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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

In The House on the Strand, an historical novel meets a sci-fi novel.

Medieval Cornwall coast scene on novel cover

This bestseller mixes ’60 drug culture into history.

The two don’t get along well.

Dick Young gladly accepts the offer of longtime friend’s Cornwall estate, Kilmarth, for his family for the summer. Dick and Magnus were in university together and remained close until Dick’s marriage.

Dick’s wife, Vita, disliked Magnus from their first meeting.

Magnus, an academic researcher, has secretly stumbled upon a drug that takes people back in time.

Magnus wants Dick to take it and report his findings.

The first dose transports Dick back the Kilmarth environs in the 14th century. Each time he takes a dose, he becomes more interested in the historical figures than in his own era.

When Magnus is found dead, apparently after attempting to commit suicide, the story twists to a halt.

Daphne du Maurier provides diagrams showing who married whom, but readers need a guide to who is sleeping with whom to make sense of the historical part of the book.

The 20th century portion makes more sense, but even though du Maurier has Dick narrate the story, both plots feel detached from him. Sadly, Du Maurier’s characters have no more personality than figures in someone else’s nightmare.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1969. Book club edition, 308 pp. 1969 bestseller #10. My grade: C.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Naked woman being filmed in bed

Sex, TV camera and Robbins name dominate cover of The Inheritors.

The Inheritors combines steamy sex with stultifying descriptions of multi-million dollar financial deals.

To make things worse, Harold Robbins’ odd organization makes following the story difficult.

Steve Gaunt and Sam Benjamin are frenemies and business partners. Steve and Sam each have three-track minds: Women, booze, and business.

Needless to say there’s not a lot of character for Robbins to develop.

Robbins opens the novel with a chapter about the morning of a spring day in which Steve and Sam talk about things that mean nothing to readers.

Books one and two relate events of 1955-60 in New York from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Then there’s a chapter about the afternoon of the spring day.

Next books three and four relate events of 1966-65 in Hollywood from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Sam, the homely fat guy, is the more interesting of the two. The suave Steve with his nose in a balance sheet is not stimulating company for any reader.

What little interest there is in the novel is in the cultural history of how television disrupted the film industry, embraced rock music, and metamorphosed into the communications industry.

The Inheritors by Harold Robbins
Pocket Book Edition, 1971. 373 p. paper. 1969 bestseller #4. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Light in the Clearing begins with its narrator saying, “Once upon a time I owned a watermelon.”

From that magical opening, Barton Baynes escorts readers through his Adirondacks childhood.


The Light in the Clearing: A Tale of the North County in the Time of Silas Wright
by Irving Bacheller.  Grosset & Dunlap, 1917. Illus. with scenes from the photoplay.
414 pp. 1917 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #14150. My grade: B+.

Orphaned at 4, the lad is brought up by his Aunt Deel and Uncle Peabody, a poor, hardworking brother and sister.

A bright, polite child, Bart attracts the attention of Silas Wright Jr., then New York’s comptroller, later to be a U.S. senator.

Wright helps Bart get an education and enter law practice.

By himself, Bart attracts pretty Sally Dunkelberger. The two plan to marry when both are 21.

Scene from photoplay version of The Light in The Clearing

In Light, Irving Bacheller combines the best features of the juvenile novel, historical fiction, romance, and coming of age novels—and does them all well.

The chapters in which Bart tells of his childhood convey the sense of a child’s view point, much in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs. As he tells of his teens, you can feel the tug between Bart’s inbred values and his acquired desires.

Bacheller weaves all-but-forgotten tidbits of history into the novel, such as the New York State’s rent wars and Silas Wright’s refusal to be nominated for vice president in 1844. None of it seems pasted on or extraneous.

Whatever your tastes in novels, you’ll find something to like in this far-from-ordinary 1917 bestseller.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses

Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.


Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Winston Churchill’s narrator confides right away that Conison is going to have two love stories and revolve mainly around the ungainly figure of Jethro Bass.

That description is like saying Moby Dick is about fishing.


Coniston by Winston Churchill

Florence Scovel Shinn, illus. MacMillan, 1906. 540 p. 1906 bestseller #1.
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3766.
My grade B+.


In New Hampshire in the mid-1800s, uneducated, stuttering Jethro falls hard for Cynthia Ware.

Jethro Bass sits on a porch, hands in pockets, legs crossed,

Jethro Bass is a patient man.

Cynthia returns Jethro’s affection, but deplores his political ambition to rise above his station.

Though they part and marry others, each remains the other’s true love.

After Cynthia’s death, Jethro becomes friend to her husband and “Uncle Jethro” to the daughter with the mother’s name.

Jethro both loves and respects Cynthie, but will he give up his political power for her?

Will Cynthie hold to her principles or bend to win the man she loves?

Churchill works things out in proper romantic fashion, but not before he’s treated readers to a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into grassroots politics (drawing, no doubt, on his experience as a New Hampshire legislator and candidate for governor.)

In Churchill’s pen, Jethro Bass becomes a figure as distinctive and memorable as any creation by Thomas Hardy or Anthony Trollope.

Coniston fairly begs to become a Masterpiece Theatre presentation.

Until it is (and afterward) read the print version.

It is a gem.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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