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Many authors regret their first book.  They wish for it to disappear completely, never to be seen or heard of again, completely disassociated from any future career they might make for themselves.

Sometimes that wish is well founded.

In 1905, Lovers in London by A.A. Milne was published and it is exactly the kind of book he would rather everyone forgot about.  He certainly tried to himself; he considered The Day’s Play, published in 1910, his first book.  And as it is miles better than this I don’t wonder at that.  But these days it is all too easy to revive even the deeply forgettable and Lovers in London is now readily available from Bello as both an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback.

So what is this relic from Milne’s youth?  It’s a collection of linked short stories (sometimes it is referred to as a novel but clearly those people haven’t read it) about, you’ll be shocked to hear this, two young lovers in London.  The eager young Teddy is delighted when his American godfather comes to London with his family, including his lovely daughter Amelia.  Teddy, already half in love with Amelia based on her photograph, falls totally when he meets her and dedicates himself to her amusement (and wooing) with trips throughout London.

Teddy is a classic Milne young man: eager, romantic, inclined to whimsy, attempting to make a living as a writer, and terribly fond of cricket.  He is someone his twenty-three-year old author was clearly comfortable writing, since he basically was Milne at this stage in his life.  And Amelia is the prototypical Milne young woman, happy to go along with her suitor’s flights of whimsy and give as good as she gets, though Milne’s skills at writing women would improve greatly.

Crucially, his skills at writing would improve greatly in the years to come.

Milne had spent years writing and editing at Cambridge but when this was published hadn’t yet started his prolific career at Punch.  Punch, clearly, was where he refined his skill and these stories are sloppy compared to the clever economy of the excellent pieces he would write for the magazine over the coming years.  Some of the stories in this collection ramble terribly – Milne was a master of witty rambling but hadn’t yet managed the witty part at this stage – and Teddy indulges in far too frequent (and occasionally incoherent) fantasies about how he could impress Amelia.  In such a short book, so much repetition grates.  Teddy, as our narrator, express his own (and his author’s) opinion on how the book is going at one point:

Most of my stories have a way of avoiding anything that approximates to a plot.  They do this of their own intention, not regarding the wishes of the author.  Often have I longed, regretfully, in the retrospect for a plot.

The good news is that Milne would, eventually, find out how to write both with and without a plot and do it delightfully.  He just wouldn’t figure it out for a few more years.

As a Milne completist, I’m glad I read this.  It’s a fascinating step in his evolution as a writer.  However, on its own, it simply doesn’t have much merit.  (I will note that Simon read it back in 2012 and had kinder things to say.)

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Only in NaplesI have itchy feet.  Spring always brings it on, the urge to run far from the office and have an adventure in some foreign land, and every spring I manage somehow to resist it.  But only with intense literary aid.  If I did not have travel memoirs to escape into at these desperate moments, who knows what would happen.

Right now, two of the three books I’m reading are travel-focused: Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, about an English couple who moved to Andalusia in southern Spain, and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim by Harry Bucknall, about walking the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.  They are both perfectly suited to my mood and I can’t decide which I like more.  Farming in rural Spain is far from my idea of perfection – or even, let’s be perfectly honest, something I could tolerate for more than a week – but Stewart has won me over.  On the other hand, the Via Francigena fascinates me, as all pilgrimage routes do, and it’s one of the few pilgrim routes I could see myself doing one day.  This is why I keep flipping between the books, loathe to neglect either.  Bucknall at breakfast and before bed, Stewart to accompany me to and from work.  For someone who rarely has multiple books on the go, this is a shocking aberration.

Of course, these are not the first travel memoirs I’ve read this year.  Let us be serious.  They are the fourth and fifth, following the excellent trio of I’m Off Then by Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian’s account of walking the Camino de Santiago (okay, that makes it sound dire and I promise it is not), Falling in Honey by Jennifer Barclay, about an English woman who visits and then moves to a remote Greek island, and, my favourite of the bunch, Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson.

