Archive for March, 2013


Wishing you all a peaceful, joyous day!

Crocus & Bumblebee, March 13, 2013

Crocus & Bumblebee, March 30, 2013

Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata

Sagebrush buttercups blooming in the sunny spots on the hillside.

Sagebrush buttercups blooming in the sunny spots on the hillside.

Photos courtesy of my son, out and about and documenting our signs of spring.

Read Full Post »

the man in the queue josephine tey b001The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey ~ 1929. This edition: Berkely Medallion, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 425-01873-3. 223 pages. Originally published as The Killer in the Crowd by Gordon Daviot, and released with the new title under the Josephine Tey pseudonym after author Elizabeth Macintosh’s death in 1959.

My rating: 7.5/10.


This was Josephine Tey’s (to use the author’s best-known pseudonym, though she apparently preferred “Gordon Daviot”) first full-length book, written very quickly, reputedly in two weeks, according to this internet source,  Josephine Tey: A Very Private Person:

Tey started writing almost as soon as she could walk, according to a note from her literary agent, which also states that “writing was always her greatest amusement.” She published short stories and poems during the late 1920s in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review. Her first novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929. It was reportedly written in two weeks for a competition sponsored by the publisher Methuen.

Tey’s first detective novel, The Man in the Queue – dedicated ‘To Brisena, who actually wrote it’ – Brisena was a nickname she gave to her typewriter – was a highly accomplished piece of work for a beginner.   Winning the Dutton Mystery Prize, it was published in 1929 under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot—the name by which she preferred to be known, in both public and private.

Considering the time in which it was written, and the time frame it was written in, this novel is an accomplished piece of work, though it is far from flawless. I easily forgive the inconsistencies, because the writing is very good indeed, and I love seeing how the author progresses in her novels from the slight occasional awkwardnesses of this one to the sophistication of something like Brat Farrar, which I’ve just read as well, written twenty years later. This was a writer who continually honed and improved her craft; an admirable – and far from universal – thing.

The Man in the Queue starts out in front of popular London theatre, with a crowded line of hopeful people waiting for hours for a chance to see the most popular musical comedy show of the season, Didn’t You Know?, starring the lovely actress and dancer Ray Marcable (say it out loud – yes, it is what it looks like, though I didn’t twig myself until much later on in the story, when it was explained to me) in her last week of appearing in England before setting sail to try her luck in America.

It was between seven and eight o’clock on a March evening, and all over London the bars were being drawn back from pit and gallery doors. Bang, thud, and clank. Grim sounds to preface an evening’s amusement. But no last trump could have so galvanized the weary attendants on Thespis and Terpsichore standing in patient column of four before the gates of promise. Here and there, of course, there was no column. At the Irving, five people spread themselves over the two steps and sacrificed in warmth what they gained in comfort; Greek tragedy was not popular. At the Playbox there was no one; the Playbox was exclusive, and ignored the existence of pits. At the Arena, which had a three weeks’ ballet season, there were ten persons for the gallery and a long queue for the pit. But at the Woffington both human strings tailed away apparently into infinity. Long ago a lordly official had come down the pit queue and, with a gesture of his outstretched arm that seemed to guillotine hope, had said, “All after here standing room only.” Having thus, with a mere contraction of his deltoid muscle, separated the sheep from the goats, he retired in Olympian state to the front of the theatre, where beyond the glass doors there was warmth and shelter. But no one moved away from the long line. Those who were doomed to stand for three hours more seemed indifferent to their martyrdom. They laughed and chattered, and passed each other sustaining bits of chocolate in torn silver paper. Standing room only, was it? Well, who would not stand, and be pleased to, in the last week of Didn’t You Know? Nearly two years it had run now, London’s own musical comedy, and this was its swan song …

As the theatre doors finally open and the surging queue moves forward, another swan song is played out. A man gently slumps to the ground, having been held up by the press of the crowd. “He’s fainted!” is the murmur from the bystanders, until one of them noticed that between his shoulder-blades gleams the hilt of a silver dagger!the man in the queue josephine tey

And we’re off. For the man in undeniably very dead indeed, and it appears that he has been so for some time. But who could have stabbed him in front of so many potential witnesses, and why didn’t he cry out? Who is the man, anyway, and why is he carrying no identification? And is that a loaded revolver in his pocket?!

Scotland Yard immediately takes charge, and it is up to Inspector Grant, guaranteed dependable and with a certain flair for successfully solving his cases, to identify the victim and inexorably hunt down the missing killer.

An excellent piece of “Golden Age” mystery writing, chock full of appalling-to-the-modern-sensibility racial profiling and sexist commentary, but great fun to any lover of this most engaging genre. I must say I was completely stumped by the surprise ending; I was completely taken with the huge, stinking red herring which the author paraded about to confuse the plot; I did NOT guess the murderer until the final denouncement and explanation.

