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Marcia Schuyler

December 23, 2015

I’m obviously falling down on the Christmas story job this year. Here, have another Grace Livingston Hill instead.

I’m not sure if Marcia Schuyler is considered typical of GLH’s output. It’s not typical of the books of hers that I’ve read, but it works really well for me. I mean, the religious stuff is a lot more palatable in a historical fiction context. (Sure, I kept giggling about David’s temperance newspaper, but I can’t fully explain that.) But also this is a he/she fell in love with his/her wife/husband book, and the protagonist overnight finds herself in possession of a dream house and a fabulous trousseau, and there’s an awful older sister, which I enjoy for probably the same reasons that I find inexplicably evil younger brothers difficult. The chances that I wasn’t going to like this book were very low.

I mean, I don’t love it, but I do like it a lot. It’s got more in common with things like Janice Meredith and To Have and to Hold than it does with GLH’s other books, but it’s also got her patented lack of self-awareness. Very few things are less charitable than her attitude towards characters she doesn’t like, and, much as I enjoy that, it’s so at odds with her professed philosophy that it kind of bugs me, too.

Anyway, Marcia Schuyler. She’s a teenage girl from an old and respected family in upstate New York, circa 1830. She’s smart and pretty and totally overshadowed by her beautiful older sister, Kate, who is an asshole. She also has a crush on Kate’s fiancé, David, but she’s not aware of it. It turns out to be sort of helpful, though, when Kate elopes with another man and her father basically offers Marcia to David as compensation. I’m pretty sure that even in 1830 this is a weird thing to do, but Marcia goes along with it and everyone stresses a lot about how they’ve deprived her of her womanhood, or something.

There are some things you want to happen here: you want Marcia and David to fall in love. You want Marcia to do well in her new environment. You want Kate to get her comeuppance and, very specifically, to be humiliated by David. All these things happen, against a backdrop of the launch of the first steam locomotive in New York State. It’s not a great book, but it’s very satisfying.

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Catching up

December 17, 2015

I’ve been reading a fair amount, I think. Some of it’s been re-reading–the usual suspects: The Amazing Interlude, Pam Decides, etc.–but I’ve also read a few new things, and I don’t think I can remember what all of them are.

Anyway, here’s a roundup of the things I can remember, so I can get caught up and back to writing actual reviews.

The Loudwater Mystery, by Edgar Jepson. 1920.
From my Edgar Jepson phase. This is sort of the most English of English mystery novels, but not in a particularly interesting way. I didn’t like any of the characters very much. I would prefer to have Jepson stick to books about precocious children. Still, I always enjoy it when he describes his characters in extremely specific art historical references.

Jan and Her Job, by L. Allen Harker. 1917.

I enjoyed this story of a young woman going to India to take care of her sister’s children and eventually returning home with them, but I sort of wished Jan’s job had been more, you know, job-like. The nephew and the love interest are both very appealing, and I enjoyed the villain’s unrelenting awfulness.

Tenant for Death, by Cyril Hare. 1937.

I think I really liked this, sort of, maybe. It took a while to grow on me. It’s a very technical, measured mystery novel, sort of in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman. If you like the drier kind of golden age detective fiction, you will probably like this.

The Obsession of Victoria Gracen, by Grace Livingston Hill. 1915.

I think I get Grace Livingston Hill now? She can get caught up in stuff you don’t want–like, this is obviously an author who doesn’t know what’s appealing about her own work–but there are things she does really well: materialism, hitting villains when they’re down, finding people their proper places in the world. And when those things are mixed together in the right proportions, she’s pretty great. This one was a little heavy on religion and inexplicably light on Victoria Gracen’s nephew in comparison to the other boys, but it’s very enjoyable.

 

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The Little House

December 14, 2015

It’s that Christmas story time of year again. Well, sort of. I’m writing this in early November. I’m allowing myself a slow start.

