Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Univited Guests by Sadie Jones

I am way behind on my historical fiction challenge, and since this is a book I think I've checked out from the library two or maybe three times and never had time to read, I thought it would be a fun break from from the classics I've been immersed in lately.  And of course, Downton Abbey is all over the blogosphere, even though I won't get to watch it on this side of the Atlantic until January.  So, a fairly short book about a country house party set in 1912 seemed like just the thing.

I thought this book would be like Downton Abbey, but as if Cora hadn't had any money to save the estate.  In one respect this is right, because the eldest daughter, Emerald, is the hope of the Torrington family -- if she can snare a wealthy husband, they'll be able to save the family home.  However, any resemblance to DA ends right there.  

I'll back up and give a better synopsis -- it's the weekend of Emerald Torrington's ninteenth birthday, but her stepfather is missing the party, since has to go off and try to borrow money to save the family's estate, Sterne.  It's to be a small party, just a couple of old friends, Patience Someone-or-Other, and her mother, and at the last minute, a handsome young landowner, John Buchanan, is given an invitation as well (since he has a LOT of money and is fond of Emerald).  It's a small shindig because the family can barely afford to pay for servants and coal, much less updating the house with electricity and modern plumbing.  

However, things begin to unravel.  Patience's mother begs off with influenza and sends her son Ernest instead, and meanwhile, a railway accident has sent dozens of survivors up to the estate with nowhere else to go until things are sorted out.  What started out as a quiet weekend party for six or seven people quickly spirals out of control, especially when one of the railway refugees turns out to be someone from  the family's past. 

This book had a lot of potential -- a historical book about a country house in England, one of my favorite settings, and some interesting and quirky characters.  Unfortunately, I thought the story itself began to spiral out of control.  I could spot some plot developments right away, and I thought the author got carried away with the quirkiness, bordering on absurdity.  One of my favorite blogs, Books as Food, described it as "Downton Abbey meets the Addams family," but to me the story just got silly, and towards the end I just started skimming pages to get through it.  And I thought the ending was just odd.

I still want to read more historicals this year -- I have quite a few on the TBR shelves and even though I've made barely any progress on my historicals challenge, I've nearly finished all the other so I might make of a go of it anyway. 

What about you, bloggers?  Read any good historical fiction lately?  Or is everyone sick of the Downton Abbey hype?  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Well, this book has been sitting on my TBR shelves for at least five years, and I finally started to read it about a month ago.  It took me a long time to get through it, and I was completely perplexed.  I just did not get this book at all.  

Here is the setup: set in 1930s London, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne, who was recently orphaned, moves in with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who have no children.   Thomas' father left him and his mother when he was a teenager, after he'd had an affair with Portia's mother, who became pregnant.  The first Mrs. Quayne magnanimously decided it was better for everyone if Mr. Quayne divorced her and married his mistress, so that the unborn child would not be illegitimate.  Mr. Quayne, the second Mrs. Quayne, and Portia lived cheaply on the Continent, until Portia's parents died one after another and she was left with no one but Thomas.

Anyhow, now she's moved in with him and his wife, who are childless.  Thomas has an advertising agency, and a youngish friend of Anna's, Eddie, has gotten a job with Thomas' firm.  He's 23 but he starts hanging around Portia.  Basically, the story is about how Portia's innocence is lost.

It all sounds like it's going to be very sordid and scandalous, but basically, this is a book in which nothing happens.  My last book, Barnaby Rudge, was a book that was all plot and very little character development, and this one seemed like just the opposite -- it's all character's and dialogue, and very little action.  I kept waiting for something really shocking to happen, like the underage Portia having an affair with someone much older, but nothing like that happened.  The most shocking things are that Eddie is (gasp!) holding hands with another girl;  and . . . wait for it. . . Anna reads Portia's diary!!!!  Ye gods!!

Now, I know that this is a book that many people love.  Goodreads and the blogs are full of people who rave about it.  It has also been listed on Modern Library's Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, which is where I first heard of it.  It was not a difficult read, and I agree, some of the writing was very beautiful and insightful (I'll try to find a clever quotation to insert).  But most of the time I wanted to smack Portia and say Get over yourself!!!  There's a very brief mention of Mussolini at one point, and I wanted to scream at the characters, "Any day now, the Luftwaffe are going to start dropping bombs all over London.  Then you'll see what real problems are."  (Okay, that's unfair, since the book was published in 1938;  it's easy for me to make this judgement knowing what's about to happen since obviously Elizabeth Bowen couldn't.)

Of course, I had a relatively uneventful, boring childhood.  Nobody died, nobody had any affairs or divorces;  I don't have any illegitimate siblings anywhere, so maybe I have no right to complain.  Really, I didn't see why Anna and Thomas didn't just ship Portia off to boarding school.

