Archive for August, 2012

Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston ~ 1995. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4286-8. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Enjoyable start to finish. Canadian by birth, the far-travelling Houston (1921-2005) was a great writer and storyteller, as well as an accomplished artist.


Around here, I can tell if a book is really good because it often will disappear before I finish it. The usual culprits are my husband and my 18-year-old son. If it’s my son, no worries – he’s a speedy reader and I usually get it back in a day or two, but my husband has less free (meaning reading) time and he also tends to read a little more slowly, plus he also has a tendency to “hide” his current read (so he can find it again – he says we “move things” on him) – so, if he has the book, kiss it goodbye until he’s done.

I’ve been bugging him to let me have this one back for a few weeks now, as I wasn’t quite finished when he snuck it away from my reading pile.  He’s been working his way through it steadfastly, occasionally calling me to come and listen, and reading bits out loud. Something about this memoir really appealed to him, which is understandable, because it’s quite fascinating and very well written.

In 1948, 27-year-old James Houston managed to hitch a ride on a plane going on an urgent medical call from Moose Factory, Ontario to Canso Bay in northern Quebec. An experienced and talented artist, Houston had a keen interest in native peoples, and was in Moose Factory sketching and painting the local Indians. He had long wanted to travel further north into the Arctic, and he seized the chance when it came, staying behind in Canso Bay when the plane left to return to Montreal with the badly injured Inuit child it had come to evacuate.

This was the start of Houston’s fourteen or so years of Inuit artistic involvement. He had a keen eye for indigenous crafts, and was instrumental in the popularization of Inuit carvings for the southern markets, as well as introducing Japanese-style print-making to the Inuit, which was readily adopted as a new mode of expression for Inuit artistic vision.

Confessions of an Igloo Dweller is roughly chronological, and consists of personal anecdotes interspersed with vignettes from high Arctic life, and stories told to him during his travels.

Houston also wrote quite a number of novels for children as well as adults, most set in the Arctic or the far northern Canadian forests. Confessions reads like a novel, flowing seamlessly along from high point to high point. Houston was opinionated and extremely sure of himself; these qualities come through loud and clear, making for an especially strong narrative voice. The book is saved from shameless self-promotion by Houston’s ability to tell a humbling story on himself, and by his keen sense of humour.

We all liked it. Highly recommended.

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Boss of the Namko Drive by Paul St. Pierre ~ 1965. This edition: Ryerson Press, circa 1970. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7700-3024-6. 117 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Paul St. Pierre perfectly captures the atmosphere and people of Interior British Columbia’s “Cariboo Country” Chilcotin Plateau. He’s dramatized things to make “good fiction”, but not so much as you would think. I live here. I know people – heck, I’m related to people (by marriage, that is – my husband’s family is venerable Cariboo-Chilcotin pioneer, 1860’s gold rush era) – who could have stepped into or out of this story.

My husband says he remembers reading this as an English class novel in the early 1970s, and I also remember a class set in one of my Williams Lake schoolrooms, though I never personally “studied” it. Reading this novel for the first time as an adult was a real treat, for I had read so much regional literature by then – stellar and otherwise –  about our personal stretch of country that I realized how good this fictional vignette really is; if not a sparkling gemstone, then at least a nicely polished, glowing golden agate from the banks of the Fraser River.

The story moves right along; a quick little read for teens and adults. Highly recommended.


Author’s Note:

Young people for whom this story is written should not try to find Namko on the map of British Columbia. It is fictional. So are the characters in this book.

There is such a region, however. It is the westernmost extent of Canada’s cattle country, lying between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains. The story is my attempt to tell the truth about life on these remote ranches. If it does not, the fault is mine.

15-year-old Delore Bernard starts out as the lowest hand on the 200-mile cattle drive led by his father Frenchie from the high Chilcotin to the stockyards in Williams Lake. Soon into the trip, before they’ve cleared the home ranch meadows, Frenchie breaks his leg as his horse bucks him off and falls on him. Frenchie, to everyone’s surprise, appoints Delore as “boss” in his place, a decision unquestioned by the rest of the cowboys, who for various personal reasons, are perhaps quite happy to have a young and green official leader.

Delore’s trip to the Lake is complicated by a stampede, cows caught in bogholes, packhorse wrecks, a runaway or two, an encounter with a murderer on the run, and the cowboys’ weakness for strong liquor, among other things. But, as Delore implies on the other end, it’s all in a day’s work for a Chilcotin cow boss: “Nothing to report.”

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The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
At last the people in a body
To the town hall came flocking:
“‘Tis clear,” cried they, “our Mayor’s a noddy;
And as for our Corporation–shocking
To think we buy gowns lined with ermine
For dolts that can’t or won’t determine
What’s best to rid us of our vermin!
You hope, because you’re old and obese,
To find in the furry civic robe ease?
Rouse up, sirs! Give your brains a racking
To find the remedy we’re lacking,
Or, sure as fate, we’ll send you packing!”
At this the Mayor and Corporation
Quaked with a mighty consternation.
An hour they sat in council,
At length the Mayor broke silence:
“For a guilder I’d my ermine gown sell,
I wish I were a mile hence!
It’s easy to bid one rack one’s brain–
I’m sure my poor head aches again,
I’ve scratched it so, and all in vain
Oh for a trap, a trap, a trap!”
Just as he said this, what should hap
At the chamber door but a gentle tap?
“Bless us,” cried the Mayor, “what’s that?”
(With the Corporation as he sat,
Looking little though wondrous fat;
Nor brighter was his eye, nor moister
Than a too-long-opened oyster,
Save when at noon his paunch grew mutinous
For a plate of turtle, green and glutinous)
“Only a scraping of shoes on the mat?
Anything like the sound of a rat
Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!”
“Come in!”–the Mayor cried, looking bigger:
And in did come the strangest figure!
His queer long coat from heel to head
Was half of yellow and half of red
And he himself was tall and thin,
With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin,
And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,
No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin,
But lips where smiles went out and in–
There was no guessing his kith and kin!
And nobody could enough admire
The tall man and his quaint attire.
Quoth one:  “It’s as if my great-grandsire,
Starting up at the Trump of Doom’s tone,
Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!”

He advanced to the council-table:
And, “Please your honors,” said he, “I’m able,
By means of a secret charm, to draw
All creatures living beneath the sun,
That creep or swim or fly or run,
After me so as you never saw!
And I chiefly use my charm
On creatures that do people harm,
The mole and toad and newt and viper;
And people call me the Pied Piper.”
(And here they noticed round his neck
A scarf of red and yellow stripe,
To match with his coat of the self-same check;
And at the scarf’s end hung a pipe;
And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying
As if impatient to be playing
Upon this pipe, as low it dangled
Over his vesture so old-fangled.)
“Yet,” said he, “poor piper as I am,
In Tartary I freed the Cham,
Last June, from his huge swarm of gnats;
I eased in Asia the Nizam
Of a monstrous brood of vampyre-bats:
And as for what your brain bewilders–
If I can rid your town of rats
Will you give me a thousand guilders?”
“One? Fifty thousand!” was the exclamation
Of the astonished Mayor and Corporation.

Into the street the Piper stept,
Smiling first a little smile,
As if he knew what magic slept
In his quiet pipe the while;
Then, like a musical adept,
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled,
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives–
Followed the Piper for their lives.
From street to street he piped advancing,
And step for step they followed dancing,
Until they came to the river Weser
Wherein all plunged and perished!
Save one who, stout as Julius Caesar,
Swam across and lived to carry
(As the manuscript he cherished)
To Rat-land home his commentary:
Which was, “At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press’s gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks:
And it seemed as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) called out, ‘Oh rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast dry-saltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!’
And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon,
All ready staved, like a great sun shone
Glorious scarce an inch before me,
Just as methought it said ‘Come bore me!’
— I found the Weser rolling o’er me.”

You should have heard the Hamelin people
Ringing the bells till they rocked the steeple.
“Go,” cried the Mayor, “and get long poles!
Poke out the nests and block up the holes!
Consult with carpenters and builders
And leave in our town not even a trace
Of the rats!”– when suddenly, up the face
Of the Piper perked in the market-place,
With a, “First, if you please, my thousand guilders!”

A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;
So did the Corporation too.
For council dinners made rare havoc
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
And half the money would replenish
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish.
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow
With a gypsy coat of red and yellow!
“Beside,” quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink,
“Our business was done at the river’s brink;
We saw with our eyes the vermin sink,
And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think.
So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink
From the duty of giving you something for drink,
And a matter of money to put in your poke;
But as for the guilders, what we spoke
Of them, as you very well know, was in joke.
Beside, our losses have made us thrifty.
A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!

The Piper’s face fell, and he cried,
“No trifling! I can’t wait! Beside,
I’ve promised to visit by dinnertime
Bagdad, and accept the prime
Of the Head-Cook’s pottage, all he’s rich in,
For having left, in the Caliph’s kitchen,
Of a nest of scorpions no survivor–
With him I proved no bargain-driver,
With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
And folks who put me in a passion
May find me pipe to another fashion.”

