Everything melts
burns out:
lamp lampshade
the light itself
with no shade left

no world
belongs to you and you
belong
to no world

you are pulled
by rain and light
on roads coming
and going
from everywhere
to everywhere

Jaan Kaplinski, circa 1985

*******

Such a melancholy week we are having.

Several days ago one of my husband’s sisters died at much too young an age. Though her passing was expected – she had terminal cancer and had been in palliative care for the last two months  – we are all deeply sad for her, for this person was not ready or willing to leave her life, despite her terrible suffering, and that is perhaps the most dreadful thing of all.

“She died so angry,” one of her sisters said to me just a little while ago when she called to talk, and to cry.

We just never know what we will be asked to face, do we?

We step out blindly, day by day, trusting that there will be ground under our feet, or at least a not-too-hard place to fall. Sometimes the ground disappears, and then all that we have is courage as we try to make sense of where we are, and, if we are fortunate, hope, and at some point, ideally, the grace of acceptance.

Thank you to my friend Marijke for the poem, which I shared here. It seemed to fit the mood tonight, as we are quietly grieving, paying tribute in memory to a life which had its deep and fervent joys, as well as its final overwhelming darkness.

Onward, then, one step at a time.

a-harp-in-lowndes-square-rachel-ferguson-1936A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.

This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.

All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.

A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.

Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.

This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.

From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:

Description

In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.

Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).

The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …

A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.

Praise

‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT

‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL

The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.

I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.

The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.

The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.

All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.

I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.

For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.

Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.

Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining  hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.

 

the-private-world-of-georgette-heyer-jane-aiken-hodgeThe Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge ~ 1984. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-370-30508-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slim biography-of-sorts was written by the one of the subject’s fellow writers who was a decided fan, and that pro-Heyer bias stands out on every page.

That’s not at all a bad thing in this case, because Georgette Heyer appears by all accounts to be one of those rare creatures, a person of genuinely high artistic integrity, who kept her personal self to herself, letting her work do most of the talking.

From the Foreword:

Georgette Heyer was an intensely private person. A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity, she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point.

(Georgette Heyer was) shy on the surface, but a formidable, positive person underneath, with strong views and a great sense of style.

It hardly sounds the description of a purveyor of romantic froth. But in fact, for those with eyes to see, the strong character is there in her books, even in the lightest and most frivolous of them, and an awareness of the kind of person she was adds a new dimension to one’s enjoyment of them, or, perhaps, explains why one does enjoy them. She may have been a compulsive writer, but she was also an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman. She did her best to conceal her high standards and stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned. But she had a smaller audience, among dons and journalists, among her husband’s legal associates, among intelligent women everywhere, and even among feminists, who enjoyed the romantic syllabub all the more because they were aware of the hard core of realism underneath.

Doesn’t that make you feel all smug and superior? “Intelligent audience”, oh, yes, indeed! That would be us. Right, fellow Heyerites?

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Jane Aiken Hodge has competently cobbled this appreciation/analysis together out of the slender material available to her, which was mostly concerned with the literary elements of Heyer’s life. She did receive the cooperation of family members, friends, and publishing connections, as well as some access to private letters and journals, but the biography is really mostly about the books. Not even all of the books, but primarily the best-known ones, the Regency-era dramatic romances, which stand head and shoulders above everything else Georgette Heyer produced, shading the historical dramas of various other eras, and the rather uneven mystery novels, which were published consistently in much smaller print runs, because they sold at a much more modest rate.

Hodge includes an intriguing discussion of Georgette Heyer’s first “serious” novels, four contemporary works highly influenced by Heyer’s own life in her early years. Once she found her groove with the more inventive historical genre she became famous for, those early books were ruthlessly suppressed by their writer. She avoided any mention of them, and refused again and again all requests to reprint them, with the result that they are now decidedly elusive, and expensive when found.

Contemporary reviews suggest that these four books – Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930) – were fairly standard works of their type and time. Critics were, in general, mildly appreciative of the young writer’s fast-developing skill and style, gently nodding their slightly disinterested approval and casually placing the novels with the many others of their type being pumped out in the between-the-wars years by other young writers of talent. Everyone at that time seemed to have a bildungsroman or two needing to be shared with the world, and there was a generous public appetite for such accounts.