And the ending just seemed very abrupt and unresolved.  Maybe I just need someone much less pragmatic to explain it all to me.  I don't feel like it was a complete waste of time, because parts of it were quite enjoyable.  I just don't see what the fuss is about.  If someone out there in the blogging universe is a huge fan, I apologize if I've offended you -- and please tell me if there's something obvious that I missed.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Well.  It's been more than a month since I posted anything -- I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I've just been busy, work and travel and the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting, which was fabulous.  I've really been wondering if I need to give up blogging for awhile.  But fear not, I have been reading!

Before I give up on blogging, I need to make a case for Barnaby Rudge, probably Dickens' most least-popular work -- yes, less popular even than Martin Chuzzlewit or Dombey and Son, both of which I've read in the past two years.  It's a shame really, because after I finally gave it my full attention, I actually liked BR better than the other two.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841, just after The Old Curiosity Shop (one of the most popular) and before Chuzzlewit, one of the least popular.  Dickens was inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott to write a sweeping historical story -- his only other historical work is A Tale of Two Cities, and I can definitely see in BR glimmers of the great writing to come.  Barnaby Rudge is "A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty," but it's not just a historical novel.  It's about fathers and sons, a double murder, two feuding families, divided lovers, an abduction, even a talking raven -- tons of great stuff, right?

The real Grip the Raven, Dickens' pet, now on view at the Free Library of Philadelphia
It starts out in 1775, in a small village about ten miles or so from London, and much of the action centers around a inn called The Maypole.  John Willet is the proprietor and his son Joe is much-maligned and dissatisfied; there's also another unhappy father and son, the rich and sleazy Mr. Chester and his noble son Edward.  Edward is in love with the local beauty, Emma Haredale, but a long-time feud between the Chesters and the Haredales threatens to separate them forever.  Also, Emma's father was murdered years before under mysterious circumstances, along with his faithful steward Mr. Rudge, father of the eponymous Barnaby, the local village simpleton with a heart of gold, who owns a talking raven, Grip.  We also meet another family, the Vardens.  Gabriel Varden is a locksmith with a shrewish wife, a beautiful, coquettish daughter Dolly; a scheming apprentice, Simon Tappertit; and a shrieking maidservant, Miggs, who provides most of the comic relief.

The first half of the book sets up all these different characters and gives some back story, along with a mysterious stranger.  Then, about halfway through the novel, the action jumps forward in time five years, to the beginning of the "No Popery" riots of 1780, also known as the Gordon Riots, which I'm sorry to say I knew nothing about.  My sincere apologies to any British readers, but is this a subject that anyone ever learned in school?  My shoddy Yank education regarding the 18th century was much more centered on the American Revolution.

If you didn't know either, the Gordon Riots were a backlash against Catholics, that culminated in anti-Catholic mob violence and riots, including a mob of at least 40,000 that marched on Parliament in June of 1780.  Churches, embassy, and prisons were burned, including Newgate.  (If you want to read more about it, click here).

I really think that's one reason Barnaby Rudge isn't popular -- honestly, a lot of people know enough about the French Revolution and the guillotine to make ATOTC a much more compelling subject.  And Barnaby Rudge is a terrible name, right up there with Martin Chuzzlewit.  I know Dickens has a talent for giving his characters goofy names to reflect their personalities, but surely he could have come up with something better!  Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and even Edwin Drood have mystery, romance, or some other interesting qualities to entice readers.

My biggest problem with this novel is how it shifts.  The first half sets up the mystery and the characters -- there are so many, it's confusing and there really isn't that much development of any of them -- and then -- ta-da!!!  The story jumps forward in time five years, to just before the Gordon Riots, and we get very little information about what's happened to most of the characters.

Don't get me wrong, the part about the riots and the mobs are extremely well-written, and I was riveted -- and I'm normally bored by big action scenes.  Dickens is really good at describing the mobs and the violence, and it's pretty scary.  But I really wanted more about the characters, and the story itself was kind of all over the place.  After the riots, things wrap up very quickly, and I just felt it was uneven.  Having read most of the Dickens canon, I can see hints of all the great stuff to follow -- Bleak House is a great murder mystery, and so many of his later novels have complex plots and multiple characters, plus there's all the great history in A Tale of Two Cities.  (Barnaby Rudge even has a little shout-out to Oliver Twist, with mention of a pick-pockets' gang).

Anyway.  I'm really glad I finished Rudge;  I'm nearing the end of my quest to complete all the works of Dickens -- only three left to go of the major works:  The Old Curiosity Shop, The Pickwick Papers, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Has anyone else read Barnaby Rudge?  What did you think?  Am I crazy to want to complete all of Charles Dickens' works?