Someone at a Distance

Someone at a Distance

“Old Mrs. North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.”

And so Mrs. North advertises for a live-in companion. Across the Channel, the young, self-centered Louise Lanier is recovering from a broken love affair and looking for a distraction. She finds it in employment with Mrs. North, and thus begins the saga of the breakdown of a marriage.

The author cleverly weaves together the story of a family in France, the Lanier family, and the North family in England, catching the reader up along the way with their triumphs and tragedies. Not just a story about marriage and family, there are lessons to be learned here and the reader is absorbed with vignettes of life in a small English village:

“Mrs. North had a housekeeper, a Miss Daley, who, reinforced by day-women, kept everything in apple-pie order, but who had an unfortunate passion for singing in the chapel choir.”

When I was halfway through this I began to doubt that it would be worth the read. The decline and inevitable breakdown of a happy marriage and family life is not going to be a pleasant ‘comfort read’. Now that I have finished, all I can say is , ‘wow’. This is far from a despairing or depressing read! As each character (so realistically drawn that they seem ‘real’ to the reader!) begins the slow climb out of despair, the author shows that life is never completely hopeless.

“What shall I do?” said Ellen. ‘What shall I do now?’

‘You must go forward,’ said Mrs. Brockington. ‘You must go now with love and courage, Ellen, and trust to God to carry you forward through your life.’

The ending was so unexpected and I was rooting for Ellen (my newest literary heroine!), all the way. Definitely worth reading, I will be hunting down more of Dorothy Whipple.

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The Indigo Girl

The Indigo Girl

I really enjoyed this historical fiction novel set in the mid 1700’s in South Carolina.

When Eliza Lucas is placed in charge of her family’s plantations (three!), at the tender age of sixteen, her father seems to have complete trust and confidence that she is up to the task. With her father away pursuing his political and military interests in Antigua, Eliza is cast upon her own resources and that of a few close friends in making the many financial and production decisions necessary for survival.

“In a few years,” my father went on, “your brother George will be of age and will come across from England to take over my affairs here. In the meantime, Eliza, I’ll need you to act as my surrogate in all matters pertaining to these holdings. You will remain here in South Carolina with your mother and Polly and take charge of my business affairs.”

Eliza, though young, is not afraid to venture into new territory and push the limits of societal expectation. She champions the cause of slaves, teaching them to read despite the legal ramifications of the day.

“…who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave to be taught to write, or shall use to employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every offense forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”

Eliza, realizing that indigo dye is lucrative, attempts to place the family properties on a secure financial footing by delving into the complicated and largely unknown production of indigo. However all is not as it seems and she is thwarted by the plots of those she holds most dear.

Certainly a heroine for her time, Eliza’s contributions to trade and the economy were tremendous. George Washington himself requested to serve as pallbearer at her funeral.

I especially enjoyed reading that most of the characters in this novel truly did exist and their actions were recorded in Eliza’s letters. The author has researched her novel meticulously and combined a love story with intrigue and factual historical experience; a favorite combination for me!

“…the end goal is to secure our family for generations and be of economic service to the Crown. We are building a new world here, Eliza. We have a unique opportunity to be among the first to really accomplish something magnificent.”

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They Knew Mr. Knight

They Knew Mr. Knight

The Blake family typifies many English middle-class families. Thomas and Celia Blake have two daughters and one son. There is Douglas, who longs to be a chemist but is expected to follow in his father’s (and grandfather’s) family business. There is dreamy, cheery Ruth who seems to get along with everyone and has aspirations of becoming a novelist, and there is the difficult, unhappy and snobbish Freda.

“I saw Freda setting off in the Rolls-Royce this morning,’ said Mrs. Greene with her smile. ‘I saw the man tucking the rug round her. She takes it all as to the manner born, doesn’t she?’

Thomas Blake, the patriarch, longs for financial security; enough capital to perhaps even buy back the machinist factory that his father, due to unwise decisions, had lost. “Thomas’s father, Percival, long dead, had not been a good business man. He inherited the works from his father, but he had not been able to manage them. He first made his manager, Joseph Simpson, a partner, and later, as Thomas was about to enter them from school, he sold the works outright to Simpson for a ridiculously small sum.

Thomas, at seventeen, felt a chagrin bitter beyond his years…

Douglas, constantly caught up with his chemistry experiments, needs a good university education, and Freda, scorning the teaching or secretarial careers held out to her, desires to become part of the upper class: “Mr. Knight was so rich, he had a magnificent car, a lovely house, and no children. Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Knight took a fancy to her? Suppose they adopted her? Standing by the dressing-table, she saw herself as the darling of Mr. and Mrs. Knight, with all their wealth at her command.”

The stability of the family seems to rest most upon Celia. And yet Celia herself has no overt talents or education to sustain the apparent weight her family puts upon her…“Half an hour of peace and solitude was precious in her busy day. She was the wife of Thomas, the mother of Freda, Ruth and Douglas, the mistress of Agnes and of No. 17 the Grove, but when she was alone she was herself. When she was alone another self, ordinarily covered over, walled in by preoccupations of house, husband and children, took the air, as it were, and walked abroad…”

When a chance meeting with the affluent financial wizard, ‘Mr. Knight’, evolves into something more, Thomas Blake is set upon a path that begins to fulfill all the family’s dreams of wealth and position… but will security evade them in the end?

Not just about financial security, greed and power, “They Knew Mr. Knight” is also about social position and acceptance. Each character, from the well-heeled, suave and assured Mr. Knight down to the frustrating, cynical and gossipy Mrs. Greene, is a realistic portrait of the best and worst in human nature.

“It had been agreed between them, when Freda left school, that when she had done the work allotted to her in the house, she should do as she liked. She must live her own life, she said. What this life as, her mother could not make out; it was no sort of a life that anybody else could define. A great deal of it seemed, to Celia, to be spent in yawning and saying there was nothing to do.’

“They Knew Mr. Knight” is the first Whipple novel I have read and it drew me in, compelling me to spend many late hours in the evening comfortably reading and enjoying the well-drawn cast of characters, all with their own flaws and strengths.

According to notes in an afterword, in 1932 Swedish “Match-King’ Ivan Kreuger committed suicide in a Paris hotel after financial losses totaling 300 million. In 1930 Clarence Hatry was sentenced to fourteen years for fraud. Dorothy Whipple wrote “They Knew Mr. Knight” sometime around this time and it was published in 1934.

I so enjoyed this novel and can’t wait to read more Dorothy Whipple in the future.

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The Tuscan Child

The Tuscan Child

Somewhere in between cosy mystery and historical fiction, this was my first read by Rhys Bowen. I enjoyed it thoroughly and it moved along quickly for me (mainly because I just had to find out what was going to happen!)

Joanna has had a lonely, difficult childhood. Losing her mother at the tender age of eleven, her father is distant and hardly the nurturing type.

“All my life I’d wanted him to love me. I think he did, in his own way, but not like my mum did.

I don’t remember him ever hugging me. When I was little he had taken me on his knee and read books to me, but that was the extent of our closeness. I don’t think he knew how to be a loving parent. Like all upper-class boys he was sent off to boarding school at seven and had learned to lock away his feelings.”

Although bright and self-motivated Joanna suffers loneliness and rejection at school (her father being the art teacher doesn’t help matters), but she continues to pursue an education. When she receives notice that her father has passed away and learns he had been a downed airman in Italy during the Second World War, it is only too easy for Joanna to determine to find out the mystery behind a letter to an unknown woman, Sofia Bartoli, found in his belongings.

And there the story really begins. Joanna is nothing if not determined. Although none of the villagers seem to remember her father, she does have the address on the letter and it’s contents to prove that Hugo Langley had truly been there during the war. It is her perseverance and burgeoning mother-daughter friendship with Paola, who is all too pleased to rent out a room and meals to an English girl, that gives Joanna hope that her father’s story will not remain hidden.

Paola not only teaches Joanna about cooking with fresh herbs and vegetables but includes her in village festivities and market day. The author certainly makes the Tuscan region appealing, and the food! the food, the food, the descriptions of the meals Paola serves: “She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on to it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

She dipped a scoop in the the big jar of olive oil and lit the gas under a pan.

‘Now the batter,’ she said...”

When Joanna is implicated in a local murder, the mystery of who actually perpetrated the crime and whether the crime could be related to secrets from the past (including Joanna’s father), continues to move the story to a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book, although with a few minor (and not really worthy of mention) quibbles. There is a lot of drama as the reader hopes along with Hugo, Joanna’s father, that he will eventually be able to escape without repercussions for the village from the occupying Germans.

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It was with a huge sigh that I finished the last few pages of “Grant” and closed the book. This may be the longest book I have yet read (no, I haven’t read “Les Miserables” yet! it’s on my list!) It was meaty, satisfying, and chock-full of stories, anecdotes, and factual analysis of the popular Civil War general and President. But it did take me longer to read than any other book (mainly because it had so much information –over one hundred references in some chapters!), and I had to concentrate at times or flip back to remember which character the author was referring to.

This is an ambitious biography of Ulysses S. Grant (not his real name. He was christened “Hiram Ulysses”), and one the author took very, very seriously. Although largely sympathetic to Grant, the author does try to be even-handed in his portrayals. For instance, the subject of alcoholism comes up more than once. The author strives to present Grant’s alcohol addiction as either inflated by his critics, or a battle fought and conquered early in Grant’s life.

