Contrarian Book Reviews (with parenthetical jibber jabber)

In the vast, wide world of reading, there is room for infinite points of view. (What else could explain James Patterson?) And even within the much smaller world of book-bloggers whose reading tastes align with my own there is room for much diversity.

Sometimes we all sound like we are in an echo chamber, with heaps of praise bouncing around from blog to blog as if we all shared a brain. (I was going to reference the Borg, but I am not sure how many of you would catch the Star Trek reference. I am not a Star Trek geek, but I did have a boyfriend back in the 1990s who, rather enjoyably, inculcated me into the world of ST:TNG. For my part, I turned him into a fan of Upstairs, Downstairs.)
But then there are those times when a chill wind blows through the cozy world of cardigan novels. When the teapot is upset and biscuits fly across the room. When the garden party is rained out. When the ginger beer causes wind. When, well you get the idea, when book-bloggers think to themselves “maybe I don’t know this person as well as I thought I did”.
Well, today is one of those days. One of those days when, like an unruly, ungrateful teenager needlessly rebelling against hearth and home, I risk the warm, welcoming bosom of my bosom-buddy book-blogger friends. Of course I am not the first to risk provocation. There have been some thoughtful blog posts lately about respectful disagreement here and here. (And of course there was that brouhaha some time ago that had the Atlantic seething with raw emotion as the old country attempted to put a former colony in its place. I largely stayed out of that one, but from my point of view it was so poorly reasoned and with only weak anecdotal supporting data that it seems its only purpose was to incite blog traffic. Is that what I am doing now? I doubt it, my readership isn’t as vast, I don’t think that that blogger reads my blog :-(  and I don’t Twitter so it is unlikely I will see much of an uptick in traffic. On the other hand, I do hope it incites lots of comments from regular readers and especially you lurkers who remain so quiet. After all, part of the narcissistic pleasure of blogging is having your own literary brilliance reflected back on you by your adoring fans. Although I shouldn’t joke because I genuinely do like getting comments, especially those that move the conversation forward or in another direction. I usually respond to them all, sometimes posing questions to commenters because I truly like to hear more about you and what you think.)
So which sacred cow will I injure first? I think I will start with the one about which I have less to say–and may God and Simon Thomas forgive me–Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I liked the fact that the main character was an organist, we don’t get many of those in fiction. And I liked the premise of the novel quite a bit, it was very creative, and to my experience at least, very original. There was something in the execution of the plot, however, that left me wishing to rewrite it. If any of you saw the dreadful movie Inception you know that I am talking about. Fine, create your whimsical, supernatural world, but you still need to maintain an appropriate logical structure within the parameters of the world you have created. I am not saying Miss Hargreaves was a bad book (but Inception was a bad movie) by any means. It just didn’t keep me as enthralled as I wanted to be. (And as long as I am letting it all hang out, I must say I have been let down by most of my Bloomsbury Group reading experiences. It appears I like the idea of them much more than I like the actual books. (A huge exception would be in their Mrs. Harris reissue, but I read that in an older edition anyway.) And I won’t even mention the poor quality of the paper. No doubt its rough, pulpy quality is the result of being green, but the feel of it on my hands makes my teeth itch.)

The second sacred cow I will poke in the eye, is one of my own making. As a lover of all things Whipple, I was disappointed by her novel Someone at a Distance. My previous experiences with High Wages and The Priory were fantastic. And I liked her short stories in The Closed Door even more. As I mentioned in my review, I think Whipple’s plot arcs are much better in her short fiction. She sometimes has problems with plot in longer fiction. She doesn’t so much as lose the plot in her novels as compress a whole lot of action into too short a period. I liked HW and TP so much that, while I noticed it, it didn’t bother me. Not so with Someone at a Distance.

Whipple spends most of the novel presenting a rather wrenching tragedy, but then with lightning quickness, in the last 30 or so pages makes everything groovy. (Although, if I am being fair it is still somewhat tragically groovy.) I suppose she did the same darn thing in HW and TP, but for some reason in those novels it seemed like a more natural progression. And in SAAD (what an apt acronym) the motivation for most of the characters was more than a little hard to swallow. Louise was selfish and wanted to right a wrong with a whole series of wrongs. And far worse than Avery’s infidelity was his extreme cowardice. One began to wonder if he had a set at all, but he must have or he wouldn’t have gone after Louise in the first place. Plus it seems to me that his little bed and clothes at the office suggest that Louise wasn’t the first piece of tail that Avery went after. And then there is Ellen. Poor, suffering Ellen. Not willing to lift one finger to save her marriage. Accepting everything as it came along. Brilliantly playing the martyr so she can go live out a Marie Antoinette fantasy at an old folks home. And you know what? Anne is 17 freaking years old, if she has to give up her horse, big whoop. Life sucks sometimes Anne. You think losing your horse is bad? Try watching your 20-year marriage disappear in an instant. And then of course there is noble Hugh. Not a cent will he take from his father, giving up Cambridge just to show how much he hates the cheating bastard. And then out of nowhere Miss Daley, who we didn’t even know needed rescuing gets caught up in the happy denouement as well.

