Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting

Linda Martin’s life changed dramatically when she lost her parents at a young age and landed in an orphanage in England. Her English father and mostly-French mother had taught her well; she spoke both languages fluently and supported herself taking a ‘general dogsbody’ position in a boy’s prep school. When she is offered the opportunity to go back to France (where she had spent her childhood), to take the position of governess she jumped at the chance. Did she jump too fast?

Mary Stewart leads the reader into a story of suspense, intrigue and romance in this fast-paced novel. As always, her descriptions of the countryside and food gives the reader the chance to experience it for themselves:

“Below me, in the valley depths where the river ran, I could see, quite distinctly now, the pale drift of mist. The owl cried again once, very sadly, from the wood. There was a strong wet smell of earth and growing things; the smell of spring… not softness, not balm-and-blossoms, but something of spring… not softness, not balm-and-blossoms, but something harsh and sharp that pierced the senses as the thrust of new life broke the ground… the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of dead land… yes, that was it. That was it. Not for the first time I was sharply grateful to daddy for making poetry a habit with me.”

Philippe is an engaging little boy, and Linda’s sympathy is immediately drawn to him as he too has lost his parents at a young age. The lonely little boy needs a friend and finds a ‘kindred spirit’ in Linda. It isn’t long before she is not only his governess but his protector, as one mysterious accident after another takes place. Only Linda’s quick thinking, courage and determination can prevent tragedy.

Mary Stewart has shown herself to be a master of suspense and intrigue, but her character development is also both creative and authentic. There is the English butler and housekeeper-wife, Mr. and Mrs. Seddons, who, though having lived in France for over thirty years, still speak a schoolroom French. There is Linda’s enemy, the dark unfriendly Albertine, and there is the handsome, enigmatic Raoul. Monsieur Florimond, a famous dress designer, still has time to play chess with a lonely little boy, and of course, there is the wheelchair-bound -but still- intimidating, formidable Leon de Valmy.

Will there be a happy ending for Philippe, and for Linda also? Will she lose her position as governess as she begins to fall for the master of the house’s son? Although a re-read, I still found so much in this gripping novel to enjoy and savor even though it moved so quickly for me, I read it in two days.

“Quite suddenly I ceased to be sorry I had come. It was as if the past, till then so longed after, so lived over, had slipped off my shoulders like a burden. The future was still hidden, somewhere in the lights that made a yellow blur in the sky beyond the end of the dark street. Here between the two I waited, and for the first time saw both clearly… I had waited for life to offer itself back to me on the old terms. Well, she wasn’t going to.”

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Silver Darlings

Silver Darlings

Finn is so excited. He is on his first voyage out with a crew of older seasoned fishermen.

“The boat was open from stem to stern, without shelter or Berth, but when they had eaten, they did what they could with the help of the sails and the soft bulk of the nets to get into a comfortable position for rest. Finn snuggled down, packed his hip bone, lifted the edge of the sail for breath, and prepared for sleep. But though he felt very tired, he was not sleepy. He was now more than ever pleased at having said things which had made the others laugh. His old shy self had opened, and to his surprise up the words had come…”

I began this book when I saw it on the “Read Scotland” forum on Goodreads. The author is new to me but I found his writing to be so atmospheric! “Silver Darlings” is crammed with not only authentic descriptions of life at sea but also engaging chapters about village life, a country fair, a perilous voyage (and a brave climb for water), and anecdotes about the fishing trade and professions (who knew what a curer was? not me.)

Neil Gunn brings the atmosphere and perils of the sea into this novel along with the growth of Finn, his coming-of-age time, and the trials of a small fishing community in Scotland. Finn’s father had been lost at sea (not telling you how; you will want to read this novel for yourself!) before Finn was even born. His mother was reluctant to allow Finn to even think of going to sea… but the sea was always calling to him.

“Listen, Finn. You mustn’t be angry with me. The sea has not been kind to me. And then – we have been living here, though it is not our croft, our home. I cannot do a man’s work, taking in new land. You and me – we are wanderers, who found a home.”

Although wordy at times the author gives the reader a lot to think about and not just pictures of what life in Scotland used to be for so many that were living on the edge of poverty. The readers is able to ‘get inside’ the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, not just through dialog but through the ups and downs of life itself.

Finn’s mother Catrine is threatened with the plague; will she succumb? The reader cannot help being moved at poor Catrine’s plight already; losing her husband at such a young age, she lives for her son throughout the book.

At times the book moved very quickly because I was right there with Finn, hoping someday to become a sailor himself and obtain his very own ship.

