Friday, June 30, 2017

E. M. Forster's A Room With A View

A Room With A View is E. M. Forster's third novel; it came out in 1908. It is the story of Lucy Honeychurch, and the question is whom, if anybody, she will marry.

The first on the scene of the two contenders is George Emerson, whom Lucy, together with her chaperone Miss Bartlett, meet in Florence. George Emerson and his father give up their rooms (with a view of the Arno) so that Lucy and Miss Bartlett may have A Room With A View. The Emersons are socialists and Mr. Emerson is in trade; this makes them of the not quite right sort for Lucy Honeychurch, who has a (pretty tenuous) claim to be in the landed class. Still the gentlemen's kindness results in a group excursion to the hills near Fiesole, where George, uninvited, kisses Lucy.

Miss Bartlett, the chaperone, appears on the scene, late, but not late enough, and Lucy, who was inclined to ignore it, acknowledges herself insulted and they run away to Rome.

The scene in the second part of the novel moves back to her home in England. Though the families were already acquainted, Lucy and Cecil Vyse became closer in Rome. After refusing him twice, Lucy accepts Cecil's offer of marriage, and that is where the second part starts. The Vyses are from the neighborhood, much more suitable in class and pretensions, and with some misgivings on the part of Lucy's family, the marriage looks set to go ahead.

Then the Emersons take a cottage in the neighborhood, at the instigation of an unwitting Cecil Vyse. And the plot thickens...

Though I'd seen the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film version, with Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, I'd completely forgotten how the story turned out, and I was quite impressed with the way Forster kept up the suspense until the very end. Lucy could have married the right guy, the wrong guy, become an old maid--there were plenty of examples of that in the book--or, as I thought for a while, died of a fever in Greece, and I did not know which.

Near the end old Mr. Emerson tells Lucy:

'Take an old man's word: there's nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror--...Do trust me, Miss Honeychurch. Though life is very glorious, it is difficult...Man has to pick up the use of his functions as he goes along--especially the function of Love."
 Advice to live by. Did Lucy follow it, and correctly? It's worth reading it to find out.

My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Simon Brett's Murder Unprompted

Murder Unprompted (1982) is the eighth in Simon Brett's series of murder mysteries with Charles Paris, a not particularly successful actor. Though, in this one, Paris ends up headlining a show in London's West End, so his streak of mediocre performances is maybe to coming to an end? But his streak of being on the scene for murders definitely does not.

The Hooded Owl is the debut play by an English schoolteacher and it needs to start somewhere and that somewhere is the sticks, Taunton, in this case. (With apologies to Taunton...I just tell it like I'm told. It looks like a nice city according to Wikipedia.) Charles Paris plays the second role, and Alex Household, with whom Paris becomes friendly, plays the lead. There's an ingenue, daughter of Household's character, and several other actors. The insecure author, the sleazy producer, the domineering director, various corrupt potential backers, the stage mother, all make an appearance.

But the play has legs, and makes the jump from Taunton to London's West End. Alas for our hero, the producer feels the two leads, while just fine for Taunton, haven't got the appeal needed for a London West End production; Paris is relegated to understudy for George Birkett, who first appeared in the last Charles Paris mystery Situation Tragedy, and Alex Household is replaced by, and made understudy to, a big star: Michael Banks. Naturally there's resentment, which only grows worse when Michael Banks can't remember his lines, and has to have them prompted to him by a radio device, with Alex Household being the prompter.

And then, on the opening night, right on stage, Michael Banks is murdered during the climactic speech of the play.

Of course, Alex Household, standing off in the wings on the side of the stage from which shot came, is the prime suspect. And equally of course, he didn't do it. If you're a mystery reader at all, you didn't need me to tell you that.

I thought this one was pretty good, and better than Situation Tragedy, the previous one and the last one I read. Situation Tragedy centred on a television show, and this one on a play; Brett writes better about theater than he does about television. I did rather suspect the murderer all along, though. The recurring characters that Brett uses in this series made their dutiful appearance: Frances, the estranged wife, was handled pretty well this time; Charles Venable, the solicitor friend, made a totally unnecessary appearance; Maurice Skellern, Paris' useless agent, supplied the occasion for a lame joke or two about useless agents; and Bell's whiskey appeared in the form of a particularly welcome gift bottle.

There's an owl on the cover of my edition, and it's crucial to the whole story: the play's the thing, and that play is called The Hooded Owl, and it's in the middle of a speech about an owl that the murder occurs. So it's what I'll use for the scavenger hunt. Bird is thus the first category that I've got on both Golden Age and Silver Age, and if you'd asked at the beginning of the year, I certainly wouldn't have picked that.

Silver Age. Bird. My Reader's Block Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

It also counts for me for My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Six Tales Of The Jazz Age and Other Stories

I've been making my way through It's All One Case, the interviews of Ross MacDonald by Paul Nolan. Slowly, because I've really been enjoying it, and also slowly because it's sending me off in new directions of things to read. (Though MacDonald's fondness for Freud is not likely to get me to read Freud. I've read quite as much Freud as I'm ever likely to.)

One of the authors that MacDonald is particularly fond of, it turns out, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe that shouldn't have surprised me, both from the chronology and from the themes, but it did, a little. For instance, MacDonald says using a character at some distance from the story to tell the story's events came to him from Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby. I would have thought he took the idea from Chandler or Hammett (about both of whom MacDonald has plenty to say) or even Dr. Watson, but it is also the case MacDonald's Archer stands a little further to the side than either Chandler's Marlowe or Hammett's Continental Op.

All that's by way of indicating why I have Fitzgerald in my mind at the moment. And in searching for a book I had around the house and had never read, there was F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories.

(It's not that hard to find a book I own and haven't read, mind you. But too many choices can be incapacitating in a different way...)

The volume I have has nine stories with an interesting introduction by his daughter from 1960. It's not the same as Tales of the Jazz Age, which came out in 1922 and has an amusingly self-deprecating introduction by Fitzgerald himself and is available from Project Gutenberg. I point this out because I didn't know it, and I ended up reading both. They overlap, but both contain stories Fitzgerald published in the first part of the 1920s.

I don't mean to write anything deep about Fitzgerald--I couldn't add much, I fear. The stories I liked best were "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" and "The Lees of Happiness." There were one or two clunkers, too, I thought, which was reassuring in its own way.

What surprised me about the stories, since I know the novels better, and particularly The Great Gatsby, is how much humor there was, and his use of fantasy. Both books included "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which is known now from the recent movie, and is the story of Benjamin Button who is born old and grows young. I didn't see the movie, but Fitzgerald uses this fantastic trope in the story to satirize upper middle class mores. The story "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" is equally fantastic and equally satirical. Not entirely what I expected.

Read for My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cordelia Strube's Planet Reese

When I was a kid, I would check every display rack of knickknackery that featured objects with the possibility of having your name on it. Gift shops and tourist shops would have racks of coffee cups or bracelets or shot glasses or Christmas ornaments with names like Sue or David or Mary or John, but they never had a Reese. I felt both cheated and thrilled by this fact. It was pretty thrilling to have a unique name, but I wasn't entirely bold or self-confident enough to carry it off, so I wouldn't have minded that little bit of reassurance that I wasn't a complete freak. I survived though, even without my Reese bracelet.

But I mention that because it means the moment I saw a book called Planet Reese in a bookstore, it was pretty much inevitable I buy it, and buy it I did. The book came out in 2007, and it entered my library not long after that. As it turned out, that it had my name on it didn't mean I had to read it right away; if I'd finally found that coffee cup with my name on it, it would have gotten a lot more use in the meantime. But that's what TBR challenges are for, and I pulled it off the shelf.

The Reese in Cordelia Strube's Planet Reese is a boy Reese; it's necessary to specify, especially these days, since Reese Witherspoon seems to have made Reese a popular girl's name. If I'd known when I was six Reese could be either a boy's or a girl's name, I would have demanded my parents change it immediately. It may have been just as well it was lesser-used.

The novel's Reese is a manager of a phone bank dialing in support of donations to environmental causes. He's also a rather humorless personal supporter of environmental causes, and this is putting a strain on his marriage to the point where he's separated from his wife and estranged from his children. His parents are aging, unwell, and constantly quarrelling. His life is coming apart.

This is supposed to grab me, says the blurb on the back. The blurb on the back then tells me it's a darkly and wickedly funny story, and while I can testify to the dark, I'm having a hard time with the funny. I remained pretty much ungrabbed. To say I finished it isn't really quite right: I skimmed some parts (I could do that without missing any plot elements pretty easily) but it's now definitely off my TBR list. And instead of complaining about how slow and unfunny it was for a post, I wrote a little biography...

