Rediscover Twin American Explorers Christopher and Columbus

Mr. Twist talks to the twins, "Christopher and Columbus"

Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim makes Christopher and Columbus a joyous romp as twin orphans and their staunch friend who “would have been very handsome indeed if he hadn’t had a face” put their wits together to figure out how to survive in America’s 1916 anti-German hysteria.

Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas Twinkler, “very German outside and very English inside,” bravely call themselves Christopher and Columbus because they’re going to discover America.

The twin’s shipboard friend Edward Twist  is “a born mother. The more trouble he was given the more attached he became.”

The 17-year-olds, happily rolling their r’s , give Mr. Twist a great deal of trouble indeed.

The first “family friend” to whom the girls are sent has just left her home and her husband.

Edward and his sister would give the girls a home, but their dragon of a mother spits fire at having the twins under her roof.

The twins take matters into their own hands, entrain for California, and find another closed door.

Edward goes to their rescue.

What a country, Mr. Twist had thought, fresh from his work in France, fresh from where people were profoundly occupied with the great business of surviving at all. Here he came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn’t be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat, still with time to worry over the suspected amorousness of the rich, still putting people into uniforms in order to buttonhole a man on landing and cross-question him as to his private purities.

Von Arnim crafts a tangled plot, peoples it with believable characters, and lards the pages with witty descriptions such as, “She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals.”

Don’t leave this 1919 charmer undiscovered.

Christopher and Columbus
by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim
1919 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14646
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Forever Amber: The whore is a bore

The period of the English Restoration, when England rejected the Puritan Oliver Cromwell Puritanism in favor of the profligate Charles II, is the setting for Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.

Amber St. Clair is the orphaned love child of a couple whose families were on opposite sides during the English Civil War. When the Cavaliers come through town, Amber is seduced at 16 by Bruce, Lord Carlton, who tells her he won’t marry her and proves it by going off privateering.

Left to her own resources, Amber marries for money a man who marries her for her money.

Both are disillusioned.

Amber winds up in debtor’s prison. She escapes through her sexual prowess and begins a series of alliances designed to raise her social status and income.

“The brilliant, lavish, exciting life of an exclusive harlot seemed to her a most pleasant one,” Windsor says.

From then on, Amber’s life is a series of sexual alliances that ultimately take her to the bedchamber of the king himself.

When Amber’s enemies finally figure how to get rid of her, it is 450 pages too late to do readers any good.

Forever Amber is simply an interminable bore.

Forever Amber
By Kathleen Winsor
Macmillan, 1944
652 pages
Bestseller #4 for 1944
Bestseller #1 for 1945
My grade: D+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Anne’s Scandal Is Today’s Snore

Statue of Frederick Duke of York
Statue of Frederick Duke of York, London

Mary Anne is a novel about Mary Anne Clarke and the scandal that she precipitated in nineteenth century England. It was penned by her great-granddaughter, author Daphne du Maurier, who may be suspected of a bit of bias.

A precocious child, to keep the family fed Mary Anne passes her proofreading work off as that of her ailing stepfather.

She marries an scapegrace who prefers the bottle to work. To support their four children, Mary Anne writes gossip columns until she discovers more lucrative employment for her brains and body. Before long, she is mistress of Frederick Duke of York, second son of King George III.

Mary Anne revels in her powerful role but piles up debts furnishing the amenities the Duke is used to. To supplement the Duke’s allowance, she begins pedaling Army promotions — and preparing her own downfall.

Although the characters are historical figures, not one of them seems real. Du Maurier fails to provide plausible explanation for the critical pivots on which the story turns: Mary Anne’s family relationships.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the duMaurier’s account is that although the Duke’s enemies accept his adultery, they are scandalized that he pushed through promotions knowing his mistress was bribed to use her influence with him. He was forced to resign as Commander-in-Chief.

Your life will be none the worse if you leave Mary Anne on attic shelf.

 Mary Anne
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1953
351 pages
1954 bestseller #2
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold Still Thrills

Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after wall broken down
Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after the fall.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a tense, gritty thriller in which even the good guys can’t tell the other good guys from the bad guys.

