Thursday, March 31, 2016


CordeliaCordelia by Winston Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Winston Graham deserves to be rediscovered by another generation of readers. His Poldark series is usually the only work people are aware of. These books have recently been reprinted, and on the strength of the writing in #1 and #2 of that series, I searched out some other novels. His novels are often set in Cornwall, but Cordelia takes place further north in the city of Manchester during the Victorian Era. The story is a blend of historical fiction and gothic mystery.

Cordelia is Brook Ferguson's second wife, and soon after her marriage she begins to suspect that something was very wrong between Brook and his first wife. More ominously, things are not going swimmingly with her father-in-law, the domineering patriarch of the Ferguson household. His son Brook, as well as his brother and sister who live with the family at Grove Hall, are all under his thumb. Mr. Ferguson may be used to running the show, but Cordelia is determined to resist his control and forge a life of her own. When she meets the dangerously handsome Stephen Crossley, we know fireworks are going to go off in the Ferguson family. In rebelling against a life of obligation and duty, Cordelia inspires other family members to strike out as well. The family is pushed to the edge of dissolution when Mr. Ferguson desperately tries to assert his control over his family and Cordelia.

In this novel, as in other Graham works, the characters are so well written that I nearly forgot they were fictional creations. So believable in their thoughts, actions, and contradictions, their humanity drives the story and makes compelling reading.

My favorite character, hands down, was Uncle Pridey. He's eccentric (keeping mice and rats in his room) and absolutely wonderful:
He clutched his beard. "Ought to've known better. Gave up arguing with women long ago. Thought you were different. No stability. No damned logic. Go on. Go and drown yourself in the Thames. That's feminine. That's understandable."

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she said, getting to her feet. "I know you're advising for the best, but…"

"Well," he said. "You don't want that sort of argument. Sordid, you think. Mercenary. What about the other. You're twenty-six. Just the right age. You've got looks. You'll go on having looks for another fifteen years. They'll get better for five or ten. I know your sort. Even though I am ignorant I didn't always keep mice. You've just lost your husband and jilted your lover. Your heart's broken. So you think. Well, I'm sorry if it is. But has it occurred to you that there are twenty-two million odd people in England and Wales, and that somewhere among them there may be other men that you could fall in love with? And that if you're a bit more experienced and a bit more choosy next time you may find one who's neither a weakling nor a knave. People aren't born wise in this life, they buy experience, and if they're lucky they buy it in time. You're not an unlucky broken-hearted woman; you're lucky, lucky because you've learnt so much--I hope--and still so young. Stop being sorry for yourself and use your head again!"

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Colt Under the Wire

Colt Under the WireColt Under the Wire by Lenora Swiger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweet book that will appeal to young animal lovers, especially animals of the equine kind. Jan's colt Fudge keeps escaping and causing trouble. Her father is worried that Fudge will hurt Jan and thinks a gentler horse would be better for her. Jan desperately wants to keep Fudge, but as the troubles continue, she's not sure she can convince her father.

Colt Under the Wire is well written with realistic scenes and strong dialogue.

"Jan wanted to ask Dad more about his horse, but something about his silence told her he was thinking about Fudge and all the problems. That usually meant he'd come up with new rules. She had to convince him not to sell Fudge, she thought."

View all my reviews

Friday, March 25, 2016

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesLafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Lafayette, we are here!" Thus ends Sarah Vowell's fabulously entertaining take on the American Revolution. I loved this book. I chuckled to myself the whole way through, almost not noticing that Vowell was constructing a strong argument that we've always been fragmented, contentious, and well, just broken, as a democracy. But darn it, there are some great stories along the way.

Lafayette is portrayed as a young puppy with a crush on democracy, America, and George Washington, not necessarily in that order. His first letter from the Carolinas to his young wife gushes, "The next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me, the room, the bed draped in delicate mosquito curtains, the black servants who came to me quietly to ask my commands, the strange beauty of the landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant vegetation--all combined to produce a magic effect." Vowell brings us back to reality: "In other words, it was a buggy swamp chock-full of slaves."

The relationship with France gives Vowell plenty of material for her trademark ironic observations:
"For men who signed a document declaring that all men are equal, the Continental Congress sure spent an awful lot of time kowtowing to French bigwigs."
My favorite historical characters in this book include General Nathanael Greene, the "Fighting Quaker" (He was reprimanded as a boy for reading too many books about warfare--presumably the Bible doesn't count as one of those); the thousands of "stoic colonial women" who boycotted tea and English cloth (Vowell asks, "What's more valiant: littering from a wharf [aka the Boston Tea Party] or years of doing chores and looking after children from dawn to dark without caffeine?"); Benjamin Franklin (charming the French in his frontier attire, and making John Adams shudder); and James Armistead Lafayette, the spy (who was a slave and almost didn't receive his freedom at the end of the war until Lafayette and others plead his case) who helped make the French/American victory at Yorktown possible.

The tragedy of French support for America was that it sealed the fate of the French government: the money they loaned us was never repaid, and it started the ball rolling in earnest toward the events at the Place de la Revolution.
"He [Franklin] asked for 25 million livres. France kicked in 6, which was 6 more than Washington had. This was among the happiest developments of the war (if you try not to think too hard about the guillotine)."
I came away from this book with a better understanding of the past and of my relationship to it. "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States" is one of the best histories I've read.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite stories illustrating a humorous side of French-American relations:
"One of the French officers was horrified that at a dinner in Washington's tent, His Excellency served the meal not in a succession of courses like in civilization. Apparently Washington 'gave, on the same plate, meat, vegetables, and salad.' On the same plate? Were these Americans people or animals?"
View all my reviews

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her? (Palliser novels, #1)Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

I'm reading like a Victorian. This 700+ page work has been too daunting for me to tackle, until now. I'm reading it in installments, four chapters a month, as it was originally published. The website Victorian Serial Novels has Can You Forgive Her? and a number of other Victorian novels presented in their original publication schedules.

Who knew that there was another English writer with a flair for silly character names. So far, Mr Cheeseacre is my favorite, but we're only 100 pages into the story!

"He was himself by no means a poor man, and he despised poverty in others. It was well that there should be poor gentry, in order that they might act as satellites to those who, like himself, had money."

View all my reviews