After finishing university, Katherine Wilson moved from America to Naples to take up a three-month internship at the U.S. Consulate, following her family’s tradition of complimenting classroom learning with an “experience abroad”.  Her parents had done the same and had marvellous memories.  Naples, however, was not the vision of a European experience her family had in mind for her.  Upper-class overachievers who graduate from Princeton go to Tuscany, not the seedy south.   But upper-class overachievers can rebel too, albeit in a very small way (government service not being a particularly rebellious pursuit, even in Naples).

In Naples, Katherine finds her introduction to her new city through the Avallone family.  Salvatore, a twenty-three year old law school student, will go on to become her husband.  But the book is really about Katherine’s relationship with Raffaella, the glamorous and eminently practical matriarch of the Avallone family, and the lessons Katherine absorbs from her about Italian culture and cooking – and the management of Italian families.

To an alarming extent, I could identify with Katherine who “spent my childhood overachieving at private schools, and in college I could have majored in Surpassing Expectations or Making Mommy and Daddy Proud”.  She is not apologetic about her financial independence and I loved the family’s attitude towards trusts: “interest could be skimmed off for emergencies, but the phrase tapping into capital was akin to shooting up heroin.”  As someone whose days are spent doing financial planning, this is music to my ears.

I loved this book.  Katherine writes well about food and the Italian food culture – and about her conflicted relationship with it when she first arrives in Naples, pudgy and suffering from a binge eating disorder.  It is a warm and funny and kind book, a memoir not just about discovering a new culture but about growing up and coming into a new family.

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The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

It is Margery Sharp day today, hosted by Jane in honour of the 110th anniversary of Sharp’s birth, and though I haven’t read anything recently by Sharp, I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the two of her books that I have read before: Cluny Brown and The Eye of Love.  Neither book turned me into in a great fan, but I nonetheless look forward to reading everyone else’s reviews today.

Since I haven’t been reading Sharp this weekend, I’ve kept busy with other authors.  My plans for a hermit-like Saturday devoted to reading didn’t quite work out, but I picked up my inter-library hold on Katherine’s Marriage by D.E. Stevenson yesterday and am half-heartedly slogging my way through it.  It’s been a while since I read anything by DES and I’d forgotten how mind-numbingly dull her bad books are.  There is a reason I didn’t pick this up back in 2012, when I read the bulk of her other books.  It is a sequel to Katherine Wentworth and, if anything, might be even worse than that book.  I’ll keep reading for a bit to see if it improves at all but hopes are not high.

Here's Looking at YouI did finish Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane on Saturday.  It’s a funny, light novel and I love McFarlane’s style but, most importantly, it is one of those books which had surprising overlaps with a number of my current interests.  I love this kind of serendipity.  The main female character, Anna, is a history lecturer at UCL (yay!  a heroine with a real job!), who specialises in the Byzantine Empire.  She and James, the male lead, are brought together when they work together on a exhibit for the British Museum about Empress Theodora.  Since I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium (which I didn’t finish back in the autumn but have now picked up again), I have been fascinated with all things Byzantine so this was a delightful coincidence.  But it did not end there: when Anna’s sister decides to get married in Italy, they go to their father’s home town of Barga.  I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for this October and Barga, which I’d never heard of until a few months ago, is firmly on the list of places I want to visit on a day trip from nearby Lucca, where we will be staying.  I would have still enjoyed this book without these references but I enjoyed it so much more with them.

LeftoversSpeaking of chick-lit, I also finished Leftovers by Stella Newman this week.  This was one of my NetGalley reads and it was a good light distraction for a very busy work week.  Susie, the heroine, is thirty-six, single, and desperately counting the days until she will get her promotion and – with the accompanying bonus – be able to quit.  She’s still trying to get over her ex-boyfriend but there seem to be no end of men willing to replace him – if Susie were interested.  But this is not really a book about finding love.  It is about getting your life together, going after the things you want, and being happy.  Oh, and it is also about food.  Loving descriptions of numerous pasta dishes had me whipping up spaghetti carbonara (Nigella Lawson’s excellent recipe from How to Eat) the night I finished this.  The thing that irked me a bit (other than the seemingly endless supply of men who are interested in Susie) – and I wasn’t able to articulate this until I read Here’s Looking at You and felt the contrast – is Susie’s attitude towards her career.  I have more sympathy for books about women whose romantic lives are chaotic or lacklustre than for ones where the heroine is underemployed or just plain unhappy at work.  Susie works for an advertising company, with people she dislikes and clients that she absolutely hates.  But rather than try to find a role at another firm, she slogs on miserably (despite the urgings of her friends and family).  She even talks about how much she loves advertising – and then goes out and does something completely different at the book’s end.  Not an entirely satisfying read but still enjoyable in its way.  Enough so that I’ve now got Newman’s earlier novel, Pear Shaped, on my Kobo.