“How?” cried the Mayor, “d’ye think I brook
Being worse treated than a Cook?
Insulted by a lazy ribald
With idle pipe and vesture piebald?
You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst,
Blow your pipe there till you burst!”

Once more he stept into the street
And to his lips again
Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
And ere he blew three notes (such sweet
Soft notes as yet musician’s cunning
Never gave the enraptured air)
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.

The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
Unable to move a step or cry,
To the children merrily skipping by–
And could only follow with the eye
That joyous crowd at the Piper’s back.
But how the Mayor was on the rack
And the wretched Council’s bosoms beat,
As the Piper turned from the High Street
To where the Weser rolled its water’s
Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
However he turned from South to West
And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,
And after him the children pressed;
Great was the joy in every breast.
“He never can cross that mighty top!
He’s forced to let the piping drop
And we shall see our children stop!
When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say,–
“It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings:
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!”

Alas, alas for Hamelin!
There came into many a burgher’s pate
A text which says that heaven’s gate
Opens to the rich at as easy rate
As the needle’s eye takes a camel in!
The mayor sent East, West, North and South,
To offer the Piper, by word of mouth
Wherever it was men’s lot to find him,
Silver and gold to his heart’s content,
If he’d only return the way he went,
And bring the children behind him.
But when they saw ’twas a lost endeavor,
And Piper and dancers were gone forever,
They made a decree that lawyers never
Should think their records dated duly
If, after the day of the month and year,
These words did not as well appear:
“And so long after what happened here
On the twenty-second of July,
Thirteen hundred and seventy-six;”
And the better in memory to fix
The place of the children’s last retreat,
They called it the Pied Piper’s Street,
Where any one playing on pipe or tabor
Was sure for the future to lose his labor.
Nor suffered they hostelry or tavern
To shock with mirth a street so solemn,
But opposite the place of the cavern
They wrote the story on a column,
And on the great church-window painted
The same, to make the world acquainted
How their children were stolen away,
And there it stands to this very day.
And I must not omit to say
That, in Transylvania there’s a tribe
Of alien people who ascribe
To the outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbors lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterranean prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why they don’t understand.

So, Willy, let you and me be wipers
Of scores out with all men–especially pipers!
And, whether they pipe us free, from rats or from mice,
If we’ve promised them ought, let us keep our promise.

Robert Browning ~ 1842

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After Hamelin by Bill Richardson ~ 2000. This edition: Annick Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55037-628-4. 227 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. Sorry, Bill. This one was a bit hit and miss with me. You got an extra point from me for old times’ sake, because I’ve been a (mostly) appreciative fan of yours since CBC Radio “Sad Goat” days.

I really liked parts of it, especially the character of Penelope, with her 101-year-old words of wisdom, and I admired the imagination of  the Frank L. Baum Oz-ish dream world, but I really had to push to see this one through to the end. I kept stopping and yawning and mentally saying “Where are we? Oh, yeah, she’s in the dream world now…”

And while the bizarre (and nicely imagined – I laughed at these) realms of the ski-footed flying creatures living in the land of perpetual ice and moonlight, and the rope-skipping, directionally challenged dragons next door were quirky and funny and sweet, the dark overtones of the menace waking from its sleep struck a harsh note. And I couldn’t really get what the Piper was all about. Even if he woke, what was going to happen? I mean, how bad was it going to be? Just another magician gone wrong…

And the whole turning-eleven thing. Obviously a puberty ritual, but surely a bit young for the whole “welcome-to-womanhood” chorus of the villagers? Or maybe I’m reading too much into that. Probably a cigar is just a cigar, and it’s merely a cute plot device.

This is not a bad book, and it had some great sequences, but I didn’t immediately love it. A pleasant, light diversionary read, for mature-ish children, say 10 and up, to adult. Well-constructed “after the end of the fairytale” story. Good discussion starter, or as part of an exploration of alternative fairy tales and such.

Oh, and an extra .5 point for the talking cat. (One of my personal weaknesses. I do so love a talking cat.)

Gorgeous cover art, too!


Everyone knows the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. How, in a town plagued with rats, there appeared a mysterious man who promised to rid the town of the creatures, and, after being promised a lavish reward, did just that, piping out a magical tune that drew them from every nook and cranny, as the piper led them far away. Coming back for his promised reward, the greedy town councillors refuse his pay, at which point the piper takes revenge by calling all of the children of the town after him, save one crippled child, who cannot keep up and so is spared. This is where the story ends. But what happens after?

