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Review: Castle Dor, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne Du Maurier

Pages: 274 Original date of publication: 1961 My copy: 2004 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: The Strand, NYC, July 2011
Castle Dor was the last unfinished work of the critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and finished (at his daughter’s request) by Daphne Du Maurier after his death. The novel is a modern retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth, re-set to Cornwall of the 1840s. Linnet Lewarne is a young woman married to an innkeeper; she strikes up a relationship with a Briton onion seller named Amyot Trestane. Although not written from the first person point of view, the center viewpoint is that of the village doctor, who recognizes how history is repeating itself, literally.
Du Maurier did a fairly good job of finishing the novel—you can’t tell where Quiller-Couch’s writing leaves off and Du Maurier’s begins. She later wrote that she could never hope to imitate Quiller-Couch’s style of writing, but that she tried to adopt his “modd;” still, this wasn’t o…

Review: The Sandalwood Tree, by Elle Newmark

Pages: 509 Original date of publication: 2011 My copy: 2011 (Black Swan) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, September 2011
Maybe I’ve been reading too many classic novels recently, but I thought that this novel fell a bit short for me. I guess I was expecting lush descriptions of India, vivid descriptions of historical events, and great characters. Sadly, I was disappointed.
The Sandalwood Tree is a split-time novel. One half of the novel focuses on an American, Evie, whose husband Martin comes to India on a Fulbright scholarship to document the end of the British Raj and the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947. One day, she finds a packet of old, illegible letters that documents the friendship between two Englishwomen, Adela and Felicity in 1856. The chapters then alternate between the two stories; Evie’s story focuses on the disintegration of her marriage, while Felicity goes to India as a member of the “Fishing Fleet,” young Englishwomen who w…

Review: Old New York, by Edith Wharton

Pages: 315 Original date of publication: 1924 My copy: 1995 (Scribner paperbacks) Why I decided to read: How I acquired by copy: Amazon.com, April 2011
Old New York is a collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York in the 1840s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, which reveal varying sides of upper class New York society at the time. Each of the four novellas digs deep below the surface of society. False Dawn chronicles the relationship between a father and son, the latter of whom goes off to Europe on a Grand Tour and brings home “unsuitable” artwork; in The Old Maid, a young woman’s daughter is adopted by her cousin; The Spark, the shortest of the four, is about a young man’s encounter with Walt Whitman during the Civil War; and the last, New Year’s Day, is about a young woman’s alleged adulterous affair.
Edith Wharton is skilled at describing people and her motivations; she’s especially adept at seeing the way her characters really are. There’s no “real” link between these stories, but …

Review: The Sugar House, by Antonia White

Pages: 255 Original date of publication: 1952 My copy: 1989 (Virago) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Philly Book Trader, January 2013
The Sugar House is the second novel in a trilogy of books that began with The Lost Traveller. Clara Batchelor is now twenty-one; having graduated from drama school, she’s now a member of a traveling acting group. She has a love affair with another actor (although we can tell that it won’t end well) and ends up marrying her former fiancĂ©e Archie. Although newlywed, Clara—and Archie—still have a lot to learn about life; and for better or worse, the second half of the novel is how they try to cope with the demands of marriage and, at the same time, grow up.
Antonia White has laid on the symbolism and imagery pretty thickly; the title is in reference to the Hansel and Gretel story. The similarities are so close that you might think that White is retelling the old myth, with the house made of confectionery representing the house in Chelsea, and t…

Review: Greenery Street, by Denis Mackail

Pages: 372 Original date of publication: 1925 My copy: 2009 (Persephone) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Persephone shop, September 2011
Greenery Street is the story of a year in the life of a young married couple. The street of the title is a symbol of a way of life; the first-time houses that young married people have before they begin having families. The couples always vow to stay longer, but when they begin to have children, they move onward and upward in search of larger houses in which to live. The novel is based on Denis Mackail’s experience living as a newlywed in Walpole Street, in a house that had apparently once been occupied by PG Wodehouse and that was later occupied by the author Jan Struther. Mackail himself came from a rather exalted family; he was related to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin,; his sister was Angela Thirkell (who apparently was quite a bully) and his nephew was Colin MacInnes. Mackail grew up as a nervous child, only finding refuge in marr…

Review: Loitering With Intent, by Muriel Spark

Pages: 224 Original date of publication: 1981 My copy: 2001 (New Directions) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox bookstore, Philadelphia, January 2012
The novel opens on a summer day in 1949, when Fleur Talbot, an aspiring writer at work on a novel called Warrender Chase, get a job as typist for an “Autobiographical Association” that promises to save the memoirs of its illustrious members for a period of 70 years. As she gains material for her novel (and subsequent novels), Fleur begins to suspect that Sir Quentin, its head, is blackmailing its members. What ensues is a bizarre, funny take on the idea that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The phrase “to loiter with intent” is used in a humorous sense to describe anyone who is waiting around for an unspecified purpose. The whole tone of the novel is like this, in some ways; you get the sense that our narrator and the other characters are hanging around, waiting for something to happen.
Muriel Spark’s novels won’t ap…

Review: Trooper to the Southern Cross, by Angela Thirkell

Pages: 175 Original date of publication: 1934 My copy: 1985 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, June 2012
Set just after WWI, Trooper to the Southern Cross is narrated by Major Bowen, a former military doctor. He and his wife Celia book passage on a trooper ship, the Rudolstadt, from England to Australia. On board are former military personnel, diggers, prisoners, and others, and this novel is the story of their voyage.
The novel is based on personal experience. Angela Thirkell came from an illustrious family; her grandfather was the painter Edward Burne-Jones, her father was the first biographer of William Morris, her brother was Denis Mackail (author of Greenery Street, published by Persephone), Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin were first cousins, her son was Colin MacInnes, and JM Barrie was her godfather. Thirkell’s second husband was George Thirkell, one of the first Australians to enlist in WWI. In January 1920, the couple, newly mar…

Review: Thank Heaven Fasting, by EM Delafield

Pages: 233 Original date of publication: 1932 My copy: 1988 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, July 2012
Thank Heaven Fasting falls along the same lines of Consequences, EM Delafield’s novel of a young Victorian woman who can’t seem to get her act together. Monica Ingram’s family belongs to upper crust London society, and the novel opens with Monica’s coming-out into society. The title of the novel comes from As You Like It: Thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love,” said by Rosamond as she’s posing as a man.
At the house in Easton Square, a rigid hierarchy remains in place, personified by Monica’s rather stern mother. The rules are absolute; even being allowed out up her own picture is a sort of victory, a symbol of independence, for Monica. She’s well aware of what’s expected of her: marry or perish, because women of her class weren’t trained for much else. And the goal was to be married within three years, or else run the risk of rema…

Review: The Village, by Marghanita Laski

Pages: 302 Original date of publication: 1952 My copy: 2004 (Persephone) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription July 2012
What I like about Marghanita Laski’s books (of the ones I’ve read so far) is that they’re all different in subject matter, but they’re all very similar, too. Little Boy Lost and The Victorian Chaise Lounge, as well as The Village, all deal with the theme of chaos and how it impacts social structure. Her novels are also about how her characters deal with the effects of that chaos. 
The Village opens on the day that WWII ends in Europe. The people of Priory Hill join their fellow Englishman in rejoicing over the end of the war. But what a lot of them don’t realize is that a way of life, consisting of rigid class hierarchy, is over; or if they do, they try to cling to it. The Trevors are one such family; although they’ve “come down, they still cling to the idea that they’re gentry. So it’s a complete shock to them when their daughter, Margar…

Review: The Portable Dorothy Parker

Pages: 626 Original date of publication: 1944 (original collection; additions made to later editions) My copy: 2006 (Penguin) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Phoenix airport bookstore, December 2012
Dorothy Parker was famous for her satirical wit, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and one of the earliest writers for the New Yorker. She was once arrested for protesting the execution of the murderers Sacco and Vanzetti. Later, she pursued screenwriting in Hollywood and was later blacklisted there for her involvement in left-wing politics. She was married three times, twice to the same man; and had four suicide attempts, none successful. After her death, her ashes lay for 21 years on a shelf at a funeral home and then in the office of a Wall Street law firm, before she was finally buried at the headquarters of the NAACP. Parker loved one-liners and word play, and this is a compilation of short stories, magazine articles, letters, interviews, book and theater revi…