And I will say it was a little strange reading a book about a character with my name. Maybe for serious readers named Jane or John, this is not so unusual an occurrence, but it definitely felt a bit weird to me.

My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel

The Warrielaw Jewel is a family heirloom for the Warrielaws. As legend has it, a Warrielaw in the distant past married a fairy princess, and the dowry that princess brought was the jewel. And ever since, it's been a curse and a source of contention.

Or maybe the Warrielaw family just likes to quarrel. There are two unmarried sisters of the oldest generation, and three cousins of the next, and none of them get along with any of the others. What to do with the jewel, whether to sell it or keep it, is one of the main points of contention, with the oldest, Jessica Warrielaw, for selling and the rest for keeping.

The novel is narrated by a young Englishwoman who has just married a Scottish lawyer and moved to his hometown of Edinburgh. He's the lawyer for the family, which motivates their involvement, but in addition to being the narrator, she's a key witness to the events on the day of the murder of Jessica Warrielaw.

This novel (1933) is the earlier of Winifred Peck's two detective novels, but she was a prolific novelist in a literary family. One of her brothers was the editor of Punch; another was Msgr. Ronald Knox, he of the ten commandments of detective fiction writing. You'll be pleased to know none of those commandments were violated in The Warrielaw Jewel. Her niece was the wonderful novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote a collective biography of her father and her uncles, The Knox Brothers, in which her aunt Winifred features much less than she deserves.

But while this novel was perfectly enjoyable, it was not, I would say, one of the greats. It definitely intends to be play by the rules of Golden Age detective fiction, and it even includes a challenge to the reader. As is usual with me, I knew perfectly well who the murderer was by then, but not for the right reasons: rather I knew because of the tone with which the author wrote about the suspects. Explaining the mechanism dragged on a bit.

There isn't a scene of ballroom dancers anywhere in the novel, so I'm not really sure what the cover has to do with the novel. Oh, well. There is certainly jewelry on the dancers, and this is The Warrielaw Jewel, so that's what I'll count it for my challenge list.

Golden Age. Jewelry. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Patricia Wentworth's Touch And Go

I'm a great fan of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries, but this is the first of her novels I've read out of that series. Touch And Go came out originally in 1934, and has recently been reissued, together with all her other non-Miss Silver mystery novels, by Dean Street Press. The introduction is by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp.

As the novel begins, Sarah Trent is being interviewed for the position of companion to Lucilla Hildred. Lucilla is 17; her mother and step-father have just died in auto accident, and she's been left to two aging guardians, her great aunt Marina Hildred and her (I think) great uncle Geoffrey Hildred. It's Marina Hildred who is conducting the interview.

Marina Hildred is a bit of a ditherer, and she's constantly nattering on about family relationships. Those relationships are intricate and important, and that's one way you know you're in a Patricia Wentworth novel. The other is that Wentworth writes wonderfully, both amusingly and believably, about maiden aunts, and Marina Hildred is no exception. By the end of the interview, Sarah Trent is pretty sure she's got the job pending a second interview with Geoffrey Hildred, we've got a basic grounding in the family history, and I, at least, was hooked.

One, possibly more, of Marina Hildred's nephews died in World War I. Those nephews include Lucilla's father.

As Sarah Trent is driving away from the Hildred estate, she nearly runs over Lucilla, the first (that we see) of several dangerous, near-fatal accidents that occur to Lucilla. There were and will be others.

[Slight spoiler follows.]

But this is more a sensation novel than a murder mystery. Think Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White, with Lucilla in the Laura Fairlie role. In the end, none of the deaths we learn about were actually murders, but like The Woman In White there's plenty of suspense in the attempt to take advantage of a young woman who will be an heiress. But in the end our Count Fosco is revealed; a couple of marriages are impending; and John Brown turns out to be a name made up (are you surprised?) by a previously missing Hildred.

I found this to be equally as good as the best of the Miss Silver mysteries. I'd recommend it highly.

I suppose that's supposed to be Sarah Trent on the cover. "A decided brunette," according to Marina Hildred. But I'll count this for the category Glove.

Golden Age. Glove. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.