Flash Reviews (17th January 2014)

The Magic City – Edith Nesbit ***
I have come to realise that there is nothing nicer in reading than to supplement the more serious works with children’s stories.  The Magic City was not a book which I read when I was younger, but I was most looking forward to it.  The novel tells of a young boy named Philip Haldane, who has been raised by his sister Helen, twenty years his senior.  She was, says Nesbit, ‘all the mother he had ever known’.  When Helen gets married to an old schoolfriend who is widowed with one daughter, Philip moves with her to a large country house, where he is desperately unhappy.  To fill his days, in which only the servants of the house are with him, he collects objects from the many rooms he is able to enter, and builds a city from them in one of the rooms.  He goes downstairs to view his city by moonlight, and finds that he is able to enter it.  From hereon in, adventure ensues.  It is beautifully written, and the images are vivid.  I did not love the novel, and there were several places in which my attention slipped a little due to repetition or drawn out scenes, but it was amusing and interesting on the whole, and I would heartily recommend it to any child (or adult, for that matter!).

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‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter-Downes ****
Mollie Panter-Downes is one of the Persephone authors whom I have been most looking forward to reading.  The short stories in this volume have been collected chronologically, as they first appeared when they were published in The New Yorker.  There are twenty one tales in all. I loved the wit and irony which were at play throughout.  Panter-Downes crafts characters so deftly.  Just one or two sentences detailing someone’s personality or appearance, and they seem to spring to life before your very eyes.  Each story also holds a remarkable amount of detail.  None of the tales here are related, but there is a marvellous sense of flow to the volume.  Panter-Downes touches on a whole wealth of different characters and situations within the framework of World War Two, and lots of viewpoints have been considered.  Good Evening, Mrs Craven is a book which I would heartily recommend.

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The Ante-Room – Kate O’Brien ***
I really want to like Kate O’Brien’s writing, particularly after being as disappointed as I was with The Last of Summer when I read it last year.  The novel started off marvellously, but the plot was soon too drawn out, and the characters were shadowed within it.  The Ante-Room begins on ‘the eve of All Saints, 1880, and Teresa Mulqueen is dying’.  Teresa is the mother of eight children, and has been fighting ‘a losing battle with life’ for two and a half years prior to the novel’s beginning.   Her family gather around her, all dealing with the grief they feel in their own ways.  The novel has been split into three separate parts: ‘The Eve of All Saints’, ‘The Feast of All Saints’ and ‘The Feast of All Souls’.

O’Brien’s descriptions work well, particularly those which deal with the bleaker aspects of life and the surroundings.  She builds up scenes deftly and these, for me, were the definite strength of the novel.  From a social perspective it is interesting, and the relationships between the siblings and their mother have been well drawn.  As I did not very much enjoy it, however, I have decided not to read any more of Kate O’Brien’s books, and have removed them from the VMC list which I am working through.

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‘The Last of Summer’ by Kate O’Brien ***

I decided to read this novel after looking out of my window at rolling grey clouds and spatterings of rain, a sure sign that the summer has gone for another year. (I could, however, have left my reading of it until today, as it is the most gorgeous, sunshine-filled morning). I’m not overly familiar with O’Brien’s work, but this sounded like just my kind of story with regard to the plot lines. It is with slight sadness then that I have to say I was rather disappointed by it. The writing style was nice enough, but the story failed to hold my interest as I thought it would.

Eavan Boland’s introduction to the Virago edition of The Last of Summer is truly lovely. She writes with beautiful turns of phrase, and I love the way in which she drew so many parallels between the protagonist of the novel, Angele Maury, and O’Brien herself. As I began the novel, I found that it was possible to feel sympathy for almost all of the characters (as one Goodreads reviewer says, they are all rather screwed up individuals), but I couldn’t help but feel that Angele was rather insipid as a protagonist. I understand that she is supposed to be the beautiful French actress daughter of a beautiful French actress, but it didn’t feel as though there was much more to her. Jo, Angele’s cousin, was my favourite character (and actually, come to think of it, the only one I liked). I admired how shrewd she was, and liked her wallflower-like status within the family. She watched all of the time, knowing all the goings on and commenting on them only within her own mind. O’Brien’s inclusion of Jo’s thoughts are a nice touch in an otherwise almost stolid novel.

In terms of plot, this book offers little. It is a family novel, and it unfolds much like any other. A relative stranger comes into the fold, is welcomed on the surface but finds problems within, and tries to fit in as best they can. They shock and surprise a little with their actions, but ultimately, not much happens. That’s it. The Kernahan family, whom Angele goes to stay with, are a mildly intriguing lot, but there are no true eccentrics within the group. Just one would have livened up the entire novel marvellously. In consequence, I think that this story and its characters will fade entirely in my mind.