Archive for September, 2012

Over 40 in Broken Hill by Jack Hodgins ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1992. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4192-6. 197 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. Unpretentious and good-humoured, without stooping to farce. Jack can, as needed, poke a bit of fun at himself, but he keeps his self-respect and extends that regard to others.


This is a book without a Great Big Purpose, which is too often rare in a travel book, into which category this work mainly falls. Over 40 is a rather elegantly presented account of two writers on the loose in Australia. One, Australian novelist Roger McDonald, is researching his next book, a non-fiction account of the politics and conflicts between New Zealand and Australian sheep shearers working the vast outback flocks, and the other is our own British Columbian Jack, tagging along with his friends and colleague for the four-week trip.

Jack finds himself taking notes throughout the journey, and ends by writing his own account of the fascinating people and unique places the two encounter. Quirky, often humorous, fair-minded and very readable. I enjoyed this travel memoir.

Jack Hodgins is well-known in B.C. literary circles for his fiction, from his now-iconic short story collection Spit Delaney’s Island in 1976 to his most recent novel, The Master of Happy Endings in 2010. Over 40 in Broken Hill was something of a departure from the fictional norm of this author, but it worked for me.

I’ve read a number of this author’s works over the years, and think very highly of his distinctive style. (He reminds me a bit of Robertson Davies, but without the aura of intellectual snobbery that Davies sometimes projects.) I am not alone in this regard, as Jack Hodgins was awarded an Order of Canada in 2010 for his lifetime contribution to Canadian literature. An author well worth exploring, if you are not already familiar with him.

Side note: The “40” referred to in the title has a double meaning. Think age, and then think degrees Celsius. There is a chapter midway through the book that clarifies the reference most engagingly.

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Farewell to Priorsford: a book by and about Anna Buchan (O. Douglas) ~ 1950. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. With 5 photographs. 253 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Succeeds perfectly in its stated purpose, as noted in the Preface:

This book has been compiled at the request of the many who wish to know more about Anna Buchan by those privileged to enjoy her friendship.

This commemorative volume is presented in the hope that it will give to all who enjoy Anna Buchan’s books a share in the fun, the courage and the inspiration she gave to all who knew her.


This book was published two years after Anna Buchan’s death, and is composed of several short biographical sketches, with the remainder a few collected short stories and anecdotes. There is also the fragment of the last novel Anna was working on, eight chapters of another Rutherfurd book, The Wintry Years.

This is a fascinating and enlightening glimpse into the world of this quiet yet eloquent author, and there are no surprises here for those who know the author through her fictional words, merely a confirmation of what we had hoped to find; that the author’s writings do indeed reflect her real life and her views that many people are indeed “good, gentle and scrupulous.” If this sounds too meek and wishy-washy, I hasten to add that Anna had a strong streak of cynical Scottish clear-headedness about her as well, and there is a leavening of wry humour and keen insight in her works to balance the goodness and gentleness.

The more I read of this author, the more I like her, both her works and the person she herself must have been. Farewell to Priorsford is a lovely memorial, and very much worth seeking out for O. Douglas fans. The eight chapters of The Wintry Years are an absolute treat to fans of the Rutherfurds, giving us a fleeting glimpse of their lives during the years of the second World War, and touching on many of the characters we came to know so well in The Proper Place, The Day of Small Things, and Jane’s Parlour, as well as teasingly introducing us to some new characters. Such a shame that Anna Buchan died so relatively young, at 71, and still very much at the peak of her writing years.

Here is what Farewell to Priorsford contains:

I. A Biographical Introduction by A.G. Reekie
II. Anna by Susan Tweedsmuir
III. Olivia by Alice Fairfax-Lucy
IV. Author and Friend by Christine Orr
V. A Peebles Player by William Crichton
I. Introductory Note
II. A Story for Young and Old:
          Jock the Piper
III. Broughton and Two Broughton Stories:
          An Upland Village
          An Echo
          Miss Bethia at the Manse
IV. Two Long Stories:
          A Tea-Party at Eastkirk
          Two Pretty Men
V. The First Eight Chapters of a Novel:
          The Wintry Years


Highly recommended for O. Douglas – Anna Buchan fans.

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Jane’s Parlour by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) ~ 1937. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Because I am now completely in thrall to Anna Buchan’s small but completely believable literary world, and I so greatly enjoyed spending time with the Rutherfurds and their ever-widening range of acquaintances.


There was only one spot in the whole rambling length of Eliotstoun where Katharyn Eliot felt that she could be sure of being left at peace for any time. That was the small circular room at the end of the passage which contained her bedroom and Tim’s dressing-room; it was called for some unknown reason “Jane’s Parlour.”

No one knew who Jane was. There was no mention of any Jane in the family records: Elizabeths in plenty, Elspeths, Susans, Anns, Carolines, Helens, but never a Jane. But whoever she was Katharyn liked to think that she had been a virtuous soul, for there was always a feeling of peace, a faint, indefinable scent as of some summer day long dead in that rounded room with its three narrow windows (each fitted with a seat and a faded cushion), its satiny white paper, discoloured here and there by winter’s damp, on which hung coloured prints in dark frames. A faded Aubusson carpet lay on the floor, and in one corner stood a harp beside a bureau, and a beautiful walnut settee – these were Jane’s. A capacious armchair (Tim’s) was at one side of the fire, and opposite it, a large writing-table which was Katharyn’s. There was also an overcrowded bookcase, and a comfortable sofa: that was all there was in the room.


It was here she worked, for in the infrequent quiet times of a busy life Katharyn wrote – and published: it was here she read the writers she loved best, old writers like Donne and Ford and Webster from whom she was never tired of digging gloomy gems…

When Caroline was born Katharyn had made a rule that children and dogs were not to be admitted into Jane’s Parlour, and when Tim protested, replied with steely decision that there must be one peaceful place in the house. Before ten years had passed there were five children at Eliotstoun, and an ever-increasing army of dogs, so that, as Tim acknowledged, it was well to have one place where people’s feet were free of them.

And, because it was forbidden territory it naturally became the Mecca of the family, to enter it their most ardent desire…

This book interweaves a number of lives, most of which we are familiar with from The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things; Jane’s Parlour is very much a continuation of what has come before versus a stand-alone story; the three books belong together to give an ever-widening view of the living tapestry created by the author from her ever more intricately twined strands of individuals’ lives.

Here are Katharyn and Timothy Eliot, and their five children; Alison Lockhart and her beloved nephew George; Barbara and Andrew Jackson, Barbara in the role of antagonist and Andy smoothing down the feathers his wife continually ruffles; a cameo or two by Lady Jackson herself in all her vivid glory; Nicole and Lady Jane Ruthurfurd; and many more.

The main strand of this novel concerns a fairly typical love story, but there is much quiet activity going on at the same time, and we are treated to a series of interconnected vignettes which keep us up to date on what has happened since we last spent time in this lovingly created world. Virtue is rewarded, the wicked are put – for the most part – sternly in their place, joy is embraced and grief accepted. As usual, not much happens, but at the same time everything happens; much like most of our lives if we are lucky enough to live them in a peaceful country in between-great-events times.

The First World War is now long past, and is not often referred to, but the gathering clouds of what will be the Second World War are very much in evidence; this novel was published in 1937 and is a clearly and sensitively drawn period piece which captures the mood of those last few sunset years of relative peace before darkness once again descends.

If you enjoyed The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things, this is a definite must-read. The three novels belong together, and if you can get your hands on the posthumously published anthology-biography-memoir Farewell to Priorsford, you will find therein the first eight chapters of a fourth book, The Wintry Years, which follows the same characters into World War Two. Sadly, Anna Buchan died before that last novel was finished, but those chapters are perfectly composed, letting us turn away from our fictional friends with the feeling that their lives will continue somewhere even though out of our ken; truly the mark of a good author’s skill in world building.

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The best-laid plans oft gang agley, and so also do the spontaneous ones. We’ve all been laid low, in beautiful synchronicity, by an evil virus our daughter brought home from her newly convened dance studio chums. Hacking and barking like a bevy of two-legged seals, we hiked about Pacific Rim Park with ever-lessening enthusiasm for several days, before blearily deciding to suffer the rest of the awful illness’ term at home in relative comfort.

It wasn’t all so bad – there were some quite good bits. We hit low tide in early morning on several beaches, all alone but for the sea creatures in the intertidal zones; we napped away two beautifully sunny afternoons in the warm sand, wakening to read for a bit, watch the surfers attempt to catch those obviously rare “perfect waves”, and doze again; we people-watched one morning in Tofino and had a grand brunch at The Common Loaf, the iconic local bakery; we sat around numerous campfires commiserating with each other and comparing symptoms; we visited the Ucluelet Aquarium and chatted with the ever-enthusiastic and knowledgeable biologists and volunteers; and even, on our last day, managed a side trip into the big city to visit the Cone Sisters Retrospective “Collecting Matisse” exhibition on loan from Baltimore, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

We pulled out of the city and headed up the Sea-to-Sky Highway at 2:30 and made it home just before midnight – a marathon drive, but the reward was an enthusiastic greeting by our canine and feline crew, and our own cozy beds. Today we’ve been wandering about a bit lost and culture-shocked by the abrupt changes in our generally sedate lives this past week.

Newly topped up with sea air and a dash of culture, we’re thinking we’re now ready to face our getting-ready-for-winter chores with fresh enthusiasm. Or, to be honest, we will be ready soon, once we get a bit further along in our viral journey.

I only managed to read two short books, and I didn’t take too many pictures, but here are a few souvenirs of the lightning-fast trip. Next time…


We arrived just in time for a rare clear evening and an awe-inspiring sunset over the ocean, next landfall Japan.

Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

A very special place.

And a while later, the real celestial show began.

Early the next morning we enjoyed the company of ravens scouting for a low tide meal, and using a convenient driftwood structure as a lookout post.

Starfish. (But you knew that, didn’t you?)

 And many sea anemones.

Waves at Incinerator Rock, a favourite surfer’s hangout. Can you see the two “Bobs” in the water? We decided that all surfers are named Bob, because that’s what they spent the vast majority of their time doing. Waiting on the perfect wave! This is wetsuit water, even in high summer. They hung around for hours out there, like seals in the surf, while we napped and watched from our warm and sandy nook among the washed up driftwood logs.

And on our last morning, we caught low tide and waited for the turning at the perfectly named Halfmoon Bay. Down a kilometre and a half of no longer sign-posted trail, ending in a precipitous ocean side staircase fast giving in to the elements, we were the only people here for hours. We met a few fellow trekkers coming in as we were leaving – perfect timing and a lovely way to end our too-short visit.

If you ever get a chance to visit this glorious area, do it! There’s never a bad time, summer or winter, rain or shine.

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My World: Heading South

Greetings all – just a quick note to those of you so kind as to visit and especially comment on my postings. We have unexpectedly been blessed with a farm sitter, so have decided to take a rather spur of the moment trip to points south and west. In other words – so we’re shortly heading out on a camping/hiking trip to beautiful Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We are leaving all electronics behind, so the blog shall fall silent for a while – maybe a week or a bit longer?

I’ve got a great big pile of books to take along for these ever-earlier-dark autumn evenings, and lots of batteries for my reading light, so will be back with an even longer “must review” list.

Leaving you all with a glimpse of one of my favourite new bridges, the soaring Golden Ears span over the Fraser River heading towards Vancouver, which we may or may not pass over this trip, depending on traffic levels and our ever-changing route plans. (It was also the only vaguely “coastal” image I could find quickly on my camera card this afternoon, before wiping it clean for the next go-round.)


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The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1946. This edition: Ulverscroft, 1975. Hardcover. Large Print – 370 pages.

My rating: For purely cozy, exceedingly nostalgic, “English village” escape literature, easily a 9/10. Literary merit – well, we won’t go there! I am actually quite impressed by the assumption that the author makes that her readers are very familiar indeed with the literary greats, as well as the current bestsellers of the day. References and quotations appear without any explanation, with, I’m quite certain, the belief that the reader as well as the characters of the story will “get it” immediately. Rather reminiscent of D.L. Sayers, and her own high-handed assumption that her readers are coming from the same erudite place as she is!


This is my second D.E. Stevenson, after my initial introduction to this author’s esteemed Miss Buncle’s Book . I can understand how Dorothy Emily has garnered such a devoted following over the years. My elderly mother (87) would just love this one. I browsed ABE to see if I could perhaps pick it up for her, but was shocked at what  I thought were astronomical prices for this type of book – $22 and up for worn paperbacks to an unbelievable $246 for an ex-library hardcover. Who knew?!

Someone needs to get going on republishing this author – obviously there is a demand. I know Persephone has recently re-released, in 2009 and 2011 respectively, Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married, but those are the tip of a very large iceberg. According to my research – okay, to be honest, I looked at Wikipedia – this author’s career extended from 1923 to 1970, with a very respectable forty-six titles to her credit.


The Reverend Mr. Grace is Vicar of a country parish, and is blessed with four now-motherless grown-up daughters. Adeline – Addie – the eldest, is a W.A.A.F. officer now living in London, but the three younger sisters remain at home. Matilda (Tilly), Sarah (Sal) and Elizabeth (Liz) all keep extremely busy, both by assisting their father in his many duties and helping with the war effort, for the story is set mid-World War II, and much of its charm is in seeing how the villagers live their lives and gamely make adjustments for the current reality.

Romance enters the sisters’ lives as two suitors suddenly appear – one quite traditionally, and the other much more insidiously. The reader never has a moment of doubt as to the eventual outcome, and though there are gentle setbacks to both romances everything inevitably works out as it should. A very sweet little story, which I found surprisingly appealing. Tiny touches of cynicism and humour kept it from being too saccharine, though it was a rather close thing.

From the Author’s Preface:

The author has been asked whether this is a funny book or true to life, and has some difficulty in answering the question, for life is a funny business altogether (both funny-peculiar and funny-ha-ha, as Elizabeth would say). The story covers less than a year in the life of a family and during this comparatively short period many things happen, some serious and important, others cheerful and gay. It is summertime – a summer during the greatest and most terrible f the wars – but the author felt disinclined to bring such a grave and desperate matter into a light-hearted tale; here, then, are to be found only the lighter side and the small inconveniences of Total War; the larger issues are ignored…

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The Lady or the Tiger, and Other Stories by Frank Stockton ~ circa 1882. This edition: Airmont Publishing Co., Ltd., 1968. Paperback. 160 pages.

My rating: Of this collection, I give the two stories The Lady or the Tiger and The Discourager of Hesitancy both a strong 10/10. The other stories in this little collection, a reasonable 7/10, allowing for their time of writing. Definitely period pieces, with the expected style and tone. Gently pleasant literary diversions.

Frank Stockton (1834 – 1902), though best known as the writer of the title short story, initially worked as a wood engraver and an editor, before settling to his productive and successful writing career. He wrote many short stories besides The Lady,  and several humorous novels, none of which are in print today.


The Lady or the Tiger is a classic short story written in the 1880s, and still anthologized today as a prime example of the unsolvable “puzzle tale”. I am sure most people have read this at some point or another, most likely in a high school English class, but in case you haven’t, here is a complete plot summary courtesy of Wikipedia. I don’t know if a spoiler alert is needed, but if you want to read this for the first time yourself, stop now, and go instead to East of the Web – The Lady or The Tiger .

The “semi-barbaric” king of an ancient land uses a unique form of trial by ordeal for those in his realm accused of crimes significant enough to interest him. The accused is placed alone in an arena before two curtain-draped doors, as hordes of the king’s subjects look on from the stands. Behind one door is a beautiful woman appropriate to the accused’s station and hand-picked by the king; behind the other is a fierce (and nearly starved) tiger. The accused then must pick one of the doors. If by luck (or, if one prefers, the will of heaven) he picks the door with the woman behind it, he is declared innocent and set free, but he is required to marry the woman on the spot, regardless of his wishes or his marital status. If he picks the door with the tiger behind it, the tiger immediately pounces upon him–his guilt thus manifest, supposedly.

When the king discovers that his daughter, the princess, has taken a lover far beneath her station, the fellow is an obvious candidate for trial in the arena. On the day of his ordeal, the lover looks from the arena to the princess, who is watching in the stands, for some indication of which door to pick. Even the king doesn’t know which door hides the maiden, but the princess has made it her business to find out, as her lover knew she would. She makes a slight but definite gesture to the right, which the young man follows immediately and without hesitation. As the door opens, the author interjects, “Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”

The author then playfully sets out for the reader the dimensions of the princess’s dilemma, and of the reader’s dilemma in answering the question he has posed. The reader is reminded that the princess knew and “hated” the waiting maiden, one of her attendants, whom she suspected of being infatuated with the princess’s lover. The princess, the reader must remember, is “semi-barbaric,” too, or she wouldn’t have come to witness the ordeal at all; and though she has shrieked often at the thought of her lover torn to bits before her eyes, the thought of his dancing out of the arena with his blushing bride has afflicted her more often. In either case, the princess knows her lover is lost to her forever. She has agonized over her decision, but by the time she arrives at the arena, she is resolute, and she makes her gesture to the right unhesitatingly. The author denies being in a position to answer his question with authority, and the story ends with the famous line, “And so I leave it all with you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

Great little story. And I too have no idea which one it was! Worth reading and mulling over.

Full Table of Contents:

  • The Lady or the Tiger ~ outlined above.
  • The Griffin and the Minor Canon ~ a fable about a fearful griffin befriending a cleric, and about how the inhabitants of the cathedral town reacted to the griffin’s presence in their midst.
  • Love Before Breakfast ~ a romantic interlude, sweet as cherry pie.
  • “His Wife’s Deceased Sister” ~ a writer discovers the unexpected drawbacks to writing a bestselling story. Ironic and humorous, and very likely a comment on the author’s own most successful piece and the difficulties it brought about in his working life.
  • Our Story ~ another romantic interlude, with a little twist at the end.
  • Mr. Tolman ~ a successful businessman goes incognito to gain himself an interesting holiday, and ends up acting as Cupid to a couple of mathematical music students.
  • Our Archery Club ~ a gentle satire on proper form versus successful results, plus another romance.
  • The Discourager of Hesitancy ~ a sequel of sorts to The Lady or the Tiger, which promises at first to resolve that quandary, but which actually adds another dilemma to be wrestled with.

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