Review 1859: Music in the Hills

Music in the Hills is the second book in Stevenson’s Dering family series. The first book, Vittoria Cottage, is about Caroline Dering. This book has as its main characters Caroline’s sister, Mamie Johnstone, and Caroline’s son, James. The last book, which I read second, is Winter and Rough Weather.

James has returned from service in Malaysia and wants to become a farmer, so Mamie and her husband Jock have invited him to their farm in the borderlands of Scotland, Mureth, to learn farming. Although James settles in well and loves Mureth, he is unhappy, because he is in love with an art student named Rhoda. He proposed to her, but she has been clear that she’s picking her career over marriage.

This novel is mostly about the everyday events and people on the farm and in the nearby village, nearby in terms of straight distance but a bit remote along a hilly, twisty road. In the novel, as in the next, the landscape is an important character. There are two major subplots, however. One is about sheep being stolen from Mureth. The other is about Holly, the niece of Lady Shaw. She’s making a dead set at James, but there’s something about her that Mamie distrusts.

Another lovely book from Stevenson. I haven’t read Vittoria Cottage for a long time, but it makes me want to revisit it.

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Review 1854: The Weather at Tregulla

Una Beaumont (again, the publishers got the name wrong on the cover) is 19 and very much still a sulky teenager. She finds her home in a small Cornish village to be absolutely boring. Her father, Captain Beaumont, had promised her that she could live in London and study to be an actress. However, her mother has unexpectedly died and her money was entailed, so the Captain can no longer afford to send Una. Even her distraught father notices that she is more upset by this than by her mother’s death.

The weather in Tregulla is tumultuous, at least in regard to several love affairs. Una meets Terrence Willows, an artist leasing a cottage in the neighborhood, and his sister Emmeline. Terrence is a bit of a bounder, but Una immediately falls in love with him. Emmeline has the kind of looks admired by Una’s friend Barnabas, and she has in fact moved to the area in hopes of getting him to marry her, even though she hadn’t met him before. She is tired of the chaotic existence of her brother and his friends, but when she thinks of Barnabas, she always thinks of his parents’ estate first. Barnabas, although believing he is cautious, is smitten. Finally, his brother Hugo is in love with Una.

At first, I didn’t think I was going to like this novel as well as I did others by Gibbons. I didn’t like Una, and the novel has several more unlikable characters. However, Gibbons is a great storyteller and satirist, and her characters are believably written. Further, some of them improve, particularly Una.

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Review 1773: A Civil Contract

Remembering back quite a few years to the last time I read A Civil Contract, I didn’t classify it as a favorite Heyer. As I was younger then and more romantic, I was disappointed in its plain and prosaic heroine. Now that I am more mature, I look at it with completely different eyes.

Adam Deveril is a dashing captain who has been serving in the Peninsular wars when he is abruptly called home because his father unexpectedly died. This death makes Adam Lord Lynton and leaves him heir to a huge amount of debt. Although the family has never been wealthy, Adam has had no idea just how his father’s spending habits and mismanagement have put the estate into debt.

Adam thinks there is no solution but to put his townhouse and the family estate on the market. Being a proud man, he ignores his businessman’s recommendation to look for a wealthy bride.

Adam also feels obliged to inform Lord Oversly of the state of affairs, since Adam had been hoping to wed his beautiful daughter, Julia. Oversly acknowledges that Adam can no longer be considered eligible to marry Julia but remarks that he and Julia probably aren’t well suited anyway. However, both Adam and Julia are heart-broken.

Oversly says he thinks he can help Adam. Soon, Adam is surprised to receive a visit from Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy but vulgar businessman. Chawleigh suggests that Adam’s financial problems can be solved if only he would marry Chawleigh’s daughter Jenny.

Adam’s pride does not permit him to consider this offer, but he agrees to meet Jenny. He finds her plain, plump, and matter-of-fact as well as poorly dressed. He does not even realize he has met her before, for she is a schoolfriend of Julia’s. Almost against his will, he marries her.

Maybe I’m giving away too much, but this is the story of how a young man learns to throw away his romantic illusions and begin to appreciate his thoughtful, supportive, affectionate wife. Thus, its intent is a little more serious than most of Heyer’s novels, and it also has a great deal to say, off and on, about the state of Europe at the time.

I had to laugh, because this time through I found myself impatient with Adam and Julia’s romantic yearnings and appreciated Jenny’s good qualities and hidden heartache a good deal more. The book is also not lacking in Heyer’s usual amusing dialogue, although most of it is between other characters than the two main ones.

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Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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Review 1673: Writers & Lovers

Ever since reading Euphoria, I’ve been wondering what else Lily King can do. Let’s just say that Writers & Lovers did not disappoint.