After Hamelin is Bill Richardson’s fantasy about the next stage in the story. In his version, not one but two children remain behind. Penelope, who has just woken to a sudden deafness on the morning of her eleventh birthday, and Alloway, a blind harpist’s apprentice, who gets lost as the horde of children travel through a forest. Between Penelope and Alloway, Penelope’s elderly cat Scally, the village wise man Cuthbert, and his three-legged dog Ulysses, a rescue is carried out, through the medium of a trance state – Deep Dreaming – and the liberal use of magical skipping-rhymes.

Narrated by Penelope herself, who, at the age of one hundred-and-one, still looks back on her long life and unbelievable adventures with clarity and humour, the tale is told through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences.

A children’s story for all ages.

And here is an interview with the author, which puts everything into context.

Bill Richardson Interview – After HamelinJanuary Magazine

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Death and Resurrection by R.A. MacAvoy ~ 2011. This edition: Prime Books, 2011. Second Printing. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60701-286-3. 333 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Probably a bit higher than it really deserves – it’s a far from flawless novel – but I’m just so happy that R.A. MacAvoy is back in the game after a very long hiatus due to ill-health (18 years), and because I really like the way this author thinks.

A few issues with dialogue and occasionally awkward phrasing, and some serious suspension of disbelief issues – I can handle the wendigo/spirit bear thing, and the travelling between life and death, but how do these working people with demanding jobs – veterinarian, psychiatrist – get so much time off, apparently consequence-free?


A very hard-to-classify book. Fantasy, maybe? With thriller and murder mystery overtones. And there’s quite a sweet love story in there, too. And it’s funny. And violent. Death by bamboo! Katanas! Oh – but hang on – the main character is a pacifist Buddhist. Well, maybe things don’t always work out as planned…

You know, except for the messy fight scenes (and the katana) this one really reminds me of MacAvoy’s first novel, the highly regarded and award-winning Tea With the Black Dragon, though the characters in Death and Resurrection are completely different and the story is absolutely original.

And now I am going to completely cheat and steal the reviews from the publisher’s website, because, darn it anyway, it’s been a long, long day, and it feels like bedtime and I need to treat myself with some reading time.

From Prime Books:

The award-winning writer of Tea With the Black Dragon and other acclaimed novels returns to fantasy with the intriguing story of Chinese-American artist Ewen Young who gains the ability to travel between the worlds of life and death. This unasked-for skill irrevocably changes his life—as does meeting Nez Perce veterinarian Dr. Susan Sundown and her remarkable dog, Resurrection. After defeating a threat to his own family, Ewen and Susan confront great evils—both supernatural and human—as life and death begin to flow dangerously close together.

” I love R.A. MacAvoy’s books. Do yourself a favor and pick this up.”—Charles de Lint

“For the brilliantly talented R. A. MacAvoy, no aspect of human life is beyond reach.”—Orson Scott Card

About the Author: R.A. MacAvoy is the author of twelve novels. Her debut, Tea With the Black Dragon, won the John W. Campbell Award, the Locus Award for best first novel, and a Philip K. Dick Award special citation. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the Ditmar Award, and listed in David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she has been married for thirty-three years to Ronald Cain. They live in the Cascade Foothills of Washington State.


MacAvoy clearly  still has the talent for the ingratiating characters and revealing detail that made her first novel so delightful; almost every character is handled with wit and grace…Death and Resurrection turns out to be far less portentous adventure romance than its title implies…and almost inevitably more enjoyable…it’s good to have her back.—Gary Wolfe, Locus

MacAvoy’s expansion of her 2009 novella “In Between” will please fans of her thoughtful hero Black Dragon, though new protagonist Ewen Young goes past philosophical to passive. Ewen, a Chinese Buddhist, just wants to be a painter and practice kung fu, but fate has other plans. He’s always had a touch of the spiritual, whether it’s an empathic bond with his twin sister or a psychic retreat he can share with others. When a brush with death kicks it up several notches, he ends up reluctantly guiding an investigation and a school as well as building a relationship with a strong-willed Native American vet and her body-hunting dog. Ewen’s (and MacAvoy’s) refusal to explore the origins of his powers takes the tone of the book further from most Western speculative fiction and toward magical realism or mysticism, which will delight some readers and irritate others.—Publishers Weekly

What they said. Good stuff. Check it out. More MacAvoy reviews coming in the future – I have everything she’s written to date; they all live on my favourites shelf.

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Green Grows the City by Beverley Nichols ~ 1939. This edition: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1939. Hardcover. First edition. 285 pages.

My rating: 8/10. A little lush in the prose department, but ultimately I found this semi-fiction quite a likeable diversion. The chapter devoted to the author’s black, half-Siamese felines, Rose and Cavalier, won me completely over; I had been wavering a bit as the human cattiness of the narrative was sometimes rather too precious. Nichols’ affection for and description of his pets is a lovely bit of writing, appealing to anyone who shares his predilection for cats as the perfect – though endlessly demanding – home and garden companions.

