Quite a short list but one of the books was 700 pages long!
The Warden, Anthony Trollope
The Lantern Bearers, Rosemary Sutcliff
The Far Cry, Emma Smith
House of Silence, Linda Gillard
High Wages, Dorothy Whipple
Pardonable Lies (Maisie Dobbs), Jacqueline Winspear
A Place of Secrets, Rachel Hore
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
Peter and Paul, Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild)
A Red Herring without Mustard (Flavia de Luce), Alan Bradley
Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
Crooks Tour, Jane Shaw
I finished The Warden and read Barchester Towers, both Kindle downloads. These two books were the basis for the TV Barchester Chronicles which I wrote about before. Reading them, you see how right Alan Plater got it and yet notice many differences. It’s a long time since I read any Trollope and I’d forgotten how discursive and authorial he can be. At one point he’ll say, for instance, ‘don’t worry folks, I’m not going to let Eleanor marry Slope’ then later on that the Eleanor/Arabin romance can’t be simple or where will his novel be? There’s far more political and social comment than I remembered. I find I like Archdeacon Grantly perhaps more than the author did and dislike Mrs Proudie rather less. For me the great weakness of Barchester Towers and its TV version is Mr Arabin. Even with a great deal of description of his character and virtues, it’s hard to see why Eleanor fell for him so quickly during a short stay at Plumstead. I realize I’m far more familiar with Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire than with Trollope’s.
I followed The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch with The Lantern Bearers. This is a much darker story than the previous two; the title comes from the words of an old surgeon, who says ‘we are the lantern bearers’ because darkness lies ahead for Britain. The Legions leave, Britain is divided and there’s a great deal of killing. The hero, Aquila, has lost his home and family and is understandably embittered. Nevertheless he decides to stay in Britain. It’s interesting that Rosemary Sutcliff made her hero the adult Aquila and writes of his lack of normal emotions and the difficulty he has relating to his wife and especially to his son, ‘Minnow, son of Dolphin’. It’s pretty heavy stuff to have a children’s book written from an adult point of view and it would have been more usual to have the boy Minnow as the main character. Terrific, with the added interest that Aquila is a descendant of Marcus from the first book.
I’ve given up hope of being able to read the Maisie Dobbs stories in the right order. I think Pardonable Lies is the best I’ve read so far. It’s 1930 but the war still casts a long shadow and creates mysteries. This story explained for me why in a later book Maisie had fallen out so badly with her mentor, the enigmatic Maurice. Highly recommended.
Next I tackled all 700 pages of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. This is a story about the hunt for Dracula, still stalking the earth in the twentieth century. It’s an omnibus title because almost every character is an historian. Each searcher in turn finds a strange old book, blank except for a woodcut in the centre pages; this is an invitation, intended to lead their questing, historical minds towards he who must not be named (I was frequently reminded of Harry Potter). The book is full of horrifying events caused by a deeply evil character yet it’s strangely unhorrifying (just as well, since I don’t like horror) and reading it I never once let out an involuntary ‘eugh!’ or felt my heart race. The best thing about it is all the travelling the characters do, across Europe and into Turkey. You can learn an awful lot of European history from reading this book.
Peter and Paul was a complete contrast, a piece of fluff I read in about five minutes. Yet again, Noel Streatfeild drew on her own experience, here writing about life in a fashion house. Peter and Paul are vicarage twins with completely different characters: one beautiful and empty-headed, the other kind and thoughtful. Thanks to their father’s eccentric ideas the girls have had no proper education and their mother arranges for them to work in London so they can meet people (read, husbands). There follows a love triangle where A loves B but B loves C. It was originally published as a magazine serial, so we get the right ending. I wished it were longer. I made a start on Half the Human Race by Anthony Quinn but I just couldn’t get into it and gave up.
I moved on to A Red Herring without Mustard, which I’d had for a while and had been trying to save up. Flavia the girl wonder chemist is as attractive as ever, her sisters as horrid, her father as sad and weird. This time the plot involves a strange religious cult, gypsies and the theft of antiques. Quite a mixture but of course Flavia works it all out. Alan Bradley is still teasing us with the idea that there is a mystery about the death of Harriet, Flavia’s mother so there’s a lot of mileage left in this series. Good!
I suddenly felt like reading something by Jane Shaw and picked the standalone title Crooks Tour. Three Glaswegian girls travel to Switzerland and Paris with a school party and manage to get into a number of scrapes which their teachers are remarkably relaxed about. Ricky (she’s very like Susan) is obsessed with crime and sees crooks everywhere until there is a real one right under her nose. Not a great book but Jane Shaw always wrote well and amusingly and I enjoyed my re-read.