Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson – #1920Club

I wasn’t sure whether I would manage to read and review anything in time for this week’s 1920 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) but when I picked up E.F. Benson’s 1920 novel Queen Lucia I found it so entertaining and easy to read that I finished most of it in one day! Although I can’t quite say that I loved it, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment – something that would take my mind off the current situation for a while and whisk me away to another time and place.

That place is Riseholme, a quiet English village described by a newcomer as a “delicious, hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place, where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything,” but which, to the people who live there, is the centre of the universe. Life in Riseholme consists mainly of arranging dinner parties and musical evenings, while gossiping about the neighbours – and presiding over all of this is Emmeline Lucas, better known as Lucia (pronounced the Italian way, of course). Along with her husband Philip (‘Peppino’) and her loyal ‘gentleman-in-waiting’ Georgie Pillson, Lucia has put herself at the heart of Riseholme society and is the self-proclaimed queen – so imagine her frustration when her rival, Daisy Quantock, begins to pose a threat to her crown. When Mrs Quantock produces an Indian Guru and offers his services as yoga teacher to the villagers, the jealous Lucia manages to ‘steal’ him for herself, so when Daisy moves on to a new fad she vows not to make the same mistake again…

Lucia is such an unpleasant character! From her irritating habit of speaking baby talk with Georgie and her insistence on dropping Italian phrases into conversation, despite only knowing a few words of the language, to the way she pushes others aside to make herself the centre of attention, there is really not much to like about her at all. And yet that didn’t really matter; as this is a satire and Lucia, and the others, are clearly supposed to be comedy characters, the more unlikeable the better!

This is the first in Benson’s six-novel Mapp and Lucia series and also the first one I’ve read. They had never really appealed to me before, although I know a lot of people love them, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I don’t feel an immediate compulsion to pick up the next one, but I’m sure I will at some point and am looking forward to meeting Miss Mapp.

~

Usually I’m able to post a list of other books I’ve reviewed on my blog from the relevant club year, but for 1920 I can find only one:

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

It’s a great book and one I would highly recommend.

The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas

I’m never quite sure how to describe Louise Douglas’ books. Set in either the present day or recent past, they are not exactly mysteries or crime novels, but more than just romances, and although they do have ghostly or gothic elements, they are grounded in the reality of family drama and personal tragedy. Probably romantic suspense is the best term for them, I think. Having enjoyed three of them – The Secrets Between Us, In Her Shadow and Your Beautiful Lies – I was hoping that I would also enjoy her new one, The House by the Sea.

Our narrator, Edie, has spent the last ten years blaming her former mother-in-law, Anna DeLuca, for the death of her little boy, Daniel, and the breakdown of her marriage that followed. When she hears that Anna has died she feels a sense of relief, but she is less pleased to learn that Anna has left her Sicilian villa to Edie and her ex-husband, Joe. Convinced that this is just an attempt to reunite her with Joe, Edie is angry with Anna for continuing to meddle in her life even from beyond the grave, so she heads for Sicily determined to find a buyer for the villa and return home again as quickly as possible.

On her arrival in Sicily, Edie has to endure an awkward meeting with Joe, who has also come to inspect his inheritance and look for a buyer. However, Edie soon finds herself falling in love with the crumbling old villa and is intrigued by the many secrets it seems to be hiding. Where is the valuable painting of the Madonna del Mare, missing from its place on the wall? Who are the two girls in Anna’s childhood photographs and why does one of them have her face scratched out? And what is the reason for all the bad luck Edie and Joe begin to experience? Is someone trying to drive them away from Sicily before they can uncover the truth?

Louise Douglas writes beautifully; she is one of those authors with a real talent for capturing the mood and atmosphere of a place, whether that place is the Yorkshire Moors (Your Beautiful Lies), the Cornish coast (In Her Shadow) or a rural village in Somerset (The Secrets Between Us). The House by the Sea is the first of her books that I’ve read which is set outside England and I loved the vivid descriptions of Sicily, beginning with Edie’s first sight of the island – probably the most travelling I’ll do this year!

The aircraft tipped to begin its descent and through the porthole I watched the southern side of the island of Sicily emerge from the glare of the sun. Beyond the breaching wing lay a hazy, mountainous land surrounded by turquoise water. Wispy clouds bunched around the summit of Etna, the shadow of a forest creeping up her flank. I saw the sprawl of cities, the pencil line of motorways, the meandering loops of a river and the brilliant blue rectangle of a reservoir. My journey was almost over and Joe was somewhere down there, waiting for me.

The mystery element of the novel is not very strong, to be honest. I found it easy to guess who was behind the strange occurrences at the villa – although I didn’t know exactly why and had to wait until the end of the book for everything to be explained. But what I did enjoy was watching Edie’s development as a character as, under the warm Sicilian sun, she begins to come to terms with what happened all those years ago and slowly finds the strength to move on. Her relationship with Joe and the way it changes over the course of the novel is well written and feels believable, but again, it was too easy to predict what was going to happen!

This is not one of my favourites by Louise Douglas, but it did remind me of how much I enjoyed reading her books a few years ago. I seem to have missed her last book, The Secret by the Lake, which was published in 2015, so I will have to catch up with that one soon.

Thanks to Boldwood Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Before I start to talk about Ann Patchett’s wonderful novel The Dutch House, just a quick note to say that, like many of you, I am feeling very worried and stressed about the current situation in the world. I’m still reading but struggling to find the enthusiasm for writing blog posts at the moment. I do have a stock of reviews already written which I will schedule in over the next few weeks, but if I’m slow to reply to comments or to comment on your blogs in return, I’m not ignoring you – just finding it hard to concentrate and get motivated.

Anyway, back to The Dutch House…I’ve been aware of Ann Patchett’s books for years without ever thinking that I might enjoy them, but this one sounded appealing to me so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did because I loved it – it just shows how wrong you can be about an author!

The Dutch House is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy, and their obsession with the house in Philadelphia in which they grew up. It’s no ordinary house; named for the nationality of the people who built it in the 1920s, the Van Hoebeeks, the Dutch House is an architectural wonder with ornate floors and ceilings and luxurious furnishings. When Cyril Conroy purchases it in the 1940s, he intends it to be a wonderful surprise for his family. However, his wife, Elna, comes to hate the house and everything it represents. For her, it is symbolic of all the inequality in the world – how can it be fair for some people to have so much and others so little? She begins to spend increasingly longer periods of time away from the house, until one day she leaves and doesn’t come back.

Maeve and Danny are devastated by their mother’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, but things quickly become worse when Cyril marries again and his new wife, Andrea, arrives at the Dutch House with her two young daughters. Andrea makes it clear that she has no time for her stepchildren and doesn’t want them in her life so, when Cyril dies a few years later, she throws them out of the Dutch House and leaves them to make their own way in the world.

For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve will struggle to move on and let go of the past. They will sit outside the Dutch House, looking through the gates and wondering who lives there now. They will let the events of their childhood influence the career paths they follow and put strain on their future relationships. And they will never forget that Andrea is to blame for all of this.

You could describe this as a book about a house, but I think of it more as a book about people and the connections between them…in particular, the relationship between a brother and a sister. When they find themselves cast out and alone in the world, Danny and Maeve have no one else they can rely on but each other; Maeve, who is seven years older, takes on the role of mother, overseeing Danny’s education and making sacrifices for him, despite struggling with her own health problems. The bond between them is deep and unbreakable and although there are times when it seems to restrict them from doing things they really want to do and times when it gets in the way of their other relationships, I still found it very moving.

The novel is narrated entirely by Danny and as he is only a small child when his mother leaves and still just a teenager when he is forced out of the Dutch House, there’s a sense that some of the information he is giving us may be slightly unreliable. It is only later in life, as he sits in the car outside the house reminiscing with Maeve, that certain things become clear to him and start to make more sense. As the story progresses towards its end the full picture emerges and we begin to wonder ‘what if’? What if, instead of always staying in the car, Danny and Maeve had gone and knocked on the door of the Dutch House one day? What if they had tried to contact Andrea and speak to her as adults – could they have cleared the air and moved on with their lives? What if they had made more effort to find their mother and had asked her why she walked out on them as children? They will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we all have similar thoughts about our own lives – things we could have done differently or not done at all.

I loved this book and will now have to read Ann Patchett’s earlier books, which I had dismissed as not for me. Any recommendations?

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies is a Canadian author best known for his four trilogies – the Salterton Trilogy, the Deptford Trilogy, the Cornish Trilogy and the unfinished Toronto Trilogy. As someone completely new to Davies’ work it was hard to know where to start, but as it didn’t seem necessary to read these trilogies in any particular order, I decided to begin with the one that sounded most appealing to me, the Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first book. I think it was a good choice! I actually started to read it last August for a reading week hosted by Lory, but got distracted during a house move and didn’t go back to it until just after New Year, when I was able to give it the attention it deserved.

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstable (later renamed Dunstan) Ramsay in the form of a long letter written to the headmaster of the school from which he is retiring, having taught there for many years. In the letter, he looks back on his life, beginning in 1908 when, as a boy growing up in the small Canadian town of Deptford, an incident occurs that will shape his future: Percy Boyd Staunton, his friend and rival, throws a snowball containing a stone; Dunstan – the intended target – jumps aside; and instead the snowball hits a pregnant woman, who goes into premature labour with the shock. This incident means nothing to Percy, but it will haunt Dunstan for the rest of his life.

