Archive for October, 2012

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Thorndike Press, 1992. Hardcover. Large Print. ISBN: 1-56054-343-4. 407 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10, for the majority of this story. I found myself very keen to get back to it and find out what was about to happen next, the most compelling of D.E. Stevenson’s books in this respect so far.


A few years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Mureth. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today.

With her husband’s full support, Rhoda returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, and my favourite DES to date. There are two prequels/companions to this title: Vittoria Cottage and Music in the Hills, but Shoulder the Sky works well as a stand-alone; I never felt like I was out of the loop, though there were references to previous events throughout.

My only complaint is the ending seemed a bit rushed. Everything fell into place a little too neatly, and though things were obviously set up for happy resolution, too many plot strands were left hanging.  We were told that everything was now set to work out, so there were no real cliffhangers, but the novel’s abrupt ending felt very unfinished after some of the detail given earlier on. (This seems to be a common failing with most of the D.E. Stevenson books I’ve read to date.)

I greatly enjoyed this novel, aside from its minor but forgivable imperfections. The author has set it up beautifully, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world appear to come either from personal experience or detailed research. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas at her best.

Definitely recommended.

Oh! I must make one more comment. The edition I read was the Thorndike Press Large Print version, with a cover of lovely SPRINGTIME honeysuckle flowers. This story is decidedly wintry – a hugely important plot twist is centered on a winter storm, and the atmosphere throughout is shaped by the freezing weather. No mention of honeysuckle or springtime anywhere within – and I was watching for a clue. So a slap on the wrist to Thorndike’s design staff!

This cover is much more appropriate.

And now I must abandon my own cozy nook in the Prince George library, put on my winter jacket, and venture forth into our suddenly frozen world. It’s minus 10 (Celsius) out there and quickly getting colder; clear and crisp with a just-full moon shining on the newly fallen snow.

Grocery shopping, and the long drive home, and then a quiet day at home tomorrow, part of which will most likely be spent constructing the huge bonfire pile which has become a family All Hallows tradition. Or at least providing cocoa and other sustenance for the teens who’ve been plotting the construction of the pyre ever since last year’s spectacular display. (They’re running out of things to burn, having picked up sticks and collected scrap lumber so diligently in previous years that little remains anywhere within easy dragging distance. There was some mention of wanting a chainsaw and the use of a truck. We’ll see what happens. The weather forecast is dismal for October 31st – cold and snowy.)

There might even be a few Roman candles let off, which will shock the complacency of our own farm’s sheep – they definitely do not approve of such changes in routine, and generally wait out the human noisemaking in the shelter of their shed, gently baaing in ovine astonishment at all the fuss.

Happy Hallowe’en to those of you who celebrate it!  And to everyone at the mercy of the present widespread bitter weather, I wish you a respite from the storms, and a chance to catch your breath and regroup before winter sets in in earnest.

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August Folly by Angela Thirkell ~ 1936. This edition: Penguin, 1954. Paperback. 250 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. Possibly subject to move a bit higher after I’ve had a chance to mull it over more deeply, and have read some more of the author’s other books. Not bad at all, nicely diverting, but it didn’t immediately GRAB me. I have a feeling these might grow on one, though. We’ll see. I’m open to the possibility. I quite enjoy the hunt for obscurish vintage books, as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success, both in finding the quarry, and in finding it worth the trouble once it has been captured.

I have been watching for Thirkell for years in my rambles – as you may have gathered by now I am a used-book enthusiast – but this is the first one I’ve ever stumbled upon. Obviously not terribly popular in our region of B.C.! Must see what the library system offers, now that I’ve dipped my toe in and found the water temptingly warm. Or I could just be brave and go ahead and order some more from the various vendors on Abe, though some of the prices made me gasp a bit when I browsed them this morning, on spec as it were.


Like D.E. Stevenson, whom I’d never even heard of in pre-book-blog-reading days, Angela Thirkell has a deeply devoted following among lovers of the vintage “middlebrow” genre. I’d also read a certain number of negative reviews – “shallow”, “fluff”, “just couldn’t get into them”, “you know the author just whipped these off for the income and rather despised her readers, don’t you?” – stuff like that. So I was cautiously optimistic.

Well, I’ve finally gotten my hands on a Thirkell to sample for myself, and with mixed (but rather high, as the fans decidedly outweighed the critics in blog world)expectations I carefully delved in. Carefully, because the old Penguin I now possess has had a long career already and is gently but persistently shedding pages, as old Penguins are wont to do. It’s been around. The price sticker on the front is from Australia, and inside the front cover the original bookseller has rubber stamped “Angus & Robertson, Melbourne”. It’s now a long way from home, here in the northern interior of British Columbia.

I was initially rather put off by the author’s parody of English village names in the first chapter – we are introduced to these improbabilities: Worsted (that was all right), shortly followed by Winter Overcotes (ack!), Shearings, Winter Underclose (oh, for heaven’s sake, stop already!), Lambton, Fleece, Woolram, Skeyne, Staple Park, and Lamb’s Piece. Rocked me a bit. I hope it’s not going to be one of those books, I thought to myself, a laboured and dated farce full of punning and “in” jokes. But after the starting jolt to get the thing in motion the author settled down to her story, and I settled in to enjoy it.

From The Angela Thirkell Society Website, here is a quick condensation of the plot, with a bonus reading recommendation. I would add, also ideal for reading in a warmly cozy chair with snowflakes drifting down outdoors, which is our present situation. Most conducive to reading about summer!

August Folly. Takes place in Worsted in East Barsetshire.  Most of the plot centers around the rehearsing and production of Euripides’ Hyppolyta, directed by Mrs. Palmer and involving the Deans, Tebbens, and many of the villagers. Highlights: Richard Tebben is infatuated with Rachel Dean, in addition to pouting about his poor showing at Oxford; Betty Dean, Oxford-bound, drives everyone crazy with her know-it-all attitude; Helen Dean is jealous of her favorite brother Laurence’s attentions to Margaret Tebben; Rachel Dean worries about her heart murmur; Charles Fanshawe fears he is too old for Helen Dean; Mrs. Tebben remembers her long-ago and never-expressed fondness for Mr. Fanshawe, who was her tutor; Jessica Dean is rescued from a bull by Richard Tebben. Richard gets a job with Mr. Dean, Laurence wins Margaret, Charles wins Helen.  Outstanding light entertainment, ideal for reading on a shady porch on a hot afternoon in July with strawberry ice cream and tea – which is how I read it!

I must add a note as to how much I appreciated the several brief vignettes featuring Modestine the donkey and Gunnar the tomcat in the midnight pasture. Totally unexpected, but most welcome.

A few minutes earlier Modestine, lounging about in the little shed down in the field that was his summer quarters, saw two points of fire approach.

‘I suppose that’s you as usual,’ he said ungraciously. ‘What’s the news?’

‘Nothing particular,’ said Gunnar, settling himself on some old sacks. ‘The usual dull evening. Some people from the Dower House came to dinner. Now, there they do keep a good kitchen. Chicken nearly every day, so the cat there tells me, young Kitty Dean.’

‘I daresay,’ said Modestine. ‘Some like chicken, some don’t. I don’t.’

‘Know what I did tonight?’ asked Gunnar.

Modestine only went on chewing some grass.

‘Drank all their sherry,’ said Gunnar, who needed no encouragement to talk about himself. ‘They left it in the drawing-room while they ate chicken in the dining-room. Never offered me chicken, so I drank their sherry.’

‘Was it good?’ asked Modestine. ‘I don’t hold with sherry. Give me a nice pail of water, or a good green pond, and I’m perfectly satisfied.’

‘Ignorant, that’s what you are,’ said Gunnar, ‘and prejudiced. Vegetarians always are …’

So there you have it. A restrained enthusiasm for my first Angela Thirkell. Quite curious about the next experience. Any recommendations, those of you who are old Barsetshire hands?

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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby ~ 1958. This edition: Harper Collins, 2010. Introduction by Evelyn Waugh, Epilogue by Hugh Carless. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-00-736775-7. 288 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10, after some inner debate. I have decided to overlook the more blatant “Eurocentric” passages, and to view this book as a product of its times, despite a vast change in standards of political correctness in the ensuing fifty-some years since its first publication. Very readable, in a dryly witty British way.


In 1956, 37-year-old Englishman Eric Newby, having received a publisher’s advance to write a travel book, contacted his friend, career diplomat Hugh Carless, and floated the idea of travelling to Afghanistan and trekking in the Hindu Kush mountains, an area where few Europeans had previously ventured. The two decided that the trek should have some definite aim, in part to enable them to request grants from various organizations to assist with expenses, so, without letting their lack of mountaineering experience stand in their way, they decided to focus on ascending 20,000 foot Mir Samir, which had not yet been climbed to its summit.

After a two-day crash course in basic alpine climbing at Snowdonia in Wales, the two felt they were marginally more prepared for the rigours ahead, and the trip was on. Each man brought a certain experience to the expedition.

