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review 2019-01-28 16:00
The Dark Waters of Doom
The Case of Jennie Brice - Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Case of Jennie Brice was first published in 1913 - my MMP edition issued in 1969 by Dell. Cover by Garridos. The image is appealing but has quite literally nothing in common with the contents of the book. I bought my copy at a UBS for $2.00.


The plot summary for this book was a bit misleading which seems to be a theme with older MMPs - they amp up the drama and intrigue to advertise the book. This one sounded like a Gothic/romantic suspense type book based on the cover/back matter.


There was really very little romance, although there was a slight romantic subplot between a couple of the side characters. It was really more intriguing for that - the basic premise is that the narrator, a semi-impoverished woman named Mrs. Pittman in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, owns a large boarding house. Jennie Brice, a local and not particularly successful actress, and her husband, Mr. Ladley, an even less successful playwright, are residents of the boarding house. At the beginning of the book, the Allegheny river overflows its banks and floods the area, including the boarding house - the early pages of the book follow the narrator as she pulls up carpets and everyone retreats to the upper rooms of the house.


This was really interesting - the descriptions of the icy water swirling throughout the house, the boat tied to the stair railing, and the way that the residents of the flood district simply coped with the reality that they were being flooded again was riveting.


During the flood, Jennie Brice goes missing. Mrs.Pittman finds several clues that point to murder: the rope tying the boat to the stairs is bloody, there's a broken knife in the kitchen, and Jennie's dog is found trapped in a place he shouldn't have been. In addition, her neighbor ends up with Jennie's striped fur coat, when Mr. Ladley has told everyone that she left town wearing the coat. And Mrs. Pittman's treasured onxy clock - the only thing left of her youthful gentility - has gone inexplicably missing.


There are a couple of curve balls related to the mystery. A headless body is dredged up after the flood, but it has a distinctive scar and no one can identify it as being Jennie. Witnesses have been discovered that claim that Jennie spent the days after her appearance with them, hiding from her husband. Mr. Ladley goes on trial for the murder. Ultimately, one of the local residents - not the police, but a man who is interested in crimes, figures the whole thing out.


The solution was fairly well-done, especially considering that this book was published in 1913, a full 7 years before Christie published The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Stylistically, it has significant weaknesses, but this is the genre in its infancy, and it reads better than a lot of early detective fiction. I liked it more than The Circular Staircase, which I remember finding disjointed and confusing, although I might give it another read since I've become much more familiar with the early genre conventions and quirks. I have a few other Rineharts on my shelves and I will continue to pick them up at my local UBS as they appear.


As an aside, Mary Roberts Rinehart's sons went into publishing, which caused her to break her contract with Doubleday to go with their new publishing house, Farrar and Rinehart. After Farrar left, they merged with Henry Holt to become Holt, Rinehart and Winston, This publishing company later merged with MacMillan, and still operates as Henry Holt and Co. And here we are, in 2019.

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text 2019-01-26 20:24
Reading progress update: I've read 139 out of 270 pages.
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

After immersing myself in 1950's London, I'm back to 1965, At Bertram's Hotel!


"I just think I'd like to have a good deal more information about this place. I'd ike to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing."


Campbell shook his head. "I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion--"


"I know, I know," said Father. "And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!"


I've read this one before, but I've completely forgotten two of the three subplots!

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review 2019-01-24 15:40
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsey
Picnic at Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a small book, only 224 pages, that packs an outsize punch. I can’t remember where I stumbled on it – if it was through blogging or goodreads, or just by following one of the bookish rabbit trails that I find myself chasing when I start looking at books. It’s set in Australia, written by an Australian writer, so it fulfills the category “Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania” for my Back to the Classics Challenge.


It is set up as a mystery – in 1900, three girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, Miranda, Marion and Irma, and one of their instructors, Miss McCraw, disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic in the Australian countryside, at a place called Hanging Rock. Hanging Rock is a real place, a volcanic rock formation in central Victoria.



Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a true story, but Lindsey presents it as though it is, with newspaper clippings and other bits of ephemera that lend verisimilitude to the story. The book takes off from the disappearance, and follows the ramifications to the school, the headmistress, and the other students.


As the word of the disappearance leaks out, families begin to withdraw their daughters from the school, which leads to the school struggling to stay afloat and creates stress for the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. In addition, one of the girls, Sara, had been in trouble and was not allowed to go to the picnic and her mental health deteriorates rapidly. She disappears as well, although the mystery of her disappearance is solved. One of the girls, Irma, is found alive, but dehydrated and with no memory of what happened to her friends within a few days of the disappearance. She recovers, but is unable to describe or explain what has happened to her friends.


The story is intriguing as the members of the local community grapple with the events and try to understand what has happened. This is not a book that has a neat resolution. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not horror, it is mostly a slim narration of an unexplained, and inexplicable, event that is perfectly satisfied to leave questions unanswered.


Finishing it was, admittedly, a bit unsatisfying and frustrating. I began googling and found information in Wikipedia that suggested that there had been a final chapter that was left out of the book that contained the solution to the riddle. Having now read a summary of the chapter – and I would recommend waiting until after reading the book to do this – I agree with the publishers that the better decision was to leave the ending ambiguous. Because this is a story about what happens after, not what happened before, and it’s fully realized just taking it from that perspective.


The comparison to Shirley Jackson is not perfect, because Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks the undercurrent of dread that Jackson’s best novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, created so perfectly. But she’s probably the best comparison that I can come up with, because that sense of pervasive unease is present all through Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a slim book, but is one worth reading.

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text 2019-01-23 18:30
Proposed buddy read



 Excellent Women - Barbara Pym 



The #pymalong begins day after tomorrow!


Themis-Athena, Murder By Death & I are planning a Buddy Read of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women to tentatively begin on Friday, January 25.


Plot summary: 


Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.


Barbara Pym was born in 1913 and died of breast cancer in 1980 and Excellent Women was originally published in 1952.


According to Wikipedia:


"several strong themes link the works in the Pym canon, which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, and comedies of manners, studying the social activities connected with the Anglican church (Anglo-Catholic parishes in particular.) (Pym attended several churches during her lifetime, including St Michael and All Angels, Barnes, where she served on the Parish Church Council.)


Pym closely examines many aspects of women's and men's relations, including unrequited feelings of women for men, based on her own experience. Pym was also one of the first popular novelists to write sympathetically about unambiguously gay characters (most notably in A Glass of Blessings).  She portrayed the layers of community and figures in the church seen through church functions. The dialogue is often deeply ironic. A tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died."


In 2013, The Telegraph published an interesting piece for Pym's centenary, which can be found here.


If any of this sounds interesting, feel free to join us!


Participants (so far):


Moonlight Reader


Murder By Death



The Better To See You My Dear

Person of Interest



Honorary participate: Mike Finn


Let's use "pymalong" and "excellent women" to tag our posts!

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review 2019-01-20 22:52
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths - Emily Gould,Barbara Comyns

"I told Helen my story and she went home and cried."


Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading - the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930's, during the global depression between the two wars.


That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby - they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.


Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.


His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia's responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia's class to work.


The chapters that address the birth of Sophia's son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn't see him for two days.


It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia's voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.


This is, more or less, a book about poverty - about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles's family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should've been able to expect more from her husband and family.


There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave


"I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it."


Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. "I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead." 


Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can't really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.


So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.

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