As awful a human being as she was, I am far from believing that Louise was the villain of the book. They all played their role in the destruction of their lives.

I probably don’t dislike this book as much as I am making it sound. I would still probably give it a 6 out of 10. But I think what puzzles me is why it is such a favorite Whipple, so much so that it is a Persephone Classic. And fear not, I am still a faithful member of Team Whipple. But as with everything in life, one must realize that even our heroes are fallible.

34 thoughts on “Contrarian Book Reviews (with parenthetical jibber jabber)

  1. Karenlibrarian December 22, 2010 / 3:20 pm

    Oh, that's disappointing about the Whipple. I have it on my to-shelf and I'm really looking forward to it, especially since I just finished The Priory and loved it. Hopefully I'll like it anyway. And I have Miss Hargreaves as well. Crossing my fingers.


  2. C.B. James December 22, 2010 / 3:38 pm

    I did get the Borg reference.

    But ginger beer? What's that?

    I hope you get some replies from people who've read these two and loved them. Passionate debate over books is good for the soul.

    Thanks for the link, too.


  3. Anna December 22, 2010 / 3:43 pm

    I completely agree about Miss Hargreaves. I wanted to rewrite it, too. Glad I'm not the only one.

    I loved Someone at a Distance, but it's the only Dorothy Whipple I've read. I think that's probably why it's so popular. If it's the first you read it's your first taste of Whipple's loveliness, and you don't know how it compares to her other books. I think there's always a special place for the first book we read of an author.


  4. bookssnob December 22, 2010 / 4:19 pm

    Oooh dear…just be glad you're not in the same room as Mr Simon Thomas right now! I'm yet to read Miss Hargreaves, so can't comment, but I can well understand from knowing the plot that it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.

    However, Thomas, with Dorothy Whipple…I must confess I am most disappointed that you didn't enjoy Someone at a Distance. I am of the minority of Whipple fans who doesn't think it her best book – having read all of her novels, I think that place best belongs to They Were Sisters, out of the Persephone choices, and Greenbanks, of the un-re-printed novels. However, I still think it is superb. I often find that passivity is a key feature of characters in Whipple novels, which does irritate, but it's supposed to – considering her social position, her upbringing, the time she was living in – what else could Ellen have done? When women were married off so young, as they were then, they didn't know how to cope by themselves. I'm not surprised that Ellen couldn't lift a finger to do anything about her marriage – she has the vagueness often seen in mid century heroines that is the product of too little exertion and too much protection from the real world.

    Not all of us are as brave or decisive as we would hope to be in a crisis. I think that is Whipple's strength; she is realistic about human characters, and their weaknesses. The fact that you got so annoyed at the characters and wanted to leap in and get them to DO something shows just how good a writer she is – she made you care, didn't she?!

    Have you read They Were Sisters? I'm sure you'd love that. And if you can get hold of Greenbanks..well, it's sublime.

    It's interesting how different our interpretations of books can be, no matter how similar our general tastes. You are not someone I would ever expect to diss Whipple!!


  5. Daniel-Halifax December 22, 2010 / 4:33 pm

    Although I'm not a “book blogger” I do share many of your tastes, and I have to laugh because when I was reading this post I was wearing a shawl cardigan and the tea kettle was a whistlin!

    As for the books, I've ordered Miss Hargreaves (MONTHS AGO) but still haven't read either…I'm very interested to read the Whipple now, especially reading BookSnob's points.


  6. Mystica December 22, 2010 / 4:42 pm

    I haven't read any of them but would like to now especially with the different ideas going around. I think it is perfectly logical to like one book and not like another by the same author. I can't even see why anyone should think it strange. Whipple is just not available here in Melbourne libraries. With the greatest difficulty I was able to track down one Barbara Pym so hopefully these other books will also turn up.


  7. Laura December 22, 2010 / 5:05 pm

    I've been lurking on your blog since your much-reported visit to the old country. I can't take issue with any of your points here, because I haven't read these books (although I'm now most intrigued!). I just wanted to pop in and say I enjoyed the post, and the way you daringly ventured into potentially controversial blogging territory.

