Review 2168: The Deadman’s Pedal

I had a few thoughts when I began reading this novel that weren’t necessarily connected with how well I liked it. One was how much male writers and critics love coming of age stories, at least if they’re about boys. If they’re about boys, they’re literary fiction (hence the James Tait Black prize win). If they’re about girls, they’re women’s fiction. Take Philip Roth, for example. He’s written the same novel over and over, and back at the turn of the century, he was the only writer who appeared twice in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. This coming of age novel was one I read for my James Tait Black prize project.

My second observation was more personal. In the beginning of the novel there is some joking around between 15-year-old Simon Crimmons and his friends. Now, I know that at this age a lot of things are said between boys to impress each other, but I found the way they talked about girls disturbing. I actually asked my husband if when he was this age, boys talked this way, and he said no. But he would have been about ten years older than these boys at the time these scenes are set in 1973. Everything they said was so objectifying, it’s no wonder young girls have image problems.

Anyway, Simon is nearly 16 at the beginning of the novel and wants to quit school and get a job. His father owns a fleet of trucks, but Simon can’t work for him until he is 18, so he ends up accidentally applying for a railroad job. His parents are very much against his quitting school, but he is headstrong. Another title for this book might be “Adolescents Making Poor Decisions.”

Simon seems to be a grounded individual who knows who he is, but even as he is getting sexually involved with his girlfriend, Nikki, he meets Alexander and Varie Bultitude and is fascinated by them. They are the teenage children of the area aristocrats, and they seem much more fluid in nature, trying on the hippie look of the times. Simon and Alexander have books and music in common, but we get the sense that to Alexander, Simon is just a way to spend time while he’s home from school. Simon and Varie, on the other hand, have little in common. She’s interested in horses, geology, and the occult. But she is beautiful and he’s fascinated by her.

Much of the novel is about class. Simon complains once that he is too middle class for his fellow railroad workers and too working class for the Bultitudes. Varie is surprised to find he lives in the largest house in his village, and she mistakes his mother for the gardener. His parents have worked their way up from the working class and are dismayed to see him going back down.

Warner seems to have captured the banter of the railway men and the dynamics of small-town Scotland, remote Scotland, too, where they are nearly at the end of the railway line.

I became more interested in this novel when it moved away from Simon’s school friends, especially the frightful Galbraith, to the working world of the railroad. However, I wasn’t much interested in the adolescent obsession with sex.

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Review 2167: Weir of Hermiston. Some Unfinished Stories

I wasn’t aware when I picked up Weir of Hermiston that it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s last and unfinished novel. But unlike The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only nine chapters of it exist. It has been packaged in the slim volume I found, dated 1925, with several other unfinished novels or stories, but of the others only one or two chapters or partial chapters exist. Between most of the fragments is a note from the editor containing what is known about the fragment and Stevenson’s intentions.

Weir of Hermiston tells the story of Archie Weir, whose mother brought him up to fear and distrust his father, the Lord Justice-Clerk. As a young man, Archie reacts in a disgraceful way, possibly treasonous, to a hanging, so his father sends him to his estate in Hermiston to learn to run it. Archie is ashamed and is not socially adept, so he becomes a bit of a recluse. However, he meets Christina, a cousin, and begins to fall in love with her. He is joined by Frank, a financially embarrassed friend, who decides to give him some competition for Christina. Things aren’t looking good when the fragment ends.

The next fragment is Heathercat, about a young boy whose mother keeps disobeying the law in regard to religion—I didn’t really understand the details—to the point where his father is being ruined by fines. She is using her son, whose nickname is Heathercat, to run illegal errands and keep guard on illegal services of worship. The notes explain that this novel was going to be based on a true story about a young boy who was married to an older girl to prevent her being forced to marry someone else.

Other stories are about a beautiful wife of a wine seller who falls in love with an aristocratic customer, a prince, presumably Prince Charlie, who tires of waiting around and decides to act; a man who takes over the household of a friend who has fled the country; and so on. The fragments are set in Scotland, England, or France during the 15th to 17th centuries, except Weir of Hermiston, which is set in the 19th.

I forgot to add that my copy begins with a description of Stevenson’s death and funeral, written by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who was apparently very fond of him.

I found a book composed of fragments to be frustrating, but it made me want to read more of Stevenson’s adult novels.

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Review 2166: In Place of Fear

It’s 1948 Edinburgh, and it’s Helen Downie’s first day in her job as almoner for the brand new National Health Service. Her bosses are young Dr. Strasser and Dr. Deuchar—previously the partner of Dr. Strasser’s father—who share a house and a practice. Although Dr. Deuchar is friendly and humorous, Dr. Strasser is abrupt and sometimes rude. However, Dr. Strasser unexpectedly gives Helen and her husband Sandy a place to live—a flat in a house that was used as a fever hospital during the war. That’s good, because just that morning Helen’s quarrelsome mother threw them out.

Helen completes her first busy day and is delighted with the upstairs flat, which is clean, bright, and has an inside bathroom. When she and Sandy are trying to pull together a few odds and ends to make the flat minimally habitable, Helen finds the body of a young woman out back in the Anderson shelter. She thinks the woman is Fiona Sinclair, the daughter of her benefactor, Mrs. Sinclair.

After she alerts the police, Dr. Deuchar says the woman died from poisoning herself. He and Helen go to notify Mrs. Sinclair, but Fiona is okay. Then Helen thinks the body might be her other daughter, Caroline. She and Dr. Deuchar try to find the misidentified body but are told it was sent to Glasgow because it was the body of a notorious Glasgow criminal. However, on a second visit to the morgue, Helen learns that the girl was hanged, not poisoned, and a famous criminal by the name she was given is unknown in Glasgow.

Persistent Helen begins to uncover widespread corruption involving leading citizens in the city. Something is going on very close to home.

It wasn’t clear to me whether this book marks the start to another series by McPherson, but it has hallmarks of it. Helen is a feisty and likable heroine, and although I thought she was blind to the identity of the killer, what was actually going on in the city was harder to figure out. If this is a series, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Helen.

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Review 2147: Confidence

Confidence revisits Anna and Fin, the two protagonists of Conviction, now working together on a crime podcast. Anna, who lived under an assumed name for years after her accusations of gang rape against members of a popular football team were met with disbelief and threats of violence, has had her new identity revealed and faces questions from her daughter about it. Fin, an ex-rock star with eating issues, is dating Sofia, a bitchy Italian woman who came out with the story in front of the girls during a horrible vacation together.

Anna and Fin get interested in a podcast by Lisa Lee, a Scottish girl who explores abandoned places. She breaks into a chateau in France that is decrepit and falling apart but full of dusty, beautiful things. In a secret room that she accidentally discovers, she finds a silver box, Roman, with an inscription that indicates that Pontius Pilate converted to Christianity. It is sealed shut.

Lisa belongs to a group whose motto is “Take nothing and leave nothing,” but it gets about that the box is missing from the room. Soon, Lisa goes missing too, having gone to the door when a pizza arrived and then vanished. Fin decides their next project will be to find Lisa.

When they look into the history of the box, they find it was discovered in a plot in Cold War Hungary that a girl was clearing to plant a garden. After she and her mother consulted with their priest, Eugene Lamberg, she apparently sold it but then was murdered, presumably by the Hungarian secret police. Since then, every person who had the box was murdered until the box disappeared.

Anna and Fin’s search for Lisa is co-opted when they meet Bram VanWyk, a South African antiques dealer and confidence man. He needs to find the box to trade it for a small Monet painting that he stole, apparently from someone he is scared of. He is traveling around with his eleven-year-old son Marcos, whom he just met.

This novel is like a fast-paced confidence shuffle where you never quite know what’s going on. Fin and Anna are likable protagonists and their investigation leads them in quite a dance.

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Review 2137: Summerwater

Summerwater is a novel composed from brief vignettes that at first seem so disconnected as to be short stories. However, connections appear slowly.

Staying in a collection of cottages on an island in a large Scottish loch are a group of disparate people. The novel alternates point of view to tell their stories over one very wet day. In between each of these chapters is a shorter vignette about what is happening in the surrounding forest.

Justine has an obsession for running, possibly to get away from her family. But she has a secret about her running. David and Mary, an elderly couple, are navigating Mary’s growing decrepitude and memory loss. Milly and Josh are an engaged couple working on their sex life, but Millie would just like a bacon sandwich. Lola, a young girl, takes out her father’s xenophobia on a little Ukrainian girl. Alex, about fourteen, stays out in his kayak a little too long. Becky, his older sister, is so bored she wants to burn the place down. Claire is so unprepared when her husband gives her a break from the kids that she can’t figure out what to do with it. And so on.

We’re told at the beginning that there will be a death, which adds to the tension. A couple of the vignettes got old—the one about sex, even though it was funny, and the thoughts of indecisive Claire. Despite the activity, I found the work slow moving and contemplative.

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Review 2121: Young Mungo

Twice recently I’ve had the same unusual experience with my reading. I was looking forward to reading a second novel by an author who wrote a book that I loved, only to find the second novel seemed to be very much the same as the first, as if the writer was stuck somehow. This happened with Young Mungo.

Mungo is a caring 14-year-old Glaswegian gay boy with an alcoholic mother, a sister planning her escape, and a violent brother. Sound familiar, those of you who have read Shuggie Bain? The novel begins with Mungo being packed off on a camping trip with two men his mother barely knows from her AA meetings. He is poorly clad and equipped, the men are drunk, and a feeling of dread is the immediate effect. In between chapters that continue this story, the novel returns to scenes from Mungo’s past.

Set in the 1990’s, the novel is similar to Shuggie Bain except that Mungo is older and the novel is even more grim and violent at times. Still, it is compelling and becomes less like the other novel as it goes along. I ended up liking it but not so sure I want to visit that world a third time.

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Review 2107: Spring

Spring is the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Like with most of Smith’s books, there is a point where I say, “What the f— is she on about?” and a point where I say, “Oh.”

Richard Lease is an older man, a filmmaker who has done good work. He is grieving after his old friend Paddy’s death. Paddy had been his screenwriter, a woman who supported and inspired him and a good friend. He is further upset because the screenwriter assigned for his next film is trying to turn a delicate work about two famous writers who never actually met each other into a story about a hot affair.

Supposed to be at a meeting about this film in London, Richard takes a train in the opposite direction and gets off in Scotland, thinking about throwing himself under the train.

About halfway through the novel, it suddenly focuses to a seemingly unrelated story. Brittany is a security guard in a detention facility for illegal immigrants. She, like many of the other guards, has started to become callous and treat the detainees as if they were criminals.

She has heard a rumor about a little girl who walked into a facility and spoke to the director. The next day the toilets were spotlessly cleaned. Then one day on her way to work, she meets the child she thinks is that girl. The child Florence wants to know how to get to the place in Scotland shown on an old postcard she has. Suddenly, Brittany finds herself going along.

The novel is obviously about how we treat immigrants, but it makes comments about other things, like social media, on the way. There were times when its digressions got on my nerves and particularly one that I skipped once I had its measure. But somehow even when I’m frustrated by her, Smith always manages to pull me into her story and impress me with her intelligence.

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Review 2098: Yoked with a Lamb

After reading several Clavering books, I’ve decided that one of her strengths is in depicting a warm family and village life. It comes slowly in Yoked with a Lamb.

The village of Haystown in Southern Scotland is shocked and excited to learn that the Lockharts are returning to the area—all of them, including Andrew, who ran off with another woman several years ago. Andrew and Lucy are trying again and moving back to his beloved home. Lucy Lockhart has asked Andrew’s cousin, Kate Heron, to oversee preparations to open the house.

Although Lucy and the children are supposed to arrive there before Andrew, one day he stops by on his way north. Kate spends some time with him and his good friend Robin Anstruther. She begins to be attracted to Robin when she learns that he also was madly in love with the woman Andrew ran off with.

Kate thinks Andrew has treated Lucy abominably, but as the family gathers, she sees that Lucy constantly finds fault with him and throws his past in his face. She also tends to boss her children around and deprive them of small pleasures for no apparent reason. As Andrew and Lucy try to work out their problems, Kate tries to deal with her feelings for Robin.

I am enjoying the Furrowed Middlebrow reprints of Molly Clavering’s work very much. She was a neighbor and friend of the better-known D. E. Stevenson, but I have found Clavering’s books slightly more substantial.

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Review 2082: Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer

Liz of Adventures in Reading announced Dean Street Press in December long after I read this book, and the press is trying to get some new books to me in time, but since this one came up in my regular review schedule, I’ll take credit for it!

Because she has been trying to talk her husband Jack into buying it, Mrs. Lorimer is disappointed to learn that a nearby home, Harperslea, has been sold. Now that all their children except Guy are married, and some of them have children, their home, Woodside, is not big enough when they all come to visit, which they are doing this summer. With all the income from her writing, they can afford to move, but Jack refuses to consider it. So, her good friend Gray Douglas, also a writer, will help her out by putting some of the guests up.

Mrs. Lorimer, who tends to be a worrier, is also worried about her son Guy. He has been mentioning a girl quite often in his letters, but Mrs. Lorimer is worried that she won’t be good enough for Guy.

At any rate, when the family shows up, Phillie seems to be the one with the problem. She begins behaving temperamentally, being rude to her husband, dashing off to Harperslea because she’s seen Miss Smellie, one of the new occupants, playing tennis and she wants a game. Then bringing Miss Smellie home to dinner and just abandoning her to her mother and Guy.

Miss Smellie is young and not very prepossessing, and they find out she hates her name, which is Nesta Rowena. So, the family dubs her Rona.

These and other family concerns enliven this charming novel. The novel cover claims the book is autobiographical, and it certainly has some likable and entertaining characters. So far, I have very much enjoyed the novels I’ve read by Clavering.

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Review 2046: Dear Hugo

Sara Montieth has purchased a cottage in a small Scottish border village because she wants a quiet life. She has chosen the village because it was the boyhood home of her young man Ivo, who was killed in the war, and his brother Hugo.

Dear Hugo is an epistemological novel, consisting of Sara’s letters to Hugo, whom she has never met and who lives in Nairobi. It is about her daily life, the people she likes and dislikes, the events in the village. Although she wanted a quiet life, hers becomes eventful, especially after her cousin, who is newly remarried, asks her to take his 13-year-old son Arthur during his school holidays. It’s even more so after Hugo sends them a puppy.

The letters are written with gentle humor and describe all the village characters, including Miss Bonaly, a disapproving spinster who urges Sara not to hire Madge Marchbanks, an unwed mother, to help with the housework, and kindly, perceptive Mrs. Keith, who knew Ivo and Hugo as boys.

This is a nice, gentle novel of village life. It didn’t end quite the way I was hoping for, but I enjoyed it very much.

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