The Reckoning by John Grisham

The Reckoning is the first John Grisham novel I’ve read. Besides Agatha Christie, I haven’t read much murder mysteries at all, because I always thought those books were not for me. I bought The Reckoning as a gift for my boyfriend when I flew to Kenya. On my first flight on that journey, I decided to give the book a try. I am sure that I am not the only bookworm who reads books bought as presents before giving it. From the moment I started until this moment, two weeks later, I’ve been reading this book like a madwoman. Part of The Reckoning is set in the Philippines during the Second World War and part of it is set in the deep South of the USA a few years after the war.

The Reckoning centres around the Banning family. They have been a respected cotton-farming family for many generations in the town of Clanton, Mississippi. That is, until the day Pete Banning, the patriarch of the family, gets up, goes to town and kills the beloved Methodist priest Dexter Bell. He hands himself over to the police but refuses to give a motive for the murder. His two children Stella and Joel, his sister Florry and his wife Liza are all distraught by what happened. They try to ask Pete why he killed the priest, but he refuses to tell them as well. What follows is a story that alternates between courtroom scenes regarding Pete’s trial and the aftermath of that. These scenes are alternated by stories of how the Banning family copes with the murder and trial and how they try to build back a life. In the middle of the book, the story moves to the Philippines where we learn about what happened to Pete during the war.

Pete started as a cavalier soldier during the war. After that, he became a Japanese prisoner of war when the Americans surrendered. Eventually, he escapes and becomes a guerrilla fighter in the jungle of the Philippines where he spends most of his war years. In this part of the book, we also learn more about Pete and Liza’s marriage and how it changed after the war. Pete hasn’t told his family anything about what happened to him during the war. Likewise, he knows little of his family’s life at home at that time. The Banning family is not used to talk about anything that happens to them. This brings a lot of questions, such as why did Pete kill the priest? What is the role of the priest in the disintegration of Pete’s and Liza’s marriage? Do Pete’s employees know the truth? And there are many more questions like this. All these questions together form the bigger mystery of the book, which is slowly unravelled in the book by revealing what happened in the Philippines and what happened at home. This ends in the conclusion where the mystery might or might not be revealed. I won’t spoil that for you. I can only say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the ending.

The question of whether the mystery will be revealed or not is one thing that made the book exciting to me. Most of the book I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know the answers. The Banning family is known for their secrecy, so I feared it might feel unrealistic if all the mysteries would be revealed. Also, sometimes it is best if not all secrets are revealed in a murder mystery, so the book keeps you wondering. However, I also really wanted to know what happened. This book keeps you wondering in a good way. A big part of the book doesn’t even talk about the mystery directly but is about the life of all the characters. The connection between all the characters and the murder is not immediately clear either. I liked that Grisham spends a lot of time introducing all the characters because that gives us readers the opportunity to theorize about the mystery ourselves.

Overall, I loved this book, however, it is also very long-winded at certain points. There is too much detail about things such as particulars about the trial. It didn’t surprise me at all when I discovered John Grisham is a lawyer, seeing all the details he puts in those scenes. The level of detail gave the book a realistic vibe, but to me, it felt excessive. Another way Grisham stretches the word count in this novel is by repeating the explanations of certain things or concepts every time it’s mentioned. For example, communication is done through a phone system called ‘the rural party line’. This means that neighbours on the same line can listen in to conversations at will, making sensitive discussions public rather than private. This, Grisham explains every time the term ‘rural party line’ is used. To me, it would have been better if Grisham realized his readers understand the concept after the first time it is mentioned.

The easy writing style and the structure of the book compensate for the repetition in the book: reading never feels like a chore and you can read for hours without getting tired. Also, Grisham gives clues to the mystery at the right moments: when my attention started to slack, I found out something new. Still, the book is longer than necessary. I am not saying that every book should be as short as possible, because reading is as much about the pleasure of turning the pages as it is about finishing books. However, an author should take care not to bore or annoy its readers with too many repetitions.

All in all, I enjoyed my first John Grisham novel a lot. Especially because about two thirds through the book I had expansive theories of what happened and why Pete killed the priest. And I am delighted to say that I was partly correct! This puzzling out the mystery and being right helped a lot to enjoy the book. The Reckoning is recommendable for everyone who loves a murder mystery written in an accessible writing styles and with enough clues to figure out part of the mystery yourself. At the end of this review, I must conclude that murder mysteries are my kind of books after all. Do you have any recommendations of what to read next?

Sherlock Holmes award for giving us a murder mystery where everyone can figure out some of the clues themselves and feel smart.