    I also love your photos of Lucy :)


  8. Susan in TX December 22, 2010 / 5:57 pm

    Well, this Whipple is on my TBR shelf, and I was thinking of reading it over the holidays — thanks to all your previous gushings about Whipples. :) I probably still will just to make sense of your comments on it.

    As for Miss Hargreaves, I will say that I enjoyed the first half of it better than the last. It's an amazing premise to pull off, but I just didn't like the way she wrapped it up. That said, I still enjoyed it – perhaps more than you did from the sounds of it. I've also come to the conclusion that when anyone gushes about a book, it's almost a death knell for me. Haven't figured out why that is, and it doesn't always work out that way, but it has made me a more skeptical review reader.

    Oh, and as for the Bloomsburys, I'm finding the same thing — liking the idea of them more than the contents. I didn't care for A Kid For Two Farthings at all. I take that back – I loved Henrietta Sees it Through. At any rate, they are pretty on the shelf. ;)
    Merry Christmas to you!


  9. Teresa December 22, 2010 / 6:57 pm

    The Borg! I love the Borg! ST:TNG was a Saturday night ritual for most of my college years. (Have I mentioned that I am a big geek?)

    Anyway, I do love a contrarian post now and then, even though I always worry about offending when I happen to write them. (That was my feeling when I didn't care for The Guernsey Literary etc.) But invariably a few fellow contrarians end up piping up. Or you get a great thoughtful response like Rachel's. I have Someone at a Distance on my TBR shelf. Perhaps I'll read it for the Persephone weekend and see which side of the fence I end up on :)


  10. Cath December 22, 2010 / 7:23 pm

    I didn't like Miss Hargreaves either. I just found it annoying and couldn't finish it. You are not alone. :-)


  11. savidgereads December 22, 2010 / 7:52 pm

    Great post Thomas, and not because you slate those books (interestingly both I have been told I must read, have highon the TBR but as yet have never quite gotten around to – now really want to thanks to this post) but because occasionally you think you have a very similar taste and then your completely thrown in a random way, but differences are great – how boring would the blogging world, and world in general, be if we only all liked the same books?


  12. StuckInABook December 22, 2010 / 8:14 pm

    RIGHT, I am striking you off my list of e-friends IMMEDIATELY.

    Except, of course, I am not ;-) Having seen Miss H being brought to a wider public, including 50 or so people in my book groups, I am used to about half the people not responding well. I can't understand why anyone wouldn't love it, and have always been surprised by their reasons, but I'm glad you gave it a go – and have been on your side of the fence with authors like Dorothy L. Sayers. I was so bored by Gaudy Night, and yet some people praise it to high heaven.

    As for SAAD – I thought the writing was so good that it overshadowed everything else. Whereas the short stories (as I vaguely mentioned before) were… well, I found them basically to be one very good short story told thirteen times. Some seemed to be almost exactly identical, and others had the same structure and emotion and point.

    But I do agree with you about the quality of paper in Bloomsbury reprints. Much as I love the series, I do hate the paper.


  13. Ted December 22, 2010 / 8:37 pm

    To simply respond to a parenthetical comment you made, I LOVE Upstairs, Downstairs and made my bf a fan of it too!


  14. agoodstoppingpoint December 22, 2010 / 8:47 pm

    I haven't read either book so I cannot weigh in there, but I will say that I have seen enough Star Trek to understand a Borg reference. My family makes it a point to tell each other that “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is actually the series I know best, though.


  15. Carolyn December 22, 2010 / 10:08 pm

    Love this post Thomas and I also got the Borg reference, my husband makes me watch it! I agree that I haven't really gotten into most of the Bloomsbury books, I've only finished and loved Henrietta's War, but The Brontes Went to Woolworths, despite the charming title, was just a bit too confusing and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment a bit too long-winded, despite loving Miss Buncle's Book by the same author.

    I tried Every Good Deed by Whipple (her only book at my library and out of print too) and couldn't get very far with it, mostly because I found it too sad and upsetting (reminded me too much of family members actually). So I'm a bit hesitant about where to go with her next.


  16. Danielle December 22, 2010 / 11:32 pm

    I really liked Someone at a Distance as well–found it very devastating, but then in some ways I could relate well to Ellen. Of course not all books click and that's just the way it is. I have to agree with Rachel–Greenbanks is really great if you can get your hands on it, and They Knew Mr Knight very good as well (one I was not really expecting to like).


  17. StuckInABook December 23, 2010 / 7:14 am

    Oh, and I love the idea of a couple watching Upstairs, Downstairs and Star Trek together – how bizarre!