Many of the things that happen to Dunstan from this point on – the sort of man he becomes, the interests he develops, the career path he follows and the relationships he forms – could be traced back to the day of the snowball. His life-long obsession with the study of saints, for example, comes about because of his feelings of guilt and responsibility towards the pregnant woman, Mrs Dempster, and her son, Paul, the baby born prematurely. He convinces himself that she is a saint who has performed miracles, including saving his life when he is wounded at Passchendaele during the First World War. Illusions, deceptions and the unexplained are important themes running throughout the book, not just in the form of miracles but also magic tricks, conjuring and fortune telling.

I think this is the sort of book that probably needs to be read more than once to be able to fully appreciate all the different layers and ideas it contains. I’m not sure I enjoyed the book enough to want to read it again (although I did like it very much), but I’m certainly interested in reading the other two parts of the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Finally, if you are wondering about the title of the novel, it describes the role Dunstable/Dunstan Ramsay plays throughout his life and throughout the story:

“And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.”

The Sun Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the sixth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology of the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents.

The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and came from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which hasn’t yet been revealed, only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In the previous books in the series, we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s, CeCe’s and Tiggy’s. This latest novel, The Sun Sister, tells the story of Electra, and I will admit that I was not particularly looking forward to this one. Whenever Electra briefly appeared in one of the other sisters’ books, she came across as a very unattractive personality and I wasn’t really relishing the thought of following her throughout an entire novel. On the other hand, I had initially felt the same about CeCe and ended up liking her once I had read The Pearl Sister, so I hoped the same would happen here.

At the beginning of The Sun Sister, which opens in 2008, shortly after Pa Salt’s death, Electra is living in New York City, where she has built a successful career for herself as a model. Yet despite her beauty, fame and wealth, we quickly discover that Electra is not a very happy young woman. For a while now, she has been relying on drugs and alcohol to get through the day and the loss of her adoptive father, whom she feels was disappointed in her, has left her struggling to cope. To make things worse, she is aware that all five of her older sisters have by now traced their own origins and come to terms with who they really are. Then, just as she is reaching her absolute lowest ebb, she is visited by Stella Jackson, the grandmother she didn’t know she had – and the story Stella tells her will literally help to save her life.

Stella’s story involves another of Electra’s ancestors – Cecily Huntley-Morgan, a young American woman who, in the 1930s, goes to stay with her godmother in Kenya after having her heart broken not once but twice. Living amongst the notorious Happy Valley set, by the shores of Lake Naivasha, Cecily falls in love with the landscape and the way of life. She ends up staying in Kenya for much longer than she had planned, until she meets a troubled Maasai girl and agrees to help her – a decision that will change the course of Cecily’s life once again.

The two storylines alternate with each other throughout the book, but each section is long enough that we can become fully immersed in one character’s story before moving on to the next. Of the two, Cecily’s was my favourite; in fact, it might even be my favourite of all the historical storylines in this series so far. I loved the descriptions of Kenya and the way some of the real incidents and people from the Happy Valley society were woven into the story. Although I didn’t agree with all of Cecily’s decisions (and I was disappointed in her treatment of a certain person in her life towards the end of the book), I did like her and sympathised with some of the situations she found herself in.

But I also enjoyed reading about Electra and despite my dislike of her at the beginning, I soon began to warm to her and to understand why she behaved the way she did. It was clear that Electra had always felt slightly out of place in her family, so it was good to see her bonding with her eldest sister, Maia, in this book. Now I hope she can resolve her differences with CeCe in the final book!

After not really looking forward to this book, it turned out to be one of the best in the series. Now I’m very curious about the seventh one, which is going to have to provide answers to all of the questions and mysteries raised in the previous six. I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When I first heard about Daisy Jones & The Six, I dismissed it as not for me. The subject – a fictional 1970s rock band – didn’t appeal to me and it sounded as though the book was written in the sort of experimental style I usually dislike. Then I started to see some very positive reviews from people who often have similar taste in books to me, so when I came across it at the library just before Christmas, I decided to give it a try after all – and am very glad that I did.

The best way to describe Daisy Jones & The Six is like this: Imagine someone has carried out hours of interviews with the members of a rock band and then pieced them all together – a few lines from one member, followed by a short quote from another and then a brief recollection by a third – to form a cohesive narrative telling the complete story of that band, from their early days to their rise to fame and subsequent break-up. The overall effect is like watching a television documentary; it’s a brave and imaginative way to write a novel and could probably have gone badly wrong, but I’m pleased to say that Taylor Jenkins Reid gets it exactly right. In fact, I could easily have believed that Daisy Jones & The Six really existed and that this book really was a documentary transcribed onto the page.