 

John Grisham, The Reckoning (New York, 2018)

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Bella G. Bear

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The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

“I was born in a sycamore tree. That was fifty-five years ago, and it made me a bit of a local celebrity. My celebrity status was brief, though. Two baby girls, later my best friends, came along within months of me in ways that made my sycamore tree entrance seem less astonishing.” Odette Henry tells the story of her life almost casually. She and her friends, locally known as the Supremes, have been inseparable since they were very young. The book lets them tell their stories, sometimes moving, sometimes joyful and sometimes absurd. In my opinion, there was a bit too much of everything. Even though the characters were sympathetic and the writing style natural and warm, I missed depth in the many issues the story touches upon.

Three middle-aged women meet every Sunday after church at the local diner, Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. Odette Henry, Clarice Baker and Barbara Jean Maxberry have been nicknamed ‘the Supremes’, after the singing group, ever since they first made the diner their hang-out as teenagers. They have stuck together through love, marriage and heartbreak, taking on their lives together. At the start of the story, they receive some bad news: the owner of the diner, Big Earl, has died. From now on, they have to get through their troubles without his kind support and advice. Big Earl started the first black-owned business in their small town of Plainview, Indiana, United States. His diner was the heart of the community and a refuge for outcasts of any skin colour for decades. Even when Big Earl retired, you could always find him at the diner, now owned by his son Little Earl. The Supremes have their own table there, where they share sorrow, joy and gossip.

Missing their friend and father figure Big Earl is made the more difficult because the three women encounter one of the most challenging years of their lives. Barbara Jean’s husband dies and the man she loved as a teenager returns to town. When they were young, their love was impossible because he is white and she is black. Now, decades later, Barbara Jean has conflicted feelings about her first love. Clarice, the poised piano teacher, struggles with her charming husband’s adultery and her own lack of assertiveness. And Odette, the sassy fighter, learns that she has cancer. The story jumps back and forth through time, showing the lives of the three women through the lens of hindsight while they deal with the challenges of the present. Many more characters appear along the way, making it colourful if a little overpopulated. To make matters a little more complicated, Odette starts getting visited by ghosts like her mother was before her. While the Supremes work their way through their troubles with wit and friendship, the ghosts comment and give unsolicited advice.

When I was little and first learned the word ‘novel’, I thought that it meant a book in which characters encounter as many dramatic, real life problems as possible. Somebody must have explained it in the wrong way or else I jumped to conclusions on my own. I genuinely thought that a novel needed to be stuffed with life-threatening illnesses, tragic deaths, divorces, etcetera. I now know that ‘drama’ is not synonymous with ‘novel’ and that ‘conflict’ doesn’t mean literal fighting but The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat made me think about my youthful mistake. This story has a bit too much of everything, especially dramatic plotlines. It makes it hard to keep track of who is dealing with what. It sometimes veers to the ridiculous, which threatens the balance between comedy and drama. I’d say the author should have limited himself to one big conflict for every Supreme, allowing it to really make a difference to their development as people. That would make the drama more affecting and I suspect it would also make the comedy funnier. As it is, none of the serious issues like racism, alcoholism, abandonment, grief for a child and adultery are explored to the extent they deserve.

The story alternates between chapters told in third-person and chapters that are told by Odette in first person. The exclusives through Odette’s eyes make clear that the author thought of her as the most important character. Although the life stories of Clarice and Barbara Jean are also central to the book, it is Odette who is the most interesting. She is the most opinionated and strongest of the three and the most vulnerable as well. She loves her now-dead mother very deeply, although she’s quite different from her. She has learned to copy her mother’s confidence despite of her own self-doubt, which makes her the decisive one in her friend group. The fact that she sees ghosts is not that shocking to her: she takes things as they are and the ghosts of her parents and people she knew in her past are often a comfort to her, connecting her with times gone by.

One thing the (male!) author has done very well, is to portray the friendship between the women itself. It is a comfortable friendship that only exists when you’ve grown up together and know each other through and through. Although I am half their age, I was convinced by the portrayal of how female friendship works when you’re middle-aged and your children are grown up. The women have insecurities but their friendship is the thing they fall back on. This is illustrated when Big Earl’s daughter-in-law runs past Clarice and Odette to seek comfort with Barbara Jean upon hearing of Earl’s death. Clarice and Odette, although both closer to friends to the woman than Barbara Jean is, are not for a moment offended or surprised. They know that their best friend knows more about grief than they do and people turn instinctively to her for comfort.

All in all, the story is charming and engaging. But I have to confess that I forgot almost everything about it quite soon after I had finished it. There are too many colourful but two-dimensional characters and too many different plotlines that keep the story from really diving into its subject matter. I liked the book, but wouldn’t read it a second time. Then again, not every book needs to be a classic. The feel-good friendship of the Supremes at their favourite table at Earl’s gives off plenty of warmth for a one time read.

