Archive for May, 2012

Mooltiki and Other Stories and Poems of India by Rumer Godden ~ 1957.    This edition: Macmillan & Co., 1957. Hardcover. 136 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Rather uneven collection of fair to excellent stories and mostly merely fair poems.

A slender volume of poems and short stories set in India.


  • Bengal River a poem
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls.
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Man

Sister Malone is a nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta; she is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Oyster

Gopal, a Bhramini Hindu student who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.


  • The Goat PeoplePastoral Poems

Nine poems inspired by the nomadic peoples of the Himalayas of Northern India.

The tribes pass all through the spring, pitching their camp at night and lighting their fires under a boulder, a fir tree, or by an ice stream; moving on again at dawn, driving with a peculiar trembling whistle that is their own, something between a hawk’s cry and a flute, harsh, sweet and wild…

… I have tried to make these poems like the people, rough and rhythmical … without symbolism or image, simple and pastoral.

The Meadow

The Caravan

Flowers for the Animals 

The Elders

The Goat Women

The Animals

The Goat Children

The Goat Baby

Moving Downwards

  • Red Doe

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram

An orphan boy, Jassoof,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.


  • The Wild Duck

Another vignette piece, about a young Kashmiri hunter, Khaliq, who, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high  mountains hunting ibex.

  • Two Sonnets

Just that; two sonnets. A regretful ode to winter; a joyful ode to spring.

Kashmiri Winter

Spring Sonnet


  • Mooltiki

This first-person short story (24 pages)  is the jewel of this slight collection. Rumer Godden tells of her experiences in her sister and brother-in-law’s winter camp on the borders of Bhutan. Mooltiki, a small, opinionated elephant, is the “maid-of-all-work” of the camp, fetching firewood and providing transport for odd jobs, such as Rumer Godden’s small jungle explorations. Godden writes an amusing and appreciative ode to Mooltiki and her elephant kin, as well as an extremely evocative description of what if feels like to be involved as an observor in several “blinds” for problem tiger kills.


Mooltiki is an interesting though quite slight collection of fictional short stories (except for the autobiographical title piece, decidedly the best part of the collection) and personal poems; after reading it through several times I must confess that my conclusion is that Godden was a much stronger writer of prose than of poetry!

Nicely done overall, with Godden’s trademark of strong, eloquent characterizations and descriptions of place. Definitely a work any Rumer Godden collector will want to have on the shelf; probably worth a purchase for Mooltiki alone, if it can be found for a reasonable sum.

The biggest fault is the shortness of the book; about an hour`s worth of reading, even if taking one`s time and savouring the beautifully nuanced style of most of the pieces. I thought the poems were the weakest point; some of the stories were excellent (Mooltiki, Red Doe, The Little Black Ram, and possibly Possession, stood out for me), while the others are merely good.

Recommended, with those reservations.

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Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park ~ 1980. This edition: Puffin (Penguin Australia), 1998. Softcover. 196 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This well-written coming-of-age, historical fiction juvenile novel by New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park is deserving of all the awards and rave reviews it has garnered through the years.

14-year-old Abigail – Abbie – Kirk is still deeply wounded by the separation of her parents four years earlier. In her anger at her beloved father for his desertion, she has changed her name from his chosen Lynette to “an old name, a witch’s name” – Abigail.

Anger seethes within Abbie, though she is learning to hide it. She is

…a girl who wished to be private.

Outside, she was composed, independent, not very much liked. The girls at school said she was a weirdie, and there was no doubt she was an outsider. She looked like a stick in jeans and a tank top; so she would not wear them. If everyone else was wearing her hair over her face, Abigail scraped hers back. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and when asked why she either looked enigmatic as though she knew twenty times more about boys than anyone else, or said she’s never met one who was half-way as interesting as her maths textbook. The girls said she was unreal, and she shrugged coolly. The unreal thing was that she didn’t care in the least what they thought of her. She felt a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.