Newby, though having spent the previous ten years working in his family’s ladies’ fashion business, had strong credentials as an outdoorsman. At the tender age of 19, he had spent time on a four-masted Finnish sailing ship, voyaging from Australia to Europe via Cape Horn, and his eventual book about this experience, The Last Grain Race, was responsible for the publisher’s advance which initiated the Hindu Kush journey. With the start of World War II, Newby served in the famous Black Watch regiment, and was involved in the Special Boat Section, making lightning commando raids on enemy airfields and the like. One of these expeditions went awry, and Newby was captured off Sicily and interned for the rest of the war, barring a brief period of freedom in the Italian mountains, where he met his future wife, a Slovenian village girl, Wanda, who aided him in an escape attempt. This period was also written about, in Love and War in the Apennines, published in North America as When the Snow Comes, They Will Take You Away. (I am currently reading this memoir, and it is fascinating, and helps put Eric Newby the Hindu Kush “explorer” into context.) Wanda wrote her own memoir, Peace and War: Growing Up in Fascist Italy, in 1992. Always strongly and competently athletic, and with a strong sense of humour and a forthright readiness to embrace new experiences, Newby’s intent to venture into the forbidding mountains of a somewhat hostile Afghanistan is more understandable than it appears from his account of the initial decision in A Short Walk, where it appears to be merely a whim of the moment.

Hugh Carless himself, while on one of his official postings in Kabul, had previous experience in the area, and it was his accounts of trekking in the region with Tajik guides which got Newby thinking about the possibilities of a more ambitious expedition. The 31-year-old Carless brought knowledge of local languages and on-the-ground diplomacy to the partnership, as well as a strong inclination to adventure which more than matched Eric Newby’s.

The entire adventure, the “short walk”, lasted only a month, but what a marathon that month was. The book details the trials and tribulations, as well as the rewards, of the journey first to Afghanistan, and then, after engaging local guides, into the mountains. Mir Samir was reached, and the climb attempted, but both Newby and Carless were so weakened by continual dysentery and altitude sickness that they were forced to turn back a mere 700 feet from the summit. (A German party of experienced climbers was the first to reach the summit, only three years later, in 1959.)

After descending Mir Samir, bloodied and bruised, the trekkers continued around the foot of the mountain, as Newby and Carless thought they would like to see it from the “other side”, which entailed the party entering the neighbouring province of Nuristan, to the trepidation of their guides; regional rivalries were intense and deadly, and there was a very real danger of violence to trespassers.

A safe return was made, and the two men were thereby provided with anecdotes for a lifelong series of dinner parties, not to mention a whole book. The guides returned to their normal lives, grateful, one would assume, that the whole darned thing was so quickly over.

Much is made of Newby’s playful, ironic tone in this book, and while I did appreciate the bantering tone, as it made for an enjoyable reading experience on a purely diversionary level, I did continually keep thinking to myself, “Why?” Why risk life and limb, not only of themselves but of their guides, on such a pointless journey? Because it was “there”? That does seem to be the chief motivation set forth in the book, and I am not sure whether learning from the afterword by Hugh Carless, special to the 50th anniversary edition of A Short Walk, that the trip was contrived at least partly in order to have an experience to write a book about, that I am any happier with that reasoning. I suppose it is no different from the contemporary trips in search of material by the likes of Michael Palin and Bill Bryson, and even the revered Paul Theroux. We do tend to love a good traveller’s tale, whether we are fellow adventurers or merely armchair voyeurs.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is often referred to as the book that started that successful genre, but I must differ on that point, as the traveller’s tale form stretches back in popularity to pre-history. Think of The Odyssey, and the Nordic journey tales, and Marco Polo, and the countless accounts since then. This book is a worthy successor of its historical ancestors, but it very much walks in the shadow of what came before, versus branching out in any significant way.

Newby and Carless ultimately come across as being a wee bit arrogant (okay, in Carless’ case, hugely arrogant), with their snide comments on the personal habits of the natives of the area. To balance this they do poke continual fun at themselves, and there are numerous appreciative comments regarding the region and the people, so perhaps it is merely a case of the author being more honest than most in that he records his negative thoughts, rather than submerging them in the interests of political correctness as more modern writers have been trained to do. Whatever my criticism, the fact remains that these two men ventured where few others dared, and, in the face of overwhelming discomfort and very real danger, pushed forward to pursue their stated goals, with a great degree of success.

To sum up, I quite enjoyed reading this book, am eager to read more of Newby’s work, and would happily recommend A Short Walk to others, with the note that it represents the attitudes of the time it was written, and may jar the sensibilities of a more tactful and possibly better educated (in a worldly aware sense) time.

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Let the Day Perish by Christian Petersen ~ 1999. This edition: Beach Holme Publishing, 1999. First Edition. Softcover. ISBN: 0-88878-400-7. 136 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Strong, vivid and eloquent. “Beautifully crafted”  and “Powerful” may have become clichéd descriptions, but they apply in their most sincere sense to these punchy short stories.