Greek Chorus Award for the ghostly group of commentators

Edward Kelsey Moore, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (New York, 2013)

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Jo Robin

Crusade in Jeans (Kruistocht in spijkerbroek) by Thea Beckman

There have been two books that have had a great influence on me when I was a child and there have been two traumatic incidents in my adolescence concerning those books. As you may have guessed, as many people have had similar experiences in their life, these were the moments my favourite books were adapted for the big screen. Both movies were disappointing in every sense, both utterly terrible as a film and the worst homage to both the books and authors, who had originally created wonderful tales of adventure and mystery. Instead, we got saddled with pretty boys with long hair who couldn’t ride a horse to save their life in a movie theatre. I’m still not over it, as you can see, so please please please, do not watch the films, but read the books. The first one of these books so horribly adapted was ‘A letter to the King’, reviewed by Jo here. The second one is called ‘Crusade in Jeans’ by Thea Beckman and to this day, it’s one of the greatest and most original Dutch stories I have ever read.

Rudolf Wega is a fifteen-year-old boy, who isn’t special in any way. He comes from a place called Amstelveen and usually goes by the name Dolf. For the Dutch people reading this, in the 70’s when this book was written, Dolf was quite a common nickname for Rudolf. But when an experiment in his hometown is to take place with a machine called the ‘Materietransmitter’, he volunteers and he is then transported back into time. His plan was to watch some French medieval tournament for a while and then return home, but through some faulty calculations, he ends up in the German city of Spiers in the thirteenth century. As he is unable to return to the twentieth century, he joins a children’s crusade that plans on freeing the Holy Land through their innocence, led by the shepherd’s boy Nicolaas with a vision from God.

Thousands and thousands of children have joined the crusade and it’s usually children who have nowhere else to go. Apart from the hordes and hordes of children, there are two monks who seem to have taken over the organisation of the crusade. Dolf worries for the children and quickly takes charge to try and protect them, and keep the children’s crusade from unnecessary losses. He tries to organise groups that search for food and one that protects the others from wild animals and such and yet another that can lead the way. He even saves a group of children from an earl who has taken them captive as slaves, by creating some makeshift gunpowder (which had not yet been invented in Europe in the thirteenth century). Apart from Dolf’s inventiveness and knowledge that goes beyond the typical medieval person’s, he is also an avid history lover in his own time, so he starts to recognise some things that have happened and will happen, crusades being one of them. Of course, this makes him stand out like a sore thumb and both the monks and Nicolaas start to dislike  him.

Eventually, Dolf realises with his more modern knowledge of geography, that heading to Genua where the sea will open up to them to get to the Holy Land, doesn’t make any sense and he starts to investigate. One of the monks, Anselmus, desperately tries to discredit Dolf and accuses him of witchcraft. This does have an effect on some children, as witchcraft was a very serious accusation at the time, but some side with Dolf. However, Dolf turns out to be right and the children’s crusade is nothing more than a front for a much more sinister plan fuelled by the innocent belief that the children have in their quest to save the Holy Land. But Dolf manages to save them all in time and he is saved as well, also just in time.

Thea Beckman was still quite the phenomenon in the Netherlands fifteen years ago. Born in 1923, she started writing most of her historical novels after her retirement. After her death 2004, Crusade in Jeans was made into a film (an utter disaster) and this was one of her books that was translated into many languages. As I mentioned, many of her books are historical novels and I used to save up all of my money to buy them. When I was twelve I had almost every one of them, about thirty in total, and they were my absolute favourite. Her strength in writing lies in the fact that she takes an ordinary person, like Dolf, and places them in a great historical situation. This makes her books easy to read page-turners and before you know it, you’ve read a children’s book over 600 pages long! I have loved history for as long as I can remember and a large part of my knowledge as a child came from my father and Thea Beckman. Because the historical elements in her books are always completely correct: this woman has done her research. You get a complete history lesson, often through the eyes of an ordinary inhabitant of a Dutch city at a certain point in time, but without noticing it. As a reader, you focus on your character, which are often also historical figures, and the things that character goes through and you are simply entertained. But to this day, I remember dates, events and names in history by linking them to specific books by Thea Beckman.

Crusade in Jeans is actually one of her books that is a bit different from the other books she has written. To start off, her main character is a man, Dolf, and often her main characters are women, sometimes famous, sometimes especially ordinary, but always opinionated and feisty. Beckman has often been described as a feminist, though she herself didn’t agree with that label, but her women aren’t always non-conformists, rebels or tomboyish: they can find their strength in being a mother as well, but strong they always are. Some of these girls can be found in Crusade in Jeans, but mainly it’s men and boys in this novel, with the same strength of mind that is. Another striking feature is that Dolf isn’t from medieval times, but he is from our time. This way, the main character is even easier to relate to than her standard medieval characters. And lastly, there is an element of science fiction or magical realism or whatever you want to call it added in this book in the form of a time machine. For an author that tends to meticulously do her research in archives and city history books, a time machine as part of a story is an unexpected piece of fiction, but strangely enough, it works very well.

The main problem I had with the movie was how badly history was executed in the film. Medieval times are portrayed as a kind of Medieval Fantasy Fair, with anachronistic themes and objects and two-dimensional sets and characters. Thea Beckman’s books are the complete opposite. Her books contain so many accurate details, without going too much into history, that you actually feel like you’ve just walking into medieval times. The children’s crusade was a factual historical occurrence in 1212, but the emphasis in the book isn’t on this magnificent historical event, but on the common children who were a part of it. And they are common, poor and innocent. They knew very little of what was going on, but they just followed along with it all. That’s what you feel like as a reader, like one of the children walking the crusade, not yet knowing that countless of books would be written on the subject.

There are many books that I have read as a child and many books that have shaped me to be who I am today. I think most children love to read, as most children love stories of some kind, but they just need to find books that grab their attention. Before I studied theology, I studied history for a few years. I’ve visited many cities in the Netherlands, just because I was fascinated by their history. Thea Beckman has made me the history-loving, investigative and bookwormish adult I am today. And even though she is such a Dutch literary phenomenon and even though her books are written for children, I think everyone should read at least one of her books in their life. You might even learn something, completely by accident, almost like you’re stepping into a Materietransmitter and are transported to the past.

Self-sufficiency Award: for the author who has been called a feminist, a communist and a socialist, but didn’t agree with any of them, apart from the label of a self-sufficient woman

Thea Beckman, Kruistocht in spijkerbroek (Rotterdam, 1973)

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Thura Nightingale 

The man in the brown suit by Agatha Christie

Personally, I always associated Agatha Christie with thrilling murder plots solved by prying old ladies or a slightly overweight Belgian man. While reading The Man in the Brown Suit, I discovered Christie also writes thrilling adventure stories! We at Bookworms United love Agatha Christie, shown in the fact she has been reviewed before: The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie and By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie, however never by me. Reading and reviewing the murder books is usually more Jo’s and Thura’s cup of tea. However, I’ve always loved reading Agatha Christie, so it is time for me to review one of her works.

The Man in the Brown Suit is about Anne Beddingfield, whose father died at the start of the book leaving her an orphan. Her relationship with her father was distant because he was obsessed with his work and treated Anne as his assistant. Anne lived a boring life with her father, which frustrated her because she believes she is made for adventure. Upon the death of her father, she immediately moves in with friends in London in the hope to find an exciting life there. Initially, Anne is disappointed, because life turns out not more exciting in London, despite her initial excitement to move. That is until she takes the underground one fateful day. She is waiting for her train when she makes contact with a man standing on the platform. The stranger looks at something behind Anne which gives him such a fright that he dies of shock.  A man in a brown suit appears on the scene to investigate the man and disappears in a rush. Something about the man attracts Anne and she decides to pick up a note the man in the brown suit has left behind.  On the note is written the name and date of a ship leaving for South Africa: the Kilmorden Castle

Things are getting even more exciting when Anne reads about a murder in the morning papers. An unidentified woman was strangled in Mill House, the house of renowned politician Eustace Pedler. The suspected culprit is a man in a brown suit. Overwhelmed by these coincidences, Anne decides solving these murder cases is the adventure waiting for her. She buys a ticket on the Kilmorden Castle with her last money and leaves for South Africa. On the ship, she meets the other characters of this book. You have Suzanne Blair, a wealthy lady who helps Anne to investigate the mystery. They become friends because of their shared love for excitement and adventure. Colonel Race is Suzanne’s travelling companion, a very suspicious character. He tells the ladies about a mysterious diamond theft linked to the murders.  Also, the politician Sir Eustace Pedler and his two secretaries are on board. Sir Eustace has to travel to Johannesburg to hand over important documents to stop the strikes and riots there. From the moment she boards the ship to South Africa, Anne gets all the adventure she wished for including murder attempts, instant love, wooden giraffes and a fateful scene near a waterfall.

The pace of this book is super quick, with one exciting event following on after the other without pause.  Also, there is not much logic or explanation behind the actions of the characters. In that sense, this is truly an adventure book and not a whodunnit in my opinion. It is true that there is the mystery of the murders and diamond theft, but I found myself so caught up with the action, that I did not care to puzzle out the solution for myself. I just laid down, let myself be entertained by the book and Anna’s lust for adventure, and let the events unfold. Reviewers remark that there is not much logic to the events and decisions of Anne, and that is true. But if you read like me it doesn’t matter. In a span of around 200 pages, we go from cruise to kidnapping in Cape Town, riots in Johannesburg and souvenir buying in Rhodesia and it’s fantastic. It is interesting that someone who is famous for writing intricate murder plots also enjoys writing a rambunctious adventure story. Maybe we all like to relax sometimes.

Writing interesting characters, especially enlarging their idiosyncrasies, is what Christie does best in my opinion. Most of her characters are a bit more dramatic or ridiculous, strange or funny than people would be in real life. It’s like Christie was fascinated by people’s small idiosyncrasies and liked to explore them to the fullest in her stories. This doesn’t create realistic characters, but rather personalities that are funny and fit within the story. This book is a good example of that habit. For example, Sir Eustace perpetually complains about his secretary running his life. There must be people in Christie’s life who were facing that problem on a small scale where a secretary takes a bit too much leadership when it comes to their employers agenda. However, Sir Eustace lives that problem and I would not be surprised if he feels he has to ask his secretary to use the loo. This makes most of the characters in Christie’s books a bit ridiculous and I love them that way. Her writing shows us the silly habits people sometimes have and her British writing style makes us laugh at the habits, and don’t take the ridicule too seriously. Another character who is made fun of is Suzanne Blair: she is rich, married and bored. She barely speaks to her husband and mocks him for his annoying tendency to ask for her attention, how could he right?

This book is not a good example of Christie’s murder stories and intricate plots. It is a perfect example of her skills to write an exciting adventure full of funny, although slightly ridiculous, characters. I read through this book super quickly while laughing and what more can we hope for in an adventure book written by one of the world’s most renowned and appreciated writers?

 

Bilbo Baggins awards because we all secretly  like an adventure sometimes, be it in fiction or in real life

 

The man in the brown suit, Agatha Christie (London, 1924)

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Bella G. Bear

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Every once in a while you finish a book that is so very interesting that you don’t know where to start when talking about it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is such a genuinely enjoyable but also thought-provoking book that I had the greatest difficulty in keeping this review to a reasonable length. I won’t try to go into every aspect of the story but I encourage you to read it for yourself if you are in any way interested in romance, farmers, feminism, scandal, epistolary novels or just good writing. You’ll find some spoilers in this review from the fifth paragraph on, so if you want our heroine Helen Graham’s past to be a surprise, stop reading there. Otherwise, please read on and let me know what you thought of the book!

In 1847, a middle-aged Gilbert Markham writes a series of letters to his brother-in-law Halford, telling about his life before they knew each other. Back then, he was a well-to-do young farmer somewhere in the north of England. Everybody knew everyone in his quiet little village and Gilbert lived happily with his mother, sister and brother. Then one day, the village rumour mill is abuzz: nearby Wildfell Hall, a once great house owned by the local nobleman Frederick Lawrence, is said to have a new tenant. A young widow called Helen Graham has moved into a small part of the building, together with her child and a servant. The villagers don’t know what to make of her: she’s a bit of a hermit who doesn’t join in the social life of the village and is fiercely protective of her son.

Initial interest in Mrs. Graham turns to hostility when a local girl starts a rumour that Mrs. Graham isn’t as respectable as she seems and meets with men under the cover of night. After a while, Gilbert Markham is the only one who truly believes in her innocence. He has fallen in love with her and wants to protect her good name against the slander of his neighbours, even when Helen makes it clear that she doesn’t want to marry him. But the evil whispers have taken root in his mind despite himself. When he happens to overhear Mr. Lawrence and Helen Graham talking late at night at her house, he immediately believes they are having an affair. He gets so angry that he knocks his former friend Lawrence to the ground with his whip the next time he sees him. Finally, Helen agrees to explain the mystery that surrounds her and gives Gilbert the diary that she kept during the last six years. The second part of the novel consist of the contents of the diary, and the third part tells about what happens after Gilbert is fully briefed about Helen’s past.

I have in the past subjected you to various rants about why people shouldn’t demand anachronistic values and viewpoints from characters in historical novels. I stand by that, but can you imagine my surprise when I found genuinely modern discourse in a book first published in 1848? Anne Brontë was ahead of her time, even more than her sisters were. This story contains a plea for raising boys and girls with the same trust in their capabilities; a man who respects his love interest enough to let her decide how she will raise her own son, even though he disagrees with her methods; a male love interest who shows his emotions and respects his love’s wishes and personal space; criticism of men who are friendly and polite until they demand sexual favours for being ‘nice’; and examples of how both men and women can perpetrate domestic abuse. These are all still topics of debate today. The world has come a long way since 1848, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall still feels shockingly relevant. A pleasant side-effect of Brontë’s story is that it counters the rosy view of nineteenth-century life that romantic novels of that time can sometimes evoke.

Anne Brontë preferred Realism over Romanticism. The difficult subject of domestic abuse is an important part of the story. Helen Graham is abused by her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, who humiliates and manipulates her in a cruel way. Believing it her duty to stay with her husband and care for him, Helen tries for a long time to make him a better man. But as the years go by, Huntingdon’s alcoholism worsens and with it his abuse of her. Helen starts to realise that she can’t change him and that she has to take care of herself and her son. She finally resolves to run away with her child to save him from his father’s corrupting influences. This shocked Victorian England: the accepted trope in literature as well as in real life was something like this: a saintly woman, gently guiding the wayward man onto the right path. It was definitely not supposed to be the woman ‘failing’ at saving her husband and running away from him.

With subtle storytelling, Anne Brontë critiques how the law and society are constructed to protect men but not women. She clearly lays out the shame and judgement that accompany abuse and the self-doubt that arises from being manipulated by a charming but selfish loved one. Helen Graham refuses to have sex, not only with a neighbouring gentleman, who has in an increasingly threatening way pushed her to start an affair with him, but with her husband as well. Seeing as the United Kingdom only criminalised spousal rape in 1991, you can imagine how stunned the Victorian public was at a book in which a wife refuse her husband his ‘right’ to have sex with him. Giving the continuous discussion about consent, there’s still confusion about who has autonomy over a woman’s body.

We are used to seeing religious arguments used (or mis-used) to defend patriarchal norms. It’s therefore quite interesting how Anne Brontë combines her (proto)feminism with strong theological convictions, the most important of which is the concept of universal salvation: the belief that, after a period of penance in the afterlife, everybody can ultimately go to heaven. To understand just how shocking her ideas were at the time this book was published, you have to imagine a world in which for one, breaking the promise of marriage to leave your husband is a sin and a woman who does this is thought a degenerate, and for another, heaven and hell are very real and separate places where people go after they die. Brontë puts forward consecutive ideas that each go against the prevailing worldview:

  1. For this woman, Helen Graham, leaving her husband is not a sin but a token of strength, and no redemption is needed (defying societal values);
  2. Her husband’s conduct toward his wife IS a sin and needs redemption (defying societal norms);
  3. No redemption is given in the story because Huntingdon does not take responsibility for his sins (defying literary expectations of seeing a bad man reform);
  4. And yet he is not excluded from heaven forever and may very well earn forgiveness after his death, according to Helen Graham (defying common belief).

Brontë’s beliefs were endlessly generous when it comes to the eternal soul, but uncompromisingly severe in the conviction that people need to take responsibility for their misdeeds here, on earth. As I see it, Brontë is saying that we as humans do not have the power to condemn people to hell, but do have the right to seek and demand justice. Because she believes in equality, according to Brontë this goes for women who seek justice against men as well as the other way around. What a mind-blowing thing to say in a time period when women had almost no rights to protect themselves! To contradict a man, to carve out a place for your own life, to ask for respect and to demand tangible retribution when evil is done to you: it was both scandalous and revolutionary.

All in all, this is a great story. Besides being a touching romance and a an interesting analysis of Victorian society, this book reminds us that although we can’t always see it from contemporary literature, women in the nineteenth century were people just like you and me. Sure, there are differences in morality and beliefs. Expecting the politically correct opinions for 2019 from authors and characters from different times is unrealistic and will make it more difficult to understand what the author is trying to say. But that doesn’t mean that women were happy living in unequal, abusive relationships, just because it was considered normal. Novels can give a distorted, idyllic view because women weren’t always allowed to show their true feelings in print (or at all). Sometimes you hear the claim that modern feminists are dramatic or overreacting to things because women ‘used to be happy and content’. That turns out to be ridiculous, which is why radical books like this one need to be more widely read. British suffragist May Sinclair wrote in 1913 that “the slamming of [Helen’s] bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Let it reverberate again.

May Irwin Award for an actual, canon kiss on the lips between lovers

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (London, 1848)

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Jo Robin

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce #3) by Alan Bradley

Whenever I’m reading a book or a series I really, really enjoy, I try to put myself on a pages-ration. I realise this may sound absurd, but even if I’ve just hardly started a series, I can already sense the loss one feels when a book or series has finished. One feels an almost existential pain in the simple question: what do I do with my life now? And so I try desperately and against all hope to postpone the ending of a book, just to keep the magic alive just a little longer. This doesn’t always work: I could have a brilliant plan in place that will allow me to only read 40 pages a day, but when I’m in bed, all of a sudden I’m six more chapters down the line. It happens. Why am I telling you of all my plans (and failures) surrounding book-rationing? Because that is what I’m currently doing when it comes to the Flavia de Luce series. As we wait in anticipation for the 10th novel, I’m trying to ration the ninth book, which I’m currently reading. I hope that writing a review on book number three might slow me down a little. It might just a have an opposite effect though. We’ll see.