Her chief concern was that no one, not even her mother, should know what she was like inside. Because maybe to adults the turmoil of uncertainties, extravagant glooms, and sudden blisses, might present some sort of pattern or map, so they could say, ‘Ah, so that’s the real Abigail, is it?’

The thought of such trespass made her stomach turn over. So she cultivated an expressionless face, a long piercing glance under her eyelashes that Grandmother called slippery. She carefully laid false trails until she herself sometimes could not find the way into her secret heart. Yet the older she grew the more she longed for someone to laugh at the false trails with, to share the secrets.

What secrets? She didn’t yet know what they were herself.

So Abbie gets on with her everyday life, going to school, helping her mother in her vintage clothing and memorabilia shop, ‘Magpies’, and occasionally babysitting her neighbour’s younger children.

It is while accompanying one of those children to the playground that Abbie first notices a solitary, crop-haired, strangely dressed child lingering in the shadow of a wall, wistfully watching the others at play. Abbie approaches her, but she cries out and runs away. Abbie is intrigued. Who is the child, and why do none of the others, except for her small charge Natalie, seem to see her?

The next time Abbie sees the girl, she again approaches her, but this time as the child flees Abbie follows close behind. Through a the twisting maze of  The Rocks, Sydney’s historical district, they go, until Abbie realizes that she is completely lost – the atmosphere has somehow changed – evening is coming on – and streets are now lit with gas lights, and down a side-street comes a horse-drawn cab. Terrified now, Abbie continues her flight, following glimpses of the only familiar thing she still recognizes, the fluttering fringes of the mysterious child’s shawl.

Of course, by this time, we have realized that somehow Abbie has crossed through a mysterious portal into a previous time and place, the squalid slums district of 1873 Sydney. Rescued and cared for by the little girl’s family, Abbie goes through a transformation of her own, until at last returning to her own time changed, chastened, older (at least in experience) and wiser.

A highly enjoyable, on the whole well-thought-out time-travel tale; the weakest points are the actual time travel sequences – but these are notoriously hard to write, being, of course, purely imaginative with no real-world references to guide the writer. There are elements of  the supernatural – quite a lot of the plot revolves around the passing on of the powers of something like a ‘second sight’ among a family – and there is a certain amount of realistic romance. The ending is possibly a bit too pat, but in general is well-balanced and satisfying, as it ties up all loose ends but leaves the future optimistically open.

I would recommend this for older children, perhaps 12 and up, to adult. The quality of the writing is very high; the story itself is interesting and creatively presented. An intriguing glimpse into contemporary and historical urban Australia (set, as mentioned earlier, in Sydney, New South Wales), as well as a highly sympathetic protagonist.

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A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden ~ 1987. This edition: Beech Tree Books (William Morrow), 1987. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-688-07421-9. 243 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A must-read for anyone with an acquaintance with  Rumer Godden’s body of work, and a fascinating stand-alone autobiography that will send the reader unfamiliar with her titles on a search to find out more. The first half of her two-volume autobiography, it covers the years 1907 to 1946; Rumer’s childhood in India and her various travels up until her ultimate return to England in 1946.

There is so much packed into this book, as there was in Godden’s life, that I will not attempt to give a detailed overview, merely a blanket recommendation – very good reading.

Rumer Godden was a complex personality; her novels and stories are often drawn directly from her own life and experiences. She could not have been an easy woman to be around, being one of the “driven” writers; she fully acknowledges this in this memoir; in many ways it feels somewhat like an apology to her family and her friends.

The latter part of the book, concerning Godden’s time living at Dove House in the Kashmir hills, was the basis for the novel Kingfishers Catch Fire. The reality was even more intense than the fictional account that it inspired; Godden delves deep into her motivation for that socially astounding retreat from the “proper” Anglo-Indian community, and she comments as well on the effects of that self-imposed isolation on her two young children. Jane and Paula were at that time, I believe, seven and five years old, and it would be fascinating to hear their own childhood memories of their wandering life with their mother. I am wondering if either of them has written about their lives in their turn. Vaguely I am thinking that there is a daughter’s memories of Rumer Godden out there somewhere.

This memoir reads like a novel, only it is so much better than anything fictional Godden wrote, because it is a personal examination of experiences, thoughts and emotions based on the writer’s “truth” (always stranger and richer than fiction), and it therefore shines a radiant light on both the personal life of this extremely talented and passionate writer, as well as showing the framework of her subsequent stories. Keep in mind that this is one person’s version of events, as Godden herself comments in the dedication:

For Jane and Paula.

This book is my life as a young writer; to me and my kind life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories – that is the way it falls. I have told the truth and nothing but the truth, yet not the whole truth, because that would be impossible.

Most highly recommended.

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The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp ~ 1933. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1952. Hardcover. 345 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Margery Sharp’s fourth novel, The Flowering Thorn,  first appeared in England in 1933, with an American edition appearing in 1934, but it attracted little attention in North America until almost twenty years later. The later novels Cluny Brown (made into a 1946 movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer) and The Nutmeg Tree (used as the inspiration for the popular 1948 movie Julia Misbehaves starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Nigel Bruce and a young Elizabeth Taylor) brought Margery Sharp  to the attention of the North American public, who happily bought her books and asked for more.

The reason I mention this is that there are two sets of “first editions” of The Flowering Thorn out there. The first “first” would be the original British 1933 edition published by Arthur Barker, Ltd. Putnam’s American edition followed in 1934. Then in 1952 appears another “first”, so stated in the book, with a stated copyright date of 1934, published by Little, Brown and Co. The dustjacket and front flyleaf of the 1952 Little, Brown edition refers to a number of the Sharp titles published after 1932, and up to 1951 – The Nutmeg Tree, The Stone of Chastity, Cluny Brown, Britannia Mews, The Foolish Gentlewoman, and Lise Lillywhite – giving the game away – but it can be confusing. There were several paperback editions as well. This title is fairly scarce; if you can find a decent-condition hardcover of any edition under $30, grab it. A 1933 true first in good condition will set you back $100 +, going by the May 2012 AbeBooks listings.

(Vintage book collector’s digression now over!)

I would like to call this a gentle, slow-moving examination of a woman’s progress towards true fulfillment and happiness, but Margery Sharp’s always analytical and occasionally tart tone, as well as protagonist Lesley Frewen’s no-nonsense attitude, make “gentle” a somewhat inadequate description.

Lesley is a twenty-nine year old socialite living in London in 1929. Her life is perfectly organized; she lives well, and just within her income, in a high-end, most desirable flat; her interests are the theatre, modern art, literature and music; she moves among the Bright Young Things of the day with aplomb and style. What Lesley suddenly realizes she is missing, after a tactful brush-off by a man she highly admires and has delicately offered herself to, is love.

…there slipped into her mind, already bodied in words, a strange and dreadful notion. She thought,
‘Perhaps I am not a woman that men do love.’
She thought,
‘There are women like that. Attractive women…. And if that is so, and if…that is what I have been waiting for, what am I to do now?’
The intricate daily patchwork was still there to work at, the innumerable dovetailing fragments still lay ready to hand: but it now seemed to her, and for the first time, that her work had no pattern.
‘I want something new,’ said Lesley aloud.

And it is in this frame of mind, struggling with her sudden inner turmoil, that Lesley goes to tea with her elderly aunt, who is embroiled of a turmoil of her own: her recently hired companion, a young, widowed Scotswoman, has suddenly died, leaving behind a four-year-old child. There are no relations in sight, and the orphanage looms.

Lesley, who has been watching young Patrick playing on the floor as the conversation regarding his future goes on above his head, is impressed and intrigued by the child’s tenacious attitude and sober demeanour. On a whim, she offers to take him on herself, much to her aunt’s consternation. Lesley immediately regrets her rash offer, but before she can backtrack the child catches her eye; to renounce him would be a betrayal, she suddenly feels. The immediate and very vocal opposition to her proposal by the elderly women present has the contradictory effect of  stiffening Lesley’s resolve, and the wheels are set in motion.

Lesley suddenly finds herself in the position of having to leave her flat (no children allowed) and to take on extra expenses in regards to Patrick’s care. Her careful budget is in tatters, and she decides, on another not particularly well thought out whim, to move into a cottage in a country village in order to live more cheaply. After all, it is only going to be for four years, until Patrick is old enough to send to boarding school, and then Lesley can slide back into her well-organized town life. Her social butterfly friends will surely understand…

Lesley’s new life is not what she had anticipated, but she takes it well in stride, attempting at first to keep up her strict London standards, but, ever-so-slowly, a new Lesley is born, a much more human and ultimately more lovable one.

Something I deeply appreciated about this story was Sharp’s total avoidance of sentiment regarding the relationship between Lesley and Patrick. Lesley is, almost immediately, deeply resentful of Patrick’s demands – both the physical demands of a small child, and the moral demands his presence in her life place upon her stern conscience. Confronted by a friend pushing the option of backing out of the situation, Lesley examines her innermost soul and comes to a surprising conclusion:

She thought, ‘If I don’t see this thing out I shall have something rotten inside me for the rest of my life.’ Rotten like an apple – the brown decaying core under the firm red skin…

Nevertheless, she does not initially feel any sort of affection for the child; to the contrary

…she looked at him with an intensity of dislike so nearly bordering on hatred that her own features, could she have seen them at that moment, would have seemed completely strange to her.  And even without seeing, it was as though she guessed: for in all their enforced companionship she never once spoke to him without consciously masking her face. It was a hatred to be ashamed of, ignoble and unjust: but she did not love him the more for making her ashamed.

The development of a much more positive relationship between the two is the thread that winds through the story, though Lesley in no way concentrates solely on the nurturing of Patrick; she is even more so concerned with working through her own emotional and intellectual growth as her self-imposed exile from her previous world gradually brings her an awareness of the unexpectedly rich and satisfying reward of relationships based on mutual affection and respect versus social expediency.

A thought provoking, often humorous, rather surprising story. Highly recommended.

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Rest and Be Thankful by Helen MacInnes ~ 1949. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1949. Hardcover. 368 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Every so often I find myself re-reading, with great enjoyment, this pleasant, humorous and thoughtful romantic novel by an author better known for her suspense and spy-versus-spy World War II and Cold War-era thrillers.

After almost twenty years living as expatriates in the literary and artistic circles of Europe, Margaret Peel and Sarah Bly are reacquainting themselves with their native America by taking a cross-country road trip in their 1933 Bugatti (purchased new in Rome in those faraway, idyllic times) with their Hungarian chauffeur Jackson. Living in France at the outbreak of the war, Margaret and Sarah had turned their abundant energy from sponsoring and promoting struggling poets to using their private printing press to create clandestine Free French materials, until their betrayal to the German occupying forces in 1941 forced their precipitous flight to eventual haven in England.

The war is over, Margaret and Sarah are back in the U.S.A. and are feeling rather untethered. They are hoping the road trip will give them time to think and refocus and decide on their next project. Heading for California, straying off the highway via a shortcut gone wrong, the trio find themselves lost in the Wyoming mountains with evening coming on. They encounter a group of cowboys, led by ex-soldier Jim Brent, and end up spending the night at his remote ranch house, “Rest and be Thankful”, nestled among tall cottonwoods on the banks of twisting Crazy Creek.

Immediately smitten by their beautiful surroundings, which they favourably compare to the Dolomites and the Alps, Margaret and Sarah concoct a scheme to set up a literary retreat at the ranch, to nurture and encourage struggling authors.

Margaret was a best-selling author before the war, though her most financially successful work, a “non-literary” romance, was written under a secret pseudonym, and she thinks her capital will be sufficient to support the scheme. Sarah, soon finding herself  renamed”Sally” as the simpler charms of Wyoming country life work their magic, has some funds left from her pre-War travel and cookbook sales. With this new project in hand, Margaret and Sally spread the word amongst the New York literary community, and the writers’ retreat is soon underway with “six authors in search of a character”.

And a disparate and difficult lot they prove themselves to be! Helen MacInnes has written a tongue-in-cheek expose, sometimes straying into parody, of stock New York literary characters of the 1940s, and their varied reactions to the “simple locals” of rural Wyoming. Those locals are handled with a much gentler tone; MacInnes obviously had some experience with and a deep fondness and respect for the ranching community of the area she writes about in this novel; though sometimes stereotyped and parodied she presents them in an overall very admirable light. (The book is dedicated “To Gilbert and Keith, my favorite cowboys”, so I suspect a back story is involved in the setting of this tallish tale.)

I also have a strong feeling that Helen MacInnes had a most enjoyable time writing this book. She has some cutting comments to make about various characters in the “high literary” world, which I suspect were based on people MacInnes personally knew. There is much discussion about the dangers of Communism; the Cold War is looming and MacInnes is keenly and vocally aware of the European and American political situation; themes she elaborates on in her later spy thrillers are very evident here.

But ultimately, for all the trimmings, this is a simple romance – or, more accurately, two or three – a love story lies at the heart of this appealing novel.

Flaws? Oh, yes – many! Very much a period piece, and should be read with this in mind. Stereotypical characters and situations abound, but these are balanced, in most cases, by the author’s open acknowledgment that she is writing something of a satire, and she generally allows her most outrageous characters and comments the grace of an explanation as to why they appear as they do.

Final verdict: an enjoyable vintage novel, of interest to fans of MacInnes’ thrillers and to those seeking an intelligently written comfort read.

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Not Now But Now by M.F.K. Fisher1947. This edition: North Point Press, 1982. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86547-072-3. 256 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve been thinking hard all day how best to go about writing a description of this very unusual novel by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, otherwise best known for her creative autobiographical writings on food, travel, places and people.

Do any of these ring a bell?

  • Serve It Forth (1937)
  • Consider the Oyster (1941)
  • How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
  • The Art of Eating (1954)

Yes, that M.F.K. Fisher. Already very familar with  and an enthusiastic reader of Fisher’s food and travel memoirs, I was quite thrilled to come across this “only novel” (as the front fly leaf informed me) of hers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew it should be good; Fisher’s words dance off the page with sheer exuberance and joy for the good things in life, as well as wry humour for the darker days.

Well this was a departure! Here is the Kirkus review, from August, 1947:

The tale of the wandering wanton, whose character contains no glimmer of human decency, whose driving force through successive incarnations is the lure of sex, whether used as bait to wreck the lives of a Swiss household, or to disrupt a happy below stairs kingdom, or to inject suspicion of lesbianism into a normal girl’s adolescence, or to out-tart the tarts of the Gold Coast- Jennie sweeps her callous way.  An odd tale, told on four levels of time, 1928, 1847, 1927, 1882, – England and Europe and America – virtually four novellas woven together by the insidious Jennie, harlot supreme, whose spirit continues to attempt to escape and find freedom. M.F.K. Fisher has a unique gift, if one that is sybaritic, ultra-sophisticated, and for that market.

No denying that this novel is well-written and creative, and definitely “sophisticated”, as the review points us. But I have almost put this novel in the giveaway box several times, which fate is generally reserved for only the most dire of my used bookstore gleanings; most find a home on the double-deep shelves; very few books leave the ever-expanding collection. I think that the fact that I’ve already read it twice argues for its remaining here, but I still view it with mixed feelings.

I found the format initially quite confusing. Expecting a traditional narrative flow, the reapparance of the main character, Jennie, in the second of the four narrative sections, had me completely confused, as we jumped from 1928 to 1847 in time, while Jennie herself stays more or less the same. I had one of those surreal disconnect moments where I leafed back through the first section trying to see what clues I’d missed as to what the heck was going on.

Of course, if I’d read M.F.K. Fisher’s 1982 afterword first, it would have made much more sense. She says:

To my mind it is really not a novel at all… (I)t is a string of short stories, tied together more or less artfully by a time-trick. The female Jennie appears everywhere, often with heedless cruelty or deliberate destruction to her docile associates, and then slips away in her little snakeskin shoes…

I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this book. It is strange and more than a little confusing, and Jennie is a most unpleasant protagonist. I appreciate that Fisher was experimenting with a different literary style here, and I found this departure somewhat intriguing, but I much prefer her more prosaic works to this more than slightly twisted flight of fancy.

But – hey! – maybe others will embrace the Not Now But Now experience more enthusiastically than I did. Though the novel was not at all a commercial success, the reviewers of 1947 praised its literary creativity and style. Perhaps I’m just not ultra-sophisticated enough to completely “get it”?

Side note – I love the use of the Turner painting, Rain, Steam and Speed, for the slipcover of the 1982 reprint. Initially I found the disparity between the cover and the subject matter a bit odd, but once I’d time-slipped with Jennie a few times it suddenly felt most appropriate!

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The Girl on the Beach by Velda Johnston ~ 1987. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-396-09190-3. 189 pages.

My rating: 4/10

A few days ago I reviewed an earlier Velda Johnston book, A Room with Dark Mirrors (1975), which I had mildly enjoyed, enough so that I did a library search for more of Johnston’s titles on the odd chance that I’d find a few. There were two books listed, the one I’m looking at right now – 1987’s The Girl on the Beach – and a 1968 title, House Above Hollywood, which I was unable to locate on the shelf.

I hate to pan any book, because I realize that literary tastes differ wildly and something I find marvelous the next person might shudder at, but, sadly, this second Velda Johnston was deeply disappointing. Formulaic, poorly worded, with nothing like the narrative flow of Dark Mirrors. Dark Mirrors was hardly high literature, but it was an easy, pleasant read. Girl on the Beach was painful to finish. I kept waiting for it to get better, but it quite simply didn’t.

New York advertising artist Kate Killigrew comes to an ocean-side house on a North Carolina island to recover from a car accident and the break-up of her engagement. Her first night there, she wakes in the wee hours and sees a beautiful young woman wandering on the beach and staring at the house; Kate finds this a bit unusual but shrugs it off. The next day a good-looking and obviously troubled young man shows up; he too stares at the house in a strange manner before he realizes Kate has seen him and comes to the door with the explanation that he once lived there.

Turns out that the young woman of the night before is the sister of the murdered wife of the man. The murder took place twelve years earlier, in that very beach house; the man, Martin Donnerly, had been convicted of the crime, and has just finished his prison sentence and returned to the island; the sister has been mentally unbalanced since birth and wanders at will, hence her rambles after midnight.

Of course Kate and Martin fall in love. Due to some inner intuition (wishful thinking?!)Kate insists that Martin could not have murdered Donna Sue (the dead wife); she is sure that Donna Sue’s twin Darleen Mae holds the key to the mystery. Oh yes, there’s a twelve-year-old armoured car robbery mystery intertwined as well, with $50,ooo in missing money floating around somewhere. Might there be a connection? Maybe. Or maybe not. A few red herrings listlessly flop about muddling the plot line.

Various locals with various issues have an abiding interest in the matter; Kate runs afoul of almost all of them, before the “dramatic” conclusion of a violent altercation with the most unexpected of the locals and his predictable “dying breath” confession.

This book is so badly worked out that it seems almost like a parody of the romantic-suspense novel genre. Velda must have been having a bad case of writer’s block when she penned this car wreck. I’ll somewhat forgive her, as I just did the math and realized she was seventy-five when this was published; she might merely have been getting tired of turning these “suspense novels” out at the rate of one (or more) a year since the 1960s, and  rattled this one off in a hurry.

I may give Velda Johnston one more chance, if I can easily get my hands on House Above Hollywood on my next library run, otherwise she’s probably going to be crossed off my list of possibles to search out to add to my mom’s reading list. I wouldn’t cross the street for this one, though the earlier novel showed some promise.

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Grumbles from the Grave by Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Virginia Heinlein ~ 1989. This edition: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1989. Hardcover. 281 pages.

My rating: 7/10. What was there was fascinating; what was left out perhaps even more so.

A very brief, rather incomplete biographical introduction by Robert A. Heinlein’s third (and longest-serving) wife Virginia, followed by a collection of excerpts from letters mostly by Heinlein (with some replies); and mostly to his long-time literary agent and representative, Lurton Blassingame. This book was published after Heinlein’s death, by his specific request, apt title previously supplied. Heinlein was very aware of his own mortality and was well prepared for his own demise; he suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis in his twenties, and various related and other serious ailments dogged him for the rest of his life. (Heinlein was born in 1907, and died at the age of eighty-one in 1988 – a longer life than might have been expected, considering the severity of some of his medical episodes.)

This is decidedly a book of most interest to those already very familiar with Heinlein’s body of work. Coming to it cold, expecting to find a conventional autobiography, one would be disappointed. While some effort is made to provide references and brief descriptions of the books under discussion, the assumption seems to be that the reader is already a serious Heinlein fan.

I do not think I qualify as a truly serious fan, though I’ve read most – perhaps all? – of Heinlein’s full-length works, plus several short story collections, and have greatly enjoyed all of some of them, and some of all of them. A few, such as Door Into Summer and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are nostalgic favourites and frequent re-reads; I first encountered Heinlein in my high school library and found his works marvelous “escape lit” during a dark, angst-filled period of my teenage life. This said, there are things that make me a bit uneasy in every one of his stories, in particular the later “adult” novels which have a certain patronizing (not quite sure if that is the right term, perhaps “appreciatively leering” is more apt?) view of women out of context with the era of the time of writing.  There are random passages in Heinlein’s books, usually in relation to some of the female characters, which make me suddenly cringe in distaste, all of the author’s commentary about his views of “true equality” taken into consideration.

Heinlein makes no apology for his personal views, which I can best describe as far right-wing with sudden dashes of liberalism when least expected. When he starts to politically pontificate in his books, my eyes glaze over and I scan ahead until we get back to the story at hand; Heinlein himself offers something of an apology for letting himself go on occasion, but his self-awareness of this tendency didn’t stop him from doing it time after time.

It was quite interesting to discover something of the background of some of the best-known novels which I am very familiar with , as well as some of the more obscure juveniles and the vast amount of short stories published early in Heinlein’s career in the sci-fi “pulps” under an array of pseudonyms: Lyle Monroe, Anson MacDonald, Caleb Saunders, and John Riverside. Apparently there was a different rate scale for each of these pseudonyms as well – while “Heinlein” and “MacDonald” might receive a top rate, in 1941, of a cent and a half per word, “stinkaroos” written by “Monroe” were peddled at a lower rate. From a letter to sci-fi magazine Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. in 1941:

…I have a phony name [Lyle Monroe] and a phony address, fully divorced from the RAH persona, under which and from which I am trying to peddle the three remaining stinkaroos which are left over from my earliest writing. For such purposes I prefer editors whom I do not like. It would tickle me to sell off the shoddy in that fashion. I don’t think it is dishonest – they examine what they buy and get what they pay for – but I’m damned if I’ll let my own name appear even on one of their checks.

The editorial voice of Robert’s third wife Virginia, his proofreader, assistant and sometimes-typist as well as his business and financial manager in later years, is apparent throughout. The excerpts that appear are much of a muchness; I have to wonder what was left out of this compilation? Heinlein talks of personally answering all of his fan mail in the earlier years; I would love to see a sampling of some of those early letters, before his sheer popularity made the flow of mail so great that he resorted to one-line, postcard answers.

I generally enjoyed this biography of sorts. It was a glimpse at the back story to the writing some of the novels, and a small window into the life of this passionate, opinionated and very talented writer.

This is a good addition to a shelf of Heinlein’s fiction; I will be keeping it there myself, to one day pass along to my son along with the rest of my collection of vintage sci-fi/fantasy which he has enjoyed dipping into in his own teen reading years.

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Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life by David Coombes ~ 1992.  This edition: Lion Publishing, 1992. Hardcover. 242 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Occasionally a bit hard going; the writing is workmanlike versus enthralling. The best biographies, in my opinion, are both.


A balanced and thoughtful biography. I especially enjoyed the many lengthy excerpts from Sayers’ letters and writings.

I  am a huge fan of Dorothy L. Sayers’ mysteries, which has made me continually eager to learn more about the author. My only regret with this book is that the Wimsey years are very much condensed into one small section, but, as the David Coombes emphasizes, this would be in line with how Sayers’ life was concerned with them, one short period with a long and productive literary period of various stage and religious projects after the mysteries made Sayers much more financially secure.

I would highly recommend this biography to those interested in Dorothy L. Sayers’ fascinating and ultimately tragic background; she was in many ways a woman who “had everything except what she most desired”, to paraphrase one of her own descriptions of Lord Peter.

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A Room with Dark Mirrors by Velda Johnston ~ 1975. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Hardcover. 184 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.


I’m always on the lookout for light reading for my elderly, housebound mother; books are one of her last remaining pleasures after a very full and creative life now curtailed by painful and crippling severe osteoporosis and arthritis.

Always a voracious reader, she prefers well-written, intelligent, but not necessarily “deep” books; she readily acknowledges many of her stand-bys to be leaning towards “fluff”, but she does prefer them to be high-quality and mentally engaging fluff. With this recent thrift-store pick-up, I may have tapped into a new “Mom’s author” to keep an eye out for in my rambles.

Velda Johnston (1911-1997) was a prolific American writer of romantic-suspense and light-gothic novels. Doing a bit of internet research on her background, I find her listed as the author of 36 novels dating from 1968 to 1991. If this is correct, Velda Johnston’s published writing career spanned from her fifty-seventh to her eightieth year, leaving me a little curious about her full history and her earlier life.

I was able to find only a few random comments on several of Johnston’s other titles, but the general tone is that they are well-written and surprisingly literary and intelligent for the genre. My experience with Dark Mirrors would bear this out.

The story flowed beautifully and was much more engaging than I had expected from my initial page-through, though the plot was rather predictable, despite Dark Mirrors’ prominent billing as a “novel of suspense.”

Dorothy Lang is a recently divorced stewardess who keeps running into her regretful and apologetic ex-husband Eric on her flights. He hopes to reunite, though Dorothy has a very legitimate reason to refuse his continual offers of reconciliation. This trip, they find themselves bound for the same area of Paris, where Eric has been posted on an engineering contract, and Dorothy has her stopover accommodation. Hurrying down a street, trying to avoid her ex-husband whom she rather suspects is following her, Dorothy is accosted by a strange man with a gun who orders her into a waiting car. Eric appears in the nick of time to act as white knight, and our story is well away.

Does this sound rather trite and possibly a bit boring? Well, it is and it isn’t. Dorothy is a sweetly complex character for this type of thriller-lite; the very 1970s plot requires a certain suspension of disbelief; but I found myself a willing partner in Dorothy’s adventures. The ending left me wryly smiling, with a bit of a “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” feeling, but, on the whole, I’d cheerfully read another of Velda Johnston’s books if it appeared in my reading stack and I was too tired to engage in something more intellectually challenging.

Perfect fare for summer reading for my mom, and anyone else looking for a mild trip down a recent(ish) memory lane; the 1970s setting and the evocation of the “glamorous” life of a an airline stewardess will stir nostalgia to any of us who remember that decade well, and possibly provide a bit of a chuckle for a younger generation. Our heroine Dorothy has enough deprecatory self-awareness and natural wit to be an enjoyable companion for the few hours it takes to get her sorted out and back on track after her Parisian adventure.

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