  18. Paperback Reader December 23, 2010 / 9:36 am

    Well, this time next year we can all read Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple after Persephone reissue it (and each of our Persephone Secret Santas send us a copy…)

    I think that Someone at a Distance evokes the rawness of emotion wonderfully well but They Were Sisters was the better book for me. I think Someone at a Distance is the one lauded about because it is the Whipple most people come to first (probably because it was issued first, is third in catalogue & the only Whipple Classic and one with such a beautiful cover); it was certainly my first Whipple & only my third Persephone so I have a soft spot for it. Why do Persephone seem to favour it? Perhaps it was Nicola Beauman's first Whipple too (I must reread A Very Great Profession & see if she mentions it). Persephone do love a villainess & Louise is like Deborah in To Bed With Grand Music to some respects, completely self-serving & narcissistic.

    I am in bed in Glasgow with a dreadful cold & a cup of tea; your post cheered me up. I like going against the grain sometimes and I remember we both did once over a book that was highly-regarded by other book bloggers… deservedly so.


  19. Paperback Reader December 23, 2010 / 9:39 am

    Our going against the grain was deserved, I meant.

    I also meant the rawness of adultery & not emotion – SataD shows the far-reaching consequences & devastation of cheating.


  20. Thomas at My Porch December 23, 2010 / 11:22 am

    Karen: I loved The Priory as well.

    CB: I have never actually had ginger beer, but I think it may either be like ginger ale or an alcoholic version of it.

    Anna: Well you have great Whipples to look forward to.

    Rachel: I know that too often my 21st century attitude clouds my view of the past. But wouldn't a more typical reaction of someone like Ellen have been to fight for her marriage to save face? Also, wouldn't she have had the divorce proceedings heard in London rather than the County Court? In a way her response seems atypical, right down to becoming a servant and becoming somewhat of an untouchable from a class point of view.

    Daniel: I know my audience!

    Mystica: Which Barbara Pym did you find?

    Laura: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. And am especially glad you liked the Lucy photos. Can't wait to spend Christmas with her.

    Susan: Probably good that I toned down some of the gushing about Whipple (includng my own). Merry Christmas to you too.

    Teresa: I had a hunch you might know the Borg. You are brave not to have loved the Potato Peel book. Those of us who loved it are kind of fanatic about it.

    Cath: I definitely had to apply myself to finishing it.

    Simon S: Agreed. I think I have been doing a little more self-censoring than I would have ever expected.

    Simon T: I definitely see your point on the short stories, but I still thought they were marvelous. I am always stunned when someone says they don't like Margaret Atwood. She isn't necessarily my favorite author, but I think she is brilliant, and brilliant enough that no sane person could not recognize that.

    Ted: I also managed to get the husband into UD as well. It took a little more doing than the old boyfriend, but he eventually got there.

    AGSP: I can't believe I didn't remember the resistance is futile line. I need to go back and watch some of those.

    Carolyn: Yeah, the Woolworths book. Eh. Actually worse then Eh, it was kind of tedious. Although I had qualms with SAAD, I can't recommend High Wages, The Priory and The Closed Door highly enough. All really worth your time.

    Danielle: I have TKMK on the shelf. I look forward to reading it.

    Simon T: That is when you know you are in love.

    Claire: I hope you feel better soon. Being sick over the holidays is not fun. How exicting about Greenbanks. I love the name alone. I think Avery and Ellen could have bounced back from his indiscretion. But the fact that neither of them even tried for various reasons makes me think they weren't as happy as they thought they were, but Whipple doesn't explore that part.


  21. Ted December 23, 2010 / 1:14 pm

    Now there will be two more people in the world to get my Ruby and Mrs. Bridges references. They've become descriptive staples for me, but nearly everyone looks at me blankly.


  22. StuckInABook December 23, 2010 / 6:15 pm

    Case in point, Thomas, as I must be insane – I really didn't like The Handmaid's Tale; the style irritated me beyond words. The Penelopiad I quite enjoyed.


  23. Thomas at My Porch December 23, 2010 / 8:40 pm

    Ted: Of course Mrs Bridges is perhaps my favorite character and where would she be without Ruby. My absolute favorite episode is when the King comes to dinner. All the scenes of Mrs B cooking are the best.

    Simon: Exactly!


  24. Biblibio December 24, 2010 / 5:25 am

    The borg reference actually made it more understandable to me, though it did bring back some traumatic childhood memories…

    Sometimes people like different books. Something in your own life experience means that you identify a very specific way with a certain book, while someone else has a completely different experience. It doesn't mean that you're picking on some sacred cow (?), it just means that you're open enough to the idea that maybe maybe there are other views out there.