Jane Aiken Hodge:

(W)ritten in her late teens and early twenties…about the the experiences of young women growing up in the complex social scene of the years after the First World War. Inevitably they and the detective stories she wrote mainly in her thirties throw a certain amount of light on the early years of her own life about which she never would talk.

What was Georgette Heyer hiding?

The answer seems to be “nothing in particular”. There appear to have been no youthful scandals, no skeletons in the closet. From start to finish, Georgette Heyer lived a life of quiet and content propriety. She was the beloved daughter of a well-off and tightly knit family. Her personal romantic life contains nothing of particular note; she married her first love, mining engineer Ronald Rougier, and remained devoted to him  – as he was to her – for the rest of her life.

Financial necessity provided much of the impetus behind the books Georgette Heyer produced with such reliable predictability from the 1930s onward – she was famous for never missing a publisher’s deadline – and she took her work seriously, never apologized for withdrawing herself from social and family life while the writing process was underway.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

She was also unapologetically controlling of the way her work was presented by her publishers, writing her own publicity blurbs whenever possible, and maintaining a strict control over her cover art, which explains the elegant accuracy of the early edition dust jacket illustrations, most created by Arthur Barbosa, under her meticulous instruction and proofing.

And one of Heyer's least favourite - and unapproved - Pan paperback covers. "Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!"

And one of Heyer’s least favourite – and unapproved – Pan paperback covers. “Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!”

Georgette Heyer initially resisted her publishers’ requests to allow paperback editions of her work, finally caving in when it became apparent that she was missing out on some serious revenue from those secondary releases. She was deeply appalled by some of the resultant overly gaudy and inappropriate cover art and fulsomely inaccurate back cover blurbs; her indignation is recorded in some gloriously sarcastic letters to friends and (probably slightly cringing) editors.

I find that my own appreciation of the Georgette Heyer novels I’ve read has been enhanced by this interesting collection of anecdotes and semi-scholarly examinations.

The biographer blithely assumes that her readers are all as well versed in Heyer’s entire range of work as she is, and spoilers inevitably crop up, though I don’t think that will put anyone already familiar with Georgette Heyer off, as there aren’t all that many surprises in her storylines, including (regrettably) most of those rather B-list mysteries.

By the end of the book my look-for list of still-to-be-found Heyer titles had grown to an alarming size. The four “suppressed” novels are starred as must-finds, as are the books Georgette Heyer identified as her own consistent favourites: An Infamous Army, The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and A Civil Contract standing out as ones she seemed to be happiest with and proudest of.

I’m in no rush to acquire most of these, because, thanks to her steady popularity for decades, most of the Regency titles are in abundant supply, but it gives me quiet pleasure to consider the enjoyable reading still ahead of me as I hunt down the books and add them to the intelligent comfort reads section of my collection, shelved beside Margery Sharp, Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and their gloriously readable ilk.

She's smiling! A wonderful and rare photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people.

She’s smiling! A rare and lovely photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people, according to those who knew her best.

 

 

 

Well, this is a shock. Just got the word that Leonard Cohen has checked out and moved on. Thought this week was rotten already; it just got exponentially worse.

Rest in peace, our man of poetry and song.

sleeping

Two Went to Sleep

 

Two went to sleep

almost every night

one dreamed of mud

one dreamed of Asia

visiting a zeppelin

visiting Nijinsky

Two went to sleep

one dreamed of ribs

one dreamed of senators

Two went to sleep

two travellers

The long marriage

in the dark

The sleep was old

the travellers were old

one dreamed of oranges

one dreamed of Carthage

Two friends asleep

years locked in travel

Good night my darling

as the dreams waved goodbye

one travelled lightly

one walked through water

visiting a chess game

visiting a booth

always returning

to wait out the day

One carried matches

one climbed a beehive

one sold an earphone

one shot a German

Two went to sleep

every sleep went together

wandering away

from an operating table

one dreamed of grass

one dreamed of spokes

one bargained nicely

one was a snowman

one counted medicine

one tasted pencils

one was a child

one was a traitor

visiting heavy industry

visiting the family

Two went to sleep

none could foretell

one went with baskets

one took a ledger

one night happy

one night in terror

Love could not bind them

Fear could not either

they went unconnected

they never knew where

always returning

to wait out the day

parting with kissing

parting with yawns

visiting Death till

they wore out their welcome

visiting Death till

the right disguise worked

 

Leonard Cohen ~ 1964

dsc04076-2Abend ~ Evening

Slowly the evening draws on its robe
held out to it by a row of ancient trees;
you gaze: and the landscape splits in two,
one part lifting skywards, while one falls;

leaving you not at home in either one,
not so silent as the darkened houses,
nor calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

leaving you (without words) to unravel
your anxious, immense, fast-ripening life,
so that, now elusive, and now grasped,
it becomes in you, in turn, both stone and star.