Starting with the marriage of his parents and early childhood, the first half of “Grant” is taken up with the West Point years, the Mexican war years, and the nation’s struggle and descent into Civil War along with descriptions of the major battles. I was surprised to learn that General Grant himself was invited to accompany President and Mary Lincoln to the theater the very night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The second half deals with the Reconstruction period (some difficult historical scenarios here), Grant’s years as President and the aftermath, up to his death.

I learned so much in this book and realized that one reading is simply not going to be enough to keep in my memory. This is a book I will want to refer to (since I love history) more than once. The author writes a very sympathetic portrait and occasionally includes witnesses complimenting Grant’s military prowess as being equal to Napoleon himself. Relieved to finally land upon a general who would ‘do something’ and who actually began to win battles, Grant’s relationship with President Lincoln was one of mutual admiration.

“He (Grant) struggled to augment public confidence without raising unrealistic expectations. “I do not know any way to put down this rebellion and restore the authority of the Government except by fighting, and fighting means that men must be killed. If the people of this country expect that the war can be conducted to a successful issue in any other way than fighting, they must get somebody other than myself to command the army.”

Not as sympathetic to General Lee (and there were a few surprises there), the author makes no bones about the South ‘building up’ their generals and the North tearing them down. I found the chapters on the Civil War to be of great interest. I was pleased to see that Grant dealt compassionately with the Southern army and its’ generals:

“…Grant furnished legal protection to scores of southern generals who turned to him for pardons… Grant’s most improbable intervention came on behalf of John Singleton Mosby, the notorious “Gray Ghost” whose raiders had bedeviled his army in northern Virginia…. Grant issued a safe conduct that allowed Mosby to move about, rescuing him financially. Mosby repaid the surprising kindness by becoming a steadfast friend and ally of Grant, who later described him as “an honest, brave, conscientious man.”

If you have time (and you enjoy history), you won’t lose by wading through this (but, give yourself room to read it… it took me almost two weeks)!

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Hiding in the Light

Hiding in the Light

A very inspiring story, both tragic and encouraging.

When my daughter ordered this from the library she told me, ‘you have to read this Mom!’ It is quite eye-opening.

Rifka Bary is brought up in an abusive, restrictive home (some situations described seem so harsh and difficult to take in!), but her life begins to change when she is introduced to Christianity through a classmate. When Rifka discovers the acceptance from a loving God and the person of Jesus becomes real to her, she must keep her new faith secret. As time passes, Rifka realizes exposure is inevitable, and she decides to escape rather than risk further life-threatening abuse.

“I tiptoed into the hallway, scanning for any signs of wakefulness or motion. With each hollow step through the living room, I was cognizant of all I was leaving behind: my culture, my family, my identity, my religious heritage, my memories, perhaps even my future. I quietly twisted the knob on the front door, opened it, then couldn’t seem to prevent it from slamming noisily behind me. I didn’t care. I had to leave.”

Thankfully, she is helped along the way but encounters several challenging and difficult situations. Since Rifka is underage, she is treated as a runaway and passed along to detention centers and not-always-nurturing foster homes.

Her case becomes nationally known as various legal agencies enter the fray and the news media opens her plight up to the public. Today the author is a college graduate and there is a happy ending, although her biological family continues to be estranged and unrepentant.

A very fast-paced book that keeps the reader involved and hoping for a good outcome.

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Miss Buncle’s Book

Miss Buncle's Book (Miss Buncle, #1)

Barbara Buncle lives in the small village of Silverstream. She is able to live comfortably on her ‘dividends’ (although her coat and hat are a little ‘shabby’), but when her bank account begins to run low, she realizes it’s time to take some action.

Barbara doesn’t have the qualifications to work in an office or school (the reader will realize that this book was written in a different time when few professions were open to women). And so a solution comes to mind; why not write a book, a book about the things she knows best? Those things just happen to be her neighbors… and so, Barbara’s troubles have just begun.

Finding a publisher was the easy part. She has written so cleverly that at first her publisher isn’t aware that her stories are about real people. When ‘Disturber of the Peace’ is released, we find that the title is an apt one. One after another the villagers rise up in fury as they read this newly published bestseller. Barbara meanwhile is shocked to discover her book has become so popular, but she happily travels to London to buy herself some new clothing, little realizing the storm that is brewing in the village.

Luckily for Barbara, there is one good friend who sticks by her. The village doctor’s wife Sally Rider is a wonderful character, brave and forthright and she comes to Barbara’s defense when the entire village seems to be on the hunt for this horrendous author. Everyone knows that ‘John Smith’ (Barbara’s pen name) cannot possibly be the staid, dull Barbara Buncle and they are on the search to find (and punish) the nefarious creature who discloses their innermost secrets.

I will never tire of reading “Miss Buncle’s Book”. Not only clever, the author has given portraits that are amusing, wry, and point out the flaws in human nature. If you haven’t read this one, I highly recommend you hunt down a copy and enjoy an escape into the (somewhat) peaceful world of Silverstream.

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