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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2015.
Also see the full index of books I've read.

2015 began as the year I was going to dig deeper into Daphne Du Maurier's oeuvre. I had read Rebecca last year and began the year reading and gaining an appreciation of her other books. However, I then got sidetracked by Mary Elizabeth Braddon's excellent Victorian mysteries. Oh, well! For some odd reason, I developed more of a taste for fiction over nonfiction the latter half of the year.

  [Book cover]

Hard Times

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1854)


The wonder was, it was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. Besides Mr. Bounderby's gold spoon which was generally received in Coketown, another prevalent fiction was very popular there. It took the form of a threat. Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used—that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts—he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would "sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic." This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it. So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.


"When it makes its way into my mind, dear," said Rachael, "and it will come sometimes, though I do all I can to keep it out, wi' counting on to high numbers as I work, and saying over and over again pieces that I knew when I were a child—I fall into such a wild, hot hurry, that, however tired I am, I want to walk fast, miles and miles. I must get the better of this before bed-time. I'll walk home wi' you."

Project Gutenberg eBook: Hard Times

  [Book cover]

The Spanish Armada

by Robert Hutchinson (Wikipedia)


  [Illustration by bogre-chama]

St. Peter's Umbrella

by Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910) (Wikipedia), translated by B. W. Worswick

... (Illustration by bogre-chama.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: St. Peter's Umbrella (pub. 1900)

  [Book cover]

In the Land of White Death

by Valerian Albanov (1881-1919) (Wikipedia), translated by Alison Anderson


  [Book cover]

Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects

by Scott Richard Shaw

Not too crazy about insects, but interested in learning about their evolution!

  [Book cover]

A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923-1996) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1959)


The ancient Jewish hermit, Benjamin Eleazar, banters with his old friend, the abbot, Dom Paulo:

"But you've always used words so wordily in crafty defense of your Trinity, although He never needed such defense before you got Him from me as a Unity. Eh?"

  [Book cover]

A Fabulous Kingdom: The Exploration of the Arctic

by Charles Officer and Jake Page


  [Book cover]

Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

by David Sloan Wilson (Wikipedia)


Also see group selection (or multilevel selection).

  [Book cover]

Regarding Ducks and Universes

by Neve Maslakovic


  [Book cover]

Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail: Races and Rivalries on the Nineteenth Century High Seas

by Sam Jefferson


  [Book cover]

The Old Wives' Tale

by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1908)


A little morbid humor!

The charwoman never came again. She had caught smallpox and she died of it, thus losing a good situation.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Old Wives' Tale

  [Book cover]

The Inca Emerald

by Samuel Scoville, Jr. (1872-1950) (pub. 1922)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Inca Emerald

  [Book cover]

The Germ Code: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbes

by Jason Tetro


Also see his blog, The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist.

  [Book cover]

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

by Christian Parenti (Wikipedia)

The ostensible theme throughout the book is the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change. A more pointed subtitle would be "Man's Inhumanity to Man". Most of the current situations discussed by Parenti involve poverty and global warming (expressed as droughts and flooding—the two are not mutually exclusive, as quick, violent outbursts of rain simply run off parched land) combining to produce or exacerbate violence. There is precious little about climate change in the book; the focus is on the violence that results when two or more tribes or groups compete for increasingly scarce resources, whether food or, in the case of rising sea levels, land.

  [Book cover]

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia—and How It Died

by Philip Jenkins (Wikipedia)

Most of us, probably, think about Christianity spreading west through the Roman Empire and north through the rest of Europe. Philip Jenkins gives the other half of the story: Christianity also spread east into the Middle East, beyond into Asia, and south into Africa. The first part of the book seemed to jump around a lot in space and time—or so was my perception—but the remainder of the book provided a more coherent history of the movements. All in all, very interesting!

  [Book cover]

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

by Spencer Wells (Wikipedia)


Also see The Genographic Project.

  [Book cover]

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1927)

I read about this book many years ago and always wanted to read it. Finally, I did. It's a very brief novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. A 100-year-old Incan "rope"-and-wood bridge collapses in 1714, killing five people who were crossing at the time. Brother Juniper, who saw it happen and thinking that God had a reason why these people died, explores the issue of theodicy by examining the lives of the people killed in the disaster. An interesting but not wholly satisfying book—not surprising, considering the subject.

  [Book cover]

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (1856-1923) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1903)

I wanted to read this book because I figured my mother probably read it when she was a young girl. It's a book suitable for older children and adults alike. The drama in the book is leavened throughout by intentional humor, so I was laughing on almost every page. An excellent read! (A little sad at the end—it hit a little too close to home.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

  [Book cover]

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan (Wikipedia)


  [Book cover]

Magdalen's Vow

by May Agnes Fleming (1840-1880) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1871)


Word of the book: matutinal - "of, related to, or happening in the morning". Used in the book as "[I] took matutinal cold baths in the Connecticut [River]. Heigho!"

Project Gutenberg Canada eBook: Magdalen's Vow

  [Book cover]

Necropolis: London and its Dead

by Catharine Arnold

... Lee Jackson's Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth ...


Paul Clifford

by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1830)

In Ferretbrain: The Rain Fell in Torrents—Except at Occasional Intervals, Dan H exhaustively explores and demolishes the various criticisms of the much-mocked first sentence from Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
I personally think the sentence perfectly sets the scene at the beginning of the story; I wouldn't change a thing. There's some possibility that the criticism is tied to or became more widely known as a "fact" because of the Snoopy comic. However, as mary_j_59 pointed out, Snoopy's problem isn't his first sentence; it's the fact that he can't think of anything to follow it! (Or, as Brian says in Family Guy, Season 13, Episode 1, "As someone who occasionally dates the creative muse, I can vouch for the unforgiving face of a blank sheet of paper.")

Also see:

Project Gutenberg eBook: Paul Clifford

  [Audio book cover?]


by James Joyce (1882-1941) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1914)


Project Gutenberg eBook: Dubliners

  [Book cover]

The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present

by John W. O'Malley, S.J.


  [Book cover]

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War

by Stephanie McCurry (Wikipedia)


  [Book cover]

Captains Courageous

by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1896)


Project Gutenberg eBook: Captains Courageous

  [Book cover]

A Dark Night's Work

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1863)


Hullah System ... Phyllis Weliver, "On Tonic Sol-fa, January 1842"

Project Gutenberg eBook: A Dark Night's Work

  [Book cover]

The Bishop and Other Stories

by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) (Wikipedia), translated by Constance Garnett

A collection of religious-themed short stories involving lay people, monks, and priests. Oh, and bishops! Some of the stories were thought-provoking and had an emotional impact on me; other stories were just ho-hum. On balance, a good read.

Also see 201 Stories by Anton Chekhov (short stories).

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Bishop and Other Stories

  [Book cover]

Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty

by Herbert I. Weisberg



Old Mortality

by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1816)

... Covenanters ...

Words of the book: unco in dialog is short for uncouth; aughteenth is eighteenth; courtesy is used in the archaic sense of curtsy/curtsey. These are some of the words you'll see in the frequent Scottish dialog. As someone online recommended, read the Scottish dialog out loud and it will sound close enough to English for you to figure out the meaning. I adopted this approach, except I spoke the dialog out loud in my head! Furthermore, as I found out when I finished the novel, there is a complete glossary of the Scottish words (over 300 of them) at the end of the book! This, of course, is not very useful in an eBook.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Old Mortality

  [Book cover]


by Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1883)

Hester is set in 1860s England according to one on-line reviewer. Catherine Vernon, a wealthy, mid-60s woman, is a leading figure, if not the leading figure, in the small town of Redborough. Thirty years earlier, she was practically engaged to her cousin, John Vernon, the head of the stable and prosperous Banking House of the Vernons. He, however, married another woman, speculated with the bank's assets, and fled the country, leaving the bank in potential ruin. Fortunately for the town, Catherine stepped in with her wealth and kept the bank afloat, leading it back to stability and prosperity.

Catherine was a strong woman and highly respected in Redborough. She did a lot of good for the town, so I don't think she was particularly feared by anyone despite the power she held. After many years effectively running the bank, she brought her conscientious nephew, Edward, to live with her and run the bank. The bank continued stable and prosperous.

Catherine built a set of homes for and supported her poor relations, but experienced a perverse pleasure in their humiliation and resentment at being dependent on her. Catherine invited John Vernon's poor widow (known as Mrs. John) and daughter (Hester) to live there. She took an immediate dislike to Hester, initially simply because she was John's daughter. Hester grew up into a beautiful young woman who caught the eye of Edward. Summaries of the book on-line describe Hester as driving a wedge between Catherine and Edward, hence Catherine's increasing dislike for Hester. That's not really the case, however (and Catherine is ignorant of their attachment for most of the book). The conflict arose, in my opinion, from the clash of similar personalities: neither realizing it, Catherine and Hester were very much alike, both extraordinary strong women with the only difference being that Catherine had had the means to accomplish heroic acts and Hester doesn't.

The story further develops along exciting lines. Some on-line reviewers felt the author, Mrs. Oliphant, described in too great detail the thoughts and thought processes of the characters, leaving little to the imagination of the reader. This is true, but it didn't bother me too much; the book, running about 450 pages, was not overly long. The bigger problem is the ending. Many reviewers thought the ending was too abrupt, as if Mrs. Oliphant simply got tired of writing the book and finished it in one fell swoop. It didn't strike me that way; I thought the story ended when it was time for it to end. There were some poignant moments, but what made the ending unsatisfactory for me was that there were some loose ends not tied up that should have been tied up. Still, I would read the book again if given the choice.

Also see Patricia E. Johnson's "Unlimited Liability: Women and Capital in Margaret Oliphant's Hester", Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, 6.1 (Spring 2010).

Project Gutenberg eBook: Hester Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3 (pub. 1883)

  [Book cover]

The Invader

by Margaret L. Woods (1856-1945) (Wikipedia)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Invader (pub. 1907)

  [Book cover]

Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

by Laurie Garrett (Wikipedia)

Laurie Garrett is the author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance:

[Book cover]

I read it in the year it was first published, 1994, and considered it one of the best books I'd ever read. Betrayal of Trust was published seven years later in 2001. I don't know how I missed the book back then, but I guess renewed attention was paid to it after the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Africa and Ebola hysteria in the U.S.


  [Book cover]

The Doctor's Dilemma

by Hesba Stretton (1832-1911) (Wikipedia)

21-year-old Olivia is held captive in a house in London; by whom and for what reason are not revealed to the reader until later in the book. When her door is accidentally left unlocked, she escapes from the house with only the clothes on her back and her coat, in the lining of which she has sewn a small amount of money just in case of such an opportunity. Through some chance circumstances, she follows an honest trustworthy fisherman, Tardif, to the Channel Islands, specifically the small island of Sark, where she finds refuge in the out-of-the-way house of Tardif and his mother.

When Olivia is injured in a bad fall, Tardif fetches a doctor from nearby Guernsey. Dr. Martin Dobrée (known as Dr. Martin to distinguish him from his father, Dr. Dobrée) tends to Olivia's injuries, but must remain in Sark for a week because of bad storms and rough seas. While caring for Olivia, Dr. Martin gradually falls in love with her. The doctor's dilemma is that he is already engaged to be married—in a month's time!— to his cousin, Julia.