Now, off to make the most of my Sunday!

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I am not one to rush towards new technology.  No one has ever accused me of being an early adopter.  I may admire new technologies and innovations, I may think them clever and even useful, but it generally takes more than that to convince me to commit to them.  I need an incentive.  This is why I didn’t get an e-reader until I discovered I could read The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim on it for free.  And it is why I didn’t join NetGalley until this summer, when I realised that by doing so I might get to read The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne months ahead of its release.  Well, I joined and I got to read it and, happily, have read a handful of other NetGalley books since.  Now, finally, I should probably get around to reviewing some of them.

9781451660548.225x225-75The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne
I am a huge fan of Browne’s novels.  They are light and funny but have heroines who I can actually identify with.  Unlike the bulk of ChickLit novels, Browne’s female characters know how to balance a chequebook, dress appropriately, and generally behave like adult human beings.  Life is difficult enough as a single woman without being saddled with an infantile intellect or a crippling shoe fetish.

Rosie, an events manager at the exclusive Bonneville Hotel in London, has all the hallmarks of a Browne-heroine: she is organized, well-mannered, and has a completely awful boyfriend.  Working towards a promotion, the last thing she needs is the appearance of laid-back Joe, the son of the hotel’s owner, who after years of travel and general surfer dude behaviour has come back to learn the ropes of the family business.  Despite being generally affable and helpful, not to mention unthreateningly charming, Rosie finds it exhausting to work with Joe, especially when he gets involved with the wedding planning portion of the hotel business, Rosie’s special domain.

Something about this didn’t quite click for me.  Browne is really good at writing about female characters and their struggles to sort out their lives.  But her male characters are often poorly fleshed out and so the romances fall a bit flat, which is what happened here.  That said, I still really enjoyed the book and liked it well enough that I bought my own copy when it was released earlier this fall.

The Rise and Fall of Great PowersThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I loved Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, and this was even better.   When we meet her, Tooly Zylberberg is in her early thirties and running an unprofitable bookstore in Wales.  Over the course of the novel, as it jumps around through her childhood and early adulthood, we learn about her unusual, globe-hopping childhood and the eccentric, rather shady, and essentially mysterious characters who raised and shaped her.  Completely wonderful and highly recommended.

At-Least-Youre-in-Tuscany-Gemelli-Press-ReviewAt Least You’re in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell
A funny, unvarnished and honest memoir about an American woman’s life after she moves to Tuscany.  Single, struggling through Italian bureaucracy, and still with an uncertain grasp of the language, Criswell’s time in Italy is far from the sun-dappled idyll that so many other books chronicle.  And that is what makes it worth reading.  A nice reality check, reminding us that the Good Life takes some work.

In Your DreamsIn Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
Talk about perfect timing.  My request for this, the fourth entry in Higgins’ “Blue Heron” series, was approved the night before I flew to Europe.  If there is anything nicer than having an eagerly anticipated book to read on a long plane ride it is being surprised with that book.  And I couldn’t have wished for something better to pass the hours – at least a few of them.  Sweet and funny, In Your Dreams is Higgins at her best, with a likeable heroine and a hero who actually gets to be a person in his own right.

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A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

Now, when I said that I’ve had no time to read recently, I assume we all understood that was an exaggeration.  Yes?  Because not reading would be like not eating or not sleeping; it would be impossible and very dangerous to my general well-being.  But it has been an unsatisfying sort of reading, where pages are gobbled up over breakfast at 5:30 in the morning and chapters sped through during my bus ride to and from work (my e-reader has been my best friend lately).

