The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2020.
Also see the full index of books I've read.
Also see Thomas Palaima's collection, Alice E. Kober Papers, at the University of Texas at Austin.
Also see Angela Garry's fan site, The Definitive Helene Hanff Website.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Where Angels Fear to Tread and Other Stories of the Sea
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Grain Ship
Or "The Wreck of the Titan", or "The Wreck of the Titan or, Futility", or "Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan", or whatever. This short story or novella appears under various titles. The Project Gutenberg ebook includes three additional, unrelated stories.
Spoiler Alert! The book review at Stranger than SF has a good discussion of the similarities and differences between Robertson's story and the real-life sinking of the Titanic. However, the author of the review is confused about the end of the story: "[Rowland] meets the book's villain: Mr. Meyer, the evil Jewish financer who insured Titan. Meyer uses all his evil Jewish tricks to try to weasel out of paying the claim, but Rowland — as the only honest witness to the accident — opposes him and Meyer is stuck with the bill ... I guess in 1898 it was acceptable and completely normal that the villain should be an unscrupulous, moneygrubbing Jew." Yes, the "hook-nosed" Meyer is Jewish and badly stereotyped, but he is far from the villain of the story. Meyer characterizes himself as the "heaviest insurer" with 10,000 (pounds?) at stake; opposing him is Mr. Selfridge who had invested all his assets, about 100,000, in the Titan. According to Rowland's honest account, the Titan and its crew criminally violated the terms of the insurance and, thus, Lloyds (and Mr. Meyer) was not legally responsible for paying the insurance. Unfortunately, Rowland refused to testify, so the insurance had to be paid. Read the story to find out why Rowland refused to testify!
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Wreck of the Titan or, Futility
(I originally read this in 2015, but I felt like reading it again. The review below is simply a copy of the 2015 entry.)
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.
While reading this book, I came across a magazine article, "Antarctic blue whales make 'unprecedented' comeback", by Mary Jo Dilonardo, published online in 2020. The article includes a history of whaling in the South Georgia region of the South Atlantic. (South Georgia is about 1,200 miles east of Cape Horn.) The White South, if it weren't fictional, would be a part of that history.
Word of the book: deliquescent - "tending to melt or dissolve ... especially: tending to undergo gradual dissolution and liquefaction by the attraction and absorption of moisture from the air". (Merriam-Webster) Quammen contrasts the population and density of brown bears in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains as measured in 1988 with those of brown bears (also known as "grizzly bears") in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (circa 2000, I'm guessing, based on when the book was published) (emphasis in the original except my underlining of "deliquescent"):
In other words, at the peak of the curve, the density of the species Ursus arctos in the Romanian Carpathians was fifteen times the present density in Yellowstone National Park and its contiguous forests, which constitute one of the worlds most celebrated bear sanctuaries. This discrepancy says as much about political arrangements, and about thresholds of social tolerance, as it does about the sustenance value of acorns, bear chow, horsemeat, and deliquescent fruit.
... "jangada" in the French title is a traditional fishing boat in Brazil ...
Project Gutenberg eBook: Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
I started reading this book in 2018, but, because of my depression, it failed to grab my limited attention span, so I set the book aside after reading only a couple of chapters. Two years later, in 2020, I remembered enough of the plot to pick up where I left off. This time, the book held my avid attention all the way through to the end. It is a "Young Adult" (YA) book, but I recommend it highly for readers of all ages. Katsoulis crafted a dystopian future around a very interesting premise: all words, gestures, music, etc. are under copyright or patent and an individual is charged varying royalties for using these means of expression. For example, "yes" and "no" are copyrighted, as well as silently nodding and shaking your head. One way or another, in this high-tech world, you will pay.
Another belated completion of a book. I started reading this book in 2019, but, again, because of my depression, I got about halfway through and lost interest. A year later, I picked up the book and began reading where I left off; as I read, the plot details gradually came back to me. As above, with All Rights Reserved, the book turns out to be a really good read.
... words of the book: anarch ("Historic examples ranged from absolute monarch to utter anarch;")
... valuta ("If you are able to get past these traps, through having already been bled of all valuta, there are still other places in the city almost as satisfactory ...")
Also see The Heinlein Society, "Dedicated to Paying It Forward".
Project Gutenberg Canada eBook: Brat Farrar
[I recommend reading these books in sequence:
- The Midwife of Venice,
- The Harem Midwife (below), and
- A Trial in Venice (below).]
[I recommend reading these books in sequence:
- The Midwife of Venice (above),
- The Harem Midwife, and
- A Trial in Venice (below).]
[I recommend reading these books in sequence:
- The Midwife of Venice (above),
- The Harem Midwife (above), and
- A Trial in Venice.]
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Crater; Or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific
Project Gutenberg eBook: Charlotte Temple
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Bishop's Shadow
(Yes, I realize the book cover on the right, grabbed off the internet, incorrectly gives the title as "A Gilded Man". I found the picture more attractive than the other book covers Google brought up.)
I searched the internet, largely in vain, for information about the author.
2423. CLIFFORD SMYTH, b. New York, Nov.
U. S. Consul at Carthagena, and a brilliant writer.
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Gilded Man: A Romance of the Andes
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Battery and the Boiler: Adventures in Laying of Submarine Electric Cables
... "adamant" was used 3 times as a noun and never as an adjective; "levant" was a verb instead of a noun, a synonym for "abscond" ...
I hope the following sentence was intended as tongue-in-cheek by the author:
These sturdy, uproarious foxhunters, who braved the peril of sudden death every time they took a day's sport, entertained a sovereign contempt for a man who could be frightened of anybody or anything.since the only peril foxhunters face following a group of dogs chasing a fox is a mis-step or mis-jump of their horse.
Project Gutenberg eBook: John Marchmont's Legacy, Volumes 1-3
Project Gutenberg eBook: Clayhanger
The image to the right is of Dame-to-be Judi Dench playing Hilda Lessways in a British TV series (IMDB: Hilda Lessways) beginning in 1959. It is difficult to find a book cover that reflects the look of Hilda Lessways: remember that Edwin Clayhanger was repulsed by her looks when he first saw her. Judi Dench is a perfectly beautiful woman, but, in this instance, her hair, her dress, and the black and white image help tone down her glamour.
Edwin's impresions of Hilda on the evening he met her (Chapter 7 in the first book, Clayhanger):
Project Gutenberg eBook: Hilda Lessways
I was a little wiped out from two novels' worth of Clayhangers, so I took a break and read Charlotte M. Brame's The Tragedy of the Chain Pier, which turned out to be an extended short story or a novella. According to one bibliography, the story was also known as A Woman's Mystery; or, Wages of Sin.
I thought I had read Dora Thorne, but upon picking this book up, I discovered I hadn't read any of Brame's books. I think I might have confused Dora Thorne with H. Rider Haggard's Doctor Therne, although confusing the two makes no sense.
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Tragedy of the Chain Pier
Project Gutenberg eBook: These Twain
Project Gutenberg eBook: Dora Thorne
A film adaptation was called The Old Dark House.
Also see The J.B. Priestley Society.
I originally read this book in 2015 and enjoyed it so much I decided to read it again. The review below is the 2015 review in whole, with a couple of [bracketed-expressions] replacing time references. For example, "last year" in the 2015 review is rendered as [in 2014].
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, [in 2014], 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 [in 2015] 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:
- In both China and India, epilepsy is commonly viewed as a reason for prohibiting or annulling marriages.
- In the United Kingdom, a law forbidding people with epilepsy to marry was repealed only in 1970.
- In the United States of America, until the 1970s, it was legal to deny people with seizures access to restaurants, theatres, recreational centres and other public buildings.
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
A seemingly Beatles non-Beatles connection:
At the beginning of the song, "Two Of Us", John Lennon says,
"I Dig a Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids... Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats!"Don't get your hopes up though. W. B. Maxwell's Charles Hawtrey, a famous stage and film actor, is not to be confused with John Lennon's Charles Hawtrey, a comedic film and TV actor born 2-3 generations after the real Mr. Hawtrey. Lennon would have seen the modern Charles Hawtrey on TV and in films and would have thus been familiar with them.
In searching for this book, I found that one mini-biography of Miss Braddon has been copied, errors included, all over the place on the internet. In particular, the following two sentences:
She was educated privately in England and France, and at the age of just nineteen was offered a commission by a local printer to produce a serial novel "combining the humour of Dickens with the plot and construction of G.P.R. Reynolds" [sic] What emerged was Three Times dead, or The Secret of the Heath, which was published five years later under the title The Trail of the Serpent (1861).
Ignoring the missing terminal punctuation after "Reynolds" and the fact that the original serialized novel was published in 1860, who was this writer, G.P.R. Reynolds, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Charles Dickens? Search the internet and you'll see (i) the mini-biography of Miss Braddon or (ii) citations for papers or books about Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) by someone whose last name is "Reynolds".
I finally found an obscure reference in The Library Journal, April 1881, containing the proceedings of the Conference of Librarians at Washington, February 1881. Two adjacent entries in the index yield "G.P.R. Reynolds",
Revenge. James, G. P. R.and also the novelist we're looking for, G.P.R. James (1799-1860), a prolific writer in the early-to-mid 1800s (Wikipedia). "G.P.R. Reynolds" could have resulted from the biographer's sloppy reading of The Library Journal's index, but that seems like a stretch.
Reynolds, Beatrice, pseudonym of E.. Sara Sheppard.
A year later, in 2021, I noticed that my Delphi Classics collection of Braddon books included an essay I had earlier overlooked: My First Novel: 'The Trail of the Serpent'. (The newer collection adds 5 new titles to the original 28!) Braddon's My First Novel was published in Jerome K. Jerome's and Robert Barr's The Idler Magazine, Volume III, Issue XIII, February 1893 (Project Gutenberg eBook). Braddon's essay and similar essays by other authors (also published in The Idler Magazine) were compiled by Jerome into My First Book, published in 1894.
It occurred to me that maybe the information about the commissioning of Braddon's first novel came from Braddon herself — in her essay. Sure enough, there I found it:
The Beverley printer suggested that my Warwick Lane serial should combine, as far as my powers allowed, the human interest and genial humour of Dickens with the plot-weaving of G. W. R. Reynolds; and, furnished with these broad instructions, I filled my ink-bottle, spread out my foolscap, and, on a hopelessly wet afternoon, began my first novel — now known as The Trail of the Serpent — but published in Warwick Lane, and later in the stirring High Street of Beverley, as Three Times Dead.
Braddon, too, gets the author's name slightly wrong, but Jason Shaffner's HES MLA Thesis (2020), Elevated by Art: Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Literary Ambitions to Transcend Sensation, led me to the correct author: George W. M. Reynolds (Wikipedia), like G.P.R. James, also a prolific writer.
Mr. Shaffner makes the subtle, distant-in-time connection between a fictitious character, Robert Macaire, referenced in Braddon's 1899 novel, His Darling Sin, and Reynolds' 1840 novel, Robert Macaire in England, published 14 years before the 19-year-old Mary Elizabeth Braddon's first novel was commissioned. I quote Mr. Shaffner's entire paragraph here because he explains it much better (and, of course, more knowledgeably) than I ever could (elisions and emphasis are in the thesis; Wikipedia links were added by me):
Consider this snippet of dialogue from His Darling Sin (1899): "[There is] no mistaking him [...] a damn good-looking demon, with the manners of Chesterfield and the morals of Robert Macaire, the sort of man most women admire" (HDS 25). To understand this one would need to be familiar with Robert Macaire, a character created by French playwright Benjamin Antier for his melodrama L'Auberge des Adrets (1823). The character of Macaire henceforth became the nineteenth-century version of a meme, appearing in numerous subsequent forms, including a picaresque illustrated version called Les Cent Et Un Robert-Macaire (1839), a penny blood novel by G.W.M. Reynolds called Robert Macaire in England (1840), and an English theatrical adaptation by Charles Selby, called Robert Macaire, or The Two Murderers (1843). An editorial introduction to the last of these characterizes Macaire as "the dashing, impudent, but still gentlemanly thief" (Selby 3). While in many other instances Braddon alludes to popular Romantic poets or popular novelists, this case relies on familiarity with a much lesser text and a character who was most popular some fifty years earlier. One might be able to guess the connotation from context, and the reference remains an incidental allusion that one can skip past without missing any major elements of the plot, but readers familiar with any of the many literary incarnations of Robert Macaire profit from having a much richer sketch of Colonel Rannock, an additional layer of intrigue around this shadowy scoundrel.(Also see the Wikipedia entry for Robert Macaire. Antier's play was a flop at its premiere, but it was revived extremely successfully by the lead actor's comic reinvention of the character.) Thanks to Mr. Shaffner, my most high-profile (and only!) mystery case has been solved! (Incidentally, his thesis looks very interesting and I hope to read the full document eventually; the thesis can be downloaded as a PDF file from Harvard.)
Also see The J.B. Priestley Society.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Rachel Gray: A Tale Founded on Fact
"No Need to Visit the Ocean, the Ocean is Coming to Visit You."
I have a slight, but unforgiveable, quibble with a book so heavily involving geology. There are:
"From Bachelor of Philosophy to a front for electric trolley inventions, whaler, deserter, Alaskan gold seeker, railway telegrapher, newsman, miner, card sharp, car thief, general crook and Sing-Sing prisoner, to best-selling novelist and Hollywood scriptwriter:
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Ice Pilot
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Waif of the "Cynthia"
My dear Lady Gregory
Wallis, Bullen's new partner was a friend of Count de Bastro and stayed with him in Ireland some years ago. It was his father who travelled in India with De Bastro.2 He wants the address of Madame La Baronne de Montgascon. She wrote to him sending a copy of De Bastro's Memoirs, and did not give her address in the letter. Wallis wants to propose publishing an English edition ...
The referenced footnote, 2, is as follows, with quite a few sentences elided before the final mention of the trip to India by Wallis's father and de Basterot.
2 It is doubtful whether Arthur Frederick Wallis ever became Bullen's partner in the full sense. Sidgwick's partnership with Bullen was not dissolved until 1907 and it seems likely that Wallis limited his contributions to the firm specifically to the Stratford Town Shakespeare: his name appears in the colophon of the edition as one of the proof-readers and he was present at the dinner to commemorate its completion on 21 Mar 1907. Wallis had published his four-act historical play Stars of the Morning with Elkin Mathews in 1903 and an article, 'Sea-Painting and Sea-Myth', had appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in May 1905 (652-62). He went on to write a number of mainly historical novels over the next twenty-five years. Comte Florimond Alfred Jacques de Basterot (1836-1904), traveller and ethnographer, ... The date of his Indian trip with Wallis's father is uncertain.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Idonia: A Romance of Old London