From the back cover:

Christian Petersen beautifully reins in the confusion and displacement of a diminishing band of men facing the daily spectre of an unforgiving land, men enslaved to the grind of the sawmill, hunkered on bar stools, high in the saddle of a John Deere, or wild behind the wheel speeding down dirt roads to the Fraser. Here are fathers, brothers, lovers in search of forsaken children, bygone loves, and memories long faded in the wash of fast-running streams and firelight. Here are the unpardoned, raging against what they might have been, what they are now, and where their paths have led them. Yet Petersen’s characters hollow out a quiet dignity, gentle in the silent truth that they are small in the face of pain – and of change.

Regional literature set in areas familiar to the reader is difficult to view in perspective. I find that I am often so caught up in nodding in recognition of places and people that a crucial distance is hard to maintain in attempting to judge merit of story and style. And this is a very local collection of stories, by a writer who closely shares my own experience of time and place in his formative years, growing up in Quesnel in the 1960s and 70s, leaving the Cariboo for a time, and eventually resettling in Williams Lake, where he has worked (is still working?) as a probation officer. He is obviously a keen observer of local “types” – they are instantly recognizable – but he looks past the superficial surface of the stereotypes to the turmoil within.

A quotation on the opening page gives a clue to the content within:

If a story is not to be about love or fear, then I think it must be about anger.

  • The Look of the Lightning, The Sound of the Birds ~ Diane Schoemperlen

Love, fear and anger are all represented here in their deepest intensity.

A very readable collection of stories, definitely for British Columbians familiar with the Cariboo-Chilcotin settings, and with a broader appeal to universal emotions which should resonate with readers everywhere.

  • Heart Red Monaco ~ Two unlikely friends search for some kind of meaning in their treading-water lives.
  • The Next Nine Hundred Years ~ Vignettes of “working at the mill.”
  • Horseshoes ~ Two brothers: rivalry, conflict and resolution.
  • Come Evening ~ A day with one of the fringe-dwelling “troopers” of Williams Lake.
  • Scout Island ~ From her house overlooking the nature reserve, a horse trainer deals with “getting by”, and a troubling situation initiated by her young son and her elderly great-aunt.
  • Country Boys ~ The brutal world of the high school bully, his victims and, ultimately, his tormenters.
  • Taseko ~ A boy goes moose hunting in the Chilcotin with his father and his father’s friend.
  • Let the Day Perish ~ Life, love and death on the ranch.
  • This is How It Is ~ A divorced father yearns for his young daughter.
  • Thibeau’s Crossing ~ Betrayal changes everything in a peaceful valley.
  • Charity ~ A sincere Baptist Church minister gives in to passion with far-reaching consequences.
  • Men’s Wear (after a fashion) ~ The venerable owner of the town’s “upper crust” men’s wear store is challenged by changed times, and undergoes an epiphany. Great ending note to this collection – left me smiling. Nice to quit on a high point; some of these stories (though not all) were dark.

Petersen has also written a mystery novel, Outside the Line (2009), and another collection of short stories, All Those Drawn to Me (2010). He is currently working on another book, a novel. I will be watching for it. Keep an eye out for this author. This first collection is excellent.

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Slow moves the acid breath of noon
over the copper-coated hill,
slow from the wild crab’s bearded breast
the palsied apples fall.

Like coloured smoke the day hangs fire,
taking the village without sound;
the vulture-headed sun lies low
chained to the violet ground.

The horse upon the rocky height
rolls all the valley in his eye,
but dares not raise his foot or move
his shoulder from the fly.
The sheep, snail-backed against the wall,
lifts her blind face but does not know
the cry her blackened tongue gives forth
is the first bleat of snow.

Each bird and stone, each roof and well,
feels the gold foot of autumn pass;
each spider binds with glittering snare
the splintered bones of grass.

Slow moves the hour that sucks our life,
slow drops the late wasp from the pear,
the rose tree’s thread of scent draws thin –
and snaps upon the air.

Laurie Lee ~ 1945

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The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley ~ 1919. This edition: Lippincott, 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: The bookish bits are an easy 10/10. The mystery bits, pretty bad, so only a 5/10. Okay, maybe a 6. Reflecting the time of writing and all that. The romance between the married couple, definitely a 10/10. Aubrey and Titania, hmm, they can have a 9. Another 10 for Bock the dog. It’s looking pretty good, here. Grand illustrations, too. How about an enthusiastic 9/10, with the note that this is very much a period piece, so proceed to read with that caveat in mind.


If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby-carriages, it is to be hoped you may chance upon a quiet by-street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.

This bookshop, which does business under the unusual name “Parnassus at Home,” is housed in one of the comfortable old brown-stone dwellings which have been the joy of several generations of plumbers and cockroaches. The owner of the business has been at pains to remodel the house to make it a more suitable shrine for his trade, which deals entirely in second-hand volumes. There is no second-hand bookshop in the world more worthy of respect.

It was about six o’clock of a cold November evening, with gusts of rain splattering upon the pavement, when a young man proceeded uncertainly along Gissing Street, stopping now and then to look at shop windows as though doubtful of his way. At the warm and shining face of a French rotisserie he halted to compare the number enamelled on the transom with a memorandum in his hand. Then he pushed on for a few minutes, at last reaching the address he sought. Over the entrance his eye was caught by the sign:


He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling of the muses, lowered his overcoat collar, and looked about.

It was very different from such bookstores as he had been accustomed to patronize. Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one: the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above, a gallery ran round the wall, which carried books to the ceiling. The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco. In front of him he found a large placard in a frame:

     THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
     Of all great literature, in hosts;

     We sell no fakes or trashes.
     Lovers of books are welcome here,
     No clerks will babble in your ear,

     Please smoke--but don't drop ashes!
     Browse as long as you like.
     Prices of all books plainly marked.
     If you want to ask questions, you'll find the proprietor
           where the tobacco smoke is thickest.
     We pay cash for books.
     We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.

     Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.

     Let us prescribe for you.

     By R. & H. MIFFLIN,

The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades. Passing down a narrow aisle between the alcoves the visitor noticed that some of the compartments were wholly in darkness; in others where lamps were glowing he could see a table and chairs. In one corner, under a sign lettered ESSAYS, an elderly gentleman was reading, with a face of fanatical ecstasy illumined by the sharp glare of electricity; but there was no wreath of smoke about him so the newcomer concluded he was not the proprietor.

As the young man approached the back of the shop the general effect became more and more fantastic. On some skylight far overhead he could hear the rain drumming; but otherwise the place was completely silent, peopled only (so it seemed) by the gurgitating whorls of smoke and the bright profile of the essay reader. It seemed like a secret fane, some shrine of curious rites, and the young man’s throat was tightened by a stricture which was half agitation and half tobacco. Towering above him into the gloom were shelves and shelves of books, darkling toward the roof. He saw a table with a cylinder of brown paper and twine, evidently where purchases might be wrapped; but there was no sign of an attendant.

“This place may indeed be haunted,” he thought, “perhaps by the delighted soul of Sir Walter Raleigh, patron of the weed, but seemingly not by the proprietors.”

His eyes, searching the blue and vaporous vistas of the shop, were caught by a circle of brightness that shone with a curious egg-like lustre. It was round and white, gleaming in the sheen of a hanging light, a bright island in a surf of tobacco smoke. He came more close, and found it was a bald head.

This head (he then saw) surmounted a small, sharp-eyed man who sat tilted back in a swivel chair, in a corner which seemed the nerve centre of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts, with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters. An antiquated typewriter, looking something like a harpsichord, was half-buried in sheets of manuscript. The little bald-headed man was smoking a corn-cob pipe and reading a cook-book.

“I beg your pardon,” said the caller, pleasantly; “is this the proprietor?”

Mr. Roger Mifflin, the proprietor of “Parnassus at Home,” looked up, and the visitor saw that he had keen blue eyes, a short red beard, and a convincing air of competent originality.

“It is,” said Mr. Mifflin. “Anything I can do for you?”


So begins this charming story, which was literally forced upon me by the proprietor of Murdoch’s Bookshoppe  in Mission, B.C., during a recent visit. “Have you read that?” he demanded of me as I browsed through it at the front desk while he was totting up my other purchases, giving me a stern look after he plunked each tempting hardcover down after noting the pencilled-in price. “No!? What do you mean, you’ve heard of it? You must READ it. Buy it!”

So I did. And I have. Bought it and read it.

How to describe this? Well, first off, it’s a stand-alone sequel to an earlier book, Parnassus on Wheels, in which our hero apparently operates a kind of travelling bookshop. Haven’t read that one yet, but it’s on my to-acquire list. (Though I see it is recently available via Project Gutenberg, as is The Haunted Bookshop itself and a number of Morley’s other works. I still prefer a physical book, after having experimented with a friend’s e-reader, and after reading a number of works online through Gutenberg. Print on the paper page, please, though I firmly believe that Gutenberg is providing a crucial resource by making available so many out of print gems. I occasionally do some proofreading for Gutenberg projects, which is an incredibly satisfying volunteer pastime. Maybe I should write a post about that one day.)

I am digressing, which is appropriate, as The Haunted Bookshop is a great series of digressions itself.

It is also a love story (or two), a mystery story, an ode to the printed page and the ideas found between covers, and, most vividly, an anti-war tirade, being published immediately post World War I, when the world was still reeling from the brutality of that event.

Roger Mifflin and his wife Helen have settled down in New York to pursue the bookselling trade from a fixed location. They are about to take into their household the daughter of a wealthy friend, who wishes young Titania to sober herself from her frivolous ways by learning what it is to toil and earn her living by her labour. Titania turns out to be a true treasure, and she soon attracts a swain – a certain Aubrey Gilbert, who has come into the shop to attempt to sell advertising to Mr. Mifflin, and, though turned down on this front, becomes attached to happily eccentric Roger and makes the shop something of a second home

A mystery regarding the continual disappearance and reappearance of a Thomas Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell on the shop’s shelves leads to encounters with sinister Germans, and a plot to assassinate Woodrow Wilson on his way to a Peace Conference. All’s well that ends well (except for a casualty or two in the final dramatic scene.)

This is quite the period piece, as I mentioned earlier, but is more than redeemed by the glorious bits of rambling prose. I will leave you with another sample, which made me laugh out loud – not sure what that says about the nature of my sense of humour, but I found this very funny.  I won’t force this book upon anyone in the forthright way of Mr. Murdoch, but I will give it a cheerful recommendation. And here is the author describing one of Roger’s domestic weaknesses.

I hesitate to touch upon a topic of domestic bitterness, but candor compels me to say that Roger’s evening vigils invariably ended at the ice-box. There are two theories as to this subject of ice-box plundering, one of the husband and the other of the wife. Husbands are prone to think (in their simplicity) that if they take a little of everything palatable they find in the refrigerator, but thus distributing their forage over the viands the general effect of the depredation will be almost unnoticeable. Whereas wives say (and Mrs. Mifflin had often explained to Roger) that it is far better to take all of any one dish than a little of each; for the latter course is likely to diminish each item below the bulk at which it is still useful as a left-over. Roger, however, had the obstinate viciousness of all good husbands, and he knew the delights of cold provender by heart. Many a stewed prune, many a mess of string beans or naked cold boiled potato, many a chicken leg, half apple pie, or sector of rice pudding, had perished in these midnight festivals. He made it a point of honour never to eat quite all of the dish in question, but would pass with unabated zest from one to another. This habit he had sternly repressed during the War, but Mrs. Mifflin had noticed that since the armistice he had resumed it with hearty violence. This is a custom which causes the housewife to be confronted the next morning with a tragical vista of pathetic scraps. Two slices of beet in a little earthenware cup, a sliver of apple pie one inch wide, three prunes lowly nestling in a mere trickle of their own syrup, and a tablespoonful of stewed rhubarb where had been one of those yellow basins nearly full—what can the most resourceful kitcheneer do with these oddments? This atrocious practice cannot be too bitterly condemned.

I do believe I will print that passage off and attach it to my fridge, in the hopes that my own domestic affairs will see an improvement in this area!

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Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India by Rumer Godden ~ 1997. This edition: Macmillan, 2007. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-71548-9. 170 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Workmanlike, but lacking any sort of the old Rumer Godden magic. If it were by any other author I would have set it aside unfinished, but as the celebrated writer’s last published work, I felt the need to see it through to the end. Not recommended, except to those wishing to round out their Godden collection.


Publisher’s Weekly Review, November 1997:

Based on a real incident that occurred a decade ago, this assured novel by 89-year-old Godden (Black Narcissus, etc.) concerns a sensational case brought by the Hindu god Shiva, “acting through the government of India,” against a wealthy Canadian, Sydney Carstairs Cromartie, who buys a small, 11th-century bronze statue of Shiva in Toronto. Cromartie takes the figurine to a highly reputable London art dealer, where a staff member informs the Indian government that the priceless artifact has likely been stolen. The partners in a prestigious set of chambers in London’s Inns of Court overcome their fear of appearing ridiculous and assign the case to young Michael Dean, who was born and raised in India. Dean returns to his homeland to investigate and stays at Patna Hall, a quaint beachfront hotel in South India, seen before in Godden’s Coromandel Sea Change. Although Dean soon falls for a visiting archeologist, love is not allowed to get in the way of the pursuit of justice; the denouement, however, brings one of the lovers a broken heart. Liberally dabbed with local color, the book is fast-paced–so much so that its concise prose sometimes seems hasty, its simple characterizations verging on the glib. Yet Godden’s fans will probably welcome yet another of this veteran novelist’s tales of India.

I am definitely a Godden fan, but I like to think that this designation does not blind me to the fact that her output can be, on occasion, charitably described as uneven. When she’s good, she’s very, very good,but when she’s bad … well, you know the rest of that tagline.

This book, her last adult novel, and indeed her last published work of any sort, was written at the very end of her long career. Though it is more than competently written, it feels sadly stiff and flat. I did not care for a single one of the characters; they moved behind a wall of smoked glass, with occasional glints of sparkle and colour, but nothing more. The ending was dreadfully contrived, like something out of one of Agatha Christie’s lesser efforts. I can’t help but feel the author shipped this one off to the publisher with a sigh of relief before turning to the fireside and tea-tray, much deserved after so many industrious years. Rumer Godden died a year after the publication of Cromartie v. The God Shiva, at the venerable age of ninety.

I will be reading Coromandel Sea Change, in order to compare the two. Godden refers to that work as the “Siamese twin” of Cromartie, sharing the setting and some of the characters, but diverging in plot. I have heard that Coromandel is the better book. I hope that this is true. I readily forgive Godden and allow her the odd miss, but I’m not going to hide my disappointment about this one.

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Bossypants by Tina Fey ~ 2011. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-316-05687-8. 275 pages.

My rating: An easy 9/10. Loved it! Some parts are literally laugh out loud funny. Whips right along – a most enjoyable memoir of the childhood, teen, college and early career years of this exceedingly witty lady, up until the time of her notorious portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.


Picked this one up for a paltry dollar at the Sally Ann, shortly after I spent a happy ten minutes browsing it in front of its full-price display in one of the mega-marts. I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend the $17.50 sticker price, though I was seriously tempted, so finding it a few days later virtually free was one of those happy little serendipities of haunting the less posh side of the shopping world.

The first half of the book, the childhood-teen-college year memoirs, when Tina Fey was something of a self-described social outcast and romantic failure, is actually quite poignantly sad behind its comic mask. There is something – the only thing –  to be said for having a tortured school life; often it brings out the inner drive to “show them” that leads to stellar success later in life; the bitterness can be usefully channeled into humour, and Tina Fey does that perfectly. She keeps it from being mean-spirited, and I admire her for that; that line is a fine one.

I have only seen Fey’s Palin impersonation in short clips, not having actually owned a television for something over twenty years, but I saw enough to appreciate how darned good it was. The latter part of the book is very focussed on that charade, and I must say Palin herself comes out of it sounding much more likeable than I’d expected. Sarah Palin makes me shudder in real life, in so many ways, but after reading about how graciously she handled being parodied in full prime time view, I get a bit of what her admirers see in her. A very small bit, but it’s there. So Fey has done Palin something of a favour by her mocking portrayal, in my opinion.

This is a keeper; I’ll definitely read it again, which is saying a lot because I tend to be quite out of step on pop culture as a whole, and reading about people you aren’t a particular fan of, or even have much knowledge of, can be a bore. Not guilty in this case. Thumbs up; good read.

Bossypants Review – Time Magazine

Bossypants Review – New York Times

And of course, the Goodreads page, with a gazillion reviews.

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Green Money by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1939. This edition: Collins, 1981. Large Print. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7089-0649-4. 482 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. Amusing enough, with an almost Wodehouse-like farce going on in parts, but it was far too long for the content. Zero surprises, every plot twist was telegraphed from miles away and came through loud and clear.

The main reason I rated it as high as I did was for the likeable main character George Ferrier – and his parents – and the very darling Cathie Seeley.

A feel-good romance, requiring little effort to absorb. Literary chocolate pudding with a great big dollop of cream; comfort reading verging on simplistic; nothing daring or terribly complex here; just lick it off the spoon.


Horse-loving countryman George Ferrier is on a bit of an ill-afforded toot in London when he runs across one of his father’s old school friends. Wealthy Mr. Green is now possessed of a motherless daughter, and, on a whim, he asks George to act as one of the trustees of his daughter’s eventual inheritance. The “old men” fulfilling the trustee roles keep dying off, and perhaps a younger man will prove less of a hassle. George, after much convincing, agrees, and returns home not expecting to hear anything more of his role for quite a few years to come.

But then Mr. Green suddenly kicks the bucket, leaving a vast fortune in the hands of four trustees: George, the ancient and doddery Mr. Bennett, and obviously hand-in-glove old cronies Mr. Wicherly and Mr. Millar. George senses something a bit off going on at his first meeting with the others, but allows himself to be soothed and sent away after signing numerous papers authorizing he’s-not-quite-sure-what.

Upon George’s meeting the orphaned “child” the story ramps up another notch; Miss Elma Green turns out to be a lovely eighteen-year-old who has been raised in an atmosphere of strictly Victorian purity. George is quite fascinated by this unexpectedly grown-up yet unworldly ward; he is also a bit shocked by how quickly she embraces the more forward modern behaviours her father has sought to shelter her against.

George ponders the possibility of marrying the delectable Elma to protect her from herself and the wiles of the world, but he can’t quite get over the feeling that she’s not really the woman of his dreams, beautiful though she is. For lurking in the background is his lifelong friend Cathie, whose brother Peter has himself fallen head-over-heels in love with Elma at first sight. The stage is now set for a series of misunderstandings and complications, all of which we see coming and which play out exactly as they should.

Mr. Millar steps in, offering to host Miss Green on a seaside holiday. Elma fully embraces the social whirl of tea parties and dancing till the wee hours, and instantly attracts an entourage of eager young swains, including Mr. Millar’s son Wilfred, who is receiving strong encouragement from his father to snag the heiress.

Meanwhile stalwart George ponders the clues surrounding Mr. Millar’s insistence on cashing in a large chunk of the Green shares to cover death duties, despite the existence of an insurance policy purchased  by Mr. Green to guard against the very scenario. As Peter sulks and pines for the lovely Elma, Cathie sternly tries to prepare herself for news of George’s engagement to another.

What will happen next? How will this story end? Golly, what do you think?

I liked Green Money well enough in a mild way, but I certainly didn’t love it. The story is well set up and the characters George, his mother Paddy, and self-effacing Cathie were nicely rounded out, but many of the other characters felt very one-dimensional. Elma herself comes across as a shallow, self-indulgent bit of fluff; her intelligence is of the self-protective type, and she shows no hesitance in deceiving her admittedly over-protective governess-companion to further a rapid progress into the wider world.

The whole thing went on past my initial interest level. I stuck it out to the end easily enough, but I put this one down with something of a feeling of relief that I could check it off on my D.E. Stevenson reading list.

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Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1939. This edition: Isis Publishing, 2004. ISBN: 0-7531-7083-3. Hardcover. Large Print. 292 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. Better than expected. Likable main characters gently shine in this sweetly improbable but diverting light read.


In a small Scottish town, Sue Pringle was competently keeping house for her widowed father and younger brother when an unexpected stepmother entered the picture. Now in her twenties, Sue has to bite her tongue at the constant criticisms of the woman who has taken her beloved mother’s place. Worse yet, Sue’s family is pressing for her marriage to a worthy young man working in her grandfather’s grocery business; while Sue likes Bob Hickie well enough in a platonic way she has no interest in him romantically.

When an opportunity to take on a job as a cook for an artist and his wealthy wife arises, Sue decides to make a break and move into Tog’s Mill with the Darnays. She awakens her first morning to find that Mrs. Darnay has left for London taking the single other servant with her, leaving her husband to fend for himself.

Though well aware of the social implications of living unchaperoned in the same house as a young, attractive man, Sue feels guilty about abandoning the unworldly Mr. Darnay to his own limited resources, and she stays on, though her family and the neighbouring villagers look askance at the unorthodox situation.

John Darnay and Sue soon become good friends, sharing a sense of humour and a desire for solitude to pursue their own interests. Immediately nicknamed “Miss Bun” for her father’s occupation (he is town baker), Sue basks in Darnay’s approval, and soon realizes that her feelings for her employer are something stronger than is wise in their situation. She keeps house and cooks and enables Darnay to work on his painting uninterrupted, going so far as to arrange for his growing number of creditors to hold off with their bills, as with Mrs. Darnay gone there is no longer any sort of income coming in, as Mrs. Darnay would really like her husband to return to the city and continue his lucrative trade of painting saleable pictures and society portraits, instead of mucking about experimenting with new techniques and ways to capture his personal “vision”.

The artist is totally oblivious of this situation, until it is brought to his attention by Sue’s grandfather, who, much as he likes Darnay, has some serious qualms about his beloved granddaughter’s obviously doomed affection for a married man, and a penniless artist to boot.

The inevitable happens; the penny drops; and the arrangement at Tog’s Mill comes to an abrupt end, with Darnay leaving for London to work at portrait painting to pay his bills, and Sue seeking refuge with her grandparents while she decides her next step.

Added to the mix are Sue’s younger brother Sandy who suddenly runs away to join the army, a local aristocrat who thinks he just might be Sue’s real father, and a petition for divorce advanced by the absent Mrs. Darnay naming Sue as a co-respondent.

All of these threads twist and turn and eventually come to satisfactory resolutions, but not without a chance for Sue to show what fine and tenacious stuff she’s made of.

An unlikely story, but a grand bit of escapism. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended.

Another brief and favorable review can be found here  .

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