Monthly Archives: March 2016

“The Half Sisters” by Geraldine Jewsbury

I love a good used book store! Halfway between a library and a “regular” book store, it can make me think I died and went to heaven. The Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, qualifies. I visited there last week.

I limited myself to two purchases. One was The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury. A winner! I got the Oxford World Classics 1994 paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1848. Jewsbury was simultaneously way ahead of her time and all over the map. But it adds up to a GREAT story!

We first meet the half sisters when they are about 15 years old. Bianca was the illegitimate daughter of an Englishman who had an affair in Italy just before settling into a highly conventional English marriage. Alice was the only child of the marriage. Neither sister knows of the others existence.

Bianca’s Italian mother brings her teenaged daughter to England, expecting to present her triumphantly to her father. But the father has died, and Bianca’s shocked mother suddenly becomes a helpless and senile.

Bianca is in deep trouble, on her own in a country where she barely speaks the language, with an invalid mother to support. Three men collaborate to help her out, and she (literally) joins the circus. Over time, it becomes clear that she has a gift for acting, and, again with help, she becomes an accomplished and reasonably wealthy actress. Improbable, but it works well enough for fiction. Jewsbury is much more interested in Bianca’s moral development and affairs of the heart, and in commenting on the role of women in 19th century England.

The sisters meet and establish a limited friendship, with only Bianca aware of their shared paternity. Alice marries a businessman who is kind and distant. She suffers from boredom and anxiety.

I won’t go into more of the plot, but it surprised me several times. The whole story would make a great BBC drama or movie. The books covers a ten year period, at the end of which Bianca finds love and marriage. Alice dies prematurely of “brain fever”, or possibly a broken heart.

Modern feminists will be disappointed that Bianca retires from acting after her marriage, but Jewsbury makes so many interesting observations and comments in the course of the novel that I think it is correct to describe The Half Sisters as an early feminist classic. And it reads very well!

“In the Balance (World War, Book One)” by Harry Turtledove

Alternative historical fiction! A new genre to explore! And what a great idea! After all, who can resist speculating on “What if the South had won the Civil War?” So I downloaded this highly recommended book. The premise is extreme – what if space aliens had invaded Earth towards the end of World War II?

I think this would have worked better without the space aliens (any universal threat would do, like an epidemic), but they allowed for an interesting line of argument, namely that a reader of science fiction might have an advantage when communicating with bug eyed monsters. Turtledove’s monsters are rather like lizards. The point, I think, is that reading sci-fi makes you mentally flexible. I agree, as long as it’s not your only reading matter.

Despite this interesting starting point, I found the book to be plodding. The characters were interesting but their dilemmas were rather predictable.

Turtledove made one joke he didn’t intend. The aliens come from a hot, dry planet, and they are headed for a military denouement with American forces in Illinois in mid-winter. Yes, winter is coming! Let’s hear it for Game Of Thrones.

I enjoyed another book series that posited a different path for WW II. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels take place in England, but after Nazi occupation during WW II. The occupation disrupted the country so extensively that Wales separated and became an independent nation. Tensions remained. This is not the theme of the books (which deal with the manipulation of time and the tribulations of heroine Thursday Next), but it provides an interesting subtext. (I think Fforde is classified as a writer of post modernist fantasy. I like him better than the other “postmodernists” I have encountered.)

I’ll read more by Harry Turtledove if I’m faced with truly challenging boredom (say a 30 hour train ride), but for now, I’m moving on to other authors.

“Quite Honestly” by John Mortimer

I listened to this book during a recent, daylong car trip. Nothing like a good novel to make the miles pass!

John Mortimer is listed in Wikipedia as “barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author”. Quite Honestly is one of his last novels. In the first few chapters we meet the aristocratic young Lucy, who wants to “do good in the world” and ex-convict Terry. Lucy is supposed to help Terry “reintegrate” into society – find a job and, above all, avoid re-incarceration. The plot starts as a fairly standard rant against “doing good”, but becomes much more interesting when Lucy and Terry become a couple and Lucy takes to crime in order to “understand” Terry, who has told her that he was seeking thrills, not money, in his housebreaking ventures.

Eventually, Lucy is behind bars and Terry goes straight. The plot allows for lots of commentary on contemporary British culture. Most of it has to do with social class. Nothing is ever going to change the fact that Lucy (daughter of an Anglican bishop) and Terry (unknown father, alcoholic mother) come from different worlds.

I first encountered John Mortimer when his “Rumple of the Bailey” stories were televised on BBC. With Leo Kern as Horace Rumpole, the series ran to 44 episodes. British television humor at its best! If I am ever stuck in a body cast, I hope someone will show up with the whole Rumpole series to keep me entertained.

Both Mortimer and Kern are fine artists. Enjoy!

The Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte Mysteries by Arthur Upfield

I’ve been on a re-reading jag, and this series, published between 1930 and 1963, was a pleasure to revisit. If you are a mystery fan, check out Arthur Upfield. His novels will also appeal to those who love

  • Anthropology
  • Geography/geology/ecology
  • Travel (Australia)

The books I re-read were

  • The Mountains Have a Secret
  • Sinister Stones
  • The Bushman Who Came Back

What is a man named Napoleon Bonaparte doing in Australia? Upfield’s detective hero is (in the words of his time), a half breed, son of an aboriginal woman and a European father, raised and educated to take full advantage of the wisdom of two highly divergent cultures. The capstone of his education was a three year period when he “went bush”, living off the land and becoming an initiated member of his mother’s tribe.

The interactions between these two cultures sets the framework for Upfield’s plots. The stunning, strange Australian landscape provides the background. And Upfield creates wonderful, eccentric characters.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte always gets his man. (If he created a female criminal, I’ve missed her.) Along the way, he breaks rules, takes chances and uses mysterious aboriginal wisdom.

If you want to get happily and completely lost in a book, try Upfield. But I’m warning you, the urge to max out your credit card and travel to Australia RIGHT NOW may be overwhelming!