Casey Peabody is having a rough time. At 31 she is still waiting tables and trying to work on her novel. Her mother died recently, and she is grief-stricken. She just wasted a spot in a writing workshop on an affair instead of writing, and now she hasn’t heard from the man she spent so much time with. She lives in what used to be a gardening shed, and her landlord frequently belittles her. Finally, she has a crushing student loan debt, and she is working double shifts just to be able to afford to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As if all this isn’t stressful enough, she finds herself dating two very different men. She is supposed to go on a first date with Silas when he abruptly leaves town with no explanation. Then she meets Oscar, a middle-aged, established writer with two delightful young boys. Soon, she is going on outings with the three of them. But then Silas shows back up.

This is an intimate and engaging story of a few months in a complicated woman’s life. This description almost makes it sound like a romance novel, but it is much more than that. I found it absolutely compelling.

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Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

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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 1539: Mary Lavelle

It was interesting to me to learn that Mary Lavelle had been banned in Ireland as an immoral book, for in its own way, it’s very moral. Still, I guess it was shocking for 1936.

Mary is a young Irish woman who is engaged to be married to a kind and worthy young man who must wait to marry her until he can earn enough. His prospects are good, but he is paid a niggardly wage by his miser father.

Almost on a whim and despite her fiancĂ©’s objections, Mary decides to take a governess job for a year in Spain, and the beginning of the novel finds her on the way there by train. Spain is not as she imagined it, but from the first she likes it. The Areavaga family are gracious and kind, and their three daughters soon like Mary very much. She makes some friends within a group of British governesses she meets at the local cafĂ©, although she is sometimes shocked at their behavior and their airs of superiority toward the Spanish.

Mary is unconsciously beautiful and innocent. She is immediately attractive to Pablo Areavaga, her charges’ father, but he is too principled to show it. Trouble comes, though, with the arrival of Juanito, Areavaga’s married son, for Juanito falls in love with her at first sight.

I have read two books now by O’Brien, and both gave me a sense of a ferocious intelligence. Both are set in Spain, and in both, she examines the conflict between religion, principle, and emotional drives. The descriptions of the scenery and people of Spain are vivid and sometimes lyrical. This is another good book from my Classics Club list.

One comment on my new edition of Virago Modern Classics. Almost as soon as I began reading the book, the last six or eight pages fell out. Thereafter, I was constantly tucking them back in, afraid I was going to lose them.

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Review 1509: Normal People

In school, Marianne and Connell ignore each other. They come from different social backgrounds. Marianne is from a wealthy family, while Connell’s mother is the cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although Connell is popular, Marianne is bullied and ignored.

Away from school, the two become lovers. However, a misunderstanding about their relationship causes Connell to hurt her and they break up.

At college in Dublin, they meet again. This time, Marianne is popular with a set of bright students and Connell feels like an outsider.

Normal People is the minutely observed story of a friendship and an on-again, off-again love affair. It has been widely lauded, but it was hard for me to be interested in this story of two very immature people. The relationship is a long series of misunderstandings that separate the two but do nothing to teach them to communicate more honestly.

It’s not that I disliked this novel. It’s just that I found myself getting impatient while wondering where it was going. When it finally got there, the conclusion was underwhelming.

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Review 1420: The Talisman Ring

Having greatly enjoyed a play based on The Talisman Ring, I thought it was about time I reread the original. So, I pulled out my old, tattered paperback copy (copyrighted 1964) and read it again.

Sylvester Lavenham is dying and wishes to assure that his granddaughter is taken care of. So, he proposes a marriage to his nephew, Sir Tristram Shield. The granddaughter, Eustacie de Vauban, is young, French, and volatile. She agrees to marry Sir Tristram, but having romantic tendencies, she is taken aback by his matter-of-face nature. Changing her mind, she decides to steal away at dead of night to London with the aim of becoming a governess.

Unfortunately, she is taken by smugglers who are trying to escape some excisemen. To her delight, she finds that the leader is her cousin Ludovic Lavenham, famously wanted for murdering a man who refused to return his talisman ring, which he pledged while gaming. During their escape, Ludovic is shot, and Eustacie takes him to a local inn for help.

Here’s the poster from the play.

Of course, Ludovic is not guilty of murder and several characters join forces to prove his innocence. But if you think Ludovic and Eustacie are the romantic lead characters of this novel, you don’t know Heyer. For at the inn, they encounter Sarah Thane, an older young woman with a quick sense of humor.

The Talisman Ring is a typical Heyer romantic comedy, with a complicated, ridiculous plot, one brave but foolhardy hero, a vivacious heroine, and a likable older couple to anchor the romance. It’s lots of fun, as Heyer’s novels usually are.

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