Montreal, Quebec, Canada | Member Since 2011
The first thing anyone who decides to pick up this short novella should know is that the only thing that is remotely "cheerful" about it is indeed the weather on the day during which all the action takes place. Thankfully, I had read a few reviews and knew this before I'd even purchased the audio version of this Persephone book originally published in 1932, so did not suffer disappointment in that sense, and on the contrary, enjoyed discovering how Strachey had described the situation at hand. On this day of lovely weather, guests and family have converged at Mrs Thatcham's house to attend her daughter Dolly's wedding. There reigns a great confusion as Mrs Thatcham tries to get everything in order before the ceremony while giving contradictory instructions to the servants. None of the people assembled seem to especially look forward to the wedding and hold various meaningless conversations, while Dolly herself takes an inordinate amount of time getting ready in her room, where we learn she has been slowly getting drunk, drinking straight out of a bottle of spirits. An interesting little story which I could easily see being performed as a play.
I discovered Agatha Christie in my teens, when the prospect of every one of her books was a promise of excitement and thrills. Revisiting some of her most well-liked titles in the past few years, I was more often than not left slightly disappointed; of course the novelty of Chirsite's style and approach had worn off and simply could not seem as original as it had long ago, and the whole concept of "comfort reading" hadn't quite taken hold of me yet. Strange that I had never read this first instalment in the series before. Set in a great mansion, the Styles Court of the title, an elderly heiress is suspected of having been murdered by strychnine poisoning. Captain Hastings is a guest at Styles and suggests to bring in Hercules Poirot to quietly work out the mystery and avoid alerting the media in what is a high profile case and most likely a crime motivated by greed. Published in 1920, there are several references to the Great War, giving this novel a historical context, something I have never noticed with the other books in the series. The characters of Hastings and Poirot seem fully formed, and Poirot's methodology already well in place, and I was once again won over by the charm of what is by now a comfortably familiar formula with two well-known main characters. David Suchet's delivery is of course impeccable.
Tess Durbeyfield is still only a young girl when he father learns from the local clergyman that he is one of the last living descendants of an ancient English noble family. As the Durbeyfields are very poor, they soon convince Tess to present herself to a rich old woman and her son who live nearby, named D'Urberville. They believe them to be their rich relations and all but force Tess to ask for help in their dire need. What none of them can know is that these supposed relatives have only come by the name by purchasing it after having made a fortune, to elevate themselves from their origins as humble merchants. When Tess presents herself at the D'Urberville house, she is greeted by Alec D'Urberville, a young man who quickly proves to be a womanizing bully, who right away claims to be in love with the beautiful young Tess and contrives to have her live under his roof and work for him under false pretences. He uses every means at his disposal to break down Tess's defences and takes advantage of her one day, which, because this is a 19th century novel and no unmarried woman could have a sexual encounter without the most disastrous consequences, will of course determine the course of the rest of poor Tess's life and end in great tragedy. I’ve seen many people comment on Hardy's proclivity for writing depressing stories about doomed heroines, but if you happen to be in the mood for a fine 19th century tragic bucolic romance, this is just the ticket. I was too young to see Nastassja Kinski famously playing the role of Tess when Roman Polanski's classic movie came out in theatres, but that young woman's fragile beauty was at the forefront of my mind throughout this reading, which helped make the story that much more poignant somehow. A novel I'll be sure to revisit in future.
I wanted to love this book, but a huge cast of characters involved with local Yorkshire politics—politics being a topic which I shrink away from—did not exactly win me over in the beginning. Soon, some key figures emerged, namely Sarah Burton, the new and youngish headmistress at the local high school, and Robert Carne, a broke and principled landowner and descendant from a venerable family regarded locally as a lord—if not in actuality, then figuratively. Little by little, as the politics took a secondary place and the various individuals became more fleshed out, in this poor community between the wars struggling to improve the lot of it's residents, I was pulled in by their various stories and struggles. I eventually found myself truly caring about Sarah and Carne, the modern and independent clever woman falling in love with the older man defeated by personal tragedy. And County Alderman Mrs Beddows,—at first seeming like a mere figurehead as the first Alderman woman (apparently as Holtby's own mother was)—a married septuagenarian more than a little bit in love with Carne too, earned my affection in the end. A book I feel I should have appreciated more than I did, and which I may very likely revisit eventually.
Carole Boyd is one of my favourite narrators and delivers a flawless performance as always.
It is 1905 and Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have just moved to England from Denmark with their two boys, with a third child on the way, which Asta dearly hopes will be a girl. Asta tells her story through a series of journals, in which she writes sporadically about various events, describing her family life; her marriage, her children, her maid, which make up her whole universe. Asta has an independent spirit and was not necessarily cut out to be a wife and mother, but she accepts her lot because other alternatives don't seem appealing or feasible. But this is only part of the story, because the other part takes place in a contemporary setting, sometime in the 90s, which is when this book was published. Asta's granddaughter Ann has come into her inheritance now that her aunt Swanny has passed away. Swanny was Asta's favourite child and having discovered her mother's journals after her passing, decided to have them translated and published with tremendous success. Now Ann is responsible for the manuscripts and intends to continue publishing additional volumes. But there are various mysteries to be found in what have become historical artifacts. Swanny was never able to learn the truth about her true identity after receiving an anonymous letter telling her she was not in fact Asta's child, something which Asta herself refused to confirm on way or another. Is the answer to be found in one of the volumes? But there are also mentions about a horrible crime which was a sensation in it's time, with Alfred Roper accused of murdering his wife and the disappearance of their young toddler Lizzie. Was Swanny that Roper child? And if not, what happened to Lizzie? These are mysteries which Ann and a friend producing a movie about the murder mystery are out to solve.
The premise of this novel seemed very interesting, but I found the story very confusing, with two seemingly completely separate stories and families that had nothing in common somehow connected in a way which is only revealed at the very end. Perhaps this is a story which benefits from a second reading. Then again, perhaps my own mind is too muddled to understand a plot which doesn't follow a familiar narrative style. I also kept wondering why Asta's journals had become such hugely successful books, as they didn't seem to make for such gripping reading on their own. Don't let my confused ramblings about this book influence you though, because it seems to have met with a lot of appreciation with other readers.
Reacher, hitchhiking and eager to get out of a town where he's just broken the nose of an officer of the law, eagerly jumps into the car of Carmen Greer, barely believing his luck that a beautiful lady in a fancy vehicle would dare pick up a huge, scary looking bum like him. But Carmen has an agenda of her own. She tells Reacher her sad story: cut off from her wealthy Mexican family after falling pregnant and marrying Texas-born Sloop Greer, she's been living in Sloop's family compound in a tiny out of the way town called Echo, where everyone despises her because of her brown skin and Mexican heritage, and Sloop's mother can't stand her own granddaughter because of her mixed blood. But worst of all is Sloop's violent temper and the harsh abuse he inflicts on Carmen on a daily basis, breaking bones and setting teeth loose. Sloop has been in jail for the past 18 months, but he's about to get out, and Carmen is desperate for protection. But is it protection she seeks, or is she actually looking for someone to kill her husband? And is she even telling the truth?
Something about this story didn't quite work for me. I didn't buy the fact that Reacher decides to go along with Carmen and involve himself in her scary family business with a bunch or rednecks. There were a lot of lectures about a lot of various topics along the way, lots and lots of statistics given, which all made it feel like Lee Child had fallen in love with his research and couldn't resist using it as filler for a story that didn't have all that much going for it. Still, I couldn't stop listening and had to hang in there till the end, so obviously Lee Child knows a thing or two about writing a gripping story. Something tells me the next one will be a lot better.
In book two of this popular series, Maisie is hired by a wealthy businessman to find his 30-year-old daughter who has been living under his roof and has recently disappeared without a trace. This in itself isn't so unusual as it seems the young woman has run away in the past, but this time things look worrisome as several of Charlotte's old school chums are found murdered one after another, with one having committed suicide. Nobody in the household other than Charlotte's father seems much saddened by her disappearance, as it seems Charlotte was not liked, something which is fully explained when Maisie works out the mystery and finds the story is yet another tragedy linked with the Great War. It took me a while to warm to this one, and I very nearly gave up in the first third of the story; while I found that Maisie's training and holistic approach to her work, combining various psychological techniques, was intriguing in the first book, here it all seemed slightly absurd. But soon the story grew in complexity and what first seemed like quite a silly story became engrossing enough for me to want to continue on with the next book in the series.
I believe I saw other reviews comment on Kim Hick's too-fast delivery, and I too found she barely seemed to take time to catch her breath between paragraphs, but after a while, either I got used to it or she slowed down or both, because it stopped bothering me and seemed just fine, though I do wish the editors had left a pause between chapters.
When we first meet Grace Parks, she is a fifteen-year-old girl living in 1861 London who is just about to deliver her first child out of wedlock. Grace is orphaned, and has had to look after her sister Lily since their mother passed away. They are both poor and living in the slums, often going without food when they can't manage to make enough money selling watercress on the streets. Given she hasn't gotten enough money to feed and clothe herself and her sister, let alone a newborn baby, it is possibly an act of mercy when the midwife informs Grace that her baby was stillborn. The young girl is of course devastated, and feeling sorry for her, the midwife tells her about a way in which her baby can find proper burial in a beautiful cemetery just outside London, instead of being thrown into a communal pauper's grave. While at the cemetery, Grace will meet two individuals who will play large roles in the Parks sisters' fortunes, in the persons of the kindly James Solent, a law clerk, and Mrs Unwin, the wife of one of London's most successful undertakers, who suggests to her she has the perfect face, solemn and tragic, to be employed as a "mute", or a professional mourner, though Grace, quite put off, doesn't intend to take her up on the offer. Directly inspired by Dickens' tales—the great writer even plays a small role in the novel—and therefore peopled with wonderfully wicked characters, the novel follows the sisters as they are forced onto the London streets and have no choice but to turn to the villainous Unwins for sustenance, much as Grace dislikes the idea of making a living from the funeral industry. This line of business is about to get an incredible boost upon the death of Prince Consort Albert in December 1861, when Queen Victoria declares the nation to be in a state mourning. Probably written for a young adult readership, but who cares? it's a great yarn and worth the detour.
Thomas Fowler is a middle-aged British journalist who has been living in Saigon for a number of years to report on the French Indochina War. He's left behind a wife in England from whom he's been separated for a long time, though she refuses him a divorce on religious grounds. This shouldn't be a problem for his current lover, twenty-year-old Phuong, who doesn't ask for anything and is content to live with Fowler and prepare his opium pipes, but Phuong's older sister wants her to get married to secure her future. Then a young idealistic American called Alden Pyle appears on the scene, makes friends with Fowler, and also falls in love with Phuong and decides to ask her in marriage. When the novel opens, Pyle has been found murdered, and Fowler proceeds to recount his relationship with the young man and their conflicts, both political and personal, which have somehow led to the young man's death. I can't say I was taken with this novel. It's tone was very serious and it had quite a plodding pace. The love story, such as it was, was obviously on the forefront of the narrator's mind, but the real story was about the war and the conflict between the French colonists, the communists who wanted to oust them, and the foreigners who were either there to report the war and bent on not getting involved, like Fowler, or on the contrary, invested in bringing about change according to their own agenda, like Pyle. My own disinterest in politics is to blame for my lack of appreciation here, as I can objectively say it's a very good novel, but it didn't quite satisfy this reader.
This tidbit from wikipedia was quite interesting: "The book draws on Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951-1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from the Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”. Greene spent three years writing the novel, which foreshadowed US involvement in Vietnam long before it became publicly known. The book was the initial reason for Graham Greene being under constant surveillance by US intelligence agencies from the 1950s until his death in 1991, according to documents obtained in 2002 by The Guardian newspaper under the US Freedom of Information Act."
“On the contrary, said Lady Slane, that is another thing about which I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to become completely self indulgent. I’m going to wallow in old age. No grand-children, they’re too young; not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either, that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it. And I don’t want them bringing their children to see me, for it will only remind me of the terrible effort the poor creatures will have to make before they reach the end of their lives in safety. I prefer to forget about them. I want no one about me except those who are nearer to their death than to their birth.”
“She had had enough of bustle and of competition and of one set of ambitions writhing to circumvent another. She wanted to merge with the things that drifted into an empty house, though unlike the spider, she would weave no webs. She would be content to stir with the breeze and grow green in the light of the sun and to drift down the passage of years until death pushed her gently out, and shut the door behind her.” *
When Lady Slane’s husband passes away well into his 90s, her six children and their spouses set about determining how she will spend the rest of her life: she will divide her time between each couple, living in their homes and contributing to the expenses in a manner which will be amply profitable to them. But 88 year-old Deborah, who has always effaced herself behind her husband, the former Viceroy of India and a member of the House of Lords, decides otherwise; she will move into her own house in Hampstead, thank you very much, and furthermore, she will only invite elderly people like herself who have similar priorities and share her views on life. Now that she is closer than ever to dying, she wants nothing to do with the constant striving and ambitions of the young. Having installed herself in her new house, she makes a very good friend of the cottage’s owner, the elderly and very thoughtful Mr Bucktrout, who sets about renovating and redecorating the house at his own expense so she can live in greater comfort. Then a vague acquaintance, a man from her distant past in India, Mr FitzGeorge, who has become a millionaire and an eccentric renown for his collection of fine art, reintroduces himself into her life. He has always been in love with the once beautiful Lady Slane, and they form a special kind of friendship which will influence the rest of her ladyship’s few remaining years.
Vita Sackville-West, who among her many passionate love affairs, famously had Virginia Woolf as a lover, here explores how a woman who has both money and rather more than a simple room of her own might choose to live out her final years, having the ability to free herself of social constraints. The back story about the close friendship between these two authors was far from my mind when I chose to read this book, so it turned out to be a very timely read so shortly after revisiting Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I loved and took comfort in these reflections on old age, and how one might eventually look back on life from the distance of a great many decades.
* These quotes were transcribed from the audiobook version and as such are not fully accurate. For instance, the punctuation was pure guesswork, and I hope Vita Sackville-West isn’t spinning in her grave for the liberties I took, as I certainly mean no disrespect.
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