The author makes no pretensions about his preferred role as planner and onlooker rather than a get-dirty, hands-on gardener. A little light watering, the plucking of a few blooms to adorn the breakfast table, maybe a mite of flower arranging to while away a slow morning, while the hired gardener does the heavy stuff under our Mr. Nichols’ interested eye…

Oh, meow! Who’s being catty now?


Beverley Nichols, in his long life (1898-1883) in which he acted out the roles of journalist, author, playwright, composer, lecturer, pianist, and gay (in every sense of the word) man-about-town, alternately amused and infuriated his audience, friends and, I suspect, more than a few enemies. Possessed of a very high opinion of himself, a keenly sarcastic tongue, and a decided willingness to share his lightly censored thoughts in print, Beverley Nichols remains as readable today as he was when first published. Especially popular are his garden books, as among all the chattering nonsense and superfluous frills there are passages of very authentic admiration and insight into the appeal of that cultivated “square of ground” so universally sought after the universal tribe of gardeners, and his portraits of the plants that struck his fey fancy are small treasures of descriptive prose.

Speaking in the chapter regarding ferns,  Rhapsody in Green, in Green Grows the City, of his introduction to the gold and silver ferns (Gymnogramme species) at Kew:

…(A)s I stooped to tie the (shoe)lace, I happened to glance upward. And the underside of this fern was coated with gold, pure gold, that glistened in the sunlight.

Perhaps it may sound silly to say that it was the loveliest thing that has ever come my way since I have seem life through the eyes of a gardener… I knelt down before it. The closer I came, the more lovely did the fern appear. There were no half-measures about the gold-dust with which it was so richly coated. It wasn’t just a yellow powder. It bore no sort of resemblance to the ochre make-up with which the lily is adorned. Nor was the gold dusted merely here and there – it covered every curve and crevice of the frond.

The tiny shoots that were springing up from the base were, if possible, even brighter. Since their leaves had not yet opened, and there was no green about them, they looked like delicate golden ornaments, daintily disposed about the parent plant.

And by the side of it was another excitement. A silver fern! As thickly coated with the metal of the moon as the other had been coated with the metal of the sun. If I had not realized the futility of comparisons at moments such as this, I would have dared to suggest that the silver fern was even more beautiful than the golden. For it seemed actually luminous with this magic dust. And again, there were no half-measures. It was silver. Not just white or grey, not in the least like, say, a centaurea. It was silver, hall-marked, pure and glistening from the inexhaustible mint of Nature.

What gardener could resist such a teasing description? Now in my botanical garden and specialty nursery visits I shall be forever watching for gold and silver ferns…

Green Grows the Garden is the fictionalized account of the creation of a very real garden. In 1936, after parting from his beloved country cottage and garden in the village of Glatton, Nichols tried the inner city life, living in a small, gardenless house in the Westminster district of London. Homesick for a bit of green, he tried without success to find a more suitable situation.

I had a hunger for green. I was lonely for the sound of trees by night. I longed to feel the turf beneath my feet, instead of the eternal pavement. Even if it were only a narrow strip of sooty grass, it would be resilient and alive, and would give me some of its own life.

Finally a small semi-detached house is found, in a close in the suburb of Heathstead. There is a garden, of sorts, a triangular-shaped bit of ground which challenges the would-be garden-designer with its peculiar idiosyncracies.

The challenge is accepted, and the transformation begins. Struggles with the site abound, not least of which is the continual protestation of every one of Nichols’ projects by the overbearing “Mrs. Heckmondwyke” of No. 1. The feud between No. 5 and No. 1 drives much of the drama of this microcosmic enterprise, though in the end something of an uneasy truce is attained.

The book is dedicated “To My Friends Next Door”, probably to nip in the bud any idea that any of them were the actual prototype of the overwhelming Mrs. H, and Beverley Nichols quite freely admits, in an evasive forward, that perhaps some of his characters owe more to fiction than to real life. The garden was a real garden, though; as were the cats and the extraordinary, imperturbable, Jeeves-like manservant Gaskin.

As the story draws to a close, the shadow of World War II is looming, and in the last chapter there is sober reference made to the outside world. Watching newsreel footage, Nichols comments:

…Line after line of youths, in brown shirts, black shirts, red shirts, any sort of shirt…marching, always marching. Backwards and forwards, to the North, to the South, to the East and West. Marching with bigger and better guns, to louder and fiercer music. Marching with clenched fists or with outstretched arms, animated by the insane conviction that the fist that is clenched was made for the sole purpose of striking the arm that is outstretched. Marching, always marching, blind to the beauty that is around and above, deaf to all music save the snarl of the drum, marching to a destination that no man knows but all men dread.

And I suspect no one will be found to argue with the often quoted final words of this little book:

…(T)hat if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.

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Hello everyone –

I am going to be doing some editing over the next day or two, so you might be receiving a few duplicate posts.

Please ignore them – it will merely be typos etc. being corrected.

I’ve noticed a few bothersome things reading over old posts.

Must remember to use that spellchecker…

Onward & upward!

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The Jasmine Farm by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1934. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934. First Edition. Hardcover. 322 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Possibly subject to change as I explore more of this author’s work – this is only the third novel I’ve read of the twenty or so Elizabeth von Arnim wrote between 1898 and 1940. The others are The Benefactress (1901), which I absolutely loved, and The Enchanted April (1922), which left me not terribly impressed. (I am planning to reread Enchanted April once it turns up – my copy is lost in the stacks at present.)

The Jasmine Farm was very different from The Benefactress, and much closer in style to Enchanted April. Though I am not familiar enough yet with this author’s full body of work to get a real feel for the progression of her writing history, I’ve read enough to know that I will continue to explore her titles. She has a lot to say that is worth listening to, and a very readable style.


If I had to sum this story up in one sentence, I think I would say something like this:

A lushly sarcastic social farce which begins with an overabundance of gooseberries and ends with a convenient death.

I had a bit of a time really getting into this one – the first hundred plus pages were used in setting up the scene in great detail with many asides, and I wondered for a while if we were ever going to get to the point, or indeed if there was a point. But then things seemed to come together and off I went, quite eager to follow these foolish not-quite-virgins on their various paths to personal enlightenment, mindlessly flirting with disaster as they pursued their self-regarding ways through their lushly padded artificial world.

The fabulously wealthy Lady Midhurst is famous both for her lavish, perfectionist-planned entertainments, and her zero tolerance of any sort of sexual misconduct among her associates. To be vouched for by her Ladyship is to be certified pure in the eyes of society. What scandal, then, as the daughter of this paragon is revealed to have been carrying on an adulterous relationship for the past seven years with a married man, and he no other than Lady Midhurst’s trusted financial adviser!

Lady Midhurst seeks refuge at her almost-forgotten property in France, a tiny jasmine-growing farm near Grasse, which her husband impulsively purchased for her many years ago, and where they spent a few halcyon honeymoon weeks before Lord Midhurst’s roving eye and extramarital encounters so disgusted his fastidious wife that she swore off conjugal relations forever. In that time she did conceive a child, and the resulting Lady Terence – Terry – seems to be following in her mother’s celibate footsteps.

However, Terry had become emotionally and sexually obsessed at a very early age with her late father’s great friend, Andrew Leigh, who became a permanent attachment to the household upon Lord Midhurst’s death. The affection is returned, and their relationship is physically consummated at Terry’s insistence once she reaches the passionate time of her teens. Andrew is not exactly a free man, however. He has previously married the lovely Rosie De Lacy, a not-quite-upper-class girl whom he became infatuated with during a wartime leave. Once the war is over, Andrew realizes that Rosie is nothing like his intellectual equal; she is also shadowed by her very common and socially ambitious mother, whose main  aim in life, besides maintaining a high degree of personal comfort, is pushing her daughter higher in the social strata.

Mrs. De Lacy is thrilled with the news of her son-in-law’s adultery, but not for the obvious reasons. She hatches a scheme in which she hopes to trade Rosie’s complicity and silence for a highly public relationship with the exclusive Midhursts, thus ensuring Rosie’s future position among the creme de la creme of the upper class. Rosie is quite happy to cooperate; she herself is not interested in the bothers of sex and is not at all jealous of her husband’s paramour, preferring to concentrate on the cultivation of her considerable beauty for her own enjoyment, and for the pampered lifestyle that access to the desirous men of the aristocratic set and their hopeful admiration brings.

To escape the De Lacy clutches, Lady Midhurst now flees in haste to France, to the jasmine farm of the title. Much heart-rending ensues, as Lady Midhurst is forced to confront her past and the reasons for her daughter’s lack of restraint and repudiation of her mother’s standards of morality. Terry herself is a strange creature, being outwardly pure and much involved in charitable works; her infatuation with Andrew Leigh is seen by herself as completely natural and beyond the rules of normal social and moral conduct. Andrew himself seems but a puppet controlled by the women in his life; he truly means well but his ingrained weaknesses and inability to take a strong stand against the tempting Terry lead to his ultimate doom.

Does this seem terribly complicated? Yes, I thought so, too!

This novel is a strange combination of innocence and sophistication. It escapes being pure farce by the very real agonies of the morally aware characters (Lady Midhurst and Andrew Leigh), but there is a strong element of humour in the portrayal of many of Lady Midhurst’s friends, as well as the comic leads Rosie and her outrageous “Mumsie.”

I am not quite sure what, if any, social commentary is intended by the author in this work. She certainly has a lot to say about the follies of vanity and obsessive concentration on one’s appearance, and her keen eye picks out many of the quirks of the established aristocracy and the social climbers seeking to join them. It seems more of a general farce, partly humorous and cleverly critical. There are some serious passages among the farcical ones, mostly to do with the between-the-wars situation in Germany, and the growing tide of militarism and anti-Semitism. Coming from this particular author, with her very real experience with the German political and military mindset (Elizabeth’s first husband was a Prussian aristocrat, and she lived many of her early married years on his German estate) these are telling asides.

A diverting read, and, though I felt it had some flaws, it has intrigued me intensely. I hope to get my hands on more books by this captivating writer.

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Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara ~1963. This edition: Doubleday & Company, 1963. Hardcover. 286 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. An enlightening backstory of a short period of the author Mary O’Hara’s (1885-1980) life, and details the inspiration for My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming. It felt rather self-congratulatory at times – my handsome husband, my great natural talent as a composer, my amazing sensitivity to the glories of nature, my important celebrity friends – but to excuse this it seems that most of Mary O’Hara’s boasts were indeed true. This account is also balanced with explanations, and details of the valleys as well as the peaks of the experiences within.

Presented as an autobiography, Mary O’Hara herself notes in the Preface that she has tinkered with her journal entries to make them more cohesive and readable. While the book has a reasonably strong narrative flow, there are frequent times when the entries are a bit disjointed, with out-of-place comments tacked onto longer vignettes. Perhaps this was done to maintain the feeling of a spontaneous journal, but since the work was already being edited I think it might have been stronger if these snippets had either been expanded upon or left out completely.


This book was a surprising find last week in a quick scouting cruise through Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House. The author’s name was immediately recognizable – for what horse-crazy child of my particular generation has not read My Friend Flicka? – but I was unfamiliar with the title. A lesser-known novel, perhaps? On closer investigation I found that this was an autobiographical account of part of a year spent on the Wyoming ranch that inspired the Flicka bestseller and its two sequels.

Mary O’Hara Alsop was a talented pianist, published composer, and Hollywood script writer when she turned her hand to writing fiction. Inspired by the rugged surroundings of the ranch which she and her second husband, Helge Sture-Vasa, purchased in Wyoming in 1930 and lived on for sixteen years, and the horses and other ranch animals she came to know intimately, O’Hara’s novel My Friend Flicka was published in 1941 to immediate acclaim. It was based on the journals O’Hara had been keeping of her life on the ranch, and the characters were very much drawn from her own family, friends and the ranch workers.

Wyoming Summer is set in the tenth year of she and her husband’s occupation of the Remount Ranch. Their initial scheme of sheep farminghad failed dismally, as prices for livestock dropped catastrophically during the Great Depression. Helge (referred to as “Michael” in Wyoming Summer, and the prototype for “Rob” in the Flicka books) was an experienced ex-Army cavalry officer, and the next enterprise that met with modest success was that of raising and training horses (“remounts”) for the U.S. Army. This was a precarious and not particularly prosperous undertaking, and Mary’s dairy herd and the establishment of a summer boy’s camp catering to the sons of her well-off music and film connections paid many of the bills.

Wyoming Summer details the challenging and exhausting juxtaposition of Mary’s dual worlds: ranch wife baking bread, hand-milking cows and dealing with daily chores combined with aspiring composer eagerly snatching the hours needed for piano practice and composition from her more prosaic duties.

Though this autobiography details both the rewards and drawbacks of life on a remote ranch, it decidedly glosses over the personal crises that Mary O’Hara dealt with throughout her life. A difficult first marriage resulted in two children, one of whom, a daughter, died tragically of cancer in her teens. After her divorce from her first husband, Mary’s second matrimonial attempt seemed happier, at least initially, but it was also doomed. Helge was a handsome, hard-working, hard-drinking man who was not above a certain amount of philandering, and that marriage ended, after the sale of the Remount Ranch and a move to California, in 1947.

Mary continued her work in composing music and working on stage and screen productions, as well as publishing several other novels. The journals kept while at the Remount Ranch had been set aside among Mary’s papers, and when they resurfaced in the 1960s Mary thought she could make something of them, hence the publication of Wyoming Summer. Several other novels met with modest success, but it was the Wyoming trilogy, and in particular the first installment, My Friend Flicka, that ensured Mary O’Hara’s longest lasting acclaim.

Wyoming Summer is interesting both for its window into a specific time and place, and for what its author leaves out. While we are allowed into certain areas of Mary O’Hara’s complex life, we are firmly shut out of others, leaving us with a definite feeling of being a spectator with limited access to the performance being played out.

These few reservations aside, Wyoming Summer is definitely worth reading, especially in tandem with the more purely fictional novels of the same setting.

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The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor ~ 1968. This edition: Chatto and Windus, 1968. First Edition. Hardcover. 230 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is something of a pet author among the book blogging crowd, but I find I sometimes have to try really hard to whole-heartedly like her style. I found the writing in this novel rather stilted and distant; I also found the story itself depressing, with the humour being on the subfusc side of the spectrum.

To be quite fair, there were numerous passages of exceedingly enjoyable prose, and I did easily make it to the end of this slight novel without losing interest. And as this is my second time willingly reading this book,  it can’t be all that bad! Perhaps the fact that this time round it was hospital bed reading has coloured my review? I’ve just had an unplanned foray into the medical world, with prospects of more blood testing, scans and bed-time to come; this is certainly souring my current disposition. I’m thinking Elizabeth Taylor is not a good author to be reading in that venue. (Or perhaps she is the very best? Highlighting the cynical side of life, and all…)


Nineteen-year-old Cressida (Cressy) has lived all of her life in the exclusive artists’ colony presided over by her patriarchal maternal grandfather, Harry Bretton. The only child of meek mother Rose, and ineffectual father Joe (an Irish would-be writer hand-picked by Harry as a suitably infuenceable husband for his daughter), Cressy yearns for a life outside of the earnestly dull extended-family enclave she is trapped in.

Harry Bretton was once a outré artist whose depictions of Biblical scenes incorporating contemporary settings caused a certain stir. The art world has moved on, and such non-conventional depictions are now the norm, but Harry clings to his old style, supplementing his decreasing artistic income by forays into religious lecturing, as well as taking in well-heeled “disciples” eager to study at the feet of the “Master”, as he has self-styled himself.

Cressy first announces her renunciation of religion, to her mother’s shock and, disappointingly, to her grandfather’s tolerant amusement – he casts an omniscient view over his subservient clan, and patronizingly assumes that this is merely a youthful rite of passage, though more suitable perhaps to a boyish temperament rather than that of a girl. (Harry Bretton has decided views regarding the proper subservient role of the female sex.)

Cressy then finds herself a job doing menial chores at the village antique store, and, in a small sequence of coincidences, meets a middle-aged journalist who is a friend of the antique shop owners, as well as having previously written a sarcastic article regarding Harry Bretton’s establishment. David Little is modestly successful in his field, and, living with his divorced mother, has a comfortable enough life, though he has noticed that of late romantic relationships are becoming more and more unsatisfactory, as all the “good ones” – desirable women with looks, charm and pleasant personalities – are leaving the singles scene for the securities and domestic pleasures of marriage.

David surprises himself by his attraction to childish Cressy’s innocent enjoyment of such worldly pleasures as television, hamburger bars and ready-made clothing, and soon the two are romantically involved, to the initial pleasure of David’s emotionally needy and manipulative mother Midge, who sees in Cressy an unthreatening solution to the long dreaded break-up of her mother-son domain.

Cressy and David marry, and Midge turns her full attention to preserving the status quo by erasing Cressy’s already feeble self-will and ensuring the continued attendance of David at the maternal beck and call. Cressy’s pregnancy and subsequent incompetent attempts at motherhood eventually bring about a shift in the balance of power as Midge becomes infatuated with her new grandson, and David realizes that the only hope for himself and his marriage is a breaking away from his mother’s insinuating grasp.

The ending is ambiguous and could be slanted either optimistically or the reverse; I chose to read into it a hopeful future for all involved, though this is in no way guaranteed by the author’s very hands-off approach.

I felt that the characters were nothing like as fully developed as they could have been; Midge seems to be the only fully rounded person in the story, and might indeed be the main protagonist. Cressy and David came across as mere sketches, though there are glimpses into the depths of each of them; just enough to keep us on their side and hope for an improvement in their relationship and their personal lives. Cressy’s parents and cousins are, in general, sympathetically handled, but one of the most potentially interesting characters,  Harry Bretton – the Master himself – is left as a mockable caricature.

Elizabeth Taylor was a decidedly clever writer with a wry and morbidly humorous viewpoint, but by concentrating on the darker side of human nature she walks the edge of being just a shade too cynical for my personal present reading comfort.

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