The best sort of reading under these conditions, I have found, is the kind that does not require your entire brain.   For instance, this would not have been an ideal time to pick up Proust or decide I wanted to refresh my foreign language skills by reading something in German or French.  No.  With few exceptions, my reading over the last two months has been simple and comforting and just the right sort of escape from the business topics I’ve spent most of my time dealing with.

I read a few books that were new to me – I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, enjoyed but, rather to my surprise, did not adore Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine, and was disappointed by Kristan Higgins’ new release (The Perfect Match) – but for the most part I chose to reread old favourites.  I slipped happily into the pages of Magic Flutes, Madensky Square and The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson, giggled my way through Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse for the umpteenth time, delighted in the epistolary exchanges of More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton, and returned to my beloved Barsetshire in Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell.

little ladyBut the surprising highlight of the last few weeks has been my reading of Hester Browne’s “Little Lady Agency” trilogy, which consists of The Little Lady Agency, Little Lady, Big Apple, and The Little Lady Agency and the Prince.

I already knew I liked Hester Browne’s books.  I’d read The Runaway Princess, Swept Off Her Feet (which I reread again this month), and The Finishing Touches (which I adore, and not only because it has so many helpful housekeeping tips) but never the trilogy which Browne is probably best known for.  It is chick-lit, which is a difficult genre for me, but Browne is more than capable of handling it in a way that entertains rather than infuriates.

It is rare to find a chick-lit heroine you can actually like.  Most of the time, they seem cursed with an inability to communicate and just an altogether twisted set of values.  I do not give a damn what brand of shoes you are wearing, ladies.  I could not care less how glossy your hair is, and your inability to master basic human life skills like managing a chequebook or cooking a meal makes me want to hit you over the head.  Given all that, Browne’s lovely young ladies are quite refreshing.  They have normal foibles and generally a distinct lack of confidence but they are basically stable and practical and always have many helpful etiquette/general lifestyle tips that this reader appreciates.

Little Lady, Big AppleTaken individually, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed at least the first two books in the trilogy.  They are funny and I love Melissa Romney-Jones, the book’s heroine, but they are frustrating.  They are very much the first two acts of a three act play and I finished both books concerned for Melissa.  Taken as a whole, however, they are delightful and immensely satisfying.

Melissa, a self-effacing twenty-seven year old as the books begin, finds confidence when she creates the alter ego “Honey”, a (bewigged) blonde bombshell who helps the privileged but hopeless single men of London deal with the many perplexities of life that married men usually rely on their wives to sort out.  The Little Lady Agency offers everything but sex and laundry.  In her work as Honey, Melissa meets an intense American real estate agent, Jonathan Riley, and eventually they begin a relationship that spans all three books.

the-little-lady-agency-and-the-princeAll three books are written in the first-person, from Melissa’s point of view.  Melissa, bless her, is sensible but not self-aware.  From the beginning, the reader has a better idea of Melissa than she does herself.   And we certainly have a better idea about Jonathan and about who Melissa would really be happy with.  But Browne doesn’t rush it and I loved that.  I hate rushed endings and I hate too-good-to-be-true men as the solution and/or reward to a heroine’s struggles.  Instead, Browne lets Melissa’s confidence grow over several years until she finally begins to see herself as she really is and to have confidence in that woman.  Confidence enough to demand to be treated as she should be treated and to go after what she truly wants.  Melissa’s life ebbs and flows in, allowing for some absurdities provided by her exhausting, eccentric, and ethically dubious family members, a relatively matter of fact way.  The grandest gestures are not necessarily the most meaningful ones.  I really enjoyed this series and look forward to rereading it.

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Under HeavenI have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars.  I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.

Kay is the master of historical fantasy.  He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain).  In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.

Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead.  Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried.  A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there.  But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.

The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor.  She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:

You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life.  Or, as Tai knows, end it.

But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead.  Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family.  Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai.  Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why.  In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.

Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own.  Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son.  It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians.  A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:

Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women.  More than most men, he’d added once.  She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.