Inspector Grant, in his first appearance on the page, is rather Holmesian in style, consulting with the examining surgeon and coming up with some rather surprising assumptions, based on appearances alone. “Scientific”? Oh, dear …

“Can you tell me anything about the dead man himself?” asked Grant, who liked to hear a scientific opinion on any subject.

“Not much. Well nourished – prosperous, I should say.”


“Yes, very, I should think.”

“What type?”

“What type of occupation, do you mean?”

“No, I can deduce that for myself. What type of – temperament, I suppose you’d call it?”

“Oh, I see.” The surgeon thought for a moment. He looked doubtfully at his interlocutor. “Well, no one can say that for a certainty – you understand that?” And when Grant had acknowledged this qualification: “but I should call him one of the ‘lost cause’ type.” He raised his eyebrows interrogatively at the inspector and, assured of his understanding, added, “He had practical enough qualities in his face, but his hands were a dreamer’s. You’ll see for yourself.”

Together they viewed the body. It was that of a young man of twenty-nine or thirty, fair-haired, hazel-eyed, slim, and of medium height. The hands, as the doctor had pointed out, were long and slim and not used to manual work …

Nice “scientific” work, you two. And if you thought this was a little too good to be true, just wait until you read about the assumptions made once the murder weapon is considered…

Very good stuff, in a completely “vintage read” sort of way. A definite must-read for the Tey fan, to track where the author came from, as it were, and to realize the huge strides she made in her writing career. Decidedly decent indeed for a first book; the others only get better.

And here, for your enjoyment and further enlightenment, are some grand reviews by other bloggers:

Fleur Fisher – The Man in the Queue

Stewartry ( A Gold of Fish) – The Man in the Queue

Read Full Post »

jenny kimura betty cavannaJenny Kimura by Betty Cavanna ~1964. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1965. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

All things considered, a slight little period piece, but a very good example of its genre: “teen girl” fiction of the 1950s and 60s, with a thought-provoking and rather brave theme for the time, that of racial prejudice.


Jenny Kimura Smith, 16 years old, has lived her whole life in Japan. Her mother is Japanese, and her father is an ex-U.S. serviceman now working in banking. The Smiths live in Tokyo, and the portrait we are given is of a quietly happy family, enjoying, as Jenny’s father likes to say, the best parts of being both Japanese and American.

Jenny goes to an all-girls high school, and her interests are the same as those of her friends: study hard enough to get decent marks, spend time on your wardrobe, polish up your tennis game, and, increasingly, speculate about boys and romance and your fast-approaching adult life.

But Jenny’s life is about to change quite drastically from that of her schoolmates. Her American grandmother has invited her to spend the summer in Kansa City, and has sent money for airfare.

The invitation is something of a surprise, as Jenny’s father is vaguely estranged from his widowed mother since his Japanese marriage, and also, as we soon learn, because of his mother’s resentment towards the Japanese for the death of her second son during combat in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War. Jenny is excited to have this unexpected opportunity to travel, and is looking forward to experiencing life in exotic America.

On arrival in the States, Jenny is rather bewildered at the lack of open affection shown her by her grandmother, a wealthy, upper class, Kansas City society matron. She wonders why her grandmother has invited her to visit, as Mrs. Smith seems slightly cold and more than a little critical of Jenny’s very Japanese appearance, and some of her mannerisms. However, Grandmother does all of the proper things, and Jenny is introduced to a group of suitable teenagers, and is welcomed warmly into their social circle. It is soon apparent that she has caught the eye of one boy in particular, Alan, who begins squiring her about.

Could Jenny and Alan be falling in love? Not if Alan’s mother has anything to say about it! Once she realizes the increasing intensity of the situation, she whisks Alan away on a sudden holiday trip to remove him from the vicinity of “foreign” Jenny.

The plot takes another twist as Jenny and her grandmother travel to Cape Cod for a seaside holiday, and Jenny meets another young man, a Nisei (American-born Japanese), George Yamada, who was born in a California internment camp in 1944, but who considers himself completely American, despite his Japanese ethnicity and his family’s negative experience during the war.

Jenny immediately likes and is attracted to George, and soon realizes that the two of them are much more readily acceptable as a couple to their acquaintances because of their shared ethnicity, despite the differences in their actual backgrounds, than she and Alan were. She ponders this, and sees its “wrongness” – with her own parents as examples, Jenny realizes that love and “suitability” are more than skin deep – but she also realizes that appearances do matter to all concerned, much as they shouldn’t.

It also becomes very apparent that it is the older generation, the parents and grandparents, who are really resistant to anything like a “mixed race” relationship, while the younger generation is much more accepting, and openly discuss the issues raised by Jenny’s “foreign” appearance in a mostly non-judgemental way, though Jenny notices that she has a certain “novelty” appeal, especially when she appears in a kimono at a social function.