Rainer Maria Rilke, circa 1910

 

it-cant-happen-here-sinclair-lewis-1935

Not my copy, which is one of the blandly dark blue Collier “Nobel Prize” uniform editions. This is the first edition dust jacket.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1935. This edition: Collier, circa 1938. Hardcover. 458 pages.

My rating: Pretty well have to award a 10/10 for timeliness, but for readability I’m afraid I am stuck fast at 6/10.

It’s well on the “okay” side of the personal rating chart, but that’s all I can honestly give it, when comparing it to some of the writer’s equally thought-provoking but rather more smoothly written A-List books. (Main Street et al.)

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

It Can’t Happen Here is a sardonic alternative history of the United States falling under its own brand of fascist leadership, after the defeat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the ravingly populist Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip. (The oft-quoted Zero Hour is Windrip’s own Mein Kampf.)

The novel is chilling in its prescient description of mass rallies and grassroots hysteria, and the comfortable conviction of the optimistic liberals that, well, “it can’t happen here.”

Written as Hitler and Mussolini blazed to their vicious power, the parallels are unhappily contemporary when considering the strange rise of a certain American wanna-be politician. (The world laughed at Hitler, too. At first.)

I’d been saving this one for the elusive “right time”, and what better timing than during this current and deeply disturbing power struggle between political factions in the U.S.A.?

Any of these political platform points sound just a tiny bit familiar?

During the very first week of his campaign, Senator Windrip clarified his philosophy by issuing his distinguished proclamation: “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” The fifteen planks, in his own words (or maybe in Lee Sarason’s words, or Dewey Haik’s words), were these:

(1) All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank, owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President, which Board shall, without need of recourse to Congress for legislative authorization, be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. Thereafter, as soon as may be practicable, this said Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership, for the Profit of the Whole People, of all mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.

(2) The President shall appoint a commission, equally divided between manual workers, employers, and representatives of the Public, to determine which Labor Unions are qualified to represent the Workers; and report to the Executive, for legal action, all pretended labor organizations, whether “Company Unions,” or “Red Unions,” controlled by Communists and the so-called “Third International.” The duly recognized Unions shall be constituted Bureaus of the Government, with power of decision in all labor disputes. Later, the same investigation and official recognition shall be extended to farm organizations. In this elevation of the position of the Worker, it shall be emphasized that the League of Forgotten Men is the chief bulwark against the menace of destructive and un-American Radicalism.

(3) In contradistinction to the doctrines of Red Radicals, with their felonious expropriation of the arduously acquired possessions which insure to aged persons their security, this League and Party will guarantee Private Initiative and the Right to Private Property for all time.

(4) Believing that only under God Almighty, to Whom we render all homage, do we Americans hold our vast Power, we shall guarantee to all persons absolute freedom of religious worship, provided, however, that no atheist, agnostic, believer in Black Magic, nor any Jew who shall refuse to swear allegiance to the New Testament, nor any person of any faith who refuses to take the Pledge to the Flag, shall be permitted to hold any public office or to practice as a teacher, professor, lawyer, judge, or as a physician, except in the category of Obstetrics.

(5) Annual net income per person shall be limited to $500,000. No accumulated fortune may at any one time exceed $3,000,000 per person. No one person shall, during his entire lifetime, be permitted to retain an inheritance or various inheritances in total exceeding $2,000,000. All incomes or estates in excess of the sums named shall be seized by the Federal Government for use in Relief and in Administrative expenses.

(6) Profit shall be taken out of War by seizing all dividends over and above 6 per cent that shall be received from the manufacture, distribution, or sale, during Wartime, of all arms, munitions, aircraft, ships, tanks, and all other things directly applicable to warfare, as well as from food, textiles, and all other supplies furnished to the American or to any allied army.

(7) Our armaments and the size of our military and naval establishments shall be consistently enlarged until they shall equal, but–since this country has no desire for foreign conquest of any kind–not surpass, in every branch of the forces of defense, the martial strength of any other single country or empire in the world. Upon inauguration, this League and Party shall make this its first obligation, together with the issuance of a firm proclamation to all nations of the world that our armed forces are to be maintained solely for the purpose of insuring world peace and amity.