John le Carré sets the opening scene at the Berlin Wall. British operative Alex Leamas watches helplessly as his best agent is killed attempting to escape from East Berlin.>

Recalled to London, Leamas becomes the central figure in an elaborate plot to discredit Mundt, the East German spymaster responsible for Reimeck’s death.

Leamas is a complex character: driven, humorless, sartorially and psychologically rumpled. Compared to Leamas, James Bond is a toy spy.

Control promises that after this last assignment, Leamas can “come in from the cold” to a life where he need not be callous. Leamas has met a girl who makes that picture look good.

Le Carré paces the novel well, throwing in enough red herrings to keep readers interested while making sure there are no breaks in the story line. Some of the plot complications are too convenient for plausibility, but you’ll be too absorbed in the story to see its flaws until you’ve finished the last chapter.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré
New York: Coward-McCann
1963
256 pages
1964 bestseller #1
My grade: B+

Photo Credit: Berlin Wall. Photo by Belobos of section of remaining wall near Checkpoint Charlie was taken 20 years after the wall fell.

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

To Have and to Hold Ends in Exhaustion

To Have and to Hold is a gender-neutral novel. Mary Johnson provides heart-stopping adventure for men, and a heart-throb hero for women.

In 1621 when a shipload of women arrive at Jamestown , Capt. Ralph Percy, one of original settlers, buys a beautiful wife he can see is high born. He allows her to bar the bedroom door to him.

Lord Carnal arrives seeking the King’s run-away ward whom he was to marry. If Lord Carnal can get her back to England, the King will annul her marriage to Percy.

Ralph and his buddies have to get her away.

Before long, the Ralph finds himself captain of a pirate ship carrying his wife and his buddies and Lord Carnal.

Johnson gets everyone back to Jamestown in time for Ralph to learn his wife loves him and for him to be a hero when the Indians attack Jamestown.

When she runs out of space for any more plot complications, Johnson packs up her pen and sets the characters free.

Since 1900, when To Have and to Hold was the bestseller in the US, its plot lines have become familiar from dime novels and second-rate films. A taut ending might have camouflaged the interior flaws, but the novel’s slump to an exhausted ending magnifies them.

The history beneath the novel deserves better.

So do the novel’s readers.

To Have and to Hold
by Mary Johnson
1900 bestseller # 1
Project Gutenberg EBook #2807
My grade: C

@2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Amateur Gentleman Is Amateurish Novel

The Amateur Gentleman follows the adventures of Barnabas Barty, son of a champion prizefighter. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Barnabas has cash to “learn to be a gentleman.”

The Amateur Gentleman reads like a first novel, packed with episodes and characterizations drawn on the author’s reading in Dickens, Fielding, and Trollope. Had he been writing today, Jeffrey Farnol would have put in zombies and a werewolf.

The windfall in the opening chapter sets the direction Farnol takes in the remainder of the novel. Something unexpected happens in each chapter, and each unexpected occurrence is less plausible than the one before.

Barnabas is as implausible as the plot in which he’s tangled. Even before he begins his lessons in genteel deportment, Barnabas can tame a wild horse and charm an elderly duchess with equal ease.

Barnabas has all the manly virtues and roughly a quarter of the manly brain. His virtue is apparent to everyone except his enemies and the lovely heiress he wants to marry, all of whom are his intellectual equals.

Farro’s whimsical chapter titles are the only hint of the delightful light entertainment he went on to produce once he got his reading out of his system.

The Amateur Gentleman
By Jeffery Farnol
Illus. Herman Pfeifer
1913 Bestseller #6
My grade C-
Project Gutenberg EBook #9879
My grade C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

One More River Still Delivers the Goods

One More River is a poignant period piece about durable people and enduring values. The ninth and final novel in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte ChroniclesOne More River  has less bite than the earlier novels.

The story swirls around the divorce action Sir Gerald Corven brings against his wife, Clare, and a young man who fell in love with her as she fled her husband. Coming from a family that loathes publicity, Clare refuses to explain even to them that Corven is a sadist, leaving her sister, Dinny, to handle the unpleasant details.

Dinny has experience with unpleasant details. She’s still aching from losing her lover to a public scandal, but she nonetheless exerts herself to soothe and support her family.

Although all the Charwells rally around Clare, it’s Dinny they most care about. They want to see her married, and even select a suitable man, Eustace Dornford. After Dinny learns that her lover has drowned in Siam, she begins to see the family is right.

Galsworthy’s people are ladies and gentlemen. Clare aside, the characters are not vivid, but durable. Seeing them, readers can understand why tiny England was able to command an empire on which the sun never set.

One More River
By John Galsworthy, 
Charles Scribner’s, 1933
304 pages
My grade: A

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing routine about Time and Time Again

dustjacket of Time and TIme Again

Time and Time Again is primarily character study, but a superbly plotted one, and James Hilton’s totally unpredictable ending is entirely plausible.

Charles Anderson, 52, is a British career diplomat. To date, his public life has been respectably dull aside intermittent painful episodes resulting from his father’s descent into dementia.

Charles bears the knowledge that his friends call him “Stuffy” with a mingled pride and humility. In his affectionate tolerance of his father, he demonstrates the integrity that inspires the respect of both friend and foe.

Charles is assisting in some tricky negotiations with the Russians at a Paris conference when, to celebrate Gerald’s 17th birthday, he asks his son to join him. Since Gerald was sent to America after his mother was killed in the blitz, Charles has seen little of his son. Charles hopes the dinner will begin a relationship that will flourish when he retires.

When Gerald hurries away from the dinner, Charles follows. He walks in on the boy with a woman in an American-style soda fountain.

While he’s trying to cover his embarrassment occasioned as much by the American cuisine as the assignation, Charles is further embarrassed by the appearance of his adversary from the conference, the Russian negotiator Palan.

This is an unexpectedly good novel that can be read time and time again.

Time and Time Again
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1953
306 pages
1953 bestseller #8
My grade B+

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers are only winners at Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Dustjacked of the Battle of the Villa FioritaRumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of the few novels with a surprise ending that  feels right.

Away at boarding school, the Clavering children know nothing of their parents’ divorce until it’s settled. By then, their mother has gone to Italy with her lover.

Hugh and Carrie, devastated by their mother’s desertion, set out to bring her home from the Lake Garda villa where she and Rob are honeymooning while waiting to marry.

Glad as she is to see the children, Fanny is not about to go back to London.

Rob, who isn’t glad to see the children, summons his  own daughter to join them at the villa.

The only thing the three children have in common is dislike of the “other parent.”

As the children fight to restore their normal families, Rob and Fanny fight over how much parents owe to their children. Should the children always come first?

The point of view shifts frequently in the early chapters, reflecting the distress of the characters. As they become more sure of themselves, Godden steadies her perspective and picks up the pace. The story is streaking along when it slams to a close.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is a fight you won’t soon forget.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1963
312 pages
1963 bestseller #10
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Make Winter Come Again

Headstone of WWI soldierIf you have time to read only one vintage novel this year, make it A. S. M. Hutchinson’s 1922 chart-topper If Winter Comes.

The plot begins to roll when Mark Sabre discovers that he and his bride do not laugh at the same jokes. As time passes, he discovers they really have nothing in common at all.

Mark retreats into his work in educational publishing, depending for intellectual companionship on two neighbors who have eccentricities of their own.

Mark occasionally sees his soul mate, Nona, now married to the emotionally abusive Lord Tybar, as she passes through Penny Green en route to somewhere else. Only the outbreak of World War I keeps Mark from helping Nona escape from her intolerable marriage.

Mark’s honest heart and instance of seeing things from other people’s perspective renders him incapable of seeing his wife’s and co-workers’ behind-the-scenes machinations.

Hutchinson accentuates the intricate plot and vivid characters with an extraordinary sense of pacing. As Mark gets swept up in events over which he has no control, the story accelerates so readers feel Mark’s loss of control and helplessness.

Hutchinson will make you laugh, and weep, and pause to read aloud lines that glow with a pearly sheen.

If Winter Comes
A. S. M. Hutchinson
Grosset & Dunlap, 1921
415 pages
1922 #1 Bestseller
Project Gutenberg #14145
My grade: A

Photo credit: “Graves 1” by yohanl http://www.sxc.hu/photo/376071

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni