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The Children's Book

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A delightfully intricate and detailed novel,it is an overview of late Victorian and Edwardian culture focused on a children's writer, Olive Wellwood (loosely based on E Nesbit), and her family and acquaintances. Despite the huge number of characters and incidents, Byatt manages to weave and pleat the different motifs and themes (the family romance, the underground motif, the puppetry theme, the water motif) with great artistry and intricacy, emulating the style of the different artists which populate the novel. It is also a meditation on artistic and familial responsibility, constructed around the idea of performance, play-acting and authenticity (the crescendo of plays and performances which culminates on the use of puppetry in the First World War is particularly well executed). Its main defect lies on the historical interludes between chapters, which are a lot clumsier in style. The pastiches, as usual with Byatt, are excellent, particularly the tale about the doll's house and the war poetry.
Excellent Women

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A delightful novel, a bittersweet portrayal of loneliness and conformity. The first person narration is a great achievement, a mixture of cynicism, self-deceit and polite desperation. As usual with Pym, there are first-rate portraits of parish life, in equal measure comforting and life-sapping (see the excellent scene of the Christmas bazaar discussion). She also has a great eye for everyday minutiae and its importance: she's great at describing the inadequate consolations of tea, gossip, routine, meddling and food.Oh, and for fans of "Some Tame Gazelle"'s Archdeacon Hoccleve, he makes a guest appearance here with one of his doomy, literary sermons.
Aleph

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A masterful collection which contains some of Borges' most brilliant puzzles. A particular highlight are the twin stories 'El Zahir' and 'El Aleph', two stories around the motif of obsession and madness, with a curious undercurrent of sexual longing and jealousy.
The Little Stranger

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'The Little Stranger' is Waters' rather morose and mournful take on the haunted house theme. She uses again a classic set up to explore ideas of class and desire (as in her other novels, her intentions are quite transparent); but atmosphere and sensual detail is more crucial here than plot somersaults. The narrative voice is a particular achievement, particularly its meticulous attention to decay and Waters handles its ambiguities with a sure hand.There are conscious echoes as well of 'Great Expectations'(itself referenced in the book) and (warning: this a plot spoiler of a kind) probably competely involuntary similarities with 'Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit' (a rather more cheerful take on the theme of the lady of the manor and its lowly admirer).
Deerbrook

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An irregular but engaging Victorian domestic novel centred on a complex and unusual love pentangle. As well as the more common unrequited loves and romantic misunderstandings, it offers a very engaging portrait of a man's guily adulterous feelings for his sister-in-law and his honourable attempt to not act on them. It also offers a dark vision of village life in the early Victorian period, being led by petty feuds, gossip, slander and superstition. Martineau nevertheless lacks the narrative skill of predecessors like Austen, and her dialogue in particular can seem very ponderous and artificial at times. On the other hand, the descriptions of nature and some set-pieces (the boating trip, for example) are excellent.
Kipps The Story of a Simple Soul

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Hilarious 'rags to riches' comedy (literally, as the hero starts his career as a lowly apprentice in a drapers') with some excellent set pieces (the hotel scene is lovely, very funny but with a shade of pathos to it) and detailed observations (the shop, and the different residences of the characters). Another comic highlight is drunken playwright Chitterlow, a delightful farce writer with ambitions to outshine Ibsen by incorporating comic mishaps with insects into psychological dramas. I would love to see "The Pestered Butterfly"!
The Happy Prisoner

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A remarkable and very enjoyable portrait of a family after the Second World War, filtered through the eyes of Oliver, a war amputee returning home and becoming engrossed in the minute everyday dilemmas of his family. There are some outstading set pieces (the story of the moth opening the book, for example) and the book shows a fresh, almost irreverent perspective about the war (Oliver loses his leg looting onions for a stew). Structurally, it veers from fine and artistic solutions to narrative problems (the slow revelation of Oliver's problems, the parallel scenes of two women abandoning a party) to easier, more cliched devices (the fact that all the characters conveniently confess their thoughts to Oliver, the story of the evil stepmother that brings about the conclusion). It is nevertheless worth seeking out and should be brought back into print.
Wylder's Hand

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A rather underwhelming and weak mystery novel, marred as well by inconsistencies in the narrative voice, as it switches unnanouced from a first person witness narrative to an omniscient one.
Miss Buncle's Book

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A unique example of what one may call 'cosy metafiction', this slight but fun novel blends gentle satire of middle-class country mores and a meditation on mimesis and realism. It follows a spinster-cum- idiot savant, Miss Buncle, whose unimaginative but truthful novel about her village sparks a revolution in the village inhabitants, who unwittingly identify themlseves in their fictional counterparts. It ultimately leads her, unimaginative writer that she is, to write a novel about her own novel, a kind of mirror image of the book we have been reading so far. The charm and originality of the novel lies in this curious game of mirrors and books-within-books; it is a shame that the emphasis of the story seems to be on the rather cliched and weak portrait of village life (Stevenson is no Barbara Pym) and in the Cinderella-like transformation of the heroine.
John Caldigate

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A minor Trollope with an unusually sensational theme, the story of a prodigal son who emigrates to Australia, returns rich, marries the daughter of a Purian family and is later accused of bigamy by his former mistress. Trollope abandons here his habitual narrative honesty when dealing with suspense and ends up handling the plot rather clumsily and dishonestly. There are echoes of Phineas Redux and The last Chronicle of Barset in its subject matter, but it lacks their psychological insight. It has nonetheless interest for Trollopians: the Australian scenes are fine, as well as the trial and investigation. A particular highlight is Samuel Bagwax, the ingenious post-office civil servant who solves the mystery, renouncing in the way to an all expenses paid trip to Sydney (no small sacrifice).
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