She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges.  She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering. 

She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her.  But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai.  Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.

Kay does everything perfectly in this book.  Really.  He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself.  Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations.  With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before.  He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions.  Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.

Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate.  As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei.  And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary.  Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court.  But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders.  Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes.  And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai.  Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best.  When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.

Oh, it is all so good.  I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it.  But first, on to River of Stars!

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The Young ClementinaWhen I first heard that Sourcebooks was reprinting The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson, I was thrilled.  I started reading D.E. Stevenson seriously last year (having only read Miss Buncle’s Book and two of the Mrs Tim books before then) and have devoured many of her novels since then, lapping up her gentle romances with delight and, occasionally, with frustration.  I have had to rely on inter-library loan to read most of them so knowing that there are publishers (Persephone, Sourcebooks, Bloomsbury, Greyladies) out there now who are interested in her work thrills me no end.  I had heard mixed things about The Young Clementina from other D.E.S. fans so had never sought out a copy before but now that it is readily available from my own library, I had to try it.

The Young Clementina is written as a first person confessional (never a favourite style of mine) by Charlotte Dean.  The intended audience is her imaginary friend, Clare.  While I think that is a wonderful (if misspelled) name for an imaginary friend, the having of imaginary friends by grown up women is something I am less supportive of.  In her mid-thirties when the novel begins, Charlotte lives a pretty grim and pathetic existence.  She works in a dull, dusty little library that specialises in travel books, lives alone in a small flat, and has little contact with her lively younger sister Kitty, who married Garth, the man Charlotte loved – and still loves, despite his awful behaviour to her.  Charlotte has a slightly woe-is-me attitude towards life as the novel begins, reminding her (imaginary) confident repeatedly of how miserable she is and how she has never recovered from Garth’s betrayal.  She has had twelve years to recover but instead used that time to become a hermit.  Well done, Char.

Over the course of the novel, much happens to change Charlotte’s life: Kitty and Garth divorce and when Garth decides to go adventuring in Africa, he asks Charlotte to come and take care of Clementina, his daughter, and run Hinkleton Manor.  For Charlotte, who loves Hinkleton more than any place on earth, it is a dream come true.  She still does not understand Garth and why he turned away from her all those years before after he returned from the war or why he has chosen her now to care for Clementina, but she is happy to be away from her shabby flat and tiring job, surrounded instead by pretty things and the countryside she loves.  Clementina is a sober child, affected by her parents’ warring ways, but in their absence she too starts to blossom.  When first Kitty and then Garth die, it is upsetting but Charlotte and Clementina carry on through the next few years, finding solace in each other and in friendship with their neighbours.

The “surprise” ending is as unsurprisingly as you’d expect; if an object of romantic attention is sent to an exotic location and “dies” without a body ever being found (lions seem to be useful this way), hint: he is not actually dead.  He is never dead.  (Unless you are reading an O. Douglas novel, in which case good luck recovering from the shock of not being double-crossed by your author.)  The “mystery” of why Garth went from attentive lover to cold, cruel brother-in-law is equally obvious, unless you are Char, who has spent the last twelve years wondering about this without ever having asked Garth or Kitty directly what happened.  Even more frustratingly, the dialogue is as cliché-filled as I’ve ever encountered in a D.E.S. novel, which is saying something.

The Young Clementina is a pleasant romance, if frustratingly clichéd and in possession of a singularly irritating protagonist.  But I have now read almost thirty of D.E. Stevenson’s books and know she can do so much better.  For the life of me, I cannot understand how publishers have chosen the titles that have recently been reprinted.  D.E. Stevenson was a prolific author and wrote dozens of enjoyable but mediocre novels and only a handful of really good ones.  So why are the mediocre titles (like The Young Clementina and Miss Buncle Married) being reprinted while the better novels languish forgotten?  Why not The English Air?  Why not Sarah Morris Remembers?  Why not Amberwell, or The Blue Sapphire, or Listening Valley?  And why oh why not more of the Mrs Tim books, only the first of which has been reprinted in recent years?  I shall have to be patient, I suppose, and just hope that in time these books will also be reissued but the wait will be frustrating.