“In fact, when Finn lifted his mind, he saw the clean green seas running, and knew that freedom was there, and adventure, and the song of man’s strength. He would be all right when he looked at the lifting stem of his own boat. Then would come upon him a freedom that would have in it the gait of revenge over all the cluttering doubts and anxieties of the earth.”

Finn and his companions are dogged and spunky and spend their days on the sea fighting the odds. Hoping the day’s catch would be a good one, hoping the sun would come out or the wind would rise so that Roddie, their captain (and for much of the book, Finn’s personal hero), could find their way back again.

“Silver Darlings” is a book about man against the sea; man versus his environment; man versus nature; man versus man (cruel landlords, greed, compulsory naval recruitment). But it is also a book about tenacity; the beauty of the world around us, sheer ‘holding on’ in the face of adversity, and hope.

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The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

The Cartographer of No Man's Land

Angus MacGrath is an artist and coastal trader from Nova Scotia.

“…sailing the Lauralee fed something deep, made him feel part of the grand sweep’’ – not of history, but of the sun’s first rays breaking over the curve of the earth, the currents below, the wind above, propelling him forward, and letting him know just how small a part of the grand sweep he was, but still – a part of it. Suspended, sustained in the territory beyond the points of the compass. And it was that he wanted to capture on canvas – more than capture, he wanted to let it flow through him and out and back again. God had given him talent, or maybe just the longing, but either way, not enough courage to trust it.”

When his brother-in-law enlists in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1915, everyone hopes the war would be over by Christmas. When those hopes were lost and Ebbin’s letters have stopped coming, Angus, encouraged by the dean of his school (and in spite of the protests from his pacifist father), signs up, and the war begins in turn for Angus.

Interspersed with life back in Nova Scotia and life in France and on the front, this world-war 1 historical novel brings home the immense sacrifices made in order to take a few feet of ground. Angus faces death, destruction and loneliness as he struggles with his dilemma and the mystery of what has happened to Ebbin. He agonizes over his personal choices but sometimes he manages to comfort the dying with words from his theological seminary days.

The author cleverly opens up a picture for the reader of the war at the Front and at the same time, helps us get ‘inside’ a soldier’s innermost thoughts.

“… still, I loved him. Ebbin, that is. Never knew how much until he went missing.” Angus leaned forward and cupped his glass with both hands. “When someone’s gone, gone for good, a piece of yourself goes missing – who you were with that person and maybe who you thought you once might be.”

Focusing mainly on the battle for Vimy Ridge, the author makes the war come to life for the reader as we are caught up in the stories of the men in Angus’ platoon and hope he makes it through. It was interesting to me to read about the battles but what made it jump off the page were the personalities the author created; the brave, the sensitive, the fearful, the complacent.

The author has such a talent for making history real and at the same time, making her characters seem genuine and true-to-life. No trite or commonplace personalities here!

This was a fast read for me and a very impressive (and thought-provoking!) debut novel.

“The war was in him, part of him, but not all of him. Memory would always haunt him, as it haunted George. He knew that. But he knew, too, that the sacrifice could not be honored by memory alone, but in the purest part of self where it was understood it could not be fully known. Now we see through a glass darkly…now I know only in part.”

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Good Daughters

Good Daughters

“Stanley said to Judith how blessed they were in their daughters. Only Judith wondered whether this might be the last holiday they would have together as a family. The children had no thought of last things, confident that everything lay ahead of them.”

I had not read Mary Hocking before but saw reviews that were so compelling, that I picked up this first book in her trilogy, “Good Daughters”, with expectations of a treat before me.

I have to say that at first, I wasn’t too impressed. This coming-of-age-in-prewar England novel had its moments; chapters that describe vacations, school, growing up, family, and boy-girl relationships. It took me a few chapters to get into the lives of the characters. But as I read on, I discovered that this is no simple story of family life in England. In between the school-girl stories that include both triumphs and failures, there is also tragedy. There is a friend who travels to Germany and doesn’t come back. There are unforeseen and unprepared-for consequences from rash choices, and there are also bits of wonderful prose; bright sparkling paragraphs of deep, challenging explorations of the meaning of life and this sometimes crazy, upside-down world we live in.

As I read I continued to vacillate between really, really liking the stories of family life and alternately wishing the author had not included a few of the scenes. And there is quite a variety of characterization here; the elderly, crochety grandmother, the unassailable school headmistress, the pretentious Mrs. Immingham, the pleasant, refreshing country vacations and the Jubilee parade. All are depicted and written about as if the reader himself is present.

Now that I have finished reading, I am still somewhat hesitant and uncertain of how to view this surprising book, but I do know that I have to keep reading! I find myself looking forward to picking up the second book in the trilogy (“Indifferent Heroes”). Certainly the characters have stayed with me, and the story line also.

The Fairleys are a ‘fairly’ (excuse the pun!) typical family with three girls, a stern father and supportive mother, and a ‘middling’ comfortable life. Not rich or pretentious, this is life as it was for much of England before the war begins, although events are escalating and the war looms on the horizon, coloring the background.

“They grew up aware of an older, more stable way of life, though they were not to be its inheritors.”

Louise, the eldest, seems ready to throw off restraint in her response to the restrictions placed upon her by her well-meaning minister-father. I suppose there are many that did not appreciate the character of Stanley Fairley, but having children of my own, I could understand his concerns. Without revealing too much, Stanley’s well-meaning attempts to place stringent boundaries upon his children, unfortunately, result in the very consequence that he fears. Judith brings a balance to the family as she tries to pave a smooth path between father and daughters.

There are real-life situations, and some of the vignettes will not be appreciated as the author does not hesitate to portray all of the details that life involves, including the unattractive side of human nature. However the final chapter simply blew me away! The author takes Alice through her agonizing questions to examine the role of her own life and that of those around her. Alice is not afraid to ask questions and concludes that although some of life’s dilemmas will never be satisfactorily answered, an enduring faith, even in the midst of human suffering, lays the groundwork for it all.

“Her puritan upbringing had laid much emphasis on the need for endurance in the face of injustice, fortitude in suffering and, by their very nature, the virtues commended to her implied a certain grimness in the grain of life. What she had not been prepared for, because she did not merit it, was the laying of a jeweled robe across her shoulders. There was something shocking about grace, an inexplicable quirk in God’s behavior; the struggle to come to terms with it would be her life. But she did not see that now, was only dimly aware of a beginning.”

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Murphy’s Law

Murphy's Law (Molly Murphy Mysteries #1)

Molly Murphy is in trouble. Deciding to flee Ireland in order to avoid prosecution, Molly is able to secure a spot on the next boat out. Leaving in haste, Molly finds that she is able to assume the identity of Kathleen O’Connor, a mother of two children. Seriously ill, Kathleen will not be allowed to enter America. Knowing her time on earth is short, she passes her ticket to Molly, entrusting her to care for her children during the voyage. Molly’s task is to safely deliver them to their father who has gone ahead to find employment in the land of opportunity.

And the story escalates from there, as Molly is caught up investigating a murder that occurs on Ellis Island. She experiences one adventure after another in her attempt to discover the perpetrator of the crime so that Michael, whom she befriended on the voyage, can go free.

I had not picked up any of Rhys Bowen’s mysteries and decided to start with this one, the first in the Molly Murphy series. And I found that I really liked it!

I found myself really appreciating the author’s portrayal of the heroine. Far from being meek and subservient, Molly is not afraid to speak up for herself (although she intelligently restrains her remarks when necessary), and goes to great lengths to clear her friend. Even though there are a couple of unpleasant situations, there is nothing graphic or stomach-churning in this cosy mystery.

A fast-moving and fun read, I enjoyed this first book in the Murphy series by the author, even with a few predictable scenes thrown in. For the most part, the book was very well done and opened my eyes to the plight of the poor immigrants who arrived in the early twentieth century with little money or jobs to sustain them.

“Listen, Molly, you have to understand how New York works. Tammany Hall calls the shots. They make life easy for the police and we turn a blind eye on each other. It’s not ideal, I agree, but that’s how it is. Any policeman who went after a Tammany man would be digging his own grave…”

“Then this is a corrupt city,” I said.

“No more than any other city, I’d imagine. And it’s a good city, too. My parents came over here, starving in the Great Famine. When Tammany came to power, my dad became a policeman. He rose through the ranks and earned enough to send me to Columbia University. That’s the good thing about life over here, it doesn’t matter what you start out as, you have the chance to rise above it.”

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One Pair of Hands

One Pair of Hands: Upstairs and Downstairs, Seen Through the Eyes of an Ex-Debutante Turned Cook

Monica is bored. Her life as a debutante is an endless round of exhausting gaiety and ‘pointless’ parties. She had tried the stage, and dressmaking, and neither seemed to be her cup of tea. What next?

“I felt restless, dissatisfied, and abominably bad-tempered…

…so I turned to cooking. That was the thing which interested me most and about which I thought I knew quite a lot. I had had a few lessons from my ‘Madame’ in Paris, but my real interest was aroused by lessons I had at a wonderful school of French cookery in London… I.. came out with Homard Thermidor and Crepes Suzette at my fingertips. I was still unable to boil an egg, however, or roast a joint of beef.

However,

“When I told my family that I was thinking of taking a cooking job, the roars of laughter were rather discouraging.”