My previous acquaintance with Coningsby Dawson comes from The Kingdom Round the Corner, which I liked a lot of things about without actually liking. The Little House is similarly almost-good, and similarly post-war, and also marginally a Christmas story. And it’s narrated by a house, which is sort of important at the beginning, forgettable through most of the middle, and briefly relevant again at the end. It’s almost cute in the same was Dawson is almost good. You know: there’s a lot of that furniture-having-conversations-after-midnight stuff. I want to like it, but I have limited patience.

The story begins during an air raid shortly before Christmas. The titular house is untenanted, and its caretaker has left the front door open in her haste to find a shelter. Meanwhile, a young widow — known to the house as “the little lady” — is passing through the square in which the house stands with her two small children, Robbie and Joan. They see the open door and take shelter, and so, a few minutes later, does an American soldier on his way to the front. They strike up a sort of friendship, but part without learning each other’s names.

A year later (the Unity of Christmastimes!) the soldier returns to the house, minus an arm, and finds that the little lady and her children live there now. They introduce themselves a little more formally, and take up their friendship where they left off before. He takes the kids to the zoo. He takes the little lady to the theater.It;s pretty obvious where this is going to everyone but the two principals.

She expects him to go home and forget about her. He thinks about whether he’s in love with her and decides that he’s not. So he has to change his mind, and she has to swallow her pride, and the structure of the narrative sort of requires that the house somehow make those things happen, so it does.

I almost really enjoy Coningsby Dawson. He has clever ideas. But his execution leaves me unmoved, and his insistence that a woman isn’t complete without a man to take care of her moves me in probably the opposite direction to what he would wish. This is a small, focused story — just two people, a single setting, a brief span of time and an inevitable conclusion. And if you’re going to do something so simple, you have to do it well. To hold your readers’ attention, if nothing else. But I kept getting distracted by the outside things, the things Dawson didn’t talk about. Like the little lady’s family and narrowing social life, and the soldier’s experience of war.

It’s frustrating when something is almost good. I think I would have really enjoyed this story in the hands of another writer. I think it’s going to take a lot to make me try Dawson again.

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Trustee from the Toolroom

October 27, 2015

Yesterday I discovered Gutenberg Canada. How I managed to overlook its existence until now, I’m not sure. But it’s there, and it has lots of cool stuff, and I don’t really care that I’m probably not supposed to be accessing it from the US.

One of the cool things it has is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute, which is one of my favorite books. When I saw that it was there, I almost started crying, mostly because it’s been that kind of month, but also because I love it a lot.

When I was in college, a read a post on someone’s blog about the fictional characters you love and support unconditionally. Not necessarily the ones who are always right, or most lovable, but the ones to whom you want to say, “if that’s what you want, I want you to have it.” Even if it’s not what’s best for them. The blogger mentioned Keith Stewart, the protagonist of Trustee from the Toolroom, as being one of those characters for her, so I looked up the book. My school library had a copy. I borrowed it.

Some books, when you read them, become a part of you, you know?

Keith Stewart is a quiet, self-effacing man. He works as a mechanic until after World War II. Then he manages to make his hobby — miniature, working models of machinery — into a full time job. He doesn’t make very much money at it, but he’s happy.

For me, the two most important parts of this book — aside from every time anyone is a little starstruck on meeting Keith — are where he is at the beginning and where he is at the end. There’s a quote at the beginning, about three paragraphs in: “He was a quick worker and a ready writer upon technical matters, and he delighted in making little things that worked. He had now so ordered his life that he need do nothing else.” It makes me tear up a little every time. His wife, Katie, is sort of similar. She works in a shop, more because she likes it than because she needs to. Both of them are impractical about things that don’t directly touch them, but that’s okay. They’re fine. They’re more than fine; they’re good.

But then Keith’s sister and brother-in-law leave their daughter in Keith and Katie’s care while they sail across the Atlantic, and it…doesn’t go well. Keith finds himself in the position of having to get himself halfway across the world, and having almost no money to do it with.