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The Bannister GirlsHow to review a book that skirts the line between being a ”good bad” book and simply a “bad bad” book?  Most of my reading falls into the good bad category: books that are not going to win prizes for their experimental structure or complex themes but which, as Orwell wrote, remain “readable when more serious productions have perished.”  The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, originally published in 1991 and recently reissued as an e-book by Bloomsbury Reader, aspires to be a good bad book; it doesn’t quite get there but it is a fun, more than slightly soapy historical romance.

Set during the First World War, The Bannister Girls follows the members of the Bannister family from 1915 to 1918, focusing in particular on Angel, the youngest daughter.  The novel opens with Angel meeting a young French pilot currently on leave in London.  Within a few hours, she has abandoned the rigid social rules her mother tried so hard to instil in her three daughters, finding herself with him first at a nightclub and then at a hotel.  Their relationship builds from that day forward and is a dominant feature of the story…which would have been more enjoyable if either Angel or Jacques had been remotely interesting.  Angel becomes a far more interesting person when she’s interacting with her sisters (though, since she spends most of the war nursing in France, that’s rare) or with her father.

The eldest sister, Louise, is largely absent from the story, with other characters providing updates on her life while the middle sister, Ellen, is still seen all too rarely for my tastes.  Ellen is a passionate and idealistic young woman, attracted to controversial social issues: she begins the book as a vocal supporter of women’s rights and, after a German shopkeeper is murdered in the village near the Bannister’s country home, begins advocating for the rights of foreign-born residents.  But before too long, the war does intrude on her causes and she takes up work at one of the neighbouring farms, becoming even closer friends with the farmer there, having initially befriended him while protesting.  Unlike Angel, Ellen’s love life is actually interesting: she makes a bit of a muddle of her relationship with her farmer and her embarrassment at having confused attraction and love felt more real than most of the emotions in this book.  Her struggles are less dramatic than Angel’s but more impactful for that reason.

While I would have preferred more of a focus on Ellen and cheered if any attention at all had been given to Louise, I must say that Saunders does do an excellent job of describing the hospital and nursing conditions in France, where Angel spends most of the novel working.  This partially makes up for the general flatness of the characters and the ridiculously overdramatic twists in Angel and Jacques’ love story.  For all my complaining, I did have fun reading this.  I may not remember it a month from now, but I also couldn’t put it down when I was reading.

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Doctor ThorneThis review is a definite case of better late than never: I read Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope at the end of April 2012.  I loved it but, busy with my reviews for A Century of Books, this one fell through the cracks.  Now, almost a year after finishing it, here is that long-awaited review.  Thank goodness I still keep up my reading journals – without the notes I made while reading this would certainly not have been possible!

In Doctor Thorne, we move to a new corner of Barsetshire, away from the cathedral town that hosted the action of The Warden and Barchester Towers to the more rural setting of Greshamsbury, a village presided over by the popular squire, Mr Francis Gresham.  As the novel begins, the family and all its friends are celebrating the coming of age of the squire’s only son, Frank.  Frank is handsome and cheerful, honest and steadfast – a man any father (or author) can be proud of.  He also fancies himself in love with Mary Thorne, the charming, beloved niece of the local doctor, who has grown up alongside Frank and his sisters.  Though Dr Thorne is the novel’s real hero, Trollope generously allows – in one of his very charming authorial asides – that some readers might prefer Frank:

He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.  Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.’

When Frank declares himself, Mary Thorne rebuffs his advances.  Though she loves him (far more, in fact, than he loves her at this point) she has just discovered that she is illegitimate.  It is not so much that she worries about his family’s disapproval but that she, very nobly and naïvely, does not want to lower her lover, who is so proud of his family’s pedigree.

When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified.  The present squire, good fellow though he is, has not managed the estate well.  Land has been sold off and the rest mortgaged.  While snobbishness may demand young Frank choose a wife of good stock, practicality demands he choose an heiress.  Mary is neither and so Frank is, after being firmly reminded that “there is no road to wealth so easy and respectable as that of matrimony”, sent off in pursuit of the marvellous Miss Dunstable, who is possession of a very large fortune and an excellent sense of humour.  Miss Dunstable is some years older than Frank and, after easily discouraging his half-hearted attempts at lovemaking, becomes his staunch supporter in his pursuit of Mary Thorne.

