Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1465: Sugar Money

Best of Ten!
In 1765 Martinique, Father Cléophas sends two of the monks’ slaves, Emile and Lucien, on an astoundingly ill-advised mission to Grenada. The two brothers are to gather the monks’ hospital and field slaves from the island, which has been taken by the British, and bring them to Martinique. Cléophas presents them with a notarized document and tries to convince them that the British have agreed to this, but in the next breath, he tells them to do it secretly, on Christmas Day, when the British will be drunk.

Emile, who is 28, tries to convince Cléophas to leave Lucien, who is 13, home, but Cléophas insists that Lucien go, because he can speak English. Then he gives them a package of medicinal herbs to convey to a doctor, their excuse for going to the island.

The slaves have no choice but to do as they are bidden. Lucien relates this story in his quirky mix of English, French, and patois. In the guise of an adventure, with humor and a likable, inimitable narrator, Jane Harris tells us the horrifying details of life in the 18th century Caribbean.

This is an excellent novel that I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. I have recently read more than one novel set on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but this one seems the most authentic.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1394: Mothering Sunday

Best of Ten!
It’s a warm day in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday, a day when servants are released from their duties to visit their mothers. Jane Fairchild is a young maid in the home of the Nivenses, but she has no mother. She plans to curl up with a good book until she receives a phone call from her long-time lover.

Her lover is Paul Sheringham, the only son left after World War I to a neighborhood family. Although he is to be married in two weeks, he sets up a tryst with Jane in his own home while his parents and the servants are out.

Jane is to revisit these hours spent with her lover for the rest of her life. For something happens that afternoon that changes the course of her life.

This is a remarkable novel. It is very short, but it somehow covers the course of Jane’s entire life while minutely examining one scene, the meeting with her lover. It touches on every action and word, considers them from several sides just as the mind does as it re-examines an event. At the same time, it examines what qualities make a writer and what a writer attempts to do when writing. This is an excellent novel I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Place Called WinterAs I just reviewed End Games in Bordeaux, the final shortlisted book for 2016 that I read for my Walter Scott Fiction Prize project, it is time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Since Simon Mawer’s Tightrope was the winner, I’m guessing anyone that follows my blog will know that I don’t think they did.

The Walter Scott Prize judges have done it again by choosing both a sequel and the fourth in a series for their shortlist. I don’t know what it is with this prize. They seem to love books that don’t stand very well alone. Tightrope is the sequel, about Marian Sutro, an agent during World War II who is considered a perfect choice to continue as an agent during the Cold War. In this book, at least, Sutro is an unknowable quantity, and I also thought she was an adolescent male’s dream of the perfect woman. I also wasn’t thrilled to revisit Mawer’s fascination with the female labia. I will not be willingly reading anymore Mawer.

The fourth book of the series was End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie, which introduced so many unexplained characters and provided so little background in its terse little chunks that I could hardly understand what was going on. And, I think for this prize, another important consideration is how well the book handles the historical background. Is there a real feel for the time and place? I didn’t think so for either book, although both do a good job of portraying the paranoia of their respective times.

Nineteenth century Australia was better portrayed in Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. This novel was an occasionally harrowing picture of a hapless family, appalled by their rustic surroundings. However, I found its plaintive tone a bit hard to take at times.

I liked A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale better, although it took a long time to get the main character to 19th century Saskatchewan, where it was most interesting. I most liked finding out about the details of early homesteading and the treatment of mental illness.

Cover for Mrs. EngelsWilliam Boyd takes a more global view in his novels. His most recent ones cover large swaths of time and lots of historical events. That includes Sweet Caress, a novel about the life of a woman photographer, beginning in 1908 and ending in 1975. I found this novel so convincing in one way (it might have been the photographs) that I kept googling the main character, thinking this was a work of biographical fiction. She’s fictional, but I was not always sure I was hearing a female voice.

This decision was difficult, because no one book stands out above the others, although I definitely like some more than others. But I finally selected Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea for its lively narrative voice, its humor, and its look into the private lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Review 1390: End Games in Bordeaux

I had already planned to post this review today, but last week I noticed that September 1 was also the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, where participating readers read mysteries, horror, suspense, and so on between September 1 and October 31. I usually read a fair number of books in those categories anyway, not to mention trying to read something suitable for Halloween. So, here goes. Let me count this book as my first entry!

* * *

Those who select the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize have an annoying tendency to choose books from the middle or end of a series. I read five long Matthew Shardlake novels just to read Heartstone for my project and then felt it wasn’t necessary to have read the other books. I didn’t realize that The Quality of Mercy was the second of two novels until I began reading it, but I found that it was easy enough to figure out what I had missed.

So, when it came time to read End Games in Bordeaux, I reasoned that since it was a mystery, it probably wasn’t necessary to read the preceding three books. That turned out to be a mistake. Not only does the novel check in periodically with a plethora of characters whose relationship to the main character is not explained, but an understanding of the plot relies heavily on the cases covered in the previous books. So, I was fairly well confused the entire time I was reading the book.

World War II is winding down. There are rumors that an invasion by the Allies will come soon. Superintendent Lannes is suspended from duty by order of the Germans for reasons that are not clear.

Count St.-Hilaire asks him to find a young girl who has run off with a ne’er-do-well, Aurélien Mabire. When Lannes finds Mabire, however, the girl isn’t with him. Mabire is, in fact, gay, and he lured the girl away with a promise to meet her father, long estranged from the family. Mabire was working at the bidding of Labiche, a crooked advocate whom Lannes despises.

The situation begins to deteriorate as people begin changing sides preparatory to the end of the war. Lannes finds himself being threatened and rumors being spread about him.

I had to wonder if I would have liked the book better if I had understood who some of the characters were and what the background was. I’m not sure I would have. The novel is narrated in terse little blocks of text while we skip from one situation to another, which doesn’t give me confidence that I would have found it much more understandable. Perhaps Massie was relying on readers’ knowledge of the other works in the series, but novels need to stand on their own. In the case of a series, therefore, some reiteration is necessary. Furthermore, the writing style makes me not want to go back and read the books in the series that I missed. One quote on the cover says the characters are evoked vividly. Well, maybe they are if you’ve read all the books. I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsHaving posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the 2013 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, it is time for my feature in which I give my opinion of the books on the shortlist. I have to say that 2013 is another difficult year with several excellent historical novels on the list.

Let’s begin with the ones I didn’t like as well. Although The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Kenneally tells an interesting story about nurses in World War I, it keeps such a distance from its characters that you lose some interest in what happens to them. Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain accomplishes the same thing with its semi-comic, mocking tone.

I became more involved in Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. An important consideration for this prize is how fully realized the period and place seem to be, and in this novel that goal was accomplished. It was also accomplished in The Streets by Anthony Quinn. These were both good, solid, and interesting historical novels.

Cover for Bring Up the BodiesBy far the two best novels, though, were the winning book, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. They both created an entrancing world for their characters and were beautifully written. When I sat down to write this feature, my intention was to choose The Garden of Evening Mists, probably because I had read it more recently. I posted my review of that book a few months ago and of Bring Up the Bodies way back in 2012. However, rereading my original review of that book made me remember how much I was impressed by it. Therefore, I find myself unable to choose between these two books. For this year, with quite a few good books to chose from on the list, I find that the most impressive were The Garden of Evening Mists and Bring Up the Bodies.

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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