The Village by Marghanita Laski

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After having enjoyed Little Boy Lost last summer I knew I had to read another book by Marghanita Laski so I decided to buy myself The Village by the same author for Christmas. I think I expected something with the same tone and feel as Little Boy Lost, but this novel is quite different from that excellent novel. However, though the feel is not the same I enjoyed it for its view of a changing village in the years after WWII.

The novel revolves around the story of a secret romance between young Margaret Trevor, a girl who comes from an upper/middle class family and Roy Wilson, a veteran from a working class family. Their mothers worked together in a Red Cross Post during the war, but once the war is over there is no question of them socializing with each other ever again. This knowledge is unquestioned by Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s unsatisfied, bitter, highly critical mother. She sees Margaret as a failure because she’s shy, reserved and hasn’t done well in school like her younger sister has. Everyone in their social circle agrees that the only path for Margaret to take is that of wife and mother – and Margaret has no objection to this as it’s exactly the life she wants for herself. But of course they all see her with someone of their own class and not with someone like Roy Wilson.

Roy is kind, hard-working, ambitious and wants a family. He and Margaret quickly fall in love after meeting at a dance, but their romance is conducted very stealthily as Margaret knows that her parents would never consent to her marriage with someone from such a different background from herself.

This is all conducted against a background of an altered economic climate with the working class making money and the middle class living in genteel poverty. There’s also a definite sense that the middle class citizens in the village feel threatened by the new confidence the working class has gained since the war.

The young romance can’t stay hidden forever and there is an inevitable clash at the end of the novel – between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old. Laski skillfully uses the classic plot of star crossed lovers to play up all the ways that England was changing in the fifties. Her characters are perhaps not so complex, but they do powerfully portray the various factions in this new world.

The Village is a fascinating post-war novel yet I think Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which shares similar themes to The Village, is a superior post-war book – I’d recommend it highly if you’re interested in this time period.

Now I’ll move on to To Bed With Grand Music by Laski – another Christmas present to myself!

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Book Group: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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Last month my book group discussed The Daughter of Time, a 1951 mystery novel with a twist. Inspector Grant is in the hospital with a back injury, bored out of his mind, when a friend brings him an intriguing case: Did Richard III really murder his young nephews, the famous “Princes in the Tower”?

Using as many primary sources as he can have his friends track down he goes about breaking apart the case in his mind and comes to the conclusion that Richard III was very different from the king portrayed by Shakespeare and in popular history.

I thought this book would generate a hearty discussion and it mostly did. However, about half of the group had never heard of Richard III and, therefore, the emotional impact of Grant’s deductions didn’t hit them as hard as it did others. I think this book would be more suited to book groups whose members are history buffs, Anglophiles or fans of historical fiction. Or English people.

How would I rate this as a book group choice? I’d give it a 3/5 rating.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

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The very first paper I wrote in college was on the story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember that I attributed the story to Eudora Welty throughout the paper, earning the wrath of my professor! Thankfully, I was able to laugh it off and he forgave me.

This time around, I know that the title story of this collection is most definitely Flannery O’Connor. There is no one who writes quite like her. The combination of her wry, matter-of-fact humor, extremely flawed and mostly unlikeable characters, and Southern darkness make her work uniquely identifiable. Most of what I’ve read about O’Connor says that these stories are about redemption and grace. I don’t know much about  these topics, I guess, because to me everyone gets a strange comeuppance that seems, for the most part, cruel.

There are ten stories here which are all enjoyable (this seems the wrong word to use) but my favorites are ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’, ‘Good Country People’, ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune’ and ‘A Circle in the Fire’. Each of these stories features narrow minded, prejudiced, scared people who are humbled by the end of the story with great characterization, fantastic dialogue and unexpected plot turns.

My first effort to read more American women authors has been successful. I have plans to read the rest of Flannery O’ Connor’s stories this summer and am also reading her collected letters. She was a very funny, intelligent and talented woman who, unfortunately, died so young.

Have you read Flannery O’Connor?

I hope you all have a lovely weekend!

 

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

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After my slight disappointment with Wildfire at Midnight I chose my next Stewart carefully. I wanted something that I would love as much as I love The Moonspinners or Thornyhold so I read the beginning of several novels to see what would click. As soon as I started reading Nine Coaches Waiting I knew it was the one.

Linda Martin is a young woman who’s been engaged as a governess to the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy, Philippe. She travels to his home, the Chateau Valmy, in the mountains of eastern France not far from Geneva and commences to oversee his education and day-to-day care. Philippe is an orphan and is under the guardianship of his Uncle Leon and Aunt Heloise who are not very affectionate people, but seem to care about his general well-being. The chateau is very isolated so Linda spends most of her time with Philippe with occasional trips into the nearest town where she soon meets a friendly Englishman, William Blake. After several frightening accidents nearly take Philippe’s life, Linda’s sense of security is shattered and she suspects that something is not quite right at the Chateau Valmy. She puts these feelings aside, however, with the arrival of Leon’s gorgeous son Raoul. Will Linda let the distraction of a dark, mysterious man blind her to the truth about Philippe’s accidents?

Nine Coaches Waiting is my new favorite Mary Stewart. It has a stunning setting, a self-contained and courageous heroine (Leon compares her to Jane Eyre), the best love interests, a layered plot and wonderful supporting characters. I think it also has more character development than in any of the other Stewart’s I’ve read. We really get to know them and what makes them tick. As always, it is also very stylish and has fantastic fifties dialogue.

I highly, highly recommend this novel. It embodies everything I love about Stewart’s writing and ensures her status as my favorite comfort read author for years to come.

Mary Stewart posts so far:

Airs Above the Ground – A Work in Progress

The Gabriel Hounds – bibliolathas

The Little Broomstick – Pining for the West

The Moonspinners – Miss Bibliophile

My Brother Michael – Fleur In Her World

Nine Coaches Waiting – Quixotic Magpie

Stormy Petrel – She Reads Novels

Stormy Petrel – The Worm Hole

This Rough Magic – Quixotic Magpie

Wildfire at Midnight – TBR 313

Wildfire at Midnight – The Bookworm Chronicles

Two days to go!

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

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Wildfire at Midnight is set on the Isle of Skye during the week leading up to the queen’s coronation. Giannetta Brooke is a successful fashion model and wants to escape London during the festivities in order to take a rest from her busy schedule. She ends up in an isolated hotel in Camasunary, an area that is popular with climbers. Little does she know that she has walked right into the middle of a murder investigation – a few weeks previous a young local woman was killed in an eerie manner that seems almost sacrificial. Added to this is Giannetta’s discovery that her ex-husband is also staying in the hotel. Her relaxing holiday quickly turns tense and even frightening as everyone in the hotel, including her ex-husband, is a suspect. No one can be trusted.

When I began reading this novel I was pleasantly surprised because it seemed that it was going to follow the format of a traditional murder mystery instead of a romantic suspense novel – something a little bit different for Stewart. However, it turned out to be true to her form with all of the signature elements her novels usually embrace. There are the stunning descriptions of the landscape, the plucky yet vulnerable heroine, the two love interests and the fast-paced plot. In this novel, the usual Stewart formula doesn’t quite produce the magic that it usually does for me. The characters seem too wooden and the romance is not very well developed. The effort seems almost half-hearted. I did enjoy the novel, it is just not of the stellar quality of some of her other books. I suppose when you write a book a year for nearly two decades some of them will be better than others. I’d recommend Wildfire at Midnight for true Stewart fans who don’t mind a few misses or for readers who are extremely fond of a Scottish setting.

Mary Stewart posts so far:

The Little Broomstick – Pining for the West

Nine Coaches Waiting – Quixotic Magpie

Stormy Petrel – She Reads Novels

Wildfire at Midnight – TBR 313

Have I missed yours?

 

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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Ellen North lives at Netherfold with her publisher husband Avery. Her children live away from home; Hugh is in the army and Anne is at school, but they visit during breaks and adore their parents and their beautiful home. Their grandmother, Mrs. North, lives quite close by and is bored and lonely so she engages a bitter and sophisticated French girl, Louise, as her companion. As soon as Louise enters their lives their happy landscape is changed. She brings out the haughtiness in Mrs. North, causes Ellen to doubt her own attractiveness and ultimately tears the family apart when she starts a bold and dangerous affair with Avery. When the affair is discovered, all the joy and closeness they’d enjoyed is suddenly shattered.

Dorothy Whipple doesn’t bring us an original plot in Someone at a Distance – there are countless books about happy families being ruined by home wreckers. What she does bring is a heightened sense of feeling and drama to the familiar storyline. I felt the pain that Ellen endures when she loses her husband, her panic over how to support herself financially, her concern and despair over how her children will come through the betrayal. Whipple doesn’t minimize the small, everyday changes that are caused by divorce and heartbreak – her books are so achingly real. And that’s why I like them. I like that I can relate to her characters, to their foolishness, pride, fear and pettiness. And I can also relate to the tender mercies that make their lives better and bearable.

Someone at a Distance is really a very sad book, but it is one that is brilliant in its characterizations and in outlining how a very happy marriage and home can slowly be destroyed by tiny omissions and the subtle maneuvering of one very lonely and misunderstood young woman.

Have you read Someone at a Distance? What is your favorite Whipple novel?

Save the Date: Mary Stewart Reading Week will be September 15-22, 2013!

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

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This is a Virago that I’ve had for a few years and finally grabbed off the shelf one night when I was in the mood for a mystery. It is set in the late ’50’s, in a middle-class London neighborhood and focuses on Louise Henderson, the mother of two school-age girls and a baby, Michael. Little Michael is quite a handful. He never sleeps through the night and, in fact, wakes at nearly two every morning and screams his head off for hours. Louise is sleep deprived and full of anxiety because Michael’s nightly trials have maddened her next door neighbor. On top of all this, the Hendersons take in a lodger, a quiet, unmarried lady named Vera Brandon. With a stranger in the house, Louise feels even more pressure to keep Michael quiet so, every night when Michael wakes, she secludes herself in the pantry while he cries. When strange things start to happen around the house Louise at first believes that her exhausted mind is playing tricks on her. However, her mother instincts tell her that all is not right and Miss Brandon’s odd behavior only adds to the confusion. Is Louise paranoid or is Miss Brandon a danger to her family?

Celia Fremlin created a very suspenseful and gripping novel with The Hours Before Dawn. Her portrayal of the struggles of trying to be a good mother while tired, frustrated and short on time is so familiar to all of us who are mothers or who have observed mothers. You feel sympathy for Louise yet also wonder if she is perhaps headed toward a nervous breakdown.  Her husband doesn’t help much with child rearing, housekeeping or cooking, but Louise takes it all in stride and doesn’t complain – it makes the reader feel irritation with her husband and distressed when he doesn’t believe her accounts of the odd occurrences that keep happening to her.

I gulped this novel down because I just had to know if Louise was going to end up in the loony bin or if Miss Brandon’s strangeness meant anything. Fremlin keeps the suspense level really high throughout the novel and, though I wouldn’t call it fast-paced it moves along quickly. It is a very captivating look at the various ways the challenge of motherhood can drive a woman mad.

Have you read any remarkable suspense novels lately?