The book chronicles more than two years in the lives of its characters, seeing Frank and Mary through from the age of twenty-one to twenty-three; a period which sees them both mature – considerably in Frank’s case.  One of the greatest delights of Trollope’s writing is how weak his male characters can be, in the best possible way.  Framley Parsonage, the next book in the Barsetshire Chronicles, is an even better example of this but both Doctor Throne and Frank struggle in the most credible manner with the difficult choices lain before them.  In the doctor’s case, the ethical crisis he faces would test most men.  For Frank, much of his struggle has to do with his youth.  If he had not come under the excellent influence of Miss Dunstable, he might have allowed himself to be persuaded into changing his mind about Mary before he was mature enough to understand the full consequences of his actions and the worth of the woman he was rejecting.  However, with time on his side, he ages into himself and is able to take full control of actions as the book progresses:

Frank had become legally of age, legally a man, when he was twenty-one.  Nature, it seems, had postponed the ceremony till he was twenty-two.  Nature often does postpone the ceremony even to a much later age; – sometimes, altogether forgets to accomplish it.

I love everything about this book.  I’ve read the first four Barsetshire books now and there is no question that this is my favourite.  Doctor Thorne is as worthy a hero as anyone could hope for but, really, all of the characters are wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed every scene involving the female members of the Gresham family.  Lady Arabella is no friend of Doctor Thorne’s (and therefore she is no friend of the reader’s) but, despite her best efforts, she can never seem to get the best of him: “it was not easy to be condescending to the doctor: she had been trying all her life, and had never succeeded.”  Her frustrated conversations with her willful children were also perfection, especially the back-chat she received from the daughter who was closest to Mary.  Anyone who thinks Victorian novels or even just Victorians themselves are stuffy should read Trollope to be reminded of how very little people change. 

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The Happy PrisonerAfter my first very successful encounter with Bloomsbury Reader (Another Part of the Wood), I quickly downloaded another of their e-books from my library.  First published in 1946, The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens is another gem, an intelligent but light character-driven novel about a wounded soldier trying his best to council his family members through their various crises.

The war is over but nothing has gone back to normal for Oliver North: he is lying in bed in his mother’s house, waiting for his leg to heal after the bottom half was amputated and for his weak heart to get stronger, it having been damaged by shrapnel in the same attack that damaged his leg.  Unable to move from the main floor room where his bed is set up, Oliver watches his family’s lives go on around him, happily doing his best to steer them when they come to him for guidance:

How wise Oliver felt lying here, knowing he could run people’s lives better than they could themselves.  He had visions of himself as the oracle and influence of the household, but it was difficult to be either an oracle or an influence when people kept going away and you could not get up and follow them and make them listen.

Elder sister Violet, horse faced and happier in pants than skirts, finds herself with an unexpected chance at romance.  Younger sister Heather, mother of two small children, has been struggling for years as a single parent, ever since her husband was captured as a POW in Asia.  Now that he has returned from the East, she is struggling to readjust to the man she once adored but now barely knows.  Others bustle in and out of Oliver’s room – a young cousin, an old girlfriend, his brothers-in-law, and, of course, his doting mother – everyone telling calm, steady Oliver their troubles.  Everyone, that is, but Elizabeth, Oliver’s invaluable but reserved nurse.

What a wonderful discovery this was!  I adored my first encounter with Dickens (Mariana) but since then had begun to wonder if she was for me, having had mixed reactions to the books I had read since then.  While I don’t particularly enjoy her much-admired memoirs (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc), I really do enjoy her fiction.  Dickens’ writing is simple but admirably so.  She writes clearly and with great humour and, something I am coming to appreciate more and more, has complete control over the pacing of the story.  It never drags or rushes but proceeds at exactly the right rate towards the happy ending.  Another great offering from Bloomsbury Reader!

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