Goss must really like Victorian and earlier monster stories. In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, she brings together characters inspired from Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, adding in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne for good measure.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died, and Mary has been left in near poverty. While going through her father’s papers, she finds that her mother was paying monthly sums for the support of Hyde. Thinking that if Mr. Hyde was alive, he might be responsible for the series of grizzly Jack the Ripper murders, she goes to Sherlock Holmes to find out how she might investigate and claim the reward for solving the case.

Dr. Watson comes with her to the address on the invoices to what turns out to be a home for fallen women. There they find, not Mr. Hyde, but a teenage girl named Diana Hyde, who calls her sister.

When Mary and Diana continue to investigate their father’s papers, they take up with Beatrice Rappachini, whose father changed her to breathe poison; Catherine Moreau, half woman, half panther; and Justine Frankenstein. They all begin working with Holmes and Watson to try to solve the killings.

At first, this seemed like a fun book for light reading. It was written in a jaunty style, with characters interrupting as Catherine writes their story, and it seemed entertaining and clever. By 50 pages in, I felt I had figured out everything important, just not the details. By 100 pages in, the story was beginning to flag. The characters didn’t have discernible personalities. It struck me that Holmes, for example, is described as being full of himself when he hasn’t behaved that way.

I finally stopped about halfway through, because I still had 200 pages to read and I wasn’t enjoying myself. What had started out seeming a clever idea got old and was too over the top.

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Review 1540: The Uninhabited House

Miss Blake is an eccentric figure whose arrival is looked forward to by the clerks in Mr. Craven’s office, including Harry Patterson, the narrator. She only arrives when the tenants have unexpectedly left her niece’s house, which is all too often. For the house has a reputation.

Miss Blake and her ward Helena have been a charge on poor, kind-hearted Mr. Craven since the death of Robert Elmsdale, Helena’s father. Thought to be wealthy, he was found to be in considerable debt when he died. Now, the house in which he died is supposedly haunted. Mr. Craven doesn’t believe in ghosts and supposes someone is trying to keep the house from being occupied.

After a disastrous lawsuit resulting from the early vacancy of the house by a tenant, Miss Blake declares she will pay £50 to anyone who can solve the mystery of the house. Although Miss Blake has never paid any of Mr. Craven’s bills, Mr. Craven is so desperate to relinquish Miss Blake’s account that he vows to pay the money to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Patterson finds himself in need of money, because he has fallen in love with Helena Elmsdale. So, he volunteers to stay in the house and try to discover its secrets.

This is a joyful little novel despite its theme. Patterson tells the story with plenty of gentle, good-natured humor, and his affection for Mr. Craven is very clear. The mystery is perhaps not too confounding, but the book itself is a pleasure to read, with eccentric characters and lots of atmosphere. Is it a ghost story as well as a mystery? I’ll never tell.

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Review 1506: The Broom of the System

We first meet Lenore Beadsman in 1981 as a 15-year-old on a visit to her sister at Mount Holyoke. There, three guys from Amherst invade the girls’ dorm room and more or less sexually assault them, except Lenore, who leaves. The point of this part?

We meet her again working as a receptionist in Cleveland and having an affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous. Her great-grandmother has disappeared from a nursing home along with a substantial number of patients and some staff. The manager of the home, which is owned by Lenore’s wealthy father, has been asked to keep the incident quiet, but he asks Lenore to contact her father. She is unable to reach him, however.

I tried hard to read this novel, which I know is considered brilliant and was recommended by my brother, but I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with it. Though I know it was considered innovative in its time (1987), it seemed dated to me, both in its bizarre zany humor, which reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, Tim Robbins, or Richard Brautigan, and in its treatment of women. I read about a quarter of it but saw myself completely lose interest when the cockatiel started spouting break-up lines. The novel just seemed too ridiculous, and I also felt it wasn’t going anywhere. The hyper-intellectual dialogue seemed completely unlikely. It also seemed pretentious.

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Review 1481: You & Me

I’ve got two words for this book. Not funny. Actually, I have two more. Not interesting. In fact, I found it unbearable.

Two guys are sitting on a porch talking. Their conversation wanders among many subjects. This novel is supposed to be a take-off on “Waiting for Godot.” I don’t know why “Waiting for Godot” needs a take-off. It’s sort of a take-off of itself.

I don’t know what the James Tait Black judges were thinking. A parody like this is funny for about two pages, not an entire book.

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