There’s not a lot I can say about the plot of the novel, if you can really call it a ‘plot’. Taylor Jenkins Reid has said that she loosely based Daisy Jones & The Six on Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as other bands such as The Eagles, so you probably know the sort of things you can expect: rivalries between band members; drink, drugs and wild parties; the stories behind song lyrics; lots of tours and rehearsals and recording sessions. The characters are brought to life both through their own words and through the observations of others, and while some of the band members are very forgettable, a few are much more strongly drawn.

Daisy Jones herself is a bit of a mystery; she’s eccentric, quirky, and a real individual who does as she pleases and doesn’t care what people think of her. She comes across as selfish and reckless, but also tragic and vulnerable, and because she spends so much of the book under the influence of drugs, I felt that I never truly knew or understood the real Daisy Jones. Daisy’s relationship with Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six with whom she writes some of the band’s biggest hits, forms an important part of the novel. Billy faces his own problems with addiction early in his career, but unlike Daisy he doesn’t face them alone – he is sustained by the love of the strong, supportive and endlessly patient Camila, whom he meets near the beginning of the book and who ended up being one of my favourite characters.

I also liked Karen Karen, the keyboardist with the Six and, until the arrival of Daisy, the only woman in the band, but the other members, as I’ve said, are much less memorable to the point where I kept confusing Eddie, Pete and Warren and couldn’t tell you which instruments they played. Thinking about it, that was probably the point: most well-known bands do have one or two members who get all the attention while others are kept in the background. This is clearly a source of resentment for some of the lesser members of The Six and, when added to Daisy’s drug problems and the tensions between Karen and Billy’s brother, lead guitarist Graham, the break-up of the band seemed inevitable. However, I had been given the impression from the book’s blurb – which states that “no one knows the reason behind the group’s split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now” – that something dramatic was going to happen to bring things to a head and I was disappointed that the eventual reason was much less shocking.

There are one or two twists near the end which I liked, especially as one of them made me think differently about everything that had come before. Really, though, it’s not the story that I will remember about this book and probably not the characters either – it’s the overall atmosphere of the book, the documentary style, the recreation of the 1970s music scene and the effort the author has gone to in order to make Daisy Jones & The Six feel like a real band, right down to including a collection of their song lyrics at the end of the book. I didn’t love this book quite as much as most other people seem to have done, but I’m still glad I decided to take a chance on something different from my usual reads as I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to!

The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley

It’s 2006 and Posy Montague has made the difficult decision to put her Suffolk home, Admiral House, up for sale. She doesn’t want to – it has belonged to her family for generations and holds lots of memories – but as she is approaching the age of seventy she has had to accept that the house is too big and too expensive to maintain. There is a chance that it could still be kept in the family, as her eldest son Sam is interested in acquiring the house for his new property development company, but Posy is not too hopeful as she knows that all of Sam’s previous business ventures have ended in failure. Then a face from her past reappears – Freddie – and gives Posy something else to think about. Why did Freddie break off their relationship without explanation so many years ago? Is it too late for them to try again?

To find the answers, we have to go back in time to the 1940s, when Posy is a child growing up at Admiral House. She shares a close bond with her father, a butterfly collector who instils in her a lifelong love of nature, but when he goes away to fly a Spitfire in the war, Posy’s idyllic childhood is destroyed. Exploring the gardens one day, she enters her father’s private ‘butterfly’ room in the Folly, where she makes the upsetting discovery that he has not been setting his specimens free as she believed, but preserving them behind glass. But does Admiral House hide an even darker secret – and if so, what is it?

Like most of Lucinda Riley’s novels, The Butterfly Room moves between two time periods, so that the story unfolding in the past sheds light on the story taking place in the present. Usually I would prefer the one set in the past, but in this case I felt that it existed mainly to provide some background for the characters rather than being an interesting historical storyline in its own right unlike, for example, the wartime espionage thread in The Light Behind the Window.

Surprisingly for me, then, it was the modern day narrative that I found myself drawn into more fully. I was particularly interested in the story of Amy, trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage to Posy’s son Sam, and not sure how to get herself and her children out of it. Meanwhile, Tammy, the girlfriend of Posy’s other son, Nick, is also having doubts about her relationship, but for a different reason: she’s convinced that Nick is hiding something from her. It’s obvious to the reader what his secret is (or at least, it was obvious to this reader) and that was my main problem with this book – that too much of the plot was predictable. However, the revelation of Freddie’s secret came as a surprise to me, which I was pleased about; I’d had a few guesses but didn’t get it completely right!

This is not a favourite Lucinda Riley novel – apart from the points I’ve mentioned above, I thought the book was too long for the story that was being told – but in general it kept me entertained and was a change from her Seven Sisters books. I have the next book in that series, The Sun Sister, waiting to be read soon.