  25. Steerforth December 25, 2010 / 10:47 am

    I was talking to a book dealer who sells through Amazon and he likened them to the Borg. If you're small and represent no threat, you can use their website to sell books through the Marketplace, but the moment you reach a certain size, they assimilate you!


  26. Desperate Reader December 26, 2010 / 3:43 pm

    I sometimes think I read and write in a total bubble paying very little attention to what others are saying or thinking and then a post like this comes along and I see a whole debate taking place which I was utterly oblivious to.

    I've noticed in the past that when I've written about books I really didn't much like (which for no good reason I feel guilty about doing)those posts get more comments (often disagreeing with my stance)than when I'm openly enthusiastic. Debate is good, though I strongly feel it ought to remain civilised.

    So far I've utterly failed with Whipple, but I did like Miss Hargreaves


  27. novelinsights December 27, 2010 / 11:43 am

    “if she has to give up her horse, big whoop.”


    Thank you for making me giggle Thomas!

    I have brought this particular Whipple home with me, and am looking forward to reading it. Perhaps if it's not her best, I will get more out of it by reading it before others?! Or I may postpone and pick up Nourishment instead which I am greatly looking forward to.

    Happy Christmas!


  28. Frances December 28, 2010 / 9:39 am

    Talk about assimilation resistance here. You don't just air your differences with any two books but with two that have been taken to heart by many. Wow. :)

    Have not had the pleasure of the much-lauded Ms. Whipple yet but I love, love, love Miss Hargreaves for all it whimsy and leaps in logic and darkness where you expect light within the pretty Easter colored jacket. As a matter of fact those are qualities I appreciate in all the Bloomsbury Group titles I have read. Must agree about the paper though. And I think that the cover colors on the second set coming out here soon but already out in the Uk are absolutely garish.


  29. Darlene December 28, 2010 / 1:23 pm

    On days when nothing much is going on I still find myself thinking of Louise. Sudsing shampoo in the shower seems to be a great time for despising that woman!

    I loved Someone at a Distance. Possibly for the sheer enjoyment of the roller coaster of emotions experienced while reading it. Whipple's short stories were my lastest Persephone order so I'm glad to hear you really liked them.


  30. Thomas at My Porch December 28, 2010 / 4:09 pm

    Biblio: The Borg are kind of traumatic aren't they?

    Steerforth: Hilarious. There are lots of Borg-like companies out there.

    Hayley: Interesting that you have failed with Whipple. I think you are right. Negative reviews tend to really get discussion going. Maybe all my reviews need to take the role of Devil's advocate.

    Polly: I am glad you found that funny. I was worried I might find someone with a childhood pony story that would make me feel bad for being so callous.

    Frances: I know that is why I felt like I needed lots of qualifiers. People I respect like these books! Do you own any Whipples yet?

    Darlene: Maybe you are actually trying to wash that woman right out of your hair.


  31. kissacloud January 1, 2011 / 2:41 pm

    See? That's probably why I'm on Team Laski, as Someone at a Distance was my first (and only) Whipple and I was disappointed, sadly. Not that it was bad, but that it was just not as amazing as others put it out. I will take your word for it and give her a chance with The Priory and High Wages. I was in fact drawn to The Priory but read Someone at a Distance instead because I accidentally found it for a bargain.

    Also, I enjoyed Miss Hargreaves but there was something about it that prevented me from completely embracing it.

    Happy new year!


  32. Thomas at My Porch January 3, 2011 / 3:57 pm

    Kiss a Cloud: After reading SAAD I can understand why you are on Team Laski. I am glad it wasn't the first Whipple I started with.


  33. music-books-steve January 14, 2011 / 12:20 pm

    I have been having trouble finding Whipple novels, but finally ran across this one at a local B & N. This was my first Whipple, and while there is much to like, I didn't find myself thinking that I had to run all over town looking for others. I found the first 2/3s of the book lovely, but somewhat glacially paced (I was tempted to set it aside), then suddenly all the melodrama, which while somewhat overwrought had me neglecting other things to read onwards. Mostly I didn't believe the over-drawn portrait of the Lulu-esque vamp, Louise (Lulu … Louise L, hmmm …) She seemed way too 20s silent for a novel set post WW II. Also, I didn't believe the seduction of Avery, which seemed totally out of character. I think the little aside about grains of sand turning into avalanches (and others), asides which are quite absent otherwise in the book, indicate that W. was uncomfortable with this also. The happy ending didn't bother me; life moves on. All in all, a 6 on the Otto rating scale.


  34. Thomas at My Porch January 20, 2011 / 2:39 pm

    Steve: I concur with your assessment and your rating of 6 on the Otto scale. Too bad this was your first (not last?) Whipple.


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