(8) Congress shall have the sole right to issue money and immediately upon our inauguration it shall at least double the present supply of money, in order to facilitate the fluidity of credit.

(9) We cannot too strongly condemn the un-Christian attitude of certain otherwise progressive nations in their discriminations against the Jews, who have been among the strongest supporters of the League, and who will continue to prosper and to be recognized as fully Americanized, though only so long as they continue to support our ideals.

(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in any other manner receive. In order, however, to give the most sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, as can prove that they have devoted not less than forty-five years to such suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor, and common labor in industries, shall at the age of sixty-five be permitted to appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons, and upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through sickness, they shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum of $500.00 per person per year, nor to exceed $700.00 per family. Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth colored blood.

(11) Far from opposing such high-minded and economically sound methods of the relief of poverty, unemployment, and old age as the EPIC plan of the Hon. Upton Sinclair, the “Share the Wealth” and “Every Man a King” proposals of the late Hon. Huey Long to assure every family $5000 a year, the Townsend plan, the Utopian plan, Technocracy, and all competent schemes of unemployment insurance, a Commission shall immediately be appointed by the New Administration to study, reconcile, and recommend for immediate adoption the best features in these several plans for Social Security, and the Hon. Messrs. Sinclair, Townsend, Eugene Reed, and Howard Scott are herewith invited to in every way advise and collaborate with that Commission.

(12) All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as home-makers and as mothers of strong, honorable future Citizens of the Commonwealth.

(13) Any person advocating Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism, advocating refusal to enlist in case of war, or advocating alliance with Russia in any war whatsoever, shall be subject to trial for high treason, with a minimum penalty of twenty years at hard labor in prison, and a maximum of death on the gallows, or other form of execution which the judges may find convenient.

(14) All bonuses promised to former soldiers of any war in which America has ever engaged shall be immediately paid in full, in cash, and in all cases of veterans with incomes of less than $5,000.00 a year, the formerly promised sums shall be doubled.

(15) Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b), that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act; and (c), that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate, by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action, any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides, or Congress.

Sinclair Lewis injects more than a little dark humour into his dystopian fable, and though I appreciated the frequent deliberate ridiculousness of the political rhetoric, it’s not really an amusing read, with our hindsight of the excesses of the Gestapo and the Final Solution, and our fresh and raw here-in-2016 imagery of ranting American rallyers advocating a “return to greatness” which seems to be mostly about kicking others in the teeth.

Current affairs aside, It Can’t Happen Here is a tougher read than many of Lewis’ earlier novels; he pontificates an awful lot, and the individuals of his vivid cast of characters are parodies from start to finish, although always relatable in their human flaws and frailties, and in their sometimes dark desires.

It shouldn’t happen here, but it could, and therein lies the strangely compelling appeal of this vintage work of “what if?” fiction.

Reviews abound, many of them very recent. A casual internet search will net you more than you can comfortably peruse, and I couldn’t decide on which ones to link, so I’ll leave a further investigation (if any) up to you.

Vote carefully, my American neighbours.

the-blue-girl-charles-de-lint-2004The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint ~ 2004. This edition: Firebird, 2006. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-240545-0. 368 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This was supposed to be my “Hallowe’en theme” book post, but I kept putting it off, and by golly it’s now November 3rd so I’d better get it over and done with.

I almost put it away without mention, because it’s a minor blip on my reading radar screen, but then I remembered that Charles de Lint is Canadian, and I did promise over at John Mutford’s 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge to review all the Canadian books I read from July 2016 to June 2017, and so far I have done this for all of one book since July. (Can that be possible? Did I miss some somehow, or am I reading strictly non-Canadian stuff lately? Hmm.)

The Blue Girl is the very first Charles de Lint fantasy I’ve been able to stick with to the end, and I rather wonder why that is. The man can write, no question about that, and sometimes even shows some flare. So perhaps it’s the genre, fantasy being so easy to go wrong with, all overdone and improbable as it so often turns out to be.

This novel is “Young Adult” all the way, and maybe that’s why I found it a relative breeze to get through, because de Lint herein shows a much lighter, surer hand with his storytelling than in his more “serious” adult-oriented fantasies, which I found put me off with their strangely plodding plots and frequent over telling.

The Blue Girl trusts the reader more, and I liked that. Of course, when one considers that Charles de Lint has written something like 70 books (!) in his career so far (his first book was published in 1984, and he’s still going strong), one expects a certain competence of craft.

Summary, from the catalogue data section on the copyright page:

New at her high school, Imogene enlists the help of her introverted friend Maxine and the ghost of a boy who haunts the school after receiving warnings through her dreams that soul-eaters are threatening her life.

Yawn, right? I mean, soul-eaters. Give us a break!

Good thing I never read the précis until after I finished the book, because I don’t think I would have started it with that sort of pre-warning.

But start it I did, and it hooked me, and I made it to the end cheering on the heroine and her sidekicks, with only one bitter moment of “Aargh! What is the author doing?!” reader’s rage when he utterly undersells the climactic confrontation-between-heroine-and-soul-eaters scene. He got me back with what turned out to be a rather charming ending, but that cop-out still rankles a bit, and will, I suspect, remain the strongest memory of this not particularly original book. Which maybe argues that de Lint is rather clever after all.

Maybe.

17-year-old Imogene, raised on a hippy commune, then experiencing life as a loner-outcast at her old highschool and by compensation getting all involved with a gang, has moved to a new city with her mom and older brother. A new school means a new life, and a chance for reinvention, and Imogene has the best of intentions.

Too bad that she runs afoul of her new school’s Mean Girl and Top Jock couple the very first day, compounding her getting-it-wrongness by befriending geeky Maxine, the previous Chief Outcast. So now there are two losers at the bottom of the pecking order. Oh my, what will happen next? (No, that’s not a real question.)

Quite a lot, in fact, much of which has little to do with the ongoing teenage highschool power struggle, because all of a sudden Imogene has a crop of newer, bigger, much more supernatural problems. Her dreams are getting really real, and center on the nightly emergence from her bedroom closet of a manifestation of her childhood imaginary friend, Pelly, accompanied by a ragged band (literally) of “patchwork creatures made out of words and rags and twigs, of bits of wool and fur, skin and bone…”

Then there’s tragically, eternally adolescent Ghost, haunting the halls of the high school since his deadly fall from the school roof some years ago, who develops a crush on Imogene, which sets her up for even more attention from the Things residing on The Other Side.

I won’t go in to explanations of all the trope-ridden happenings of the book, for de Lint doesn’t break much new ground here. My co-reader whom I pressed the book upon for a second opinion, a keen and happily cynical connoisseur of teen-market fantasy, was gleeful in confirming all of the stereotypes and clichés marching around in predictable lock-step, acting just as they were supposed to.

Ah, the light blinks on! It’s all about comfort reading, isn’t it? No rules are so strong as those that govern our fictional safe zones.

What else do I want to say?

The writing is smooth, the characters either offbeat and likeable, satisfyingly hateable, or shudderingly creepy. (There were bits when I had to have the lights on. Things in Closets. Brrr!) The story amuses, and the key characters don’t take themselves too seriously, despite their ongoing dual battle with Real World school bullies and Other World bad things. There’s a lot of witty humour in here; occasionally I laughed out loud, which is rare for me, and a mark of high enjoyment indeed.

The girl in question does indeed at one point turn blue. Which isn’t as funny as the writer seems to think it is, which lost him a full point.

A point was also lost by the non-epic dissolution of the Epic Battle Scene. And another point gone for the introduction of a Random Internet Mentor who hands out pertinent evil-fighting advice in the nick of time. One more gone because of unbelievability of the melding of Real and Other worlds – the author at some point left off trying to make it plausible, he abandoned the attempt with a “Here it is, don’t look at it too hard, just step inside.”

What does that leave us with?

6/10.

Well on the okay side of the personal rating scale, so I’m good with that.

What else?

Oh yes. If you are a parent considering this for your young reader, there are some intense-ish scenes, including a fairly graphic depiction of how Ghost got to be dead. Also a comfortably relaxed attitude towards sex, which certain of the key characters are happily enjoying with their significant others, though that action’s all off-stage.

There’s a lot worse out there, for this kind of thing.

Decent job, Charles de Lint, despite my continual panning of your plotting technique. I may try some of your stuff again someday. Maybe another of the YA targeted books versus a grownup one. The Blue Girl left me smiling.