It’s kind of a fairy tale, this story, because if the structure and because of the way the world works. Keith has a quest to complete before he can return home, and it breaks itself into a number of different tasks — supplying provisions for a boat, inspecting a lumber mill — doing things for people who can get him where he needs to go. His area of expertise is sort of narrow, but it works for him, partly because this takes place in a universe with a comfortable underlying morality. Keith gets what he deserves, in a way that will make you feel good about the world. And maybe that’s most of the appeal — that and the pleasure of reading about a person who’s very good at something, described in enough detail to be convincing. Competence is so nice to read about, and Keith Stewart is so good at what he does, and so conscientious, and yeah, I unconditionally support him, too.

Does anyone want to recommend books about people who are very good at their jobs?

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Lady Noggs

October 23, 2015

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble reading anything that’s not by Edgar Jepson. So let’s follow up the two Tinker books with the two Lady Noggs books. (There may be a third, but I think it’s another case of different titles for different markets.)

So far I have observed that Jepson’s books always include the word “truculent,” someone calling someone else a sweep, and someone’s appearance — usually the main character’s — is described with reference to the history of Western art. Lady Felicia Grandison is about ten, and she looks like a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is somehow all the description you really need.

Lady Felicia (a contemporary reviewer points out that Jepson is clueless about titles — he sometimes refers to her as Lady Felicia and sometimes as Lady Grandison) is, like Tinker and Pollyooly, very precocious, but somehow a little more childlike. Also she prefers to be known as Noggs.

Noggs lives with her uncle, the Prime Minister, on his country estate. He’s a nice man, and very erudite, but no match for Noggs in a practical sense. She’s a prankster, but all her pranks come from righteous indignation; she has a very well-developed sense of justice, and the will and ingenuity to enforce it.

Her exploits include getting rid of an adventuress with designs on her uncle, touring the slums with a poor girl she’s taken under her wing, and removing the obstacles that stand in the way of her governess marrying her uncle’s secretary. She isn’t as much of a tiny adult as Tinker, though. Sometimes she doesn’t get the results she intends. Sometimes she doesn’t know how she does get the results she intends. And when she meets Tinker and Elsie, she lets Tinker take the lead.

I like Noggs a lot. When I started Lady Noggs, Peeress I was constantly coming up with unfavorable comparisons to Tinker and Pollyooly, but I’ve come to feel that all of them have their points. One of Noggs’ is that she weathers the transition into adulthood better than the other two.

The first book resolves the governess/secretary situation, and the second, The Intervening Lady, picks up pretty soon afterwards, with Noggs trying to adopt a child her own age. It doesn’t work as well for her as it does for Tinker. In fact, the first half of this book feels geared towards very slightly reducing our expectations of Noggs–not in a condescending way so much as to give her room to grow into someone with even greater strength of character. Which is exactly what happens next. The rest of the book takes place when Noggs is an 18-year-old debutante.

I was worried, because my other experience with a Jepson character growing up is Pollyooly Dances, in which Pollyooly is almost unrecognizable. He does a much better job here. Noggs is recognizably herself, even after acquiring all the trappings of young ladyhood. She saves a friend from a blackmailer, makes and unmakes matches, and is reintroduced to her two childhood protégés: the girl from the slums and the attempted adoptee. She doesn’t short-sheet anyone’s bed, but you get the impression that she would if she thought it would be helpful.

Tinker and Elsie also appear, Tinker in a way that makes me think of Lord Peter Wimsey’s cameo in one of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books, and Elsie not as often as I’d like. They are, of course, paired off romantically, as are Noggs and her adoptee, Michael Broome. The romance was probably my least favorite part of The Intervening Lady — I expect Edgar Jepson thought he knew how to write romance, but nothing I’ve read would lead me to agree. For me, the best moments are Noggs’ interactions with other women. I would have especially liked to see more of Susie, who would make a far more plausible grown-up Pollyooly than the one in Pollyooly Dances.

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The Triumph of Tinker/Tinker Two

October 7, 2015

I still don’t like Tinker as much as Pollyooly, but he’s grown on me, mostly thanks to the second Tinker book, variously known as The Triumph of Tinker and Tinker Two. It feels a lot less episodic than the first one–the initial section basically sets the rest of the book in motion, so there’s no more than a couple of chapters that could stand alone as short stories.

Tinker and his dad are no longer bumming around Europe, as they did for most of the first book. They’re now established in London with Sir Tancred’s new wife Dorothy and Tinker’s adoptive sister Elsie. Elsie was abandoned in Monte Carlo by her gross uncle in the last book, but now her gross uncle is back and hoping that Elsie’s association with millionairess Lady Dorothy Beauleigh means he can make something off her. He and his associate, the equally beery and vulgar Mr. Oliver Brown, concoct a plan to regain custody of Elsie and then mistreat her until the Beauleighs will pay to get her back, but they fail to take Tinker into account. He and Elsie escape to Germany, picking up a beautiful young Russian revolutionary on the way.

Tinker twists the world around his little finger, as usual, with just enough difficulty to keep things interesting. The wicked uncle and his friend are vanquished, Sonia the Russian Countess gets married, and Elsie drives a car. There’s also an episode featuring Lady Felicia Grandison, the heroine of at least two other Jepson books (of whom more later).

Elsie really comes into her own in this book–or maybe she did it in between the two. When she was first introduced, Elsie was delicate and a little weepy, and didn’t really get better defined before the end of the book, but by the time she appeared in Lady Noggs, Peeress she had established an identity: still delicate and frail-looking, but willing to try anything, and casual about Tinker’s plans in a way that even Tinker himself isn’t. Tinker is apt to decide very seriously that something ridiculous must be done. Elsie acquiesces to his plans in a way that suggests she both takes him very seriously and humors him a little. I find myself liking her more and more.

I still feel like Pollyooly has something to offer that the more privileged children in Jepson’s earlier stories don’t, but Tinker is such a well-defined character, predictable but not too predictable. You’re not always sure how Tinker will respond to a situation, but his response always seems inevitable. Tinker is fundamentally the character who, when introduced to a beef-canning millionaire who can estimate by eye how many cans of beef a cow will produce, will a) learn how to do it just as well and b) apply the same methods to human beings. So, if an angelic looking young boy assessing people by how many cans they would fill is entertaining to you, I think you’ll enjoy Edgar Jepson. If not, I’m not entirely sure why you’re reading this blog.

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The Fortunes of Captain Blood

September 23, 2015

I’ve always been kind of wary of Rafael Sabatini’s other Captain Blood books. There are two — Captain Blood Returns and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. I can’t really explain why. A lingering distrust of short stories, held over from middle school? The original novel being so complete and satisfying? Anyway, Monday I had the oppurtunity to go to the library for the first time in ages, and I read a copy of The Fortunes of Captain Blood so battered that it has to be kept in its own little box. It’s composed of six short stories taking place sometime during Peter Blood’s pirate career, and it’s kind of great. This brief review of the trilogy says this book isn’t very good, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s great–I enjoyed it a lot, and it just means that Captain Blood Returns will be even better.

The six episodes in the books seem to occur consecutively, but that’s clearer with the first few than with the rest. First we get a three story sequence that covers the capture (“The Dragon’s Jaw”), use (“The Pretender”) and disposal (“The Demonstration”) of a Spanish ship. Then the rescue of Hagthorpe’s brother (Hagthorpe is back, along with Pitt, Wolverstone, Ogle etc.) in “The Deliverance,” which dragged a little. Then “Sacrilege,” in which Peter is a Nice Irish Catholic Boy, and “The Eloping Hidalga,” which didn’t wallow in revenge to the extent that I wanted it to.

The earlier stories are definitely the better ones, and I think my favorite is “The Pretender,” which lets us see what Peter Blood would do if he had to defend against himself. “The Demonstration” gets an honorable mention for reintroducing Monsieur d’Ogeron, the Governer of Tortuga.

I realized as I was reading how silly of me it was to avoid this. Short story series about super competent characters getting the better of everyone around them are kind of my jam. Speaking of which, I’m going to go back to rereading Pollyooly until Yom Kippur is over and I get to eat again.

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