Friday, September 29, 2023

Review: Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

Review: Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

by Rich Horton

I'm not sure I need to say much about Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) in introduction. He's one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century -- this doesn't seem remotely in dispute. And he can claim that both in English and in Russian. His lack of a Nobel Prize is a scandal only matched, I think, by the lack of one for Jorgé Luis Borges.  

Pnin was his fourth novel written in English (not counting Laughter in the Dark, the much-revised translation he did of Camera Obscura) but the third of those to be published in the US, due to the difficulties Nabokov faced getting Lolita into print. Lolita was finished in 1953 or early 1954, and Nabokov began writing the sections of Pnin in January 1954. Some of the chapters of Pnin were published in the New Yorker, though the final novel is significantly revised. It appeared in 1957, and was quite successful -- finally resolving Nabokov's finances. (Lolita appeared in 1958 in the US, though a somewhat corrupt version had been published in France in 1955.) I read Pnin and loved it decades ago, and this is an overdue reread.

Timofey Pnin is a teacher of Russian at Waindell College. We meet him on the way to deliver a lecture at a women's club. Alas, he has gotten on the wrong train -- and when he realizes this his attempts to get back on course also go wrong, and he loses his lecture notes. Things work out, more or less, but we know our man by now: an often clumsy person, not entirely fluent in English, probably a true expert in Russian literature but so focussed on his own obsessions that he is treated more as a figure of fun than a serious scholar.

The chapters continue, detailing Pnin's adventures in his classes, his difficulty finding satisfying housing, his struggles keeping his teaching position amid a certain amount of academic politics. There is a weekend at a house in the country, with a number of other Russian emigrés.  We also learn something of his history -- his youth in Russia, his escape to Europe and then to the US, and especially his marriage, to the psychiatrist Liza Bogolepov. He is divorced as the novel opens, and we learn that Liza has remarried, and has had a child, who Pnin is willing to accept as his own. Indeed, Pnin truly does act as a father to the boy, who by the end of the novel is an adult, and an artist of real promise.

Pnin is very funny -- Timofey's troubles are mostly quite comic to everyone but him (and sometimes to him.) But behind the comedy there is real pain (the name Pnin is purposely only one letter away from pain.) At the heart of the book, I think, is Pnin's relationship with the wholly unworthy Liza, even though it takes up a relatively small proportion of the pages. Also critical is the identity of the narrator -- who intrudes only rarely until the final chapter. Then he comes front and center, and certain allusions -- to the Russian writer Sirin, to another emigré named Vladimir Vladimirovich who is an expert on butterflies -- are suddenly not cute references but critical to the story. I won't detail what we learn -- but by the end this is not so much a comic novel as a wrenching tragedy with comic overtones. Needless to say, it's also gloriously written. It's one of the most moving novels I know, it is one of my favorites of that sometimes tired genre, the academic novel; and it is sometimes my favorite of Nabokov's novels. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Review: Supernatural Tales, by Vernon Lee

Review: Supernatural Tales, by Vernon Lee

by Rich Horton

Vernon Lee was the name used by Violet Paget (1856-1935), an English writer who lived her entire life on the continent -- born in France to English parents, she eventually settled in Italy. Her primary interest was esthetics, and she wrote extensively on the subject, influenced by Walter Pater and then by her lover, Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. She also wrote on travel, a couple of novels, and a great many supernatural stories. She was very prominent in intellectual circles in her life, and was friends with the likes of Edith Wharton, Henry James, and her exact contemporary John Singer Sargent (who was a very close childhood friend, and who much later painted her portrait.)

While Lee's intimate relationships were always with women, and were quite "open", she refused the term Lesbian, and given that she used the name "Vernon Lee" not just as a pseudonym, but in her personal life as well, it is tempting to wonder if in contemporary terms, she might have identified as a trans man, though who can say? Her most controversial view, in her day, was her very passionate pacifism, which formed the thematic basis for her 1921 novel Satan the Waster. These views were very unpopular in her time, and seem to have contributed to her declining reputation late in her life. I recently wrote about Rose Macaulay, who was likewise a fierce pacifist during the first War, and who changed her views with the rise of Hitler. It’s interesting to wonder if Lee might also have moderated her views had she lived longer.

It is her supernatural stories that are best known in the present day, and after some long period of relative neglect, I sense that in the past few decades her work has achieved a significant reputation among aficionados of "weird fiction". The book at hand was assembled in 1955 by her executrix, Irene Cooper Willis, collecting six of her better known Supernatural Tales. Willis also contributes an introduction, discussing Lee in quite personal terms (they were close friend from 1911 until Lee’s death) and also including some words from Lee herself about a few of the pieces. My edition is a 1987 reprint.

I'll briefly consider each story:

“Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (18,000 words, originally in the July 1896 issue of The Yellow Book, collected in Pope Jacynth, 1904)

This is one of Lee’s most famous stories, and it was published in one of the most central (and controversial) periodicals of the 1890s. The Yellow Book may be best known for the illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert and others; but the literary contents were also significant – they published the likes of Max Beerbohm, H. G. Wells, Henry James, and W. B. Yeats. They were famous for a highly esthetic approach (surely much in sympathy with Vernon Lee’s views) and for an attitude of decadence.

Prince Alberic is the grandson and heir of Duke Balthasar. The Duke is a vain and arbitrary man, and when he redecorates his Red Palace, he notices for the first time that Alberic’s chambers are hung with an old-fashioned tapestry, and he replaces it with a new one. But the boy had loved the older tapestry, which showed his ancestor, also named Alberic, and the half-snake/half-woman Oriana. Young Alberic destroys the new tapestry, and the Duke, in fury, exiles him to a remote estate. This backfires, however, for Alberic had hated the Red Palace, and became much happier in the new place, especially after he made a pet of a grass snake, and also met an older woman who visited him for an hour each day and instructed him.

It’s easy enough to see where this is going, though the story rather takes its time getting there. The Duke’s rage at his heir’s behavior increases, and the Duke’s three chief counsellors, who each hate the others, begin to compete to either be in position to take credit for Alberic’s death if the Duke so desires, or to be in the boy’s favor if things to in a different direction. But mysteriously, all their efforts are trumped by another influence. Eventually, financial pressures force the Duke to try to find an advantageous marriage for his heir – but by this time, Alberic, now a young man, has no interest in other women – for, of course, he has fallen in love with Oriana. There is a back story for the Snake Lady, and a dark resolution for everyone. It’s a fine story, though I felt it might have been a bit better if a bit shorter, and I also found the prose a touch too fussy – which is not the case for the other stories collected here. All that said, on reflection the story still seems to me quite powerful – perhaps it deserves a reread.

“A Wedding Chest” (4200 words, from Pope Jacynth, 1902)

This is a short and very dark story, rather nicely structured. It opens with a description of a 15th century front panel painting on the subject of “The Triumph of Love”, used for a wedding chest, and continues to describe the circumstances of its painting. The chest was for the wedding of a powerful man, Messer Troilo. The painter, Desiderio, had refused to use the beautiful Maddalena as a model, for she was to be his wife – which incensed Troilo, who already had his eye on her … and who proceeded to kidnap and rape her. The end result is very dark – it’s a striking story, a conte cruel, in my opinion one of the best in the book, though there is no real supernatural element. I was reminded of the incident that drives the plot of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (a novel Lee certainly must have known), and there is also a reference to the plague, though I’m not sure the same plague that features in Manzoni’s novel is intended.

“Amour Dure” (14000 words, from Hauntings, 1890)

My favorite of these six stories. It’s presented as extracts from the diary of Spiridon Trepka, a young Polish professor working in the Archives of a small Italian town, Urbania. He is interested in the history of the town, but distracted by the modern day annoyances of life there. But he becomes obsessed with the story of Medea di Carpi, a young woman born in 1556, with a somewhat legendary scandalous history, in that her various husbands and lovers all ended up murdered, either by her or some other mischance. And as Spiridon learns more, he begins to receive strange letters, on ancient paper, urging him to visit a certain decrepit church … and soon he is convinced that it is Medea herself, begging him to free her from her ghostly existence. His fate is easily guessed! But the story gets to that end very effectively.