One of the key plot points is that Mrs. Smith deeply resents her son’s Japanese wife and has a hard time accepting and loving her own granddaughter, despite the attempt at reconciliation which inspired the invitation to America. She feels shame that her son has “demeaned” himself so far as to both marry a woman of a different race, and to live quite happily in a foreign country, far from “home”. Though Jenny tries to do everything right during her visit, her grandmother deep down is ashamed of her granddaughter and her “foreign” appearance and behaviours, only coming around when Jenny is snubbed by Alan’s family, when her pride is hurt, and her rage at their prejudice causes her to face her own feelings at last, and makes her realize how unfair her attitude has been in the years since her son’s marriage.

Similarly, from the Japanese viewpoint, Jenny’s mother has been shut out of her own family because of her insistence on marrying a foreigner, and Jenny’s maternal grandparents are cold and bitter towards both their daughter and granddaughter because of the “mixed” marriage which has caused the family to lose face. There is no reconciliation here, though, and it is implied that Jenny’s future relations will be much more positive with her father’s family than her mother’s.

The story ends with Jenny poised on the brink of her next step in life. She is about to return to Japan, but she has the promise from her grandmother that there will be a further family reconciliation, and she has had romantic experiences with two young men, George and Alan, which both look like they might possibly turn into something more serious depending upon Jenny’s future decisions. The idea of Jenny attending college in America has been raised, and she rather likes it, but nothing is yet decided, and that is where the story ends.

Despite the rather sober themes for a book of this genre, it is well padded with the usual happenings in a “teen girl” story: parties, shopping, lovely clothes, beach picnics and waiting by the phone for that special someone to call.

Jenny is realistic, likeable, delicately sensitive young heroine, and the author has done a better than average job in her portrayal of Jenny’s life both in Japan and the U.S.A. There are, of course, the expected clichés and stock situations, and many era-correct comments, which are a bit jaw-dropping when viewed from five decades further along.

This is no masterpiece, but it is a quite likeable book, and one I have happily re-read from time to time since my first acquaintance with it back in the 1970s, when I first checked it out of my high school library. The copy I own is that very copy I once signed out, found years later at a library discard sale, and the popularity of its heyday is borne out by the velvet softness of its well-thumbed pages and the many dog-eared corners throughout.


Betty Cavanna was a prolific writer of “teenage” stories from the 1940s through the 1970s, publishing something like seventy titles, ranging from romance novels such as Jenny Kimura, to juvenile mysteries, horse-and-dog stories, and non-fiction “life in other lands” books. While many of her works are viewed as merely “average”, she was known for her meticulous research and wide variance of plots. Unlike many other novelists working in the same genre, Cavanna avoided series books; most of her stories are “stand-alone”.

I doubt that we will ever see this author re-published, but those of us nostalgic for revisiting the reading of our teen years will be happy to occasionally find her titles in secondhand bookstore and book sale rambles. Their value lies mainly in recording the attitudes and vignettes of a time now past, but those are reason enough for their preservation and occasional exploration, in my opinion.

Read Full Post »

to love and be wise josephine teyTo Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey ~ 1950. This edition: Pan, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-10381-4. 191 pages.

My rating: 8/10.


Who is the unusual young man who catches Inspector Grant’s attention during a brief encounter at a literary cocktail party? Slender and soft-spoken, rather negligible but for his white-blond fairness, Leslie Searle professes to be a professional American photographer on a private trip to England.

Why has Searle insinuated himself into best-selling author Lavina Fitch’s household, focussing his charm on Lavinia’s niece Liz Garroway, and partnering up with Liz’s fiance Water Whitmore, the well-known radio broadcaster, on a suddenly conceived book project?

And why is Mrs. Garroway, Liz’s super-maternal stepmother, so immediately hostile to the personable and perfectly well-mannered Mr. Searle, and why does the local vicar murmur about other-worldly demons after making Mr. Searle’s acquaintance over a placid dinner?

Walter and Leslie head off on their spontaneously planned canoe trip down the twisting Rushmere River, which they are co-documenting in words and photographs, and all seems well until the night when Walter storms out of the pub where he’s been sitting with Leslie. Laughing off Walter’s departure, Leslie is in no hurry to follow, and when he does leave, he placidly walks down the street and out of the village on his way back to the riverside camping spot. And then he disappears into the night. Leslie Searle is never seen again…

What really happened that night, and what dark secrets are hiding behind the many blank, superficially cooperative faces of so many respectable people? Nothing is as it seems, and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard has his work cut out in attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding what may just be an exceedingly well-planned murder.

A most satisfactory vintage mystery story, with a traditionally English countryside setting – though what is it with these (purely fictional, I’m always hoping) sedate British villages and their exceedingly high rates of murder and other such mayhem?!  With its nicely detailed character development, and reasonably believable plot twists, Tey’s novel still stands up well more than a half-century after publication, and will provide an evening or two of diverting reading to the modern connoisseur of the genre. If you have not yet discovered Josephine Tey, I recommend her to you with admiration and enthusiasm.

I frequently find it a lot harder to sensibly talk about why I like a book, especially one I’ve read and re-read numerous times with pure enjoyment, than to pan something I’ve reacted to unfavourably and have no intention of ever reading again, as I did in my last review, of Mary Wesley’s The Chamomile Lawn. So though I’ve spent some time mulling over how best to analyze  the appeal of this author, I will merely say that something about her writing just “clicks” in a deeply satisfying way.

If I can compare Josephine Tey to anyone, it would be Ngaio Marsh at her very best, hybridized with the intellectual superiority of D.L. Sayers. This writer treats her readers as full equals, never for a moment talking down to us, and always assuming we are well able to catch all of the nuances of the characters, settings and plots she has created and presented for our enjoyment.

And Tey has a deliciously sly sense of humour as well, which shows that the author had a very keen observational eye on the society and personalities of her time, much as she seems to have been personally rather reclusive in nature. She did move in some interesting circles – the theatre, literary and upper-class society worlds of her time – though she quite cleverly evaded the attentions of the press once her work became widely popular.

I do admire and enjoy Josephine Tey’s clean, intelligent style, especially in her later books, and I deeply regret that her body of work is so slight. There exist only eight mystery novels, of which To Love and Be Wise is the sixth, as well as several “straight” novels, and a number of stage and radio plays.

“Josephine Tey” is a pseudonym, that of Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh. She also published under the pen name “Gordon Daviot” – several of the novels and the dramatic works originally appeared under this name. This accomplished writer died tragically, much too young, of cancer at the age of fifty-six in 1952. For more information on this famously reclusive writer, check out this dedicated website: Josephine

It’s been a few years since I’ve read this particular mystery novel, To Love and Be Wise, but now that I have indulged myself by escaping into her fictional world, and renewing my acquaintance with the most likeable Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, key investigator in five of the mysteries, I am eyeing the rest of the Teys sitting here on the “special books” shelf with anticipation. Time perhaps for yet another single-author reading jag, now that I’ve gleefully polished off most of the D.E. Stevensons I was saving for a treat for myself during this most hectic time of the year.

I believe that Josephine Tey’s mysteries are being currently reprinted in handsome modern editions, but even if you are unable to find new volumes, her most popular titles are in wide abundance in the secondhand book world.

Edited to add this link to an exceedingly excellent review which I’ve stumbled upon in marvelous serendipity while looking for info on the story around the publishing of Tey’s very first mystery, The Man in the Queue. I beg of you, if you’re interested in Tey, please click over here:  A Gold of Fish – To Love and Be Wise

I wish I could write reviews like this. Thank you, Stewartry ! I anticipate much happy reading as I further explore your EXCELLENT blog!

Read Full Post »

the chamomile lawn mary wesleyThe Chamomile Lawn by Mary Wesley ~ 1984. This edition: Black Swan, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-552-99126-0. 336 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

It had its moments, but not enough to make it a keeper. Into the giveaway pile, to try its luck with other readers.


In the summer of 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, a group of cousins assemble at a Cornish cliff side house. Lazing in the sun, lounging on the fragrant chamomile lawn, they are poised for whatever the future brings. Mary Wesley’s narrative follows them through the war, in a series of extended flashbacks triggered by the surviving cousins preparing to attend the funeral of a mutual acquaintance, a key figure in the family’s  fortunes.

That summer Oliver, newly returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, is in love with beautiful Calypso, who professes not to love anyone; 10-year-old Sophy is in love with Oliver. Kind Walter, his indolent sister Polly, and the twins from the nearby rectory, David and Paul, round out the cast of characters lounging the days away and enjoying the hospitality of Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard. When war is declared, the scene shifts to London, where the various marriages, affairs and misalliances of the cousins, the twins, Helena, Richard and Jewish refugees Max and Monika Erstweiler form a complicated and vaguely incestuous moving picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence.

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way.

Little girls running about with no underwear and “respectable” gentlemen who should know better putting their hands up under those juvenile skirts; continual references to flatulence and erections and various other bodily functions seemed, after a while, to be over-telling; much too much information! The thing just felt smutty to me, and the story, though reasonably engaging, was completely unrelatable. None of the characters came to life for me, and I couldn’t drum up enough interest to really keep track of who was sleeping with who after a while, let alone try to get inside their rather nasty little heads long enough to work up some personal empathy.

It was hard work to finish this one. Perhaps because right before reading it I had just experienced Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians, which is a gorgeously written specimen of this sort of novel, an example of what it could be?

Mary Wesley isn’t even in the same city, let alone the same ballpark, as Vita Sackville-West and her ilk! Apples to oranges, or, rather, an overripe, sickly sweet, partly decayed banana (phallic pun fully intended, inspired by Wesley’s fixation on the male naughty bits) to an opulent bunch of hothouse grapes.

This is a damning review, and I’m sitting here having second thoughts about even posting it, but I think I will go ahead and just put it out there as an example of something which sounded great, received lots of positive press, but just didn’t click with this particular reader.

I didn’t hate the book, and I truly enjoyed some of the details the author shared about life and attitudes in wartime England, but the sexual stuff put me off. Not the fact that there was sexual content in this novel, but how it was portrayed.

Nothing was terribly graphic; I’ve read and happily tolerated – more than that – enjoyed – much more detailed portrayals of people’s fictional sex lives, but this one just felt off somehow. I’d hoped to be able to give The Chamomile Lawn to my elderly mother to read, but I don’t feel comfortable with doing so after reading it; something which seldom happens, as she quite happily tolerates a fairly broad range of “intimate” detail in some of the modern fiction we share and discuss.

I’m open to investigating some of the author’s other titles if they cross my path, because the story itself showed some creativity, but not planning on seeking them out in the near future. I will, however, be making a determined search for Sackville-West’s The Heir, which I know is around here somewhere, and which I desperately want to re-read, because reading All Passion Spent some months ago, and The Edwardians a day or two ago have reminded me what a stylish and clever writer Vita was, and how enjoyable really well-written “personality” fiction can be.

Edited to add: I’ve just registered The Chamomile Lawn with BookCrossing, and will be sending it back out into the big wide world on one of my next trips to town.

Read Full Post »

Tthe tall stranger d e stevenson hc djhe Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1957. This edition: Ace, 1978. Paperback. ISBN: 0-441-79621-4. 252 pages. (Note: This is not the cover of the paperback, but of the original hardcover dustjacket. The Ace paperback illustration is quite a different thing! I will spare you it.)

My rating: 8/10.

Yes, it’s a very high rating for what is basically a “fluff” book, but it was what I needed last night, after a very trying day (condensed version – an unexpected visit to the vet with our 13-year-old dog and $2000 in emergency surgery fees, prognosis a guarded “fair”, upgraded to “good” when it was apparent that she handled the surgery very well indeed, all things considered) and it (the story) made me forget our combined woes for a bit, and made me happy. Maybe I should even put it up a point or two more for that!

Postscript – the dog is back home and looking most happy to be here; though rather sore and stiff after her internal surgery. Feeling optimistic this morning that all will be well with her for at least the near future, because, realistically, at 13, the inevitable final parting is not all that far away. This is the dreadful bit about sharing your home and heart with pets…


This is one of D.E. Stevenson’s minor romantic novels which doesn’t get much press – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about it at all. And probably for good reason – it’s a slight little thing, and the characters are nothing if not “stock”. But I loved it!

So here we have two roommates in a London flat. Barbara – Barbie – works for an interior decorating firm, while Nell is a secretary to a doctor. As the story opens, Barbie is in hospital with a mysterious virus, exceedingly ill. To cut a long story short, she recovers, due to timely intervention by Nell’s employer, and the loving care of Barbie’s Aunt Amalie and her companion-housekeeper Miss Penney.

Now toss in a charming but shifty love interest for Barbie, Aunt Amalie’s handsome stepson Edward, and a mysterious “tall stranger” met briefly at a crowded wedding. Relocate the action to a rather shabby castle on the Scottish border, garnish with a lovable child (and one not quite so immediately lovable), various charming clients-cum-friends, a basket of kittens, a dramatic storm and a rescue from an island, another love interest for Nell (looks aren’t everything in a man, you know), and there you go. One trials-and-tribulations-overcome-with-a-very-happy-ending double (quadruple?) romance.

Not very realistic, but lovely to escape into. Nicely done, Dorothy Emily!

I promised myself I’d just post and run with this one, because it’s really not the material for any sort of deep analysis, but I feel like sharing this snippet from midway through, because of course spring is, by the calendar at least, here; my life (and nursery greenhouse) is full of plants and my mind is full of gardening plans, and I too have a fondness for, but, sadly, no luck with, the lovely willow gentian.

The garden was now at its best; wistaria rioted over the south wall, its branches bowed down with their weight of blossom, and the willow-gentian in its cool shady spot was beginning to come into flower. Soon the little bushes with their slender stems would bear narrow bells of deep blue flowers, and the corner of the garden where they grew would look like a pool of blue water. Amalie was very fond of these gentians, she had grown them herself from a few seeds gathered on a visit to Switzerland. She had been told that they would not grow here in the Cotswolds but they had liked their new home and had thriven and multiplied under her care.

Amalie was in no hurry for them to flower. She would have held back the garden if she could … for, as each plant flowered and faded, she knew that it was gone for a whole year. The longest day was long past … Next year was such a long time to wait … all through the dead winter. Summer days passed too quickly, thought Amalie, and then she thought, but there are still the chrysanthemums to come and the dahlias and the proud upstanding gladioli and the gold of the ripe corn in the garvest fields and the flames ofthe autumn leaves!

The years do pass so swiftly, as do the days of the garden and the moments of each flower’s particular glory, but (apt thought with Easter coming and all) there is at least the eternal resurrection of plant life each year to look forward to. For every thing there is a season, if you’ll forgive the overused but most appropriate quotation, though (increasingly, it seems with the passing years) the season in question is often too brief. Would I freeze time if I could? Perhaps occasionally…

I’m going to my sister’s 50th birthday party today, so please forgive my rather angsty ramblings. Half a century. No matter how casual we are about joking that 50 is the new 40, it’s a slightly sobering milestone!

gentiana asclepiadeae hf 2013 x

Read Full Post »

sisters torn cynthia faryon 001Sisters Torn by Cynthia J. Faryon ~ 2001. This edition: Caitlin Press, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-920576-92-3. 297 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

A tragic family story, and much as I respected the author’s desire to record it, it didn’t quite come to life as it might have. Perhaps the attempts at dialect and dialogue didn’t really work out?

This has a small press, “self published” feel to it. It definitely could have used a stronger editorial presence, to clean up grammar, punctuation and proof reading errors, all of which were much too frequent, and got in the way of my fully appreciating the narrative.


From the back cover:

“I promise I will always look afta’ my sista’ no matter what, I will never let go of her hand.”

Little did young Simone realize, as she made this promise to her aunt, that she and young Catherine would spend the next 65 years trying to reconnect.

Abandoned by their parents and separated by the British adoption system, these two young girls would face impersonal orphanages, brutal boarding-out homes, a world war, and separation by an ocean and two continents before they finally met again – in Victoria, B.C.

This is their story as told to the daughter of one of them. It is a story of pain and courage – and hope.

Born to a mismatched couple in the 1920s – their mother “married beneath her” – young Simone and Catherine were placed with relatives when their baby brother tragically died in a gruesome accident (vividly – perhaps too vividly! – recreated by the author) and the marriage dissolved. After a few years, the relatives were unable to financially manage the care of the sisters, so they were placed in a series of children’s homes, always with the proviso that they remain together.

Sadly, this request was not respected, and Catherine and Simone were separated suddenly and without explanation. Though they both attempted to find each other through the years to follow, they were completely unsuccessful, and all attempts at gaining information from the British children’s care ministry were met with stark refusals and, eventually, threats of prosecution.

A damning condemnation of the conditions and attitudes of the time which made such an abusive (and just plain wrong) situation possible.

The story does have a happy, late-in-the-day reunification. Both sisters were also fortunate in finding caring spouses and creating satisfying lives for themselves, but the thread of sadness at the loss of their “true family” wound through their lives, and influenced the lives of their children.

This is a work of creative non-fiction which works reasonably well; it is the author’s first published work. Cynthia Faryon originally wrote it as a family document, but at the request of the her mother, the “Simone” of the story, the author sought and found a publisher for it, Prince George, B.C.’s Caitlin Press.

Sadly, the publisher did not edit and polish the manuscript to the extent which it deserved; I feel that a much stronger editorial hand would have resulted in a more smooth and successful presentation of a fascinating and poignant family saga.

I will be passing this book along via a release sometime in the near future.

Read Full Post »

every day is mother's day hilary mantelEvery Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel ~ 1985. This edition: Owl Books (Henry Holt), 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 0-8050-6272-6. 225 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, and 5/10 for the grim plot. Averaging out to 7/10.

Will I ever read this one again? No time soon – too dark and icky, fabulous writing aside. Though I’m tempted to seek out the sequel, Vacant Possession, to see what Muriel gets up to once freed of her mother’s smothering influence.


So here I am this week concurrently struggling with a stupidly busy schedule and battling a vicious virus, and I’m looking for a really good read to escape into in the few bits of down time I’m able to snatch to escape from the chaos of a week-long, much-too-far-from-home dance festival, and I page through the few library books I impulsively grabbed on my last quick visit a few weeks ago, and I tuck this one into my attaché case, because right there on the cover it tempts me with this:

Evelyn Axon is a medium by trade; her daughter, Muriel, is a half-wit by nature. Barricaded in their crumbling house, surrounded by the festering rubbish of years, they defy the curiosity of their neighbors and their social worker, Isabel Field. Isabel is young and inexperienced and has troubles of her own: an elderly father who wanders the streets, and a lover, Colin, who wants her to run away with him. But Colin has three horrible children and a shrill wife who is pregnant again–how is he going to run anywhere? As Isabel wrestles with her own problems, a horrible secret grows in the darkness of the Axon household. When at last it comes to light, the result is by turns hilarious and terrifying.

And I power through this book compulsively, because though the subject matter is grossly unpalatable – unhappy people doing unspeakable things to themselves and to each other, things intimately detailed by the unflinching author – because dark as it is, and much as I want to just put it down and look away, I can’t.

This was Mantel’s first novel, and she must have torn up a lot of first drafts, because it is absolutely excellent; beautifully crafted.

But bleak – oh, so terribly, bitterly bleak! In retrospect, probably not the best choice for cheer-myself-up, forget-that-I’m-ill reading, especially after a course of  engagingly inane D.E. Stevensons with their neat and tidy happy endings. Hide the kitchen knives and the sleeping pills, because I’m just now looking at life through grimy, smoke-coloured glasses, and finding it unutterably futile.

Just kidding.

This isn’t really a review, is it? I’m sitting here pecking away at the keyboard and sniffling, much too sick and tired to form a series of cohesive thoughts, so I’m cheating big time now and referring you over to  Dove Grey Reader – Every Day is Mother’s Day for a really interesting review with lots of personal connections.

And this one, too, which gives more details on the plot: Being Obscure Clearly – Every Day is Mother’s Day.

Also on the library stack is Mantel’s novel Fludd, which my husband just finished and plunked down with a quizzical eyebrow twitch. “Interesting” is all he’ll say when questioned, which could mean almost anything. He did read it all in one sitting, which argues in its favour; this is not a man who hesitates to put a book aside partway through when it ceases to enthrall.

The numerous comparisons between Hilary Mantel and Muriel Spark are apt. And here I must confess that I’ve a rather low tolerance to Spark. Good to read occasionally, for the bitterness of the humour and the deliciously jaded worldview, but I never go on a binge of book after book by her. Mantel joins Spark on this section of my bookshelf, right there beside Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamund Lehmann and others of that sisterhood. “To be taken in small doses.”

Read Full Post »

I’m going to review these together. They were both quite wonderful, so much so that, pressed for time as I am this week, I cannot let them pass onto the “have read” list without mention. In my opinion, this trilogy, Vittoria Cottage, Music in the Hills, and Shoulder the Sky, have the Miss Buncle books beat all hollow. Good stuff! I can see these going on my treasured keeper shelf.

Please try to ignore the desperately ugly covers on these re-released paperback editions. I find them quite embarrassingly inappropriate to the content, which, while “romantic” enough to please the most sentimental, is not cloyingly so as these would lead one to believe. I had some explaining to do to family members who saw me reading these – “What the heck is that?! You’re slipping, old girl …!”


vittoria cottage d e stevensonVittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While  his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism – but by and large enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

To-day Caroline Dering was not working in her garden. She had taken a basket and gone up the road to the gravel-pit to pick blackberries. There was a thicket of brambles, there, and Caroline knew it well. Every year she made this pilgrimage and every year she returned with her harvest of big, black, juicy berries to make into jelly and to bottle for the winter. It was curious (thought Caroline, as she began her task) how the years seemed to telescope when you looked back. Surely there were less than three hundred and sixty-five days between each picking! She remembered the first time she had come. She and Arnold had come together – they had just returned from their honeymoon and settled at Vittoria Cottage – but Arnold had not enjoyed picking blackberries, he had got a thorn in his finger and had torn his trousers on a wild-rose bush and he had suggested that in future they should employ some of the village children to undertake the task. After that Caroline had come alone until James was old enough to help … and then the little girls had joined the party and blackberrying had become an event, a yearly picnic, which took place, weather permitting, upon James’s birthday.

Now, once again, Caroline came alone. The girls had other things to do and Caroline had no use for reluctant assistants. Next year … would James be here? And if he were here would he want to come and pick blackberries on his birthday?

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Life in Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some ex-urban dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale, which I was fortunate enough to acquire along with its sister novels recently.

On to Music in the Hills.


Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. ISBN: 0-441-54725-7. 282 in the hills d e stevenson

My rating: 8/10.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next one follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day. James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-2oth century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and striking true in the telling.

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses. Perhaps not as strong a narrative as the preceding Vittoria Cottage, but definitely engaging. I enjoyed it greatly.

The characterizations of the local inhabitants are often well drawn; we all know people just like these.

I’m looking through the book for a snippet to share with you, but am finding nothing really suitable – everything is so enmeshed with the  rest of the story that to take a bit out of context would do it no justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a well-written post-war domestic drama, with much to recommend it as escape reading in our hectic modern age.

Music in the Hills is followed by a third book to form a trilogy, Shoulder the Sky, also published as Winter and Rough Weather. I’d read this one some months ago, liked it a lot, and reviewed it here: Shoulder the Sky

Reading this trilogy has made me into a confirmed D.E. Stevenson fan. This is good stuff, for which I am ready to forgive some of the less than stellar output by this writer. She definitely had highs and lows in her output, but the Vittoria Cottage trilogy is quite decently lofty.