“One Pair of Hands” follows Monica, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens himself, as she takes one cooking job after another in London, burning sauces, frantically preparing dinners for parties of ten and, in the process, dropping dishes and helping herself to the cooking sherry. Some of her employers are kind (although there is always the ‘servant-class mindset’ present. Little did they know that Monica was from the upper class), but Monica finds to her dismay that often the servants are looked down on and treated as second-rate, mindless employees.

After a year and a half, Monica is just plain tired and she decides that it is time to make a change.

“Our memories are merciful; they store up details of happiness much more readily than details of sorrow. We, however, respond ungratefully by indulging our innate passion for self-torture by turning remembrance into regret. In the end the memory of something perfect becomes even sadder than the memory of despair, for we torment ourselves with the thought that it can never be quite the same again.”

What a lighthearted memoir! The author’s entertaining vignettes of her life as a cook and maid are hilarious! I really enjoyed this one and it was a fast read.

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Titans

Titans

Samantha Gordon had from childhood known that she was adopted. Separated from her twin brother at birth, she begins to question who she is and where she came from. Throughout this novel, Samantha is seeking answers to her heritage and background. Although the answers she seeks are revealed almost from the very beginning ,the reader is caught up and taken along with Samantha on her journey to discovery.

More of a family saga than historical fiction, “Titans” is a novel about ranchers and oil in Texas, set in the early 1900’s.

Readers will be introduced to several (fictional) founding families in Texas; the Holloway, Gordon, Singleton and Waverling family all have their stories, some of which are detailed and others left to the reader’s imagination.

“The Gordons were landed gentry. In 1820, the patriarch of Las Tres Lomas de la Trinidad had come to what was then a province of Mexico and established a ranch he stocked with a breed of cattle native to the region known as Longhorns. In 1867, Neal, along with his father and two younger brothers, owned the beginnings of what would become one of the largest ranches in Central Texas, but prosperity was nearly fifteen years away. Comanche raids and Reconstruction were wreaking financial havoc…”

All the way through I was wondering if Samantha will ever find her true parents and discover that she has a twin brother.

“Life expectancy for a woman in 1900 was forty-eight, and she was almost halfway through her allotment of years upon the earth. Her ship was firmly underway on an unalterable course, and there was no setting it in another direction.”

Some of the book was a little repetitive and sometimes it seemed the sentence structure a little awkward (maybe could have used better editing?) However it did engage me and raised questions about the dilemma ranchers faced; whether to risk drilling for oil in the days when much of the technology was yet undiscovered, or whether to continue running the ranch as before, dependent upon the weather and beef prices in order to make the mortgage payments.

The character I liked most of course was Samantha. Her loyalty is commendable although her choice to take over the ranch from her stepfather, rather than pursue her interest in paleontology, could have been made more of in this story.

“No, she had no regrets. Las Tres Lomas de la Trinidad was the place where she was meant to be, no matter that her ‘fit’ for it did not come from inherited blood. The wide-open range, where the wind blew fresh and unobstructed and the only smells and sounds were natural to the country, was for her a vast laboratory that offered plentiful opportunities for scientific exploration and analysis. Land and livestock management required paleontological skills. Samantha had rigged up an outdoor workshop with basic tools for testing water, soil, grass…she felt at home on a horse, with cattle and cowmen, and when her father discovered she had a head for making judicious financial decisions, she became indispensable to the business operations of the ranch.”

There are real-life situations and character struggles; Sam’s stepfather Neal vacillates between his love for his stepdaughter and feelings of possessiveness. He cannot hide his disgust at her pursuit of her biological family. Samantha’s true mother is shallow and longs for position in society. Todd Baker is weak and disloyal and Billie June, Sloan’s sister, chooses to indulge in a relationship that threatens her family’s security. I did wish that Nathan, Samantha’s brother, had been more developed as a character.

I had read Meacham’s “Somerset” and really enjoyed it. When I looked up the author I was surprised to find that although she had written a couple of light romances previously, she did not begin serious fiction writing until after retirement, at the age of 65! Her novel “Roses” became a NY Times bestseller within days, although it had taken five years to write.

I found “Titans” started out with a strong beginning but for some reason, the second half petered out for me. Samantha’s birth story was a dilemma that was perhaps drawn out for too long. “Titans” is ‘escapist fiction’, and although it does have its weaknesses (an unfortunate and rather unlikely tragedy occurs late in the book), it is a book to immerse yourself in if you enjoy reading a family saga-type book.

I had always meant to read “Tumbleweed” and “Roses” after finishing “Somerset”. I found this latest book written by Leila Meacham on the ‘new reads’ shelf at the library and it gave me the impetus to look this author up once again.

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