Once back on Guernsey, Dr. Martin gathers some supplies to send back to Olivia, including some books, the selection of which shows off his good taste:

I looked through the library-shelves with growing dissatisfaction, until I hit upon two of Mrs. Gaskell's novels, "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austin [sic], and "David Copperfield."

Dr. Martin breaks his engagement to Julia, only to have Olivia spurn his marriage proposal. Faced with open disapproval from the townfolk for jilting Julia, Dr. Martin moves to London to practice medicine with a good friend. Through a rash action, he puts Olivia's former captors on her trail and she is forced to go on the run again, to no one knows where.

I can't say much more about the story without spoilers. On a side note, I got a chuckle out of Dr. Martin, an inhabitant of "Dirty Old London", being appalled at similar filth in a small French town.

I really enjoyed The Doctor's Dilemma; it was substantive and exciting. At the beginning, the writing style reminded me of an English translation of a French text, like Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea, but perhaps that was because of the setting in the Channel Islands. Eventually, the story assumed a more English air, as English as Hesba Stretton was. My only complaint about the author is that she also wrote religious tracts and numerous children's stories and, wanting to read more by her, I haven't been able to find a bibliography that makes a distinction between those and her other adult novels, if any.

Word of the book: engross - "To write (a document) in large, aesthetic, and legible lettering; to make a finalized copy of." (Wiktionary) One of the captors earns a pittance from engrossing; i.e., making handwritten copies of legal documents. The book also makes use of the word in its more conventional sense: "To completely engage the attention of."

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Doctor's Dilemma (pub. 1872)

  [Book cover]

The Danvers Jewels and Sir Charles Danvers

by Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925) (Wikipedia)

(The author's last name, incidentally, is pronounced "Chum-lee".)

The Danvers Jewels is a mystery story. Colonel Middleton, the narrator and somewhat of a dim bulb contrary to his own opinion of himself, is responsible for conveying a collection of jewels from India to England. Leaving several sinister events in his wake, he finally delivers the jewels to the recipient, Ralph Danvers, from whom they are promptly stolen. This is not a great story, but it serves to introduce some of the characters in the following story, including the black sheep of the family, Charles Danvers, the older brother of Ralph.

Sir Charles Danvers is a typical Victorian, short novel. Charles Danvers inherits the title but not the riches from his father. There are various story lines, mostly involving the witty Charles. There is a fair amount of humor in the story, especially in the verbal sparring between Charles and his aunt, Lady Mary. As Charles remarks to someone else:

"On Sunday mornings [Aunt Mary] reflects on her own shortcomings; on Sunday afternoons she finds an innocent relaxation in pointing out mine."
Patience! There are some profounder reflections as you progress into the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Danvers Jewels and Sir Charles Danvers (pub. 1890)

  [Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother']

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1939)

(The photograph is Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother".)

The edition I read has a relatively lengthy, excellent introduction by Robert DeMott. I read the introduction before I read the story—unfortunately! On the plus side, I learned about the background to the story and that Steinbeck had had a passionate concern for the plight of the migrants for a number of years. On the minus side, DeMott spends a considerable amount of time on the actual writing of the book and includes entries from Steinbeck's journal, Working Days. As a result, I think, the artistry, the literary devices, tended to obtrude into my consciousness as I read the book, thus detracting from the story itself. (About a third of the way into the story, I settled into the rhythm of the writing and it didn't bother me anymore.)

The Dust Bowl refers to both the regions affected by the drought in the 1930s and also the era itself. The poverty and desperation of the people in the Dust Bowl, which stretched from Canada to Mexico, is truly frightening, just from John Steinbeck's telling alone. The reality was even more frightening. I once saw a documentary about the Dust Bowl on TV. The high winds swept dust and soil high into the air. The people couldn't even escape the dust and soil by going inside; they tried to stop up every opening in their walls and around their windows and doors, but still the dust managed to get in. People literally drowned in the dust storms, the dust and soil slowly filling up their lungs. The dust storms caused "black blizzards" as far away as the East Coast.

Handbills advertising the paradise of California and the urgent need for workers to pick the crops were widely distributed in Oklahoma and other states. Many people, both farmers and those with other occupations, packed up what little they had and migrated to California only to find—no work. It had been a successful ruse by the landowners to attract an excessive supply of cheap or almost-free labor. Naturally, the native Californian workers were none too pleased at migrants threatening their livelihoods and fought back (along with the landowners' own hired security forces) against the "Okies". The landowners laughed all the way to the banks as wages plummeted.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family from the loss of their farm in Oklahoma, through their migration to California and their desperate struggle to survive in California. It's scary that the same forces operating in the 1930s as described by Steinbeck are at work eighty years later: fear of and bigotry against immigrants; the breaking up of unions to drive the cost of labor down; the cutting of social programs at the federal, state, and local levels that helped the less fortunate; etc.

Steinbeck "talkin' red, agitating trouble":

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—"We lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first "we" there grows a still more dangerous thing: "I have a little food" plus "I have none." If from this problem the sum is "We have a little food," the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the sidemeat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It's wool. It was my mothers blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we."

FYI: The acronym IITYWYBAD stands for "If I tell you, will you buy another drink?"

Word of the book: anlage - "the basis of a later development; foundation"; usually used in a biological sense. (YourDictionary)

  [Book cover]

Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader

edited by Mike Ashley

A collection of proto-steampunk short stories; i.e., science fiction stories from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century (in this case, between 1897 and 1916).

Also see "What is Steampunk?" (The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences).

  [Book cover]

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East

by Gerard Russell

Gerard Russell is a former British diplomat who was stationed in various places in the Middle East and is fluent in Farsi and Arabic. He encountered and researched a number of still-existing, centuries- and millennia-old minority religions during his travels. He notes the fact that Muslims have been tolerant, more or less, towards these religions, more so than Christians in Europe were to the pre-existing religions in Europe. Of course, he points out later that, as with any majority religion, tolerance was dependent on the leader or ruler. If your region had a strong tolerant ruler who could keep the demagogues and mobs at bay, luck was in your favor; a strong intolerant ruler, a weak ruler, or no ruler at all and your minority religion was out of luck. And if your community was polytheistic, all bets were off in all cases.

Furthermore, everything was/is not sweetness and light in the minority religions. They had/have their own internal divisions, their own hard-liners, their own rigidity in beliefs and practices, and their own intolerance of other religions. Prohibitions against and punishments for marriage outside of one's faith are especially problematic in modern times, given fluid populations and the dwindling size and dispersal of communities because of war and persecution.

The book is very interesting and the religions have some practices and/or beliefs that appear to date back to Babylonian and Sumerian times. At times, I found the writing "busy". This is not Gerard Russell's fault; it's just that an old religion may have so many links to other religions and sects, that I was overwhelmed and had trouble keeping track of them all. I had one minor quibble regarding some basic confusion between meteorology and astronomy:

[Abdul-Jabbar] Abdullah was a meteorologist (a branch of science particularly suited to the Mandaeans, who have inherited the Babylonians' fascination with the stars).

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is an enjoyable mix of travel writing, geography, history, and religion. The author's web page includes a list of the religions discussed, one per chapter and a brief summary of each chapter. The seven religions covered are:

  1. Mandaeans (Wikipedia)
  2. Ezidis (Yazidis) (Wikipedia)
  3. Zoroastrians (Wikipedia)
  4. Druze (Wikipedia)
  5. Samaritans (Wikipedia)
  6. Copts (Wikipedia)
  7. Kalasha (Wikipedia)
In the final chapter, Russell visits communities of these religions in the United States and examines the successes they've had and the problems they face.

Word of the book: susurration - "A soft, whispering or rustling sound; a murmur." (The Free Dictionary) From the book: "Dozing fitfully in the guest hall where the Samaritans had put me up, I woke to an unearthly sound, a vigorous susurration echoing through the empty rooms around me." There was another word that was new to me, but I can't remember it now.

  [Book cover]

The Good Companions

by J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1929)

My mother passed away 20 years ago this month (May 1995), so I decided to reread The Good Companions in memory of her. In Spring 1986, my father underwent 13 hours of heart surgery at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. His lead surgeon was Dr. Benjamin Aaron, who operated on President Reagan when he was shot; the nurse leading my father's ICU team also had cared for Reagan in the ICU. (My mother used to see James and Sarah Brady, the former coming in for rehabilitation therapy.) My father went into a 3-week coma following the operation and then came out of it. On the plus side, the staff then started feeding him milkshakes to build up his weight, although he probably didn't fully appreciate the milkshakes at the time!

Anyway, while my father was in the hospital, my mom lent me The Good Companions to read and I liked it a lot. Later that year, after our daughter was born, Mom lent me Priestley's The Image Men to read, which I didn't enjoy quite as much. Nearly 30 years later, I couldn't remember the author or title of The Good Companions, only that the book had something to do with a "Poirot" troupe. Fortunately, I remembered the other book being about "image makers", so I eventually was able to track down Priestley and The Good Companions!

... Pierrot troupe ...

Miss Trant liked "drinking a large cup of cocoa (a weakness of hers) and munching her way through innumerable buttered Digestive biscuits while staring at a book." Our local grocery store has a very small British/Irish section from which I picked up a couple of Devon "Digestive Chocolate"s; i.e., the biscuit is covered in milk chocolate. Not bad!

In the 1990s, some staff at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire created an imaginary business, ServiceWatch (The Wool Exchange, Smithson Square, Bruddersford), to teach students about business information systems. If you look in the Telephone Directory, you'll see some familiar names: Jesiah Oakroyd; his daughter Lily's husband, Jack Clough; his friend, Sam Oglethorpe; and The Good Companions' manager, Jimmy Nunn. (Perhaps some others as well; I didn't check all of the names.) The customers from Mr. Oakroyd's job sheets are landladies at the correct addresses in Luddenstall; see the return addresses in Book Two, Chapter 7: "All Stolen from the Mail Bag".

Also see The J.B. Priestley Society.


A Pair of Blue Eyes

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1873)

I'm occasionally coming across Thomas Hardy novels I haven't read. This was Hardy's third novel and the first one published under his real name. Being one of Hardy's early novels, it is not surprisingly a pretty weak story. None of the main characters is particularly likeable: the manly men act like manly men and the fickle woman acts like a fickle woman.

Project Gutenberg eBook: A Pair of Blue Eyes

  [Book cover]

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story

by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1937)


  [Book cover]

Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography

by Alberto Manguel (Wikipedia)

This very interesting book is a history of the influence of the mythical Homer and his epic poems on literature, culture, and what-not down through the centuries. One thing that struck my fancy was that, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Greeks (with the focus on scholars in this case) migrated to Italy, spurring new interest in Greek scholarship. However, in the wake of the Reformation, the Catholic Church discouraged and suppressed the teaching of Greek and the Greek classics in Catholic countries, preferring instead Latin and the Latin classics. The Protestant countries, meanwhile, did the opposite, encouraging the study of Greek and the Greek classics and letting Latin lag behind.

  [Book cover]

The Penelopiad

by Margaret Atwood (Wikipedia)

Similar to Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is Homer's Odyssey told from the point of view of Odysseus' wife, Penelope ...

  [Book cover]

The Adventures of Captain Horn

by Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1895)

In 1884, a schooner well out to sea is severely damaged by a storm off the Peruvian coast. Captain Horn successfully gets the crew and three passengers into two lifeboats and lands on a desolate beach after several days voyage. Two groups of sailors sent out to scout for villages and food mysteriously disappear. The real adventures start when Captain Horn and the passengers discover a hidden cache of Incan gold. "Peru" and "Incas"—magic words for me!

The Adventures of Captain Horn was very popular when it was published in 1895. For me, the book was fairly exciting in the first 100 pages of the book; the pace lagged in the middle 100 pages, but the action and adventure really picked up in the last 100 pages. The middle section was all about waiting, so perhaps Stockton was simply trying to draw the reader into the experience!

I was uncomfortable reading this book. The racist attitude towards the "coal-black heathen[s]" (former African slaves) was, again, not unexpected in a novel of this era, but the attitude was manifested over and over throughout the entire book, this despite the prominent and favorable role of the blacks in the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Adventures of Captain Horn

Feedbooks eBook: The Adventures of Captain Horn

  [Book cover]

The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are

by Michael Pye

Michael Pye's thesis in this book is that the peoples and cultures of the lands surrounding the North Sea had a significant influence on the shaping of Western Civilization. If he had presented a well-reasoned argument based on deeply considered facts, this would have been a good book. If he had simply documented some of these influences in a coherent fashion, this would have been a good book. Instead, the reader is treated to whirlwind histories of various aspects of these peoples and cultures, with jumbled mixes of facts, and histories with frequent tangents off into irrelevant areas. For example, in Chapter 8, "Science and money", Pye tosses out "quadratic equations" and other terms in an apparent attempt to link these mathematical developments to the Frisian merchants' use of money (coins representing abstract values) in business transactions, which he repeatedly argues—in a hand-waving manner—involves higher levels of mathematics than just basic arithmetic. (Which may well be true, but the point is not demonstrated.)

What the reader comes away with from The Edge of the World is the rather obvious idea that cultural influences travel in both directions along trade and transportation routes. And, as Pye describes in the book, these routes stretched from the Far East to Europe and Africa and, beyond, to the Americas. Sorting out which innovations, etc. come from where is a difficult task given the mixing pot of cultural influences that was the reality of the different eras.

On the plus side, the reader faces a flood of extremely fascinating facts and stories of events. There are so many things that Pye discusses that I want to learn about in more depth.

Quibbles: Pye makes way too much use of colon-based sentences structured as "sentence: list of comma-separated phrases". The word "turntable" is used three times in reference to locations. I think "hub" is the word he was looking for; I couldn't find any online dictionary that had definitions other than a stereo turntable, a railway turntable, or a lazy suzan. Finally, the Book of Revelations should be the Book of Revelation.

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My Cousin Rachel

by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1951)

A mystery/romance. Good, but short—it was practically finished before it even started!

Also see The Daphne du Maurier Web Site.

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The Exiles of Faloo

by Barry Pain (1864-1928) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1910)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Exiles of Faloo

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Incredible Adventures

by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1914)

I dip into this book occasionally between reading other books. It's a collection of five, semi-short, interesting but long-winded, supernatural stories.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Incredible Adventures

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The Heretic's Apprentice

by Ellis Peters (1913-1995) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1989)

I couldn't make up my mind what book to read next, so, after several abortive attempts at beginning some other books, I decided to take a break and reread my favorite Brother Cadfael book, The Heretic's Apprentice, for the third, fourth, or fifth time over the past 25 years.

Also see Wikipedia's Cadfael article about the man and its The Cadfael Chronicles, which describes the historical background of the Brother Cadfael stories.


The Castle of Otranto

by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1764)

... illustration

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Castle of Otranto

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Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces

by Thomas W. Hanshew (1857-1914) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1910)

For some strange reason, I haven't felt like reading any non-fiction lately even though I've got some interesting books I'd like to read eventually. In the meantime, I was browsing through the authors on Project Gutenberg and came across Mary E. Hanshew. I don't remember having heard of her, her husband Thomas, or their detective Cleek before, so I researched a bit and found the first book in the series, The Man of the Forty Faces. When I went to add the book to my reading page, I saw that I had read a later book in the series, The Riddle of the Frozen Flame, back in 2006. Hmm...

The Prologue in this book recounts the conversion of Hamilton Cleek from a talented impersonator and thief to a talented impersonator and detective for Scotland Yard, the conversion inspired by Cleek seeing a young woman who embodied all aspects of beauty and virtue. The Prologue is a little confusing about when Cleek is Cleek and when he is impersonating someone, but it becomes clear who was who by the end of the Prologue. The rest of the stories in the book are straightforward in that regard.

I enjoyed the book and the stories had some interesting mystery twists. Some readers consider Cleek and his adventures to be superior to Sherlock Holmes and his adventures. Having been steeped in the Holmes mythos for over five decades—although not having read any of Doyle's Holmes stories in several decades—I must respectfully disagree. The characters in the Cleek stories are overly melodramatic, there are some recurring characters from Cleek's past whose reappearance seems a little bit lazy on the part of the author, and I had too many moments of a "Really?!" reaction, in the sense of "You've got to be kidding, right?" For example, Cleek, the criminal who is wanted for stealing hundreds of thousands of (monetary) pounds in gems, jewelry, and cash walks into Scotland Yard, professes a change of heart, and, rather than being immediately arrested, is welcomed with open arms by the Scotland Yard superintendent, Maverick (Really?!) Narkom. Really?! I remember the Sherlock Holmes stories as being more grounded in the believable.

Word of the book: gammon - "Misleading or nonsensical talk; humbug." (The Free Dictionary) Frequently used by Narkom as an expletive, as in "Oh, gammon! Why not tell me at once that you are a winkle stall-keeper and be done with it?"

Project Gutenberg eBook: Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces

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Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction

by Tim Cresswell (Wikipedia)

I stopped after the fourth chapter, not quite a third of the way into the book. That was a tad unfortunate because Chapter 5, "Spatial Science and the Quantitative Revolution", might have been interesting and I was wondering if geography had fallen into the same trap as economics with regards to mathematics. (I'm thinking here of economists expending great effort at ensuring their economic models are mathematically coherent and expending much less effort at ensuring the models are grounded in reality. I've read a couple of academic papers on this problem—a problem that even leading econometricians, cited in the papers, acknowledge—and have come away with recommendations that economics curricula, particularly at the undergraduate level, be changed to reduce the emphasis on mathematics. I've been meaning to write about this someday!)

Dr. Cresswell starts out with some useful preliminaries. He discusses the tension between writing clearly to convey understanding and writing about inherently complex subjects. For some reason, Murray Melbin gets a drubbing for making up the word spant to refer to a space-time coordinate; i.e., a location with a timestamp. Spant's sole shortcoming in my humble layman's view is that the term didn't catch on; Dr. Criswell believes it was unnecessary. (Which is probably true; a quick Google of "space-time coordinate" showed a lot of people simply using the acronym, STC.) He also talks about the different definitions of "theory": an hypothesis in the vernacular, a falsifiable law in science, and, in fields like geography, sort of a guide on how to observe and interpret things with respect to particular aspects of interest.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover the development of geography as a field from ancient times up to the present and include contributions from philosphers like Kant and others to the nascent field. Chapter 4 gets into the theories of regions and it was at this time that my interest began to flag. I'm too old to want to spend much time perusing philosophical arguments about minutiae and it seemed like that's the direction in which the book was headed. What made matters worse was that Dr. Cresswell makes way too much use of in-line and block quotes from others. I would have preferred it if he had explained things in his own words. Doing so would have resulted in a more seamless and understandable narrative than the disruptive quotes do. That said, this could be a useful book for an upper-level undergraduate course in geographical theories, with the quotes pointing to more direct sources for the students to explore.

Also see the Varve blog, "Tim Cresswell, place, landscape, mobility, poetry".

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Jamaica Inn

by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1936)

"It was a cold grey day in late November." Not to be confused with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night" from Paul Clifford.

This book is set in the early 1800s. A widowed mother and her daughter, Mary Yellan, manage to eke out a living tending their farm for 17 years when illness strikes their livestock. This is the final blow for the mother and, shortly before she dies, she urges Mary, now twenty-three, to seek out her Aunt Patience in Cornwall.

Mary does so and finds her aunt living with her husband in the Jamaica Inn, an inn in name only upon a desolate hill on the Cornish coast. Travelers and local people avoid the inn, which serves only as a meeting place for Mary's uncle, Joss Merlyn, and his motley group of men: a gang of wreckers who put up false lights in fog and storms to lure ships onto the rocks. The gang ensures there are no survivors—for "dead men tell no tales", as her uncle likes to say—and then salvages what they can of a ship's cargo and the personal effects of passengers and crew. Aunt Patience is in perpetual fear of her husband and in a permanent state of shock from knowing what he does, particularly the part about killing the passengers and crew. Mary gradually finds out what is going on.

An absorbing story with plenty of atmosphere—the cold winds blowing over the lonely moor, the stormy sea, and so on. I think I actually enjoyed this book more than Du Maurier's Rebecca.

Also see The Daphne du Maurier Web Site and the real Jamaica Inn (Wikipedia).

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Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer (pub. 2014)

Neal Stephenson in the Preface:

In early 2011, I participated in a conference called Future Tense, where I lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating that the real issue isnt about rockets. It's our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff.


At the end of each story is a link to web resources relating to the story. Rather than tediously typing in the URLs, simply go to The Book project page. Scroll down and you'll see a graphic for each story in the book; click on the graphic to go to a story's resources page. (In fact, the links in the book are redirected to the pages linked to by the graphics.)

Also see Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination and its Project Hieroglyph.

Word of the book: Singularitarians, used in two different stories. I am less interested in what the word means and more interested in how to pronounce it. If I work slowly through the word, syllable by syllable, I can say it. But if I try speaking at a normal rate, I can't pronounce it—it's a tongue-twister for me!

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At the Ghost Hour: The House of the Unbelieving Thomas

by Paul Heyse (1830-1914) (Wikipedia) translated by Frances A. Van Santford (pub. 1894)


Project Gutenberg eBook: At the Ghost Hour: The House of the Unbelieving Thomas

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Mansfield Park

by Jane Austen (1775-1817) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1814)

The movie version of this novel has been running often on cable TV lately. I haven't watched it yet, but the one-line summary of the movie didn't ring a bell, despite me having read the book back in 2006. I do remember the basic plots of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility (perhaps because the movie is shown so frequently), and Emma (my least favorite Austen book), but not Mansfield Park.

A poor 10-year-old girl, Fanny Price, is sent to be raised and educated by her rich aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park. Her new "family" kind of treats her as a third wheel except for her older cousin, Edmund, who takes her under his wing and keeps an eye out for her. Fanny naturally grows into a lovely young woman who, naturally, falls in romantic love with Edmund. However, Edmund is in love with Mary Crawford, whose brother Henry is in love with Fanny.

Like some of the other books I've read recently, Mansfield Park drew me in for the first third of the novel, lagged during the middle third, and then got interesting again in the last third. Fanny is an admirable heroine; Edmund is also admirable, though at times a little pompous.

Word of the book: shrubbery, used 13 times in the book. I can't help but smile and think each time of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (IMDB), in which the Knights of "Ni!" send King Arthur and his knights off on a quest for a shrubbery! (YouTube)

Project Gutenberg eBook: Mansfield Park

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Don't Look Now and Other Stories

by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) (Wikipedia) (originally pub. 1971 as Not After Midnight and Other Stories)


Also see The Daphne du Maurier Web Site.

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The Scapegoat

by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1957)

The year is 1956. John is an Englishman nearing the age of 40, leads a quiet orderly life in London, teaches French history, is fluent in French, has no family and few friends. He is depressed and feels that he is a failure; no one would miss him if he simply disappeared. At the time of the story, John is on holiday, traveling around France as he usually does, looking to pick up information to liven up his French history classes.

In Le Mans, John runs into his double, Comte (Count) Jean de Gue, who looks exactly like him. De Gue envies John's independence, Jean himself being married and having family and the local people dependent on him. The two of them dine and drink until John passes out. He wakes up in a seedy hotel room surrounded by Jean's clothes, papers, and belongings; his own clothes, papers, belongings, and car have disappeared, along with Jean de Gue. De Gue's chauffeur is waiting to take John/Jean back to the chateau. Despairing of convincing the police that he is not Comte de Gue, John climbs in the car.

No one detects that John is not Jean; he's acting a little strange, but he is still Jean. (The dogs sense that he is not Jean, but then get used to him.) Gradually, he works his way into the family, learning about each of them and about the terrible mess Jean has left behind. No, he doesn't magically solve all of the De Gue problems and make everything right; some things get much, much worse.

This was my favorite Du Maurier book so far—a well-told story. My only complaint is that the end leaves you hanging just a little bit, but that's a small price to pay for the rest of the story.

Word of the book: suppurate - "fester". In the book: "something whose memory must not be allowed to suppurate unseen, but should be opened up and cleansed."

Also see The Daphne du Maurier Web Site.

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Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World

by Jeff Madrick


The seven bad ideas are reflected by the seven chapter titles:

"The Beautiful Idea: The Invisible Hand"
Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" ...
"Say's Law and Austerity Economics"
"Governments Limited Social Role: Friedman's Folly"
"Low Inflation Is All That Matters"
"There Are No Speculative Bubbles"
"Globalization: Friedman's Folly Writ Large"
"Economics Is a Science"


Silas Marner

by George Eliot (1819-1880) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1861)

I read Silas Marner back in 1996, but I felt like reading it again. It's shorter than I remember!

... my collection of quotes

Word of the book: collogue - "to conspire, talk mysteriously together in low tones, plot mischief." Squire Cass, speaking to his son, Godfrey: "And how long have you been so thick with Dunsey that you must collogue with him to embezzle my money?" (Emphasis in the Project Gutenberg eBook; different editions on Google Books either have the word in italics or don't.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: Silas Marner

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Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted

by Ian Millhiser

It is perhaps fitting that I read Injustices now. The book begins with a brief history of how the courts dismantled Reconstruction in the decades following the Civil War and enabled the disenfranchisement of the newly freed slaves. I started the book on July 13, shortly after the South Carolina government decided to take down the Confederate battle flag that had been flying at the State House since the Civil Rights era. It was revolting seeing the religious reverence paid to the flag as it was lowered. More telling was a young woman, interviewed on TV, who was driven to tears by chants of "USA! USA!" during the flag lowering; she felt like the chants were a slap in the face to her Southern pride. I'm not keen on nationalistic chants, but good grief! A North Carolina resident who decided to attend the event, she was incoherently upset about "everyone" talking about "equality" while not willing to put her Confederate heritage up on a pedestal. Also, of course, July 15 is coming up, the day of Operation Jade Helm, when the United States of America invades Texas—for the umpteenth time! Yes, things will probably get even crazier as time goes on ...


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The House on the Strand

by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1969)

... Chapel Point, Portmellon

"The Strand" has always had an aura of Victorian magic to me, partly because I didn't know what it actually was or is. Therefore, I've made it the word of the book: strand - "the shore of a sea, lake, or large river." The Strand in London was originally "the shallow bank of the once much wider River Thames, before the construction of the Victoria Embankment", after which it became the major thoroughfare it is now. The Strand in London has nothing to do with Du Maurier's The House on the Strand, which takes place in Tywardreath in Cornwall. According to Wikipedia, Tywardreath is Cornish for "manorial centre on a beach"—or, in less majestic terms, "house on a strand"!

Also see The Daphne du Maurier Web Site.

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Dr. Johnson's London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education

by Liza Picard


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The History and Records of the Elephant Club

by Knight Russ Ockside, M.D. and Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.
[Edward Fitch Underhill (1830-1898) and Mortimer Q. Thomson (1832-1875), Wikipedia]

A humorous story about some strangers in 1850s New York City that meet and form "The Elephant Club", the purpose of which was—and I quote:

  1. The enjoyment and amusement of its members through.
  2. A profound study of the Metropolitan Elephant, by surveying him in all his majesty of proportion, by tracing him to his secret haunts, and observing his habits, both in his wild and domestic state.
In other words, the purpose was carousing. Without a compelling story, the humor gets a little tedious after a while and I only made it through about half of the book's 170 pages. The book does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of 1850s New York City, but the members getting drunk and landing in silly situations eventually loses its luster.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The History and Records of the Elephant Club (pub. 1857)

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The Thing from the Lake

by Eleanor M. Ingram (1886-1921) (pub. 1921)


See Skulls in the Stars for a review of the book and for some scarce information the reviewer was able to dig up about Eleanor Ingram.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Thing from the Lake


Fated to Be Free

by Jean Ingelow (1820-1897) (Wikipedia)

The book starts out showing promise enough. An aging matriarch, Madam (Elizabeth) Melcombe, asks her two surviving sons, Daniel and Augustus Mortimer, themselves elderly, to visit her. These sons ran away from home in their teens and have had little contact with their mother in the intervening decades. Madam Melcombe, realizing her time is growing short and wishing that some respect be shown her, asks her sons to attend her funeral when the time comes. They both agree under one condition: that Madam Melcombe leave nothing to them in her will. As you read the rest of the story, the recurring thought in your mind is will you ever find out why the sons ran away from home and, thus, why they forego any interest in their mother's estate?


Project Gutenberg eBook: Fated to Be Free (pub. 1875)

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God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

by Jonathan D. Spence (Wikipedia)

... mentioned in Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China ...

Hong Xiuquan founded the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and led the Taiping Rebellion against the ruling Qing dynasty ...

Word of the book: enfeoffment - "The act of investing with any dignity or possession; also the instrument or deed by which a person is invested with possessions." (The Law Dictionary) From Wikipedia: "the deed by which a person was given land in exchange for a pledge of service" and "In China and some other South East Asian countries, from the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE)[,] relatives and descendants of the ruling family were granted enfeoffments in return for pledging to protect the King or Emperor in times of war." As in:

If there has been some kind of power struggle, it is Yang Xiuqing who is the winner. For on December 17, a week after Xiao is wounded, Hong Xiuquan, with no comment on Xiao's state of health, issues his full enfeoffment of the five kings, including Xiao as "West King". At the end of the proclamation, Hong grants to Yang, the East King, "supervisory power" over the other four kings, clearly promoting him above the rest in the earthly Taiping hierarchy.

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The Passenger from Calais

by Arthur Griffiths (1838-1908) (Wikisource) (pub. 1905)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Passenger from Calais


The Inn at the Red Oak

by Latta Griswold (1876-1931)


About the author, from "Thoughts of Bibiliomaven: Deering Series by Latta Griswold":

Latta Griswold (1876-1931) authored the [Deering] series. Griswold attended the Princeton Theological Institute and graduated from the General Theological Seminary in New York in 1905. He was a rector at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox, Massachusetts at the time of his death. In 1926 he founded the Lenox School.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Inn at the Red Oak (pub. 1917)

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Original Sin

by P. D. James (1920-2014) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1994)

I haven't read any of the Adam Dalgliesh stories by P.D. James since, perhaps, the 1970s or 1980s. The last one I remember reading was The Black Tower, published in 1975 although I probably read it some years later. Consequently, I was a little unprepared for Original Sin, having not kept up with Dalgliesh's "life". Commander Dalgliesh is now legendary and knows that he is, which detracts from his character a little bit, in my opinion. He plays somewhat of a lesser role in this book and more attention is focused on his two partners, Kate Miskin and Daniel Aaron.

At a small publishing house in London, people are dropping left and right. Are these deaths accidents, murders, or suicides? Dalgliesh, Miskin, and Aaron are brought in to investigate. The story quickly picks you up and moves you along at a brisk pace throughout. I enjoyed it.

At one point, speaking to an Anglican nun, sister of one of the ladies who died, Commander Dalgliesh approaches the wisdom of Brother Cadfael:

Dalgliesh said: "... I am asking if you knew of any other person close to your sister who could have resented the way she died."

"None except myself. But I resented it, Commander. Suicide is the final despair, the final rejection of God's grace, the ultimate sin."

Dalgliesh said quietly: "Then perhaps, Sister, it will receive the ultimate mercy."

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Thou Art The Man

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1894)

Lady (Sibyl) Penrith, a beautiful woman about 29 years of age, is riding home in her carriage when a "crazy mendicant" runs up to her, sticks a brief hand-scrawled note in her hand, and immediately runs off. The handwriting reminds Lady Penrith of that of the man she loved 10 years before, Brandon Mountford, who died tragically back then. Or did he?

I read Mrs. Maxwell's (née Braddon) most famous novel, Lady Audley's Secret, last year, but I couldn't remember what that story was about. I looked up the plot on Wikipedia and, although a few elements rang a bell, little light was shed on the story for me. So my expectations were not high for Thou Art The Man. I was very pleasantly surprised to find it an excellent mystery/suspense novel. I really enjoyed it. Credit is probably due Mrs. Maxwell's more finely honed writing skills, as Thou Art The Man was written 30 years after Lady Audley's Secret (and 30 years after the book below, Henry Dunbar).

A unique theme of the book is epilepsy (Wikipedia), which plays a major role in the storyline and perhaps reflects the current knowledge about epilepsy at the time the book was written (late nineteenth century). The two main points in the book are (i) epilepsy is inherited and (ii) an epileptic person becomes a blood-crazed savage during a seizure. Regarding the first point, there is a heritable component of epilepsy, but the expression in children of an epileptic individual seems to occur in a low percentage of cases. Regarding the latter point, I couldn't find any discussion of that. Interestingly, since the story takes place in England, here's a snippet from the World Health Organization's epilepsy fact sheet:

In many countries legislation reflects centuries of misunderstanding about epilepsy. For example:

The story is set in late nineteenth-century England and technology raises its humorous head: "This letter, in Braemar's jerky style, natural in a man who conducted his private correspondence chiefly by electric wire ..." The letter in question is written in short clipped sentences, a style obviously picked up from writing too many telegrams. Sounds like today's text messages and tweets! Some years ago, I read an article or column in which the writer spoke of how, in terms of seeming technological complexity, E-mails should have been invented first and the telephone would have then been greeted as a tremendous step forward. Of course, phones were invented first. However, in a way, E-mails were invented first, in the form of telegrams. Quite a while ago, I noticed in the late-1800s, early-1900s fiction I was reading that characters were constantly sending telegrams left and right. In one book, a family sends a telegram to a neighboring family to tell them that the first family would drop by for tea in an hour. In the pulp fiction books I read, detectives following suspects would take every chance they could to step into a telegraph office to send status updates to their home office, informing them of their location and any other details of importance.

Words of the book, both from Coralie: quotha is an exclamation, like "Goodness Gracious!", and toque is "a small cap or bonnet having a narrow brim or no brim".

Unfortunately, I've only found an online copy of this book at the Internet Archive. From the books I've looked at there, I gather that the Internet Archive takes images of each page of out-of-copyright books and then runs them through an automatic OCR (optical character recognition) scan to generate the different formats of the eBooks. The eBooks are not cleaned up, which would require volunteers manually proofreading the texts (as is done by the various Project Gutenbergs). So, in this book for example, Chapter 4 has the title, "A MARIAGE DK CONVENANOE", which is obviously "A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE"! Despite mistakes like this, the text is easy enough to decipher and you get to the point where your mind corrects the errors without you really noticing and the flow of reading is not interrupted.

Internet Archive eBook: Thou Art The Man

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Henry Dunbar

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1864)

This story starts around the year 1815. Henry Dunbar is the young spendthrift son of a wealthy banker. Henry's personal servant, Joseph Wilmot, is the even younger, supposedly naive son of one of the bank employees. Henry's repeated gambling debts result in his father finally refusing to pay them off. To fend off his creditors, Henry connives with Joseph to forge signatures on bank documents that indicate the money is forthcoming. Henry's father finds out, Joseph is thrown under the tram by Henry, so to speak, and Henry is exiled to India. Joseph drops further into the criminal world, is transported, returns to England, and never manages to make an honest living for very long. Henry, meanwhile, successfully heads up the Indian branch of the bank.

35 years later, in 1850, the senior Dunbar passes away and Henry inherits the bank and his father's and late uncle's amassed wealth. He returns to England. Wilmot hears of Dunbar's planned return to England and makes his way to Southampton to meet Dunbar when his ship arrives. The two of them agree to "let bygones be bygones" and are last seen strolling arm-in-arm into the woods in the town of Winchester. Only Henry Dunbar comes out and Joseph Wilmot is shortly found murdered in the river. I'm not giving away the story here because, while the pretense that "Henry Dunbar" is Henry Dunbar continues throughout the book, it is patently obvious that Wilmot exacted revenge on Dunbar by killing him and assuming his identity. (Remember, no one in England had seen Dunbar for 35 years and Wilmot's features were sufficiently similar to allow Wilmot to stand in his place. Wilmot manages the impersonation awkwardly but credibly.) The police initially suspect "Dunbar" of the crime, but find no evidence linking Dunbar to the murder and he is free to go.

Other people, however, continue to harbor doubts that Dunbar is innocent of killing Wilmot. A year later, Detective Carter of Scotland Yard is privately hired to investigate the case. And the story plays out ...

Despite my comment above implying that Henry Dunbar is not as good as Thou Art The Man, I actually liked Henry Dunbar a great deal. My main complaint is that, on occasion, Braddon waxes lyrical about love and other things. In response, I learned to skim those passages. A minor complaint regards literary devices that were probably clever at the time, but don't seem so clever now; for example, telling a part of the story through someone's diary.

Definite word of the book: slantindicular - slanted! As in when Laura Dunbar is sketching or painting:

What words can describe Laura's pleading face when she found that the shadow of a ruined castle wouldn't agree with the castle itself, or that a row of poplars in the distance insisted on taking that direction which our transatlantic brothers call "slantindicular"?

Phrase of the book: Be it as it might, or, as we would say nowadays, "Be that as it may". Well, it was interesting to me at least! (And later in the book, Braddon renders the phrase as "Be it as it may", a sensible compromise perhaps?)

Colorful line: Being interrogated by Detective Carter is like an "intellectual hornpipe between a set of fire-irons". In other words, the witness is dancing the intellectual hornpipe and Carter is keeping the witness on track and not letting him (in this case) veer off on irrelevant tangents.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Henry Dunbar

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Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women's Lives 1540-1714

by Sara Read

Let's start with two quotations from the introduction:

One famous, often reprinted, quotation was from a letter written to Hippocrates in ancient times. A seventeenth century translation of the letter gave it as, "the womb is the cause of six hundred miseries and innumerable calamities."
A proverb from the early seventeenth century claimed, "England is the paradise of women, the purgatory of men, and the hell of horses." ... How far early modern England seems like it was a paradise for women will be left for the reader to judge.


Word of the book: conurbation - "a large densely populated urban sprawl formed by the growth and coalescence of individual towns or cities." (Collins English Dictionary) Wikipedia has a more in-depth article on the term, which was coined in 1915 by Sir Patrick Geddes. Dr. Read uses the term in the following sentence:

Most doctors—with the notable exception of Thomas Lodge (1558-1625), who practised during the 1603 outbreak—left London and large conurbations during the plague outbreaks; abandoning their patients to cope as best they could.
I understand the meaning in this context, but the use of the term makes for awkward reading in my not-terribly-important opinion, especially if you don't know what the word means.

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Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress

by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1724)

The full title is The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany. Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II. So, I used Wikipedia's abbreviation, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress!

The Project Gutenberg book was published in 1904 with an introduction by G. Howard Maynadier (1866-1960). Maynadier speculates that the fortunate mistress was called "Roxana" from an early age, based on the sentence in the title, "Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II"; i.e., King Charles II died when she was very young. However, the name "Roxana" is first used nearly halfway into the book:

At the finishing the dance the company clapped, and almost shouted; and one of the gentlemen cried out "Roxana! Roxana! by ——," with an oath; upon which foolish accident I had the name of Roxana presently fixed upon me all over the court end of town as effectually as if I had been christened Roxana. [p. 267 in the original book]
Not exactly a strong indication that her real name was "Roxana". Furthermore, about 40 pages later, Roxana herself speaks of her maid, Amy, and her own daughter:
... Amy and Susan (for she was my own name) began an intimate acquaintance together. [p. 311 in the original book]
Roxana, Susan, ...?


In the first edition of the novel, the story ends abruptly. Later editions, all published after Defoe's death in 1731, added various endings to the story, probably none of which were written by Defoe himself. For the 1908 edition used by Project Gutenberg, Maynadier chose, based on its literary merits, a "CONTINUATION" which first appeared in a 1745 edition of the book; despite the 1745 edition's claims to the contrary, Maynadier didn't believe the continuation was written by Defoe, as he explains in the introduction.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress

  [Book cover]

Candide, ou l'Optimisme

by Voltaire (1694-1788) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1759, original French)

Candide is a humorous novella with lots of cultural, literary, and philosophical references, some of which I understood and others which I didn't. Whether or not you get these references, the book is still funny and, at about 90 pages in length, is a brief read. It's been many years since I read Don Quixote, but I imagine the books are similar in their use of humor to illustrate deeper points.

Candide is a young man in Germany and a student of Dr. Pangloss, an optimist who believes that "all is for the best", no matter what the circumstances:

"It is demonstrable," said [Dr. Pangloss], "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end ... Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best."
Candide travels all over the world in an effort to catch up with his one true love, Cunégonde, and finds himself entangled in all sorts of adventures. Like I said, the book is funny and, for those so inclined, further research will yield more profound ideas that can be drawn from the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Candide

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Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs of the Year 1793

by Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1799)

Arthur Mervyn is considered one of Charles Brown's "gothic" novels. More broadly, Brown "explains that his novels combine fiction and history to place ordinary individuals (like his novelistic [protagonist Arthur Mervyn ...]) into situations of historical stress (like the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 [in Philadelphia ...]) in such a way as [to] educate his audience about virtuous behaviors and the historical causes and conditions of individual actions. In short, Brown uses his Wollstonecraftian-Godwinian models to develop political fiction that is intended to educate his readers and to take part in the ideological and cultural debates of his period." (Wikipedia)

I really enjoyed reading this book in spite of itself! "Ponderous" is the first word that comes to mind to describe the writing style. The story requires a suspension of disbelief, as brand new people and names pop up throughout the book and there's always some kind of connection between these new people and the already introduced characters; it's sort of like watching the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon play out in the year 1793.

Speaking of 1793, the novel is subtitled, Memoirs of the Year 1793. How do so many things happen to a person in a single year? Yes, there can be that many events in a person's life, but how does Arthur Mervyn manage to develop deep relationships, probably time consuming, with a number of these people within that time frame?

Speaking of Arthur Mervyn, he leaves his father and his father's farm at the age of nineteen and goes to the big city (Philadelphia) to seek his fortune. Within 24 hours, he's lost what little money he had and most of his clothes. A kindly old villain, Mr. Welbeck, takes him in to be his secretary, dresses him up, and lets him live luxuriously—for a brief time at least.

The young Mr. Mervyn inspires great admiration at times and causes acute exasperation the rest of the time. As Mrs Wentworth says of Arthur later in the book:

"I know not what to make of you. Your language and ideas are those of a lunatic."
His insightfulness is paired with obtuseness.


Word of the book: flagitious - "guilty of terrible crimes; wicked, criminal." (Wiktionary) Welbeck talking to Arthur Mervyn:

"Your youth and inexperience make you a stranger to a deceitful and flagitious world."
Honorable mention goes to unexceptionable because it required a laborious translation, involving a double negative, in my head: exceptionable (which I knew) => unexceptional => un-unexceptional => exceptional. So, unexceptionable means exceptional!

Also see the Charles Brockden Brown Society.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs of the Year 1793

  [Book cover]

The Marbeck Inn

by Harold Brighouse (1882-1958) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1920)

I had never heard of Harold Brighouse, but it happens that he was the playwright who wrote Hobson's Choice (IMDb), whose title is taken from the term, "Hobson's choice, which first appeared in print in 1660.

I could hardly pass up a book that begins as follows:

It falls to some to be born, as they say, with a silver spoon in their mouths, and the witty have made play with the thought that the wise child chooses rich parents.

Sam Branstone lacked the completeness of that wisdom. He was born in one of those disconsolate streets of Manchester down which the stranger, passing by tram along a main road, hardly more delectable than its offshoots, looks and shudders; but was born with this difference from the many—that he was son to Anne Branstone, a notable woman, and wisdom may be conceded him for the discrimination of his choice.

At the age of perhaps ten, Sam saves the life of another boy, Lance Travers, who had accidentally fallen on the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. Lance's relatively well-to-do widowed father, Mr. Travers, to show his gratitude, offers to raise Sam in his house and send him to the same private Grammar School as Lance. Anne reserves the raising of Sam to herself and Sam's father, but she sees a superior education as a way up in the world for Sam. Stiffly, she allows Mr. Travers to, at most, pay Sam's tuition at the school. Since she and her husband are then on the hook for Sam's other expenses (uniform, etc.), they scrimp and save as best as they can to keep him in school.

As the story progressed, I was worried that The Marbeck Inn was going to turn into a Wodehouse-like sleeper about life in Grammar School. Fortunately, however, Sam and Lance and their friends make it through school. Lance and the others go on to University; Sam's family can't afford to send him to college, so Mr. Travers gives him a job in his estate agency.

The first third of the book, like I said, had me a little worried, but the next third saw the explosion of author Brighouse's wit onto the page. In tandem with the ongoing drama, humor was ingeniously worked into the writing and the book became a real pleasure to read. The end of the book gets more philosophical, but the deep thoughts are expertly woven into the story. Despite its unpromising beginning, the book as a whole finally impressed me as a minor masterpiece, amazingly so in light of its under-200-page length.

An example of the humor in the story:

A generous man, [Travers] was generous in the worst way to himself, and Sam soon learnt the meaning of a euphemism, current in the office, "Mr. Travers is attending a property auction." Property auctions are, it is true, usually held on licensed premises, and whether Mr. Travers was or was not attending an auction, he was certainly on licensed premises more often than was good for either his business or himself.

My mother used to say of some people that they always had an eye out for the "main chance"; it was not a compliment! I don't remember ever seeing or hearing that phrase elsewhere until I read this book (published in 1920). I thought maybe my mother had picked it up from the movie, Hobson's Choice, but I couldn't find its use in Brighouse's play. However, I happened upon it again a couple of books later in Mary E. Braddon's Birds of Prey (published in 1866), down below a little ways, so it must have been fairly common at sometime or another.

Word of the book: slut - in the old sense, "a slovenly, untidy woman". Anne Branstone considers Sam's wife, Ada, to be a slut because she doesn't keep a clean house. (When Sam gets rich enough, they hire servants to keep the house clean.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Marbeck Inn

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The Heart Goes Last

by Margaret Atwood (1939-) (Wikipedia) (pub. 2015)

The Heart Goes Last brings a dystopian future into the here and now. The U.S. economy has collapsed leaving much of the eastern half of the country a wasteland; the western half of the country is apparently maintaining some semblance of order and civilization. Las Vegas, at least, is thriving.

Stan and Charmaine are a young married couple living out of a small car and keeping a sharp eye out for roving gangs and criminals. Stan lost his job and Charmaine has a part-time job in a bar. Life is not good for them.

Wealthy investors begin building modern cities based around existing prisons (!). Tight security is a must to keep the outside riff-raff from infiltrating the city and to keep the citizens from trying to go in the opposite direction. Culture is purposefully a mix of 1950s movies, 1950s TV shows, and 1950s music. As a resident, you learn to like it.

Stan and Charmaine sign up for the city and are assigned a house, which they occupy every other month. At the beginning of each alternate month, they enter the prison at the same time another couple leaves the prison to live in their house for the next month. Each person has an assigned job when they're not in prison (Stan is a motorscooter mechanic) and another assigned job when they're in prison (Stan literally watches the hen house).

When the city was first built, there were existing prisoners integrated into the new prison life; the belief was that the non-criminal prisoners would have a positive influence on the criminals. That didn't work out, so the criminals were gradually weeded out and who knows what was done with them. Prison life is not bad and is accepted for a month at a time. Because of the possibility of payback, the standards for food are quite high and everyone gets along pretty well.

The bland life suits some and drives others up a wall. Stan and Charmaine seek outlets. The investors meanwhile keep demanding higher and higher profits. The city's production of "prostibots" finds big markets in Las Vegas and overseas, but the investors want even more money.

I haven't yet read George Orwell's 1984, but I get the impression that Atwood's book tells a similar story except that Big Brother is not the government but private enterprise. And private enterprise will stop at nothing in pursuit of bigger profits.

At this time in the United States, when, in the name of freedom and a single, loosely defined religion, a significant portion of the population wants to tear down government and turn all human and natural resources over to the capitalist machine—not to mention defunding Planned Parenthood—this book seems timely. However, the story and the writing are not up to the task, in my opinion. A lot of attention is paid to sex, which does play an important (but unnecessary?) role in the book. Stan and Charmaine become separated from each other and then alternating chapters tell each one's story; the reader kind of feels like a tennis ball being hit back and forth.

The lesson, I suppose, is that private enterprise has no moral limits to its ever-expanding search for more power and more money. Public government at least has the potential for such limits.

As you can probably guess, I don't think highly of this book and I wish I had read something else. For other readers, I would recommend that they skip Atwood's fictional The Heart Goes Last and try a non-fiction book which gives concrete examples of Atwood's theme; e.g., Ian Millhiser's Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

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Birds of Prey

Charlotte's Inheritance

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1866 and 1868, respectively)

Birds of Prey was first published serially in a magazine, Belgravia. When the novel exceeded its allotted space, Mary Braddon continued the story in Charlotte's Inheritance. Knowing that there are two books helps ensure that you read Birds of Prey first. Unfortunately, knowing that there are two books becomes a spoiler about halfway through Birds of Prey, although, to be fair, Mary Braddon is giving you very strong hints about a future plot twist; knowing about the second book just makes the hints more obvious.

Mary Braddon based some of her books around unique ideas that take them beyond run-of-the-mill, nineteenth-century mysteries. Thou Art The Man's mystery revolved around Brandon Mountford's epilepsy. In Birds of Prey, genealogical research plays a significant role, with a couple of the characters constantly seeking out the "oldest inhabitant" in a city or town, who will often remember what a previous generation's oldest inhabitant had to say, in an effort to push a genealogy back as many years as the researchers can. Very interesting!

Birds of Prey begins in the London home of Philip Sheldon, perhaps about 30 years of age, a "surgeon-dentist" with a moribund practice. In short, Philip Sheldon is in dire financial straits. His brother, George, is a lawyer who also struggles to make ends meet. George likes to take on speculative jobs tracking down missing heirs to estates, hence he has become an expert in genealogical research. Into this fiscally gloomy situation come Tom Halliday and his wife Georgina. Tom was a childhood friend of both Philip and George. Georgina was a former sweetheart of Philip's who decided to marry the more financially secure Tom—or perhaps her parents decided for her. The story progresses from there.

Coincidence or parody? Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik was the author of this famous passage from her novel, A Life for a Life, published either in 1856 or 1859:

Oh, the comfort—The inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person ...
(Craik's prose passage is often miscredited both as a poem, "Friendship", and as written by George Eliot. Neither is the case; see my "Did George Eliot Write This?" page.) Bearing in mind that Braddon's Birds of Prey was published 7-10 years after Craik's novel, consider the following passage from Braddon, which seems to me to perfectly capture the rhythm and step of Craik's style:
O, the hopeless dulness, the unutterable blankness of a provincial town late on a Sunday night, as it presents itself to the contemplation of a friendless young man without a sixpence in his pocket, or one bright hope to tempt him to forgetfulness of the past in pleasant dreaming of the future!
A delightful conundrum!

Both books have what I would call very rich texts, replete with literary and cultural references and French phrases. The books were written relatively early in Mary Braddon's career, but the writing doesn't come off as sophomoric pretentiousness. Three of the main characters spent a lot of time in France and a fourth was French, so the French phrases are not entirely out of place. I read the full Iliad and Odyssey when I was younger, in translation of course, but I was still a bit rusty on some of the details. There are other ancient and more modern references that flew over my head. The books, all in all, were very well written, but I think a more straightforward approach in the writing would have been of benefit—and made it possible to fit the complete story in one book!

When I got about 150 pages from the end of Charlotte's Inheritance, I began to think, "This story is really a masterpiece." A bit too long, with both books approaching 400 pages each, but still a masterful story. I salute Mary E. Braddon. Also, there aren't really any heroes or heroines in the story. The characters are basically ordinary individuals shaped by their circumstances, each one having both good and bad qualities. Valentine Hawkehurst probably is most successful at rising above his shady background through his own efforts; Diana Paget, despite the flaws she exhibits earlier, shows herself worthy of more admiration as the book reaches its end. Charlotte is a sweet airhead from an affluent family, albeit with a loopy mother and a stern stepfather who can't abide her presence. The other characters pretty much travel along in the paths that they and the world have made for them.

Word of the first book: definitely caravanserai, which I first encountered as the title of Carlos Santana's 1972 album, Caravanserai (Wikipedia). This album was followed by the departure of many of the earlier Santana members as Carlos veered off to explore new directions in his music. I think I gave the album a half-hearted listen back in the day. The cover of the album is a picture of a camel caravan, "caravan" being one of the definitions of caravanserai. Braddon uses it with its other definition of "an inn for travelers":

[Captain Paget] always had a favourite chair in every caravanserai wherein he rested in his manifold wanderings, and he had an unerring instinct which guided him in the selection of the most comfortable chair, and that one corner, to be found in every room, which is a sanctuary secure from the incursions of Boreas.
Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind, so I guess Braddon is trying to say that Captain Paget always found a corner free of drafts. Another word worthy of consideration and used frequently by Braddon is diligence, a now rarely used term for stagecoach.

Word of the second book: rhodomontade - "arrogant boasting or blustering, ranting talk" (YourDictionary). Rather than quote the word's use in Charlotte's Inheritance, I give you this much more humorous sentence from Henry Fielding's History of Tom Jones, a Foundling:

In fact, the good squire was a little too apt to indulge that kind of pleasantry which is generally called rhodomontade: but which may, with as much propriety, be expressed by a much shorter word; and perhaps we too often supply the use of this little monosyllable by others; since very much of what frequently passes in the world for wit and humour, should, in the strictest purity of language, receive that short appellation, which, in conformity to the well-bred laws of custom, I here suppress.
The shorter word in question undoubtedly starts with "sh" and I'll let you figure out the remainder! The modern spelling of "rhodomontade" leaves out the "h", thus "rodomontade".

A few loose ends to tie up with regard to phrases. First, people fall head-over-ears in love, not head-over-heels as we say today!

At various times in the books, various characters worry about impoverishment reducing them to being "crossing sweepers". From reading Lee Jackson's Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, I got the impression that many of London's streets were ankle-deep in filth, including fresh and dried sewage both from humans and from farm animals driven to markets in the city. In exchange for a tip, a crossing sweeper would clear a (relatively!) clean path for a person to cross a street. This was, of course, a necessity for women in their long dresses, but the filth also probably played havoc with both men's and women's footwear.

Late in Charlotte's Inheritance, Charlotte's mother is distraught over the household being "at sixes and sevens", or in "a state of disarray". The history of this idiomatic English phrase is unclear, but the phrase was used by Chaucer in the 14th century. It is possibly related to a game of chance, a fact which provides an interesting twist to the phrase's appearance in the song, "Tumbling Dice", by the Rolling Stones:

Always in a hurry, I never stop to worry,
Don't you see the time flashin' by.
Honey, got no money,
I'm all sixes and sevens and nines.

Finally, turnips, something which I've always associated with Blackadder. From Charlotte's Inheritance, George Sheldon is pondering an invitation to Christmas dinner when a ghost appears:

In George Sheldon's nature there was, however, no lurking dread of fiend or phantom. His ideas in connection with ghosts were limited to a white sheet, a broomstick, and a hollow turnip with a lighted candle inside it; and he would have set down the most awful apparition that ever was revealed to German ghost-seer, with a scornful grin, as a member of the sheet and-hollow-turnip confraternity.
This was a new use of turnips to me, but Wikipedia explains it:
A jack-o'-lantern (or jack o'lantern) is a carved pumpkin or turnip lantern, associated with the holiday of Halloween and named after the phenomenon of a strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern ...

... In the 19th century, "turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces", were used at Halloween in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.
The practice was apparently not unknown in 1860s London.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Birds of Prey

Project Gutenberg eBook: Charlotte's Inheritance

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A Wayside Tavern

by Norah Lofts (1904-1983) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1980)


  [Book cover]


by William Clark Russell (1844-1911) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1904)

In 1890, Miss Lucretia Lane is about to wed a sea captain, Francis Reynolds. Shortly before the ceremony, Lucretia begins to have second thoughts. She goes through with the ceremony, but, immediately afterwards, she refuses to live with Captain Reynolds or even to see or talk to him. The captain is obliged to begin a voyage from England, around Cape Horn, to Chile. He is shipwrecked on a small island a good distance off the coast of Chile.

With florid prose like the following, my initial thought was that I had made a poor choice in my next book to read:

A large star or two that went in the water with the ship, hung like a prism of white light, but the movement of the vessel made a little wind, and the threads of hair on Lucretia's brow danced to it as though they were Coleridge's summer leaf in an entranced night on a topmost bough, and she felt a bit chilly.
However, the story maintained and, as it progressed, even increased my interest, so I enjoyed the book overall. Even Captain Reynolds' philosophical musings about evolution and what we today call "Intelligent Design" were not without interest. Recently looking back over the Victorian books I've read over the years, I've been struck by how I can't seem to remember any books that don't seem to take for granted the truth and pervasiveness of the Christianity (in various forms) of their day. Maybe George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, in its sympathetic view of Judaism, was an exception. Perhaps just the popular novels shied away from looking more critically at religion.

As much as I enjoyed the book, it had one important flaw; not fatal, but nevertheless bothersome. Lucretia's reasons for turning her back on Captain Reynolds are never explained. Aarrgghh!!

Speaking of George Eliot, Russell's Mr. Goodhart "laughed with gentle enjoyment" and replied to Captain Reynolds:

"I have also heard of a lady who believed she was the author of the novels of George Eliot, and was afraid of looking into a mirror for fear of seeing the ghost of George Henry Lewes."
Perhaps the lady was Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik?!

Internet Archive eBook: Abandoned

As I've mentioned before, the Internet Archive eBooks are automatically converted from scanned page images, so there are lots of mistakes. The books are usually still readable despite these "typos". This particular eBook, however, was readable until about three-quarters of the way in, when it became so scrambled it was hard to read. Fortunately, I found the proofread book at Project Gutenberg Australia: Abandoned (Text) (HTML). My eReader can also handle text files, so I downloaded the plain-text file and ran it through a program I have that joins the lines in a paragraph into one long line and performs various other modifications. So I was able to finish the book in a readable form!

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The Wings of the Dove

by Henry James (1843-1916) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1902)

I was watching Notting Hill the other day and Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were discussing The Wings of the Dove, so I figured I ought to read it. This novel is fine literature. Henry James doesn't beat you over the head with the fact, the book just is what it is. I've noticed that a lot of the descriptive sentences make use of a kind of duality; e.g., she seems like this, but she could be that. This style sometimes makes for annoying equivocation, but, at other times, James mixes it up with clever word play, as in the following:

It wasn't with [Mrs. Lowder's] vulgarity that she felt [Merton Densher's] want of means, though that might have helped her richly to embroider it; nor was it with the same infirmity that she was strong, original, dangerous.
(To make myself clear, the clever word play is the juxtaposition of "want of means" and "richly" embroidered; the duality is evident in "infirmity" vis-á-vis "strong, original, dangerous".)

... currently reading ...

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Wings of the Dove (Volume 1, Volume 2)

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The Dark House

by George Manville Fenn (1831-1909) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1885)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Dark House


The Man Who Would be King

by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1888)

A 30-page story about two English con-men in colonial India who venture into primitive Afghanistan to pose as kings/gods. Because the book is so short, I initially wondered how the story could have been made into a full-length movie (IMDb). After reading the book, however, I could see how the story could be fleshed out into an impressive tale.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Man Who Would be King

  [Book cover]


by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1902)

A gripping and exhausting novella about a steamship caught in a terrifying typhoon. From what I can gather, the Nan-Chan was sailing north through the Taiwan Strait to a Chinese treaty port, Fu-Chau (now known as Fuzhou).

Project Gutenberg eBook: Typhoon

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Hobson's Choice

by Harold Brighouse (1882-1958) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1916)

Hobson's Choice is the theatrical play on which the famous movie with Charles Laughton is based (IMDb). Mr. Hobson, the proprieter of a shoemaking shop, is a widower with three unmarried daughters, ages 21 to 30. The daughters run the business; Mr. Hobson prefers to spend his time, his money, and his health at a pub, the "Moonraker". Although the story is slight, the play is interesting enough. By the time I came to the end of it, I was left wondering who had been offered a "Hobson's choice".

It is important to remember that a "Hobson's choice" is a choice between something and nothing, not a choice between two equally undesirable outcomes. Spoiler Alert! Apparently, the Hobson's choice in the play comes at the end when Hobson must choose between Maggie and her husband caring for him (with the husband taking over his business) or nothing—his other two daughters refuse to care for him.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Hobson's Choice

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The Betrothed

by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1825, original Italian)

A relatively poor Italian couple, Renzo and Lucy, are to be wed in November 1628. However, a local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, finds Lucy attractive and he sends his hooligans to threaten bodily harm to the curate if he marries the two. The unmarried Renzo and Lucy eventually run away to Milan and are separated while trying to escape from Don Rodrigo. Unfortunately for them, Don Rodrigo has a far-reaching hand thanks to powerful relatives.

According to the article I link to below, Manzoni is considered one of Italy's greatest writers, second only to Dante. The Betrothed, popular when it was first published, has not stood the test of time. I'm not sure I agree with Joseph Luzzi's assessment that The Betrothed lacks the univerality of Luzzi's counter-example, Pinocchio (which I haven't read and only know through the Disney movie!). I found the story as interesting as many other nineteenth-century novels I've read and enjoyed. I did feel that there was something slightly off about the book; I can't pinpoint what exactly it was. For example, some passages that weren't intentionally humorous reminded me of Voltaire's Candide. I can't tell if the out-of-sorts writing in the novel is present in the original Italian or if it was introduced by the translator. Possibly making a case for the latter is the translator's use of words like periphrastic (see below).

As others have noted, Manzoni works into his novel a gut-wrenching description of the Great Plague of Milan (1629-1631, Wikipedia), expertly capturing and conveying the horror of a fast-acting, lethal disease spreading through the population.

Word of the book: periphrastic - "unnecessarily convoluted, confusing, and wordy" (Vocabulary.com):

The amanuensis of Agnes, after some complaints on the want of clearness in Renzo's epistle, described the wonderful history of this person (so he called the Unknown), and thus accounted for the fifty crowns; then he mentioned the vow, but only periphrastically; adding more explicitly the advice, to set his heart at rest, and not to think of Lucy any more.

Also see "The Great Unread" (The Paris Review), by Joseph Luzzi, a very interesting article about why The Betrothed is largely ignored today and The Adventures of Pinocchio isn't. (According to the article, Manzoni's book is regarded by Italian schoolchildren in the same way a Ukranian friend of mine regards Dr. Zhivago—with distaste!)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Betrothed

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The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction

by Timothy Lim


  [Book cover]

The Black Cross

by Olive M. Briggs (1873-?) (pub. 1909)

The Black Cross is set in Tsarist Russia, presumably about the turn of the century. A renowned violinist, Velasco, who owns a Stradivarius, is approached by a beautiful anarchist, Kaya, who seeks his help in escaping Russia. I don't know the author's nationality, but the first two-thirds of this book is a great Russian novella; the last third takes place in Germany and seems to have a German flavor to me. There is a surpising plot twist at the end of the book, although Briggs drops one or two very subtle hints about it earlier in the book.

I couldn't find any biographical information about the author. The most I could come up with was a list of stories she wrote:

Olive Mary Briggs (1873-?) was the author of: The Love of Karpeles (1907), The Madonna's Necklace (1907), A d'Artagnan of To-Day (1908), The Black Cross (1909), The Fir and the Palm (1910), The Pound of Flesh (1912), The Bachelor Dinner (1912) and The Courting of Miss Parkina (1913).
Some of them may be books and some may be short stories.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Black Cross

  [Title page]

The Atlantic Telegraph

by William Howard Russell (1820-1907) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1865)

In 1857, the first attempt was made at laying a transatlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland; it was unsuccessful. A second attempt in 1858 was likewise unsuccessful. A third attempt in the same year finally succeeded, but sending messages was a time-consuming process as I describe below.

In 1865, the Great Eastern, the largest ship in existence at the time, was loaded with 2,300 nautical miles of cable and set out from Ireland laying cable. Over a thousand nautical miles of cable had been layed down when the cable broke. 3 out of 4 attempts to retrieve the cable with a grapnel were almost successful—unfortunately, each time, the "rope" attached to the grapnel broke when the cable had only been partially raised.

The bulk of William Russell's short book is a dramatic first-hand account of this 1865 expedition. I was amazed at the technical prowess shown by all concerned back then, despite the disappointing results. They manufactured a 2,300-nautical-mile cable, loaded it on a ship so as to be easily fed out into the ocean, and ran continuous electrical tests of the entire cable on the ship and to the shore station in Ireland. Wow, unbelievable at that time and age, at least to me!

Russell's book ends with the Atlantic Telegraph Company discussing what to do next. In 1866, the Great Eastern again set out and successfully laid a new cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. After doing so, the Great Eastern doubled back, located in the middle of the ocean (!) where the 1865 cable had broken, raised the old cable from the ocean floor two and a half miles below, and spliced it with a new cable that was laid down back to Newfoundland. The result was two working, transatlantic telegraph cables, both more technologically advanced than the 1858 cable.

Russell writes of a "speaking instrument" carried on the Great Eastern and used to communicate with the shore station. The term brings to mind a telephone or a radio, but it was actually a mirror galvanometer (Wikipedia), invented in 1826 by Johann Christian Poggendorff and improved by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) in the 1850s. (See "Inventing the Mirror Galvanometer" for a brief history.) Electrical signals traveling through a nearly 2,000-mile undersea cable tend to become blurred and effectively unintelligible at the receiving end. For example, a 150-word message sent from U.S. President James Buchanan to England's Queen Victoria over the 1858 cable took 30 hours to transmit (Popular Science Monthly, 1908). Increasing the strength of the signal only made matters worse. Instead, Thomson's mirror galvanometer ("speaking instrument") was used to detect small changes in the electrical current, thus allowing the faster transmission of messages.

Dynamometers were used to measure the weight or force exerted by the cable when being lowered to or raised from the sea. These measurements were made in units of cwts, which is an abbreviation for centum weight or, as it was more commonly called, hundredweight. The "long" imperial hundredweight used in England corresponded to 112 pounds. Naturally, the cable engineers on the Great Eastern watched the dynamometers very closely for signs of rising forces, which would indicate something had gone or was about to go badly wrong.

Modern-day sailors might cringe at Russell's use of knots in isolation as a measure of distance, knots as a measure of speed, and knots an hour also as a measure of speed. However, all three usages were common prior to the 1890s; see "Knots an hour" regarding Rudyard Kipling's use of the expression.

Also see "History of the Atlantic Cable & Submarine Telegraphy", which features Robert Charles Dudley's full-color illustrations from Russell's book.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Atlantic Telegraph


UTF-8 Everywhere: A Manifesto

by Pavel Radzivilovsky, Yakov Galka, and Slava Novgorodov

UTF-8 Everywhere is not a book, but a manifesto promoting the use of the UTF-8 encoding of Unicode code points, which can be naively thought of as characters. In particular, the authors point out the many disadvantages of the widely used UTF-16 format. A good part of the manifesto is devoted to working with or around the Microsoft Windows UCS-2 APIs, UCS-2 being an obsolete 16-bit representation of Unicode. Anything to get rid of those darn byte-order markers (BOMs)!

(The following is unrelated to UTF encoding.) Unicode text is very complicated to work with. As the authors show, an abstract character may be represented by a single Unicode code point or by multiple code points. For example, the abstract é character may be represented by a single code point, the Latin character é, or by two code points, a plain e followed by an acute modifier. Some abstract characters involve multiple "plain" characters and multiple modifiers. The process of normalization defines a consistent ordering of characters and modifiers; two normalized strings representing the same or different abstract characters can then be compared for equality. Furthermore, there are two types of normalization, canonical and compatibiliy, which affect how strict the definition of equality is. (See "Unicode Standard Annex #15: Unicode Normalization Forms" for a detailed look at normalization; hopefully, your eyes won't glaze over!) If these types of details seem pie in the sky to you, note that Twitter uses the canonical normalization of text to see if a tweeted message meets or exceeds Twitter's 140-character limit. (See "Character Counting".)

Also see this on-line book, Programming with Unicode, by Victor Stinner.

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Wyllard's Weird

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1885)

The word weird is Scottish (and Northern English) for fate or destiny, so Wyllard's Weird means Wyllard's fate or destiny. When Joseph Distin says, "And let Bothwell Grahame dree his weird as best he may", he means that Bothwell should submit to his fate.

In 1879 or 1880, a train traveling to Bodmin in Cornwall crosses a viaduct, at which point a young Frenchwoman jumps or is pushed from the train and falls to her death in the ravine below. Onboard the train are Julian Wyllard and his wife's cousin, Bothwell Grahame. Wyllard, the local magistrate, takes charge of removing the body to Bodmin and an inquest is held, presided over by the coroner, Edward Heathcote. The Frenchwoman had nothing in her possession that would identify her, so the inquest is fruitless. The mystery of finding out who the woman was and whether she jumped or was pushed eventually takes Heathcote to Paris to solve the case.

Unlike Braddon's other novels I've read, there isn't a unique and unusal facet to this book. You begin to suspect who the villian is part way into the book and your suspicion is correct. Still, the story moved along well and kept my interest throughout.

There's a bit of humor in the book. Bothwell is like a ship adrift, with no sense or purpose to his life. Fortunately, he has lots of friends with ready advice:

Then came Jones, who laughed at the notion of the South Sea Islands, and advised Bothwell to get a tract of waste land, near the mouth of the Gironde, and grow fir-trees, and export their resin; that was the one certain road to fortune. You had first your resin, a large annual revenue, and then you had your timber for railway sleepers, returning cent per cent. Bothwell did not venture to ask how you got your resin after you had sold your timber.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Wyllard's Weird

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The House of the Seven Gables

by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1851)

Dark. Very dark. The purpose of this book seems to be to have the reader experience a gloomy, oppresive atmosphere in an old house (with seven gables). The book succeeds at this. A good portion of the book is devoted to descriptions, with some philosophical musings thrown in. Occasional bits of dialog give the reader a respite from the depressing prose and there is an interesting twist at the end to look forward to. Overall, I would say, this is a good book and definitely one you should read.

"Jim Crow" is used matter-of-factly a few times to denote a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a minstrel character; the first instance: "Jim Crow, moreover, was seen executing his world-renowned dance, in gingerbread." This led me to look up "Jim Crow" and I learned that the phrase/name "Jim Crow" originated in a blackface minstrel routine dating back to 1828 (Wikipedia).

Word of the book: eleemosynary - "Of, relating to, or dependent on charity"; charitable. Hawthorne uses the word as follows:

It was but little after sunrise, when Uncle Venner made his appearance, as aforesaid, impelling a wheelbarrow along the street. He was going his matutinal rounds to collect cabbage-leaves, turnip-tops, potato-skins, and the miscellaneous refuse of the dinner-pot, which the thrifty housewives of the neighborhood were accustomed to put aside, as fit only to feed a pig. Uncle Venner's pig was fed entirely, and kept in prime order, on these eleemosynary contributions ...

Project Gutenberg eBook: The House of the Seven Gables

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Run to Earth

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1866)

This mystery had an auspicious beginning with a sea port, a sea captain, and some likeable characters facing nasty villains. However, the book abruptly switched locations and lapsed into a standard jealous-husband/innocent-wife story, then briefly returned to the sea port to start a suspicious-husband/innocent-father-in-law story (with different characters than at the beginning of the book). The rest of the novel developed the different story lines. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Braddon quietly mentions an event in the past that pulls together the direct and indirect links between all the characters. Despite it not having a stand-out plot, I found Run to Earth to be an enjoyable read.

In a little bit of "Get off my lawn!" feeling, Braddon writes, tongue-in-cheek I think:

Those were the days in which a bonnet was at once the aegis and the sanctuary of beauty. If you offended her, she took refuge in her bonnet. The police-courts have only become odious by the clamour of feminine complainants since the disappearance of the bonnet. It was awful as the helmet of Minerva, inviolable as the cestus of Diana. Nor was the bonnet of thirty-years ago an unbecoming headgear—a pretty face never looked prettier than when dimly seen in the shadowy depths of a coal-scuttle bonnet.

Word of the book: promiscuous, of all things - "casual; irregular; haphazard." (Dictionary.com) It's used once in the sense of "casual" and once in the sense of "irregular"; a third use is one or the other, I'm not sure which:

"Well, you ain't a parlour customer in general, Mr. Hawkins; but I suppose if the gent wants to speak to you, there'll be no objection to your making free with the parlour, promiscuous," answered the damsel, with supreme condescension.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Run to Earth

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Phantom Fortune

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1883)

At the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), the young beautiful Lady Maulevrier is the "toppermost of the poppermost" (to quote John Lennon who was apparently borrowing from The Wild One movie) in London society. When her husband dies suddenly, she becomes a recluse on a lonely Scottish estate.

Phantom Fortune then jumps 40 years into the future. (This would be in the 1870s and, in fact, the story mentions the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who achieved renown in the 1870s.) The now-elderly Lady Maulevrier, still a recluse, is raising her two orphaned granddaughters on the same solitary estate. The older daughter, Lesbia, is classically beautiful, is very superficial, and no pains are being spared to prepare her for making a big splash in London society. The younger daughter, Mary, is beautiful in her own way, is outdoorsy, is developing a depth not found in her sister, and is largely ignored by her grandmother. An older brother, known simply as Maulevrier, is out on his own and reminded me of Bothwell Grahame in Wyllard's Weird: leading an aimless life, but, like Mary, developing a depth not apparent to others.

Once you get past the initial impressions of the beautiful scenery, life on the secluded estate is deadly dull for the girls and the story likewise is deadly dull. This lasts for the entire first half of the book, until Lesbia makes her debut in London society. Then, the reader is treated to endless descriptions of high society, with Braddon dropping names left and right of famous actors, actresses, artists, composers, poets, and writers, etc.

There are some interesting events in the book, but the bulk of it was very boring to me; in comparison to her other novels that I've read, Phantom Fortune falls far short of what Braddon was capable of. There is something odd at the beginning of the story, when Lady Maulevrier is young, that you may or may not notice; my suspicion was confirmed later in the book.

After writing all of the above and all of the below, I finally finished reading the book. The really boring parts happen to be Lesbia's story. If you take that out, you're left with the rather thin stories of Mary and Lady Maulevrier. Mary's fawning idolization of the nobler male sex reminded me of Dinah Mulock Craik's novel, The Laurel Bush.

Braddon likes to take potshots at Jews and Methodists in her books and it gets tiresome after a while. In Phantom Fortune, she adds the "blackamoors" (also spoken of in other derogatory terms), an attitude that was not really balanced out by an interesting exchange about the African-Carribean slave trade which, of course, had been outlawed by Britain by then.

While I was reading this work, some newspaper or newspapers announced their latest style guidelines, including the elimination of hyphens and the combining of words. For example, "e-mail" has become "email", "on-line" has become "online", and "web site" has become "website". Some grammar websites pointed out that this is a common occurrence in English (and probably other languages); these sites mentioned as examples "to-day" and "to-morrow" (used frequently by Braddon in Phantom Fortune), which have been shortened in our time to "today" and "tomorrow".

Word of the book: pinchbeck - "imitating something superior" (Vocabulary.com):

... [Smithson] meant to withdraw [Lesbia] altogether from Lady Kirkbank's pinchbeck set.
Other words were more unusual, but pinchbeck has a somewhat humorous etymology (A.Word.A.Day). Christopher Pinchbeck (1670-1732), a watchmaker, invented a zinc-copper alloy called pinchbeck that looks like gold, hence its acquired connotation of "counterfeit". However, at the time, pinchbeck was prized in its own right and, naturally, people began producing objects they claimed to be pinchbeck but that weren't; i.e., as A.Word.A.Day puts it, they were "faking fake gold!"

A little explanation of the following sentence, which describes the end of the social season:

A very pretty picture to contemplate from the outside, this little world in holiday clothes, framed in greenery! but just on the Brocken, where the nicest girl among the dancers had the unpleasant peculiarity of dropping a little red mouse out of her mouth—so too here under different forms there were red mice dropping about among the company.
The Brocken is a high mountain peak in Germany. In Goethe's play, Faust (Wikipedia), there is a scene at the top of the Brocken in which Mephistopheles asks Faust why he has stopped dancing with a lovely maiden. Faust responds:
Ah! in the midst of it there sprang
A red mouse from her mouth—sufficient reason.
The mouse hopping out of the mouth is a sign in German folklore of the soul leaving the body (and the body dying). I think Braddon's implication is that, with the end of the social season, all the temporarily happy participants have to return to real life and its often bitter realities. (The significance of a red mouse is beyond the scope of this review and has something to do with the contrast between red and the gray of the mouse Mephistopheles speaks of in the next line of dialog.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: Phantom Fortune

Alex Measday  /  E-mail