Read Full Post »

the web of days edna leeThe Web of Days by Edna Lee ~ 1947. This edition: D. Appleton-Century, 1947. Hardcover. 1st edition. 276 pages.

My rating: 3/10. The 3 points is for, um,  something.

Let’s see, now.

The best I can come up with is that it was engaging in that I read it to the end, hoping for some sort of unpredictable plot twist to crank it up a notch. (Sadly, that never happened.)


Every once in a while I read a real clunker, which serves to remind me that all vintage books are not really worth saving.

The Web of Days was mesmerizing in its awfulness; I read it cover to cover, with increasing queasiness. Like the proverbial train wreck, I just couldn’t look away.

In a phrase: Melodramatic Gothic Southern Romance.

Prim, virginal, stunningly beautiful Yankee governess Hester Snow is engaged by the master of the derelict Georgia plantation called Seven Chimneys to care for his young son. The boy’s mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Miss Snow finds the plantation to be an absolute disaster – the house is filthy, the servants sullen, and the master’s wife and mother viciously scornful of the new governess’s insistence on tidying up and tackling jobs for herself.

Hester immediately sets about fixing everything. Single-handedly she whips the house servants (ex-slaves, as this story takes place just after the end of the American Civil War, in Georgia) into shape, tames her sullen young charge, Rupert, and attempts to save the self-destructive mistress, Lorelie, from herself. She catches the attention of every man who sees her, from the riverboat captain who has delivered her to her new home, to the master of the Seven Chimneys plantation himself, Saint Clair LeGrand. More importantly, she has herself fallen in love with Saint Clair’s estranged half-brother, Roi LeGrand, who gallops in and out of the story on his fiery steed, Sans Foix.

Lorelie conveniently wanders out into the swamp and drowns herself one night, leaving the field open for Hester to marry the new widower, which she promptly does. Roi gallops in, chews on the scenery for a bit, and gallops off, leaving Hester deeply embroiled in a deep dark situation wherein her new husband schemes against her and attempts to engineer the death of young Rupert. It’s all to do with inheritances and such; Hester was assigned under the late Lorelie’s will the care of Seven Chimneys and Rupert, cutting out Saint Clair. (It’s complicated.)

Hester resurrects the plantation by master-minding a return to profitable farming; she also gets pregnant and eventually gives birth to young David, Saint Clair’s son, but widely suspected by all, including Saint Clair, to be Roi’s child. The plot sickens, er, thickens, ending in the violent demise of Saint Clair and the reunion of Hester and true love Roi. (That’s the condensed version. Now you won’t have to read the book! You may thank me for saving you that.)

As an orphan tumbling about in the world trying to make her own way, one would think Hester Snow would be a somewhat sympathetic character, but author Edna Lee has created an absolutely unlikable protagonist, whom I increasingly despised as the book progressed.

My biggest “queasy-making” issue was that the character Hester Snow is viciously misogynistic towards to the many black characters she encounters; I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a reflection of the author’s personal feelings as well. She (Hester Snow) is also very full of herself; self-confidence is an admirable trait, but add to it deep smugness and ruthless ambition, and you get a Scarlett O’Hara-type figure, but with less likeability. Scarlett had her moments where the reader could “get” why she was like she was and sympathize somewhat with her attempts to maintain control of her own life in an unkind world, but I’m afraid Hester never inspired such a feeling in me, much as I wanted her to.

The writing style itself is rather interesting, in that it is has a very nineteenth century feel to it in the phrasing. If deliberate, this is a good conceit on the part of the author, as the story is written in first person narration by Hester Snow herself, and the voice sounds authentic. There’s a fair bit of bodice-rippingly bad sex in a 1940’s style, in that we never really get a description of the act itself, just the prologue and epilogue; the velvet stage curtain swishes shut at the bedroom door.

A real period piece, but “of an inferior period, m’lord”, to paraphrase Bunter in one of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales – a quotation which I adore and use much too much.

Debating the fate of this book, I’m tempted to chuck it onto the giveaway pile, but while doing an internet search on the author I see she has several other “bestsellers” of her time which receive a fair bit of discussion: The Southerners, The Queen Bee, and All That Heaven Allows, among others. The Queen Bee was made into a 1955 film starring Joan Crawford, while All that Heaven Allows was made into a 1955 film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. (1955 was a good year for Edna Lee, apparently.) Both received a fair bit of popular, if not critical, acclaim, which just goes to show I’m not sure what – maybe that melodrama sells?!

I may tackle Edna Lee again in future. It was an interesting experience, and greatly highlighted the excellence of much of my other vintage reading in comparison to The Web of Days‘s deeply schlocky shlockiness.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »