This installment: novels—the first witty and British; the second muscular colorful prose from Canada; then a sweet book about a passion for vintage furniture; the last in Gardam’s eccentric trilogy; a spine-chilling book on CD; and finally a slim, magical new book from Gaiman.
Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
A period piece, a la Downton Abbey and and its precursor, Upstairs, Downstairs (which Weldon actually worked on) with the author’s characteristic sly wit and social commentary. Lord Robert spends blithely but his fortunes have plummeted due to a Boer uprising impinging on his South African mining investments. He owes money to his Jewish financial advisor, and it’s all closing in. The only solution: marry off playboy son Arthur to someone of means, who turns out to be Minnie from Chicago. Her mother Tessie is outrageous, as befits someone who once appeared in burlesque, and Minnie has a touch of scandal in her past as well. Complications: Arthur’s mistress Flora, and Grace, the ladies' maid , who has her ear to the ground and tries to manipulate events sub rosa. Moods rise and fall both upstairs and downstairs in short chapters as the alliance lurches forward. Arthur’s sister Rosina is an eccentric dabbling in radical politics. Arthur’s true love is the Arnold Jehu, a steam powered vehicle. Great fun.
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
Rank is big and tough but haunted by a long-ago accident in which he severely injured someone. (He characterizes himself as “a terrible guy who performs a terrible act…with a flat out crappy outcome.”) His adoptive parents, Gord who’s small and furious and gentle Sylvie, were mismatched from the start. Rank discovers an old friend has used his story in a novel and takes exception to the telling, so he emails his version in episodes to the writer, which is what we’re reading. The book has a masculine feel and I kept being surprised by the gender of the Canadian author. Ultimately Rank, through reliving the events on paper (as it were), comes to understand what drove him and makes peace with his father and his ex girlfriend. Muscular, colorful prose.
Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
I was of two minds while reading this. My critic was muttering “too cute, too sweet, too clichéd” but my uncritical appetite was gobbling down the story. Teddi has a gift: she turns old furniture into treasures. She spurns her mother’s high school graduation present, a typewriter, and goes off to Charleston to make her way. Meanwhile her younger brother Josh has disappeared into the woods and is never seen again. He’d always been otherworldly and greatly attuned to the wild and its creatures. Teddi eventually turns the family farm into a sanctuary for injured animals, a tribute to his spirit. And finds an unlikely suitor. So critic be damned, I was glad I indulged.
Last Friends by Jane Gardam
This writer is brilliant and eccentric, as are her characters whom I first encountered in Old Filth (an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) and his arch rival on the Bench and in love, Terence Veneering. (How he came by this Dickensian last name is finally revealed here.) In old age they became neighbors, chess partners, and both are now dead, but in mosaic-fashion the reader pieces together Terry’s long strange trip: his father was a crippled Russian acrobat, he had a gift for languages, he was orphaned by a WWII bomb and saved by an impulsive decision to jump ship. I always start Gardam’s books bemused but gradually get cozy with her most peculiar, witty, and charming world, now brought to a close with this last in a trilogy.
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Another book on CD I’d read a while ago and now listened to in the car. And boy, was I transported! It’s grisly, lurid, and absolutely riveting. Feckless friends on holiday in Mexico take what they think will be a day trip to help a new acquaintance track down his brother who disappeared from an archeological dig. They pay no attention to the portents and end up trapped by impassive, armed Mayans and a sinister, sentient vine. (Little Shop of Horrors to the nth degree). Mistake after mistake and it doesn’t end well, no surprise. You’ll need a strong stomach for some of the events that befall the self-absorbed travelers, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll relish every gross detail.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This author is such a magical storyteller that I accepted every peculiar happening in this slim book without question. Set in Sussex, it chronicles a return to a place of childhood horror. The new nanny was not what she seemed, nor were the Hempstock women next door. The former was malevolent, the latter benevolently powerful but pitted against serious dark malice. A fascinating, epic tale in a small package.
Back next Monday.