In this third novel, Flavia sets fire to a tent. She doesn’t do so on purpose of course, but when a gypsy fortuneteller says something about a woman in the mountains trying to come home, Flavia panics. Because this woman is of course Harriet, Flavia’s mother who disappeared in the mountains ten years earlier. But when the tent catches fire, Flavia runs, only to be troubled by her guilt later on. The old gyspy woman does manage to escape from the inferno, but is quite ill afterwards. So Flavia does the only logical thing she can think of: she invites the gypsies to move their caravans to a remote part of their estate. She does so without asking anyone’s permission and she does so without knowing they’ve been there many times before. Thinking herself redeemed, you can imagine the shock when Flavia finds the old woman in a caravan only a few hours later, bloody and barely breathing.

Flavia may have saved the old woman, but now Flavia has to deal with the gypsy’s granddaughter Porcelain, who puts a knife to Flavia’s throat upon meeting. When discovering it’s only a butter knife, Flavia invites her over to Buckshaw. But when the two girls try to find out who has tried to kill the old woman, they stumble upon more questions than answers. Could the attack have something to do with a missing baby, something the villagers have blamed the gypsies for? Or could it have something to do with the religious dissenters called the Hobblers, who meet at night on the riverbanks near the caravan? But Flavia doesn’t have much time to mull over the village history, when a burglar at Buckshaw turns up dead, hanging from the large fountain on their estate, with a fork protruding from his nose. This mystery especially is riddled with secrets and societies, but if there’s anyone who could unlock all of those mysteries, it’s Flavia de Luce.

As this is the third book in the series that I’m reviewing, I won’t go into the same kinds of aspects of the story as I did in the other reviews. If you would like a clearer idea on the background of the stories and family-life of the De Luces, I’d recommend you read my review on the first book, which can be found here. And if you’d like to know a little bit more about Flavia’s development in the series up to this point, I’d recommend you read my review of the second book in the series, which can be found here. In this book we see Flavia coming into her own even more, but I found it especially interesting how she is reflecting on her own character in this book. At the start of the book, the gypsy woman tells her how she scares her. Flavia starts to think about her cold De Luce eyes and how she feels connected to a long line that she is a part of, while also experiencing a massive distance from the family, when it comes to her sisters. She characterises herself as a liar, untrustworthy, but with the ways of aristocracy and her own special kind of brilliance. She has become quite acquainted with murder at this time and she has discovered her own talent for separating the dead person from the mystery. She even looks at a vast amount of blood with a simple fascination for the chemistry involved. This told me that she will either grow up to be quite a cold scientist, or that she is just a child still. I’d say the latter. One of the best examples is how she talks to her bicycle Gladys like it’s an actual person. And there’s one of my most favourite quotes by Flavia from all of the series:

“Compared with my life, Cinderella was a spoiled brat.”

And there’s the wonderful realisation once again that she is invisible due to being only eleven years old, but also the reflection on that in Flavia: she likes the solitude more than being with people, but she’s also lonely. This takes me to my second observation on Flavia in the novel that really hit me in this book particularly. Flavia is incredibly lonely, with no one to talk to but the handyman Dogger and Gladys. She does search for other people to connect with here, something she hasn’t done before. She desperately wants a friend in Porcelain, the young gypsy girl, but finds it hard to get into the mechanics of friendship. Also, Flavia’s obsession with detective Hewitt and his lovely wife grows. At one time she even fantasises about being invited over to tea and what they would talk about. But most of all, Flavia allows herself to reflect on her mother for the first time. In the last novel, her Aunt Felicity remarked that Flavia is actually a lot like her mother, even though her sisters would often say she was adopted, but I felt like Flavia hasn’t let that bit of information in, simply because it’s too much for her to handle. Now she does and when she finds a portrait of her mother with all of her three children, she can no longer deny her longing for a mother figure in her life.

As for the actual mystery in the novel, a lot is going on! And in all honesty, it might be that there is too much going on. I loved the gyspies in this story and I loved when we find out how Flavia is not the first one to connect with them. I also really enjoyed the dissenters and even though I’m not sure the Hobblers were actually a thing (there were so many at one point), there was a fascinating piece of English history touched upon in this book. I liked Flavia’s self-reflection; I liked the murders and even enjoyed the strange burglary side-plot that had everything to do with fencing and fooling the rich. And lastly, reality sets in, in the form of mounting debt when it comes to the family estate. Buckshaw was once Harriet’s, but after she has disappeared without leaving a will, it may be impossible to keep the estate in the family. Here we have another fine example of how the aristocracy often isn’t actually rich, as many people believe, but are just the caretakers of a large estate and how many people depend on them. Another fascinating piece of history! However, it was a little bit much for just one novel and the plot wasn’t as strong as it could have been. It might have been better if Alan Bradley had made two separate books out of this one story.

All in all, this is another fine book in a long series of great murder-mysteries. All the familiar elements of rivalling sisters, village idiots and chemistry are there. Flavia still plans to take revenge on her sisters with every poison under the sun, but eventually decides that just planning it is cathartic enough. Flavia is still eleven years old, but I do feel she is growing up just a little. Same as always, these novels are quaint, charming and incredibly funny, but with some dark undertones, in the form of neglect, loneliness, bullying by sisters, rising debt and, of course, murder. As these dark undertones grow, some people might enjoy these novels less. I, however, think it only makes sense for the novels to become darker, as Flavia loses some of her innocence. I do have a feeling these novels will only become darker and darker, but then again, none of us can stay eleven forever. There are some lighter moments still and without any relevance to it, I would like to end this review with my absolutely favourite quote from this book, by an old stubborn catholic philatelist:

“Tell them we may not be praying with them,” Father told the Vicar, “but we are at least not actively praying against them.”

Rumplestiltskin Award: Because there’s nothing a liar hates more than finding out that another liar has lied to them

Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce #3) (New York, 2011)

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Thura Nightingale 

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Thura warned me about Muriel Spark. She said she is an amazing writer, but when you read her books, you get a strong sense of foreboding and that something very very wrong is going to happen. She especially warned me that the ending would be a shocker because that is how Spark rolls. And she was right! I still haven’t fully accepted the ending of this book. However, when you read the description of this book, it sounds very unlikely that drama or a shocking ending will happen. The book is about a group of girls who live together in a boarding house, called the May of Teck Club, for girls with little money. The hospice protects them from bad influences from the outside world. So, nothing should go wrong right?

The girls in the hospice are from poor, but respectable families. Among the girls are clergy daughters and impoverished nieces. The hospice is a refuge for girls below thirty years of age who want to make their way in London. However, a lot of the girls are hoping for marriage. The older girls live on the top floor and are the main characters. This book is set in the year 1945 in London. They are engaged in all kinds of jobs to get more money or food stamps. There is Joanna who gives elocution lessons which can be heard echoing through the whole hospice. Jane is a chubby girl who does a lot of ‘brain work’. Brain work means her work for a publisher forging letters from famous writers for cash and grooming new promising writers. There is also glamorous Selina who is small enough to fit through the bathroom window, so she can bask in the sun on top of the roof or sleep with her lover Nicholas. Nicholas is one of Jane’s writers. He is an anarchist and wannabe writer who becomes friends with the May of Teck girls. The book is set around the second world war, so the poverty of the girls is not only from their background but also because of war. Food, clothes and all other luxuries are rationed, and stamps are as good a way to pay people as money. The girls must think smartly to get out of life what they want, and still have money or stamps left for food or soap.

On Goodreads, people remarked that very little happens in this book. There is not a main storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather the book tells about the day-to-day life of the May of Teck girls in the year 1945. I partly agree, because for a long time I had no clue what was going on in this book either. I still liked reading it though, because all the characters are so fascinating. They are an interesting mix of serious and silly. They are aware of the reality of poverty and war they live in, but they also find time to worry about a nice dress, being thin or to use their soap rations to squeeze through the lavatory window. Besides, if the characters are still not enough entertainment for you, the extreme dramatic turn of events at the end takes away all your right to complain of ‘nothing going on in the book’. I won’t tell you what the ending is, but I did not see it coming! I really believe I should have though, especially reading what Rosemary Goring said in the introduction of Spark’s book about certain events foreshadowing the ending. The Girls of Slender Means is the kind of book that benefits from a second or third reading to understand everything Spark wanted to say. I really admire that kind of writing and I look forward to reading this book, again and again, to understand it better.

Another thing I liked about the book is the setting of London, in the year 1945. I don’t know much about the day-to-day life of people in London during the end and aftermath of World War II,  so I enjoyed reading about it in this book. Especially when I found out Spark has lived through those days as well. Spark herself describes the London of those days as: ‘bombed-out London was the first real London I would get to know’. She describes living in that London was a  strange  sensation, because there were bombed-out buildings everywhere, but at the same time people were not too bothered about the scenery because they were a daily presence: it’s simply how London was. This attitude is also clear in the book. Austerity and the anxieties coming with the war are omnipresent, but they don’t limit the girls in pursuing the life they want. This is exemplified by the Schiaparelli gown, a very fancy dress, one of the girls owns. She trades use of the dress for luxury goods to impress the men the girls go on dates with.

This combination of the everyday life of the girls, war and a looming presence of disaster is told in the witty style of Muriel Spark. She has a fantastic way with words, which turns everything funny. There is also a sense of irony to it. You’re never sure if Spark is making fun of the characters or having a lot of fun telling the story. I will conclude this review by saying this is really the kind of book you have to discover for yourself. It’s hard to explain the sense of foreboding you get reading about the seemingly normal life of the girls. Also, it is more fun to get to know these characters for yourself to judge what you think of them. It is only a short book, so I urge you to get to know these girls of slender means for yourself, at least two times.

Cinderella’s spirit award for showing the grace and creativity of girls with slender means

 

Muriel Spark, the Girls of Slender Means (Edinburgh, 1963)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear