Mexico by James A. Michener

James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:

I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.

Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.

The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.

Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.

an Indian stone figure lighted by the sunHe revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.

Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.

With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.

Mexico by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1992. 625 p.
1992 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Sir Mortimer Is Aptly Named

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Mary Johnson’s Sir Mortimer is the story of an Elizabethan gentleman pursuing fortune and fair maiden.

Sir Mortimer commands one of four ships in a fleet under Admiral Sir John Nevil, who has the Virgin Queen’s approval to prey on Spanish shipping and Spanish colonies.

At his best, Sir Mortimer is a prig trying to appear noble.

As his worst, he is a prig trying to look humble.

The story should be an adventure, with lots of swordplay and broken spars, but Johnson strangles excitement with taut summaries, such as “fifty paces from the river bank Henry Sedley received his quietus. ”

The novel pivots around the battle for Nueva Cordoba in which the British walk into a deadly trap. Afterward, Sir Mortimer, who had been captured by the Spanish, comes to his fellow officers with the confession that he broke under torture, revealed the British plan, and should bear full responsibility for the slaughter.

Sir Mortimer and readers learn much later that he was tricked into believing he’d betrayed his countrymen.

I’d like to see what a good writer could do with the idea of tricking a man into believing he’s betrayed his mates.

Johnson messes it up big time: Sir Mortimer is deadly dull.

Sir Mortimer: A Novel
by Mary Johnston
1904 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg ebook #13812
My grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

Mistress Wilding Hews to History

Mistress Wilding is a historical romance on the standard loathing-turns-to-love pattern. What little interest there is in the novel is in the historical setting.

Rafael Sabatini sets the novel in the west of England in 1685 when the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, attempted to incite an insurrection he claimed was to restore Protestantism. At the time, memories were still vivid of the English Civil Wars fought,  in part, over the extent to which the Church of England would emulate elements of the Catholic mass.

Sabatini’s hero, Anthony Wilding, is a Protestant, working surreptitiously for Monmouth. The love of his life is Catholic. Her initial antagonism to Wilding is not on religious grounds, however, but because the worthless brother she adores doesn’t like him.

Sabatini’s story line hews closely to the historical facts, dragging his characters to the places where the events occurred with total disregard for their psychological credibility.

Sabatini seems to regret not having focused the novel on the men’s reactions to realizing their leader is undeniably inept and possibly a liar as well.

Readers will regret it, too.

The Mistress Wilding he delivered is a yawn.

Mistress Wilding
by Rafael Sabatini
1924 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg e-book #1457

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Heirs Apparent Inherit Values Plus Education

The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs twines two heart-felt cries of British fiction of the ’20s and ’30s: “Nothing’s been the same since the war,” and “young people today only want to have fun.”

The basic plot is a familiar one. Julian Perryam leaves Oxford without taking his degree just before he can be expelled after a night in which he and friends drank too much and got back after hours. Julian’s friend Audrey Nye, daughter of a vicar, is sent down.

After years of hobnobbing with rich kids who don’t need to work or for whom a career is assured by their parents’ connections, the ex-scholars find themselves having to work for a living — a task for which Oxford has not prepared them — in a of high unemployment.

Julian and Audrey spout the slogans of their peers but secretly are as conventional as their parents. Living at home again, they realize how much their families sacrificed for them.

Gibbs enriches his romance with sprinkling of sarcasm that mature readers will feel the young idealists’ selfcenteredness warrants.

Julian and Audrey rise to the challenge in 1924. Whether they will bring up their children according to their slogans or according to their principles is open to speculation.

The Heirs Apparent
By Phillip Gibbs
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
375 pages
1924 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda GortonAragoni

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

 

Lord Vanity‘s weak characters done in by history

French surrender at Montreal
French surrender at Montreal

Lord Vanity is a sweeping historical romance spanning two continents in the age of enlightenment.  For some readers, the period details, such as  the marvelous description of the battle for Montreal, may compensate for the novel’s flaws. Unfortunately, for most readers, the lead characters are not strong enough to stand out against the background of Samuel Shellabarger’s scholarship.

A handsome bastard, Richard Morandi, is toggling together a living in Venice as an actor-musician. He falls for a charming ballerina. Maritza’s pedigree is as socially unacceptable as Richard’s.

Richard falls under the influence of one rogue after another until the details of his background become public knowledge. Then he goes off to Montreal to serve under Wolfe.

Thanks to Richard, the British beat the French in North America. His past obscured by the victory, Richard becomes a spy for the British in Paris. There he meets Maritza again.

Lord Vanity is a romance, so a happy ending is contrived for the couple.

Richard’s lack of perception and his absurd pretension of morality render him joke even as the juvenile lead in this farcical plot. Maritza is almost equally implausible with her emotional acuity and moral purity.

History buffs won’t care; they’ll love this novel for its details.

Lord Vanity
by Samuel Shellabarger
Little, Brown, 1953
473 pages
1953 bestseller #9
My grade B-
 

Credit: The original image above is one of many on the website  www.uppercanadahistory.ca, which is a wonderful resource of well-written and well-illustrated information about Canadian history.

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

AudreyFlatters Neither Characters or Colonists

Mary Johnston sets Audrey in Virginia in the years when the colony proudly regarded itself as an English land.

Feigning a sprained ankle, Marmaduke Hawarth deserts the 1716 expedition to find a route over the Blue Ridge. Before he can get back to the pretty frontier lass he saw on the way west, Indians massacre all her family except her young sister.

Hawarth places the child, Audrey, with a minister and his wife and goes off to England for 12 years with never a thought to the child.

When he returns, Audrey is 18, beautiful but barefoot, starved for affection, accustomed to physical and mental abuse, and terrified of the half-breed who is the minister’s drinking and gaming partner.

Barefoot Audrey

Hawarth accepts the barefoot girl’s adoration without thinking that his attentions ruin her reputation. He’s busy making plans to marry the lovely Evelyn Byrd,Virginia society’s leading lady.

Johnston tries to position Hawarth as a hero, he comes off as a conceited jerk. Even Evelyn Byrd, who would have married Hawarth, seems glad that she did not.

Audrey isn’t much account as a heroine either. She may be beautiful, but she’s about as personable as a tree stump.

The interest in the novel is primarily in the historical details about colonial life. Johnston shows the stark contrast between the affluent Virginians with royal land grants and poor ones with branded arms and indentured years of indentured servitude. At least by twenty-first century reckoning, colonial Virginia had as much reason for shame as for pride.

Audrey
Mary Johnston
Illus. F. C. Yohn
Houghton, Mifflin 1902
400+ pages
Project Gutenberg EBook #14513
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mississippi Bubble Better at Finance Than at Fiction

The Mississippi Bubble is a long rambling tale whose hero, John Law, is a 17th century gambler, philosopher, and financier. He captivates women, explores the American wilderness, braves mobs, advises governments, and grows corn.

The main plot line is man finds girl, man loses girl, man regains girl.  Hough pads the basic plot to obese proportions. Some of the historical content, such as the death of Louis XIV, and scene descriptions, such as a storm on Lake Michigan, are powerful, but they are largely extraneous to the plot.

About halfway through novel, to propitiate the Great Spirit, vengeful Iroquois send one of its characters over Niagara Falls in a canoe. It’s unfortunate that author Emerson Hough didn’t send the rest of the characters over to propitiate vengeful readers already weary of flat characters and subplots that go nowhere.

John Law at French Court

On the whole, there’s more illumination than entertainment for readers in The Mississippi Bubble. Odd as it seems, the novel’s value lies primarily in its simple explanation of fiscal concepts such as national debt, monetary policy, and the relationship of government to the banking industry.

The Mississippi Bubble: How the Star of Good Fortune Rose and Set and Rose Again, by a Woman’s Grace,  for One John Law of Laurison
by Emerson Hough
Illus. Henry Hutt
1902 Bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg eBook #14001
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall Joins Sex to Stupidity

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Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is a fictional memoir of Elizabethan England told by an old ex-soldier who fought appears to have fought a few too many battles without wearing his helmet.

Malcolm François de Lorraine Vernon soldiered in France for many years, attached to the house of Guise and intimately attached to the Duke’s wife, Mary Stuart.

When the now-widowed Mary is imprisoned for plotting against Queen Elizabeth, Malcolm heads for Haddon Hall where Sir George years before had offered him his daughter, Dorothy, in marriage. Dorothy won’t have Malcolm as husband, though she’s happy to have any man hanging around to jump when she flutters her lashes.

Dorothy chooses Sir John Manners, the son of her father’s worst enemy. With Malcolm’s help, she keeps her affair from her father until in a fit of jealousy, she fingers her lover for treason.

Charles Major mingles and mangles Elizabethan history and story lines.

With an absurd plot and ridiculous characters, Dorothy Vernon jerks along like a silent film, which it soon became.  Dorothy dons men’s attire and fools her lover; the lover disguises himself as a servant to be with her. Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, and the Duke of Leicester have cameo roles.

I give it two thumbs down.

Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall
Charles Major
Mary Pickford edition (1908)
Illustrated with scenes from the photoplay
Grosset & Dunlap
1902 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #14671
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Inheritance a Study in Chips from Old Blocks

Loom in New Lanark Mill
Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance follows two intertwined Yorkshire families, the Oldroyds and the Bamforths, for almost 120 years.

The story begins in 1812. William Oldroyd decides to mechanize his woolen mill, a move that will put many workers out of jobs. Joe Bamforth, a foreman whose job is secure, joins his fellow mill hands, taking the Luddite oath. A quartet of Luddites murder the elder Oldroyd. Although Joe is guiltless, he chooses to be hanged with his mates.

Young Will takes over the business, spurning Mary Oldroyd whom he loves and who, unknown to Will, carries his child. Much later, as a widower, Will takes Mary as his second wife and acknowledges his son Jonathan, to the distress of the children of both wives.

In the decades through World War I, the Oldroyd’s financial fortunes rise and the Bamforth’s decline.

The Oldroyds are respected for financial savvy, the Bamforths for their moral standards.

The Oldroyds scramble to stay on top; the Bamforths reach a hand to help others rise.

Bentley is superb at showing ordinary people caught up in historic events. Readers can learn a great deal about the contemporary economic situation from this novels. The Luddites, rather than being old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, seem very much like contemporary workers sucked into the Occupy movement.

Bentley’s characters, however, are bundles of character traits rather than true individuals. The children in the book, in particular, appear to replicas of their dominant parent from the moment of birth. At the last, Bentley’s novel sinks beneath the implausibility of a preteen jumping from a train to change the world.

Inheritance
Phyllis Bentley
MacMillan, 1931
1932 Bestseller #9
592 pages

Photo credit: Loom in  in New Lanark Mill, Scotland uploaded by hazelharp http://www.sxc.hu/photo/207250

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni