Day 1229: The Streets

Cover for The StreetsIt is Victorian London. David Wildeblood has obtained a job as a gatherer of information for “The Labouring Classes of London,” a weekly paper owned by Mr. Marchmont. He is assigned the neighborhood of Somers Town, where he observes what is going on and makes calls to gather information about the households.

David doesn’t do well at first, because he doesn’t understand the dialect spoken in Somers Town. He is also robbed twice and almost killed when he tries to pursue the second robber. But an encounter with a young coster, Jo, saves him.

Slowly, David begins to realize that something is going on in the neighborhood. First, he helps protest against the landlords, who are charging the poor exhorbitant rents for ruinous quarters, by finding out who the owners are. As it turns out that the owners are on the council in charge of taking tenant complaints, that raises the storm. But eventually, David learns that something even more corrupt and disturbing is going on.

The blurb of this book compares it to Dickens, and that comparison has some validity. Although this novel doesn’t teem with humor and colorful characters, it does contain effective descriptions of London neighborhoods and the city’s poor. It is well written and nicely paced, and I enjoyed reading it. This book was another one I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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Day 1169: A Treacherous Curse

Cover for A Treacherous CurseA Treacherous Curse is the third Veronica Speedwell novel by Deanna Raybourn. I don’t think much is lost in reading the novel out of order. Background information is provided as you go.

Veronica Speedwell is apparently a woman well ahead of her time. She is a scientist and a feminist who believes in free sex. She wears trousers and picks locks. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales. Is she a very likely character for 1888? Not so much.

Veronica and her professional partner, Stoker, are working with a collection of artifacts when they begin hearing about a curse on the Tiverton expedition to Egypt. Soon, the news of the expedition affects Stoker, whose wife deserted him for John de Morgan, a member of the expedition. De Morgan and his wife left the expedition, apparently with the diadem, one of its most important finds. His wife has returned to her parents, but de Morgan is nowhere to be found.

The police want to question Stoker about de Morgan, because their enmity is well known. The story has reopened all the rumors of Stoker’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon, where he was left for dead by his wife and de Morgan, and the lies they told about his relations with his wife. So, Stoker decides he must find de Morgan to clear his name. Any notion that he is going to do this without Veronica’s assistance, he must speedily dismiss.

Concerned parties are the Tivertons and their assistant, Mr. Fairbrother, and Caroline de Morgan. Stoker and Veronica begin looking into the incident, but they can find no trace of de Morgan beyond his landing in Dover. Oddly, though, apparitions of the god Anubis, which haunted the Tiverton expedition, have now relocated to London.

For some time, I followed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, a mashup of the mystery and romance genres. I tired of the series because of the cliché of the couple always arguing about the wife taking part in the investigation. Apparently, Raybourn has decided to hold the couple of Stoker and Veronica apart indefinitely, maybe hoping to avoid this problem.

link to NetgalleyBut I don’t like Veronica nearly as well as I did Lady Julia, and there is something about the breezy, sometimes slightly racy narration that I find irritating. Too many young men are stripping to the waist for no apparent reason, for one thing, in a time that was much more modest than our own. As I mentioned before, I find Veronica not very believable for the time period.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsBest of Five!
Lately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1135: Death Among Friends

Cover for Death Among FriendsDeath Among Friends is a much more typical Elizabeth Cadell novel than the last one I read, Consider the Lilies. Here is her trademark humor, a likable heroine, and a couple of eccentrics, in this case Madame, the heroine’s employer, and James, her nephew. Also, a mystery rounds off the plot.

Eighteen months ago, Alison was jilted nearly at the altar. She left her home in Edinburgh and got a job in London, working for Madame as her companion/secretary. Now, her past is coming after her. James Maitland, Madame’s nephew, is preparing a play written by Madame’s brother for production in Edinburgh. The well-known producer, Neil Paterson, wants to produce it, and he wants Eden Croft to take the lead.

The problem is that Eden is Alison’s ex-fiancé and is now married to Alison’s godmother’s daughter, Margaret, whom she grew up with. Because Madame has delegated Alison to help James, she is forced to interact almost daily with the cast of the play, and with Margaret and Neil.

Although she has always disliked Neil and blames him for the break-up of her engagement, Alison is surprised to find him asking her out. When Eden tries to get her back, she is relieved to find she has no difficulty in brushing him off.

But as the group prepares for and begins their trip to Edinburgh, accidents start to happen to Alison. When she leans over a banister to call the cook, it collapses, and she is only saved because the cook moved a sofa to a position under the stairs. When she is driving down a steep hill at a B&B, her brakes give way, and only because she gave a young man a lift is she saved from going over a cliff. Later, when the travelers stop for lunch, an old man is killed because a rock knocks him off a cliff, where Alison was standing moments before.

Alison slowly realizes that someone is trying to kill her. But why? And who?

This was an enjoyable light read, as I usually expect from Cadell. It is another book for R.I.P.

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On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Day 1113: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Cover for On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret ServiceI had never read anything by Rhys Bowen, but recently I noticed reviews of her books popping up here and there. When Netgalley offered On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, I was intrigued. What I found was a frothy story of intrigue. This novel is the 11th in her “Her Royal Spyness” historical mystery series.

Bowen’s heroine is Georgie Rannock, the sister of a duke and 34th in line for the throne. She is on the impoverished side of the family, though. It is 1935, and Georgie is staying at the ancestral home of her fiancé, Darcy, at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland while they plan their wedding. Since Darcy is Catholic, Georgie may not marry him unless she renounces all claim to the throne, and to do so, she must have permission from the throne.

Darcy is employed by the government in some secret capacity, and he is called away. In his absence, Georgie decides to pop over to London after receiving a belated summons by Queen Mary. In her late mail, she also finds a plea from her friend, Belinda, who is in Italy. Belinda has gotten pregnant and is hiding out in Italy until she goes across the lake to Switzerland to have her baby. She wants Georgie to stay with her.

Summoned to tea at Buckingham Palace, Georgie goes to discuss her wedding difficulties with Queen Mary. When the Queen learns her immediate destination in Italy, she proposes getting Georgie invited to a swank house party there. The Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Mrs. Simpson has her divorce.

link to NetgalleyAt the house party, Georgie finds herself enmeshed in more than one drama. Her mother, the famous actress, is there, and she is being blackmailed. Some of the party are German generals, and something seems to be going on with them. And soon there is a murder.

I mildly enjoyed this little romp, although I knew who the murderer was even before the murder (if that makes sense). That is, I noticed something immediately and once there was a murder, knew who it was as a result. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the novel more if I had started with the beginning of the series. Georgie gets herself into some ridiculous situations, the murder is worked by a bone-headed Italian policeman, and the novel is just silly fun.

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Day 1104: Vanity Fair

Cover for Vanity FairVanity Fair is a reread for me for my Classics Club list. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, though, and I was curious about whether I would have the same reaction to it.

The novel, of course, is Thackeray’s famous satire of society that follows two English girls through their launches into society and later lives. One is Amelia Sedley, the gentle, conventional heroine who has been the only girl to befriend Rebecca Sharp, the charity student. Amelia is only eager to marry George Osborne, her long-betrothed fiancé. Rebecca is determined to be a success and marry a rich man.

It may be perhaps predicted that good, honest Amelia suffers much more than conniving Becky. Early in the book, Amelia’s marriage to George is threatened when her father loses his fortune. Even though we readers already know that George cares for no one more than himself, Amelia goes into a decline.

Meanwhile, Becky makes her own improvident marriage. She runs off with Rawdon Crawley, the heir to her employer’s fortune, thinking that she will be able to bring Miss Crawley around.

The early days of both marriages are set against the backdrop of the battle of Waterloo, as both George Osbourne and Rawdon Crawley are serving officers. With them is George’s best friend, Dobbin, who falls madly in love with Amelia at first sight and helps her throughout the novel.

As a girl, I thought Amelia was completely insipid and admired Becky Sharp. But it must be said—Becky has no morals. This time through, although I still found Amelia a bit tiresome, I found myself sympathizing more with Rawdon and Dobbin.

In any case, this novel is often funny and always entertaining. Although Thackeray presents us with a conventional heroine for the time in Amelia, you can’t help thinking he had some admiration for the unsinkable Becky. By following her adventures, Thackeray shows us the foibles of members of polite society: the fights over inheritance, the sycophancy, the treatment of people as their fortunes wax and wane.

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