“A Wicked Voice” (11,000 words, from Hauntings, 1890)

This story concerns a late 19th century composer, a devotee of Wagner, who has nothing but contempt for the music of the 18th century, and especially for the singers of that time. His project is an opera based on Ogier the Dane, but he ends up, to his disgust, an expert on an 18th century singer named Zaffarini, and on a legend concerning this man, who apparently could sing so beautifully that he could make any woman fall in love with him, and then kill her with his song. Inevitably, the composer begins to hear a mysterious singing voice, and the voice overwhelms his inspirations for his opera, completely taking over his true ambitions.

“The Legend of Madame Krasinska” (10,500 words, from Vanitas, 1892)

Another favorite of mine. Madame Krasinska is an American woman, still quite young though a widow (she had married a wealthy Polish man.) She is an idle woman, given only to frivolous amusements, not even to love affairs. And then, for a costume ball, she decides to go as Sora Lena, a mad old woman well known around town, who constantly visits the train station, waiting for her sons to return from the war – alas, they had been killed in the war decades ago. Madame Krasinska’s cruel impersonation is a hit – but soon after Sora Lena commits suicide. And then Madame Krasinska becomes increasingly unhappy, and feels more and more that she is a different person – she begins wandering to the train station, and starts to think her real apartments are somewhere else. The climax, in the abandoned room where Sora Lena had lived, is beautifully done, with an effective surprise. There is a bit more of a moral here than with many of these stories.

“The Virgin of the Seven Daggers” (11000 words, from For Maurice, 1927)

The only one of these tales not set in Italy, this story begins in Grenada, with a depiction of the Church of Our Lady of the Seven Daggers (including criticism of the architecture.) Then we go back to the late 17th century, during the reign of Charles II, “the Melancholy”. Don Juan Guzman del Pulgar is introduced as a man of extreme wickedness, in many ways but particularly in his treatment of women, in particular his seduction and/or rape of seven beautiful women, including, most scandalous, a nun. Now he has become obsessed with the legend of a surpassing beautiful Moorish Princess, buried alive by her father as the Moors retreated from Spain, and supposedly kept alive by magical means. He begs forgiveness from his patroness, the Virgin of the Seven Daggers, for all his previous sins and for whatever sins he might commit in his effort to penetrate to this Princess’s tomb, and claim her for his latest mistress. This leads to a dangerous descent into the depths, where her tomb lies, and his battle to reach the tomb, in which he commits further atrocities. Only to reach the Princess, and wake her – and have her demand of him one thing … the conclusion is logical and queerly moving in the context of the story.

This is truly a very fine collection of stories, effectively “supernatural” in a very 19th century manner. I will be making an effort to hunt down some more examples of Vernon Lee’s fiction.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Review: Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson

Review: Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson

A review by Rich Horton

Robert Hugh Benson was born in 1871, the son of E. W. Benson, who became Archbishop of Canterbury. Robert Hugh Benson’s older brothers and his sister were all writers, the best known of them being E. F. Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels. The younger man also became a writer, of 15 novels, most historical, several quite popular. He was close friends with a couple of notorious characters – the novelist known as Baron Corvo, and Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. But he died only 43 in 1914, and is all but forgotten today.

I’ve elided the most dramatic event of his life, however. In 1903, he converted to Catholicism, and was ordained a priest the next year. This was a bit of a shock to the Anglican establishment, given his father’s position. And in 1907 he published Lord of the World, the most determinedly Roman Catholic of his works, which was a sensation of sorts when published, then largely forgotten, but which has received some notice of late, as the two most recent Popes, Benedict and Francis, have both recommended that Catholics read it.

But how about SF readers? Because Lord of the World is science fiction, set perhaps a century in Benson’s future. There are technological advances, those these are somewhat minor. Some cities have moved underground, and, more importantly, air travel is common, via what are called volors, and they are used in war to drop bombs, to the point of destroying cities. Much more important are the sociological changes. Religion has been largely abandoned, in favor of socialism and humanism – the latter eventually an explicit belief that humanity as a whole is god. Euthanasia is common. As the action opens, the world is roughly partitioned in three parts – the Eastern Empire, the American Empire, and Europe. Catholics, seemingly the only religion tolerated at all, are but a tiny fragment of their former population, though they have been ceded Rome and its environs.

The book follows two viewpoint characters. Oliver Brand is a young MP, who becomes an important acolyte of a new figure, Julian Felsenburgh, who comes from America but throughout the book increases his influence, eventually accepting a position as leader of the entire world. Oliver’s political success seems overwhelming, but his personal life is roiled, as his mother converts to Catholicism and he has her euthanized, and his wife, at first an enthusiastic supporter of he and Felsenburgh, becomes disillusioned and leaves him and heads to a euthanasia center.

The other key character is Percy Franklin, an English priest who over time becomes a more and more important figure in the Church. He becomes a leader in the Church’s response to Felsenburgh – who, notably, looks very similar to Franklin. His faith at first wavers and then is strengthened, and towards then end, after Rome is bombed to destruction, Percy becomes Pope, moves to Palestine – indeed, to Megiddo, and in the end awaits the final battle. 

This is a curious book, quite powerful on its own terms, and to my mind convincingly portraying a chilling dystopia, and resolving in an arresting fashion. And there are some striking passages and images, one for example showing a volor travelling over the Alps – the view from the air truly convinces. On the other hand, the rigorous insistence on Catholic theological truth (and a pretty conservative version of such) will not sell to everyone. One feels that a middle ground between the dystopia portrayed, and the vision Percy Franklin has for the world, might be available.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Review: Crash Landing on Iduna, by Arthur Tofte

Review: Crash Landing on Iduna, by Arthur Tofte

by Rich Horton

I have been asked before, when reviewing a fairly minor work, if it was worth the effort. If the reading might not have been a waste of time. If we really need to know about an obscure 1975 novel by an almost completely forgotten author that turns out to have been pretty awful.

And, you know what? In some ways the answer is that it was kind of a waste of time to read a particular book, and that no one really needs to know anything about the book or author. But ... merit aside, the story of SF publication (or any field's publication) is interesting,and it can't be told without discussing failures. And sometimes minor and justly forgotten writers have interesting stories. And ... I don't mind reading the occasional bad book, at least when it's short!

So -- Crash Landing on Iduna. It is a terrible book. But there are some interesting things to say about, I think. The author, Arthur Tofte (1902-1980) was born in Chicago, but attended the University of Wisconsin and settled in Milwaukee. He worked in advertising, including miniature golf, and eventually ended up at the major Wisconsin industrial equipment company Allis-Chalmers, working there until his retirement in 1969. He was also friends with Stanley G. Weinbaum (also born in 1902), another Milwaukee resident, and was a member of the Milwaukee Fictioneers along with Weinbaum and other SF luminaries such as Ray Palmer and Ralph Milne Farley. He sold five stories between 1938 and 1940, mostly to Palmer's Amazing. After that, he seems to have done no writing until after his retirement.

Then, between 1972 and 1980, he published 13 short stories, mostly to anthologies edited by Roger Elwood. He also published two of the first five Laser Books. Laser was another Roger Elwood project. These were short novels (typically 50,000 to 60,000 words) published in uniform looking paperback editions, 190 pages, with covers by Kelly Freas. The publisher was Harlequin, and the format and formula echoed Harlequin romances. 58 total Laser books were published until the series was cancelled. It would be fair to say that the books were not well received by SF fandom, and many of them were pretty poor. That said, they did publish interesting work by the likes of Tim Powers, R. Faraday Nelson, K. W. Jeter, and Jerry Pournelle. 

Tofte published a few more novels, mostly YA, including a YA version of The Day the Earth Stood Still; a contemporary novel called Thursday's Child; an occult novel, The Ghost Hunters; and Survival Planet, a novel clearly related to Crash Landing on Iduna, though I'm not sure if it's a sequel or a more YA-oriented rewrite.

Anyway -- all that is interesting to me: a writer with a curiously bifurcated career. The connection to the important early SF writer Stanley G. Weinbaum. His two main editors being two of the more controversial editors in SF history, Ray Palmer and Roger Elwood. But -- what about this novel? 

I'll begin be noting that it is rather shorter than the norm for a Laser book, at no more than 45,000 words. I've already said that Crash Landing on Iduna is pretty terrible. What's it about? The novel opens as Lars and Iduna Evenson approach a promising planet, named after Iduna. They have four children: Peter and Inga are nearly adults, but Bretta and Sven are 5 and 4 years old. Their spaceship crashes. The children are safe, but Iduna is dead, and Lars severely injured. Peder narrates the story.

They begin by trying to save their father, and to establish a beachhead on the planet, and find food. They have a brief supply of the standard food people on Earth eat. We learn that Lars had wanted to raise his children away from the regimented and oppressive society of Earth, which is overpopulated, and on which there is not much natural life surviving. There are soon encounters with dangerous life, but Peder learns to fish, and their father slowly recovers his health. 

They realize they need to find a better place to live than their crashed spaceship, and when their father is able to travel, they journey over the nearby mountains. They find a fairly safe cave, but also encounter some mysteries -- especially the dolphinlike Thrull, an intelligent species that lives both on land and in the water. The Thrull seem benevolent but shy, until Bretta is kidnapped by some other Thrull -- and rescued by the nice Thrull. Peder and Inga and the children get involved in a potential war between the peaceful Thrull and their insane rivals ... All leading to a somewhat blunted resolution, followed by a shocking revelation some years later, as Bretta and Sven have grown to adulthood and as an Earth ship appears.

I don't want to go into too much of the silliness of all this. The portrayal of overpopulated Earth is clichéd and tendentious. The biology on the whole is absurd. The moralizing, mostly delivered by Lars, is anodyne if not offensive. The writing is competent but flat. The plotting is unconvincing. The final revelation is sort of cute but also silly. I'll say too that from the beginning there is an implication that the plot must involve incest -- but of course neither Roger Elwood nor Harlequin would have tolerated that. In the end, the arrival of an Earth ship does perhaps make that speculation moot -- still!

I didn't like this novel at all. But it does reflect an important bit of mid-70s SF publication history. And it was short enough to not really waste much of my time!

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Review: Machinehood, by S. B. Divya

Review: Machinehood, by S. B. Divya

by Rich Horton

Machinehood is S. B. Divya's first novel, from 2021. (Her second novel, Meru, appeared earlier this year and has attracted excited notice.) We chose it for our book club (run by Mark Tiedemann) this year. I read it in the audiobook version, with the printed book as a supplement. The audiobook is narrated by Inés de Castillo and Deepti Gupta.

Divya was kind enough to join us for the discussion. (Her full name is Divya Srinivasan Breed, and for several years she co-edited the Escape Pod audio magazine as Divya Breed.) She spent a number of years working in the engineering field, and her experience and knowledge comes through in the novel -- in a good way. 

The novel is told primarily from the POV of Welga Ramírez, with a number of chapters from the POV of her sister-in-law Nithya. It is set in 2095, and its themes are stated to some extent in extracts from the Machinehood Manifesto, a document issued during the action of the novel. The first two declarations from the manifesto we see are: "All forms of intelligence have the right to exist without persecution or slavery." and "No form of intelligence may own another." We are quickly aware that this is a significant issue in this future, as the society is heavily reliant on bots of various forms -- a fairly obtuse vendor bot is immediately introduced -- and by WAIs, or "weak artificial intelligences", such as Welga's personal aide Por Qué. A key issue, clearly, is "what is intelligence?" (The Machinehood defines it very expansively.) Another issue, already fraught for this future society, is labor rights -- the economy is largely a gig economy, and humans have struggled to compete for jobs as many jobs are performed by bots or WAIs. 

Welga herself is an ex-Marine, now working as a Shield, providing personal security for rich people who are often the targets of protesters. This is usually mostly for show, and protesting is a more about demonstration, and actual violence tends to redound against the reputation, at least, of the protesters' causes. Also, modern medicine is quite effective at repairing even extreme injuries. But the first mission we witness Welga performing goes horribly wrong. Her client is attacked by an extremely fast and mysterious being that seems either a very advanced robot or even a cyborg. The client dies and Welga is seriously injured.

Around this time the Machinehood announces itself, and demands an immediate stop to all use of bots and WAIs, and also to the design of the various performance enhancing "drugs" (they seem more than chemical) that workers use to enhance their physical and mental abilities, at least in the short term. They appear to have the power to enforce this, also, at least if they were responsible for the attack on Welga's client. There is another suspect -- or perhaps they are allied with the Machinehood? -- the mysterious Caliph who rules much of North Africa (the MARSOC), continuing to expand its borders, which are concealed technologically so that so signals work inside them. Welga herself was the only survivor of a mission inside the Caliphate years previously.

Welga has another problem -- she has a genetic condition that makes her unable to take "flow", the drug that improves ones mental ability; and now she is having another problem, that may be related to the drugs that increase her strength and speed during operations. And she asks Nithya -- whose expertise lies in that area, and who does gig work for a company involved in drug production -- to see if she can find out anything about this issue, or other side effects of some of the drugs. And what Nithya eventually finds is very concerning -- pointing to shortcomings in testing, and even concealment of negative results. 

There's a lot more going on -- a crisis in Nithya's personal life, climate effects impacting the life of Welga's grandfather, one of Nithya's online friends and colleagues getting caught up in the MARSOC's invasion of her country, a chance for Welga and her partner to move to one of the orbital colonies, and more Machinehood attacks while Welga is lured back into serving the US. Everything leads, of course, to a confrontation with the Machinehood, whoever they are. And to a somewhat surprising, and quite interesting, conclusion.

What's best about this novel is the density of the future it creates. It seems a real future, and a lived-in future, with not just one technological novum but many. And the effects of the technological changes are well thought through, including unexpected side effects. More key to the novel -- and very interesting -- is the philosophical issues. The definition of intelligence. The rights of intelligent beings. The questions that arise about labor. The possibility of machine/human integration. These questions are perhaps the central questions SF of our time is addressing. At our discussion we mentioned Annalee Newitz, Ray Nayler, and Rachel Swirsky as other writers addressing that issue (and they are only a few of many); and we also discussed the currently famous AI issue: Large Learning Models. Machinehood is another example of thought-provoking inquiry into such critical issues.

The novel isn't perfect. The technological advances that drive the conclusion come off seeming a bit convenient. The arguments advanced are interrogated, and neither side is given full absolution, but I do think some aspects were a bit neglected -- the definition of "violence" might be one thing; the right to impose one's views without discussion or negotiation isn't unquestioned, but perhaps less vigorously than it might have been. And the ending is a tad rushed -- a common problem with novels of all kinds. But the novel, finally, does what a certain kind of SF does best -- interrogate our vision for the future, examine realistic issues that might arise, and raise worthwhile philosophical questions.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Review: A Dangerous Magic, by "Frances Lynch" (D. G. Compton)

Review: A Dangerous Magic, by "Frances Lynch" (D. G. Compton)

by Rich Horton

David Guy Compton is, as they say, a many-faceted writer -- he began with radio plays, and his first half-dozen or so books were crime fiction, as by "Guy Compton". He's best known for his science fiction, written as by "D. G. Compton" -- over a dozen novels witten from the mid-60s to the mid-90s -- an exceptional body of work that was admired but never got quite the notice I think it deserved (except perhaps for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, which was filmed as Deathwatch.) He wrote some non-fiction and some non-genre work. His last couple of novels in the 1990s seem to combine the SF and mystery genres ... alas, they were never published in the US, so I have not read them. (I will remedy that omission soon.) And just last year he published a non-SF novel called So Here's Our Leo, with some autobiographical aspects.

And, in the 1970s, he published five romance novels, some with a Gothic flavor, using the name "Frances Lynch". Compton has told me that he wasn't very happy with his first novels, the crime novels, but that he was rather proud of the romance novels. And I enjoy the occasional category romance novel, so I found a copy of A Dangerous Magic, from 1978. My edition is the Fawcett Press paperback (the hardcover came from St. Martin's) and I'll make a brief comment about the cover -- it has nothing to do with the novel. Romance novels in those days -- much like many SF novels, come to think! -- often had very generic covers, almost stock, that basically just made sure to have a handsome man and a pretty woman.

A Dangerous Magic opens with an extract from what we quickly learn is the memoir-in-progress of Lady Otranta Tallanton, the widowed second of wife of a Scottish Laird. She was a magician's assistant when she met her then-married husband, so there is a hint of scandal there, and she promises to tell the whole truth in her memoirs. (Including, maybe, some juicy revelations about Queen Victoria and John Brown!)

We quickly shift to the main character, Bridie Tallanton, Lady Otranta's great-niece. Bridie's father has just died, leaving her nearly destitute, and she is struggling to make ends meet and to find a job. And suddenly a publishing firm gives her an offer -- they will hire her, and assign her to travel to Castle Tantallon, with the object of convincing Lady Otranta to finish her memoirs, which are very late. Reluctantly, Bridie accepts, and is soon in Scotland. She's painfully shy, and afraid of the reception her Great Aunt will give her (as her side of the family was estranged, due to her Grandfather's refusal to accept Lady Otranta's marriage to his elder brother Jamie.) Things get a bit worse when she is met on the train by a retainer who informs her that Lord Andrew, Lady Otranta's eldest son, does not wish her to come -- and, indeed, it seems a lot of the family are dead set against Lady Otranta's memoirs seeing the light of day.

Bridie soldiers on, however. She quickly realizes that the family is indeed a bit of a mess. Lady Otranta is very nice when in good spirits, but, alas, she has a drinking problem, and she is much less pleasant when drunk. Lord Andrew is a fine honest man, if a bit stiff-necked. His elder sister, Melissa, the child of Lady Otranta's husband's first wife, is generally nice enough, but oddly unmarried though some 30 years old. The younger son, Robert, is pleasant but perhaps a bit rackety, and seems very much against the memoirs. Lady Otranta's loyal maid, Peggy, who was with her when she worked for the magician, is also fiercely against the memoir project. And before long there are threats -- a runaway car nearly runs over Bridie, and a nasty note tells her she had better return to London.

All along we see snippets of Lady Otranta's memoirs, even though she doesn't seem to be working on them at all, due to her drinking. These tell of her young life, her work in show business, her skill as a "mind reader", and then her meeting with Jamie Tallanton, and their rapidly growing romance. The main problem is, of course, Jamie's wife -- but it's worse, because the first Lady Tallanton seems to be poisoning Jamie. What can be done about her? At the same time, Bridie is falling love with Lord Andrew, and he with her. And Bridie is learning some surprising things about Lady Otranta ...

It all comes to a head, as such books do, with the surprising revelations in Lady Otranta's memoirs, as well as some ups and downs in Andrew and Bridie's relationship, and with a climactic party followed by a bit of a personal crisis for several characters. The plotting is really nicely handled, with some cool twists, and a really great closing gesture from Bridie.

I enjoyed this novel, though not so much for the romance element, which is pretty thin, as for the plot, which really works.