Archive for April, 2013

marrying off mother gerald durrellMarrying Off Mother and other stories by Gerald Durrell ~ 1991. This edition: Harper Collins, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-99-223808-X. 197 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

A quick, easy, and enjoyable read.

I have a strong fondness for Gerald Durrell’s self-aware, tongue-in-cheek, and humorously wry writings, stretching back to a childhood introduction to his books when my parents were given a copy of Catch Me a Colobus. My father had it on his night table, and was reading it with evident enjoyment, and when I asked him what it was about he handed it to me with a smile. I laboriously read it – I was of the tender age of 8 or 9 at the time – and was hooked.

Since then I do believe I’ve read every single thing the man wrote, with the exception of some of the juveniles of the writer’s last years. Obviously not an exclusive reaction, as Gerald Durrell was a best-selling author and eventually a household name in the English-speaking world –  right up there with the even more prominent David Attenborough –  though he (Durrell) bluntly stated in his later books that the income from his writing helped in great part to finance his pet project, the Jersey Zoo & Wildlife Preservation Trust , and that he continued to produce manuscripts only for the purpose of furthering his wildlife work.

Be that as it may, the man did have a decided literary talent, and in later years broadened his scope from the autobiographical to the more obviously fictional, with several novels and a number of short stories to his credit.  Many of Gerald Durrell’s fictional short stories show a decidedly macabre twist to the man’s mind; one in particular, The Entrance, the final story in The Picnic and Other Pandemonium – an otherwise quite light-hearted and delightful compilation – has the distinction of being one of the creepiest and most frightening tales I’ve ever read, and rather put me off Durrell completely for a while, giving an unwelcome insight into something other than the avuncular animal-loving anecdotist one innocently assumed. I got over it, though I still think of that particular book with a reminiscent shudder, and have studiously ignored it ever since. Though now that I’ve been reminded, I have the feeling that I should perhaps face my fears and re-read it and review it. Maybe. Or maybe not…

As usual, I’ve digressed. Back on track, then, with a rundown on this short story compilation, which, though a bit dark in places, was, as always, mostly just plain diverting reading, perfect for tea break consumption – engaging but not too challenging, and easy to take up and put down.

  • Esmeralda

Of all the many regions in La Belle France, there is one whose very name adds a lustrous glitter to the eye of a gourmet, a flush of anticipation to his cheeks, that drenches his taste buds with anticipatory saliva, and that is the euphonious name of Périgord. Here the chestnuts and walnuts are of prodigious size, here the wild strawberries are as heavily scented as a courtesan’s boudoir. Here the apples, the pears and the plums have sublime juices captured in their skins, here the flesh of chicken, duckling and pigeon is firm and white, here the butter is as yellow as sunshine and the cream on top of the churns is thick enough to balance a full glass of wine on. As well as all these riches, Périgord has one supreme prize that lurks beneath the loamy soil of her oak woods, the truffle, the troglodyte fungus that lives below the surface of the forest floor, black as a witch’s cat, delicious as all the perfumes of Arabia.

Enter one Esmeralda, a porcine lady graced with a delicate golden chain around her neck, and smelling delicately of the exclusive perfume Joy…

  • Fred – or A Touch of the Warm South

On a lecture tour of the American South, our author is hosted by a Traditional Southern Lady, and meets her butler Fred. By the by, the amount of ardent spirits consumed during this short foray into Tennessee give an insight into Durrell’s subsequent liver problems. The man did seem to enjoy tipping them back!

As the taxi drew up (the) handsome door was thrown open to the frame by a very large, very black gentleman with white hair in tail coat and striped trousers. He looked as though he might be the accredited Ambassador of practically any emerging nation. In the rich port-like tones that I remembered from the telephone he said, ‘Mr. Dewrell, welcome to Miz Magnolia’s residence.’ and then added as an afterthought, ‘Ahyam Fred.’

‘Glad to know you, Fred.’ I said. ‘Can you handle the luggage?’

‘Everything will be under control,’ said Fred.

The taxi driver had deposited my two suitcases on the gravel and driven off. Fred surveyed them as if they were offensive litter.

‘Fred,’ I said, interested, ‘do you normally wear that clothing?’

He glanced down his body with disdain.

‘No,’ he said, ‘but Miz Magnolia say ah was to greet yew in traditional costume.’

‘You mean that this is traditional costume here in Memphis?’ I asked.

‘No suh,’ he said bitterly, ‘it’s traditional costume where yew comes from.’

  • Retirement

A Scandinavian ship’s captain looks forward to his last voyage and retirement beside the sea, but his plans are tragically set at naught. A delicately appreciative tale with a chillingly memorable ending.

  • Marrying Off Mother

A return to the sunny Corfu of My Family and Other Animals, and an attempt by her children to bring some romance into Mrs. Durrell’s life.

‘I wonder if passion flowers would look nice on that east wall,’ said Mother, looking up from her seed catalogue. ‘They are so pretty. I can imagine that east wall just covered with passion flowers, can’t you?’

‘We could do with a bit of passion around here,’ said Larry. ‘Just recently, the place has been as chaste as a nunnery.’

‘I don’t see what passion flowers have got to do with nuns,’ said Mother.

Larry sighed and gathered up his mail.

‘Why don’t you get married again?’ he suggested. ‘You’ve been looking awfully wilted lately, rather like an overworked nun.’

‘Indeed I haven’t,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘You’re looking sort of shrewish and spinsterish,’ said Larry… ‘And all this mooning about passion flowers. It’s very Freudian. Obviously what you want is a dollop of romance in your life. Get married again.’

‘What rubbish you talk, Larry,’ said my mother, bridling. ‘Get married again! What nonsense! Your father would never allow it.’

‘Dad’s been dead for nearly twelve years. I think his objection could be overruled, don’t you? …’

Never fear. Mother competently turns the tables on her meddling family.

  • Ludwig

Do Germans, as a race,  have a sense of humour? The author attempts to answer this query with the cooperation of a willing-to-learn hotel manager, one Ludwig Dietrich.

  • The Jury

A former British public hangman is discovered to be living in a remote South American village. Though he has tried to make a new life for himself, he can’t outrun his past. An appropriately nasty ending awaits him, with our author as chief (fictional, one would hope and assume) witness.

  • Miss Booth-Wycherly’s Clothes

An ex-nun creatively and anonymously supports her old order’s orphanage, with the help of the bequest of the magnificent wardrobe of the deceased Miss Booth-Wycherly of Monte Carlo.

  • A Parrot for the Parson

The gift of a foul-mouthed parrot assists a defrocked vicar in his quest for replacements for the choirboys he longer has easy access to. Immensely politically incorrect, but rather funny in an “I shouldn’t be laughing at this” sort of way.

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???????????????????????????????I’m not sure what’s going on with my reading this spring; I seem to have gotten stuck among the crinolines, as it were (though only one of the books I’ve read has actually had crinolines in it, this being the just-post-Civil-War Sea Jade), what with my newly discovered fondness for Georgette Heyer’s Regency heroines, and now these two similar but oh-so-different “American gothic” vintage romances. Maybe it’s just that I’ve run out of D.E. Stevensons, which made admirable escape reading through much of March.

April – unbelievable that it’s so close to over already! – has brought its usual share of real life busy-ness, what with being in the plant nursery business, and still providing taxi service to the dancer, and a mountain of paperwork relating to taxes, and even a little bit of lambing, though we’re presently down to a tiny vestige of our former flock, and sometimes I almost forget that they’re out there, what with the more-than-competent teens running things in the barnyard these days.

Spring does seem to have arrived, after dragging her heels rather reluctantly this year, and yesterday brought us a warm wind and the overnight emergence of leaves on the cottonwood trees down by the river – with associated heavenly aroma; the colloquial name for these trees is “Balm of Gilead”, and the fragrance of the sticky sap is indescribably spicy and fresh and green and evocative of every good thing about spring in the country. Our venerable (and almost completely non-productive) apricot tree has blessed us with blossoms this year and yesterday was alive with bees, and (hurray!) the hummingbirds are back. The harbinger of what will become a lively and prolific horde, a lone male Rufous, buzzed through the garden, hovered low to visit the first opening Pulmonaria blooms, and danced in front of the kitchen window, an action which brings forth the lady with the sugar syrup every year.


Amazing that such tiny scraps of feathers and attitude make such long journeys twice a year on their migratory travels, and every year I wonder just how long each individual can survive for. I know we have some of the same birds year to year; how else to explain their immediate presence at the traditional feeder sites before I get the sugar water out, and the buzzing at the one window next to the door where I always emerge with the top-ups through the months when we host our demanding little visitors?

The mosquitoes are here as well, and this less welcome sign of spring was in evidence yesterday. Slapping mosquitoes with potting soil encrusted hands leads to embarrassing smudges on the face and dirt in the hair; luckily I had no human visitors to comment on my disarray! In the evening we built a fire out in the stone ring by our favourite sitting spot on the lawn and ate our supper in a cloud of smoke (welcome because it discouraged the mosquitoes), kept company by the two dogs, the two “barn” cats – big joke, that designation – they are in the house more than occasionally – plus the three “real” house cats, who are glorying in the present situation of open windows unblocked by screens. In and out at will all day long without needing a human hand on the doorknob – feline nirvana!

The teens, careless as only those in the second decade of life can be to the quiet joy of sitting out on a spring evening, were firmly planted in front of their laptops, cruising Facebook and doing whatever else it is that they do when enjoying their non-school-related screen time, though they did remember their filial duties enough (once reminded by loud calls from the father figure) to bring their parents a welcome cup of tea. (It wasn’t that warm out there, even with the fire.)

We sat and read until it was too dark to see the words, and I powered through the book I’d grabbed from the “recent acquisitions” pile in the porch, where I’d been going through them and making up a box full for my housebound elderly mother. Mom enjoys the occasional Phyllis A. Whitney, and I’d found an older one with a gorgeously gothic cover illustration, Sea Jade, which didn’t ring a bell as one she’d already read. “I should really try this,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps, like Heyer, Whitney is one of those authors I’ve ignored for too long. Perhaps she too has hidden qualities I’ve foolishly been depriving myself of…”

Short answer: nope.

I almost quit on Sea Jade very early in, but was too lazy to get up and go search for something else; and after a while the sheer awfulness exerted a hypnotizing effect, and I was driven to keep reading by the desire to see how many of the stock gothic romance situations the author was going to put her breathless heroine through. (I lost count.)

Which had me musing this morning on what makes a book a “good” read. Why two such books as these I’ve just read can have so many similarities in plot and character and setting, and why one can be so enjoyable, and one such a blatant mistake. Author’s voice is all I can come up with.

Well, if you made it this far, I’m about to get back on track and discuss some books. Both are vintage gothic romances, with American settings, and both are by accomplished and prolific authors. I found it rather interesting that my favourite was by the lesser-known and less popular author. Margaret Bell Houston is virtually unknown now, while Phyllis A. Whitney is still very much in evidence, both in online discussions and on the shelves of used book stores.

Houston’s gothic was very good indeed; Whitney’s was not. Rather disappointing, as I wanted to like Sea Jade so very much… there are so many Whitneys out there, and she’s so easy to acquire, while Houston’s titles, aside from the book I read, Yonder, are much more elusive.

yonder margaret bell houstonYonder by Margaret Bell Houston ~ 1955. This edition: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1955. Hardcover. 242 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

This was one of those rewarding random acquisitions. I was attracted by the eye-catching dust jacket illustration by Paul Galdone, which led me initially to believe that this was a juvenile/teen book. It’s not. (Though any nowadays teen wouldn’t turn a hair at some of the content, which has a decidedly adult theme. Sex and illegitimate babies and so on, not to mention crimes of passion and plenty of psychological drama.)

Olive York, twenty-two years old and recently orphaned by the deaths of her beloved parents in a plane crash on their way to a church convention in California – Olive’s father was a parson – is at a rough point in her life. Her long-time friend-turned-romantic-interest, Dane Carrington, has just married another woman, and, though Olive is a sensible enough girl and does not believe her life is over or anything dramatic like that, she’s looking for a way to move on.

When she’s offered a job as a companion to an emotionally troubled relative of the Carringtons, she’s intrigued both by the vague explanation of Zoé Croome’s “insanity”, and by the descriptions of the Croome family’s estate on a remote Florida key, Yonder Island.

Arriving in an almost-hurricane, the setting is all Proper Gothic Romance, and when we meet the Croome family and their assorted associates, we recognize immediately that here is a group of people with more than a few deep dark secrets. Watch out, Olive!

There’s the immense, handsome, stone-faced and monosyllabic black houseman, Ezra; the white-uniformed nurse Nannine; Judge Croome, family patriarch, forceful and intense but obviously getting rather tired of life; the elder Croome daughter, Joanna, wheelchair bound, even more intense than her father and in charge of the operation of the household and Yonder Island citrus groves; and of course Zoé Croome herself.

Thirty years ago something happened, something that isn’t discussed within the bosom of the family, but which is speculated on by the rest of the neighbourhood at large. Whatever It was has affected Zoé so strongly that her mind has stayed locked in time; she speaks and acts as a young woman, repeating the days of her youth over and over again. “This is the day!” she greets every morning, emphasis on “the” day; obviously a day when something marvelous is about to happen. But what could it possibly be?

Not only is her mind stuck in its groove, but her body is as well. Though a woman of fifty, Zoé looks like a young woman – unaged and of an ethereal beauty. She is “crazy, but not violent”, and a delicate hand is needed in her management. She is constantly looking or someone or something, and if she is locked up she goes wild with self-destructive passion; her bedroom windows are barred to prevent her throwing herself out, as she once attempted to. Olive’s primary job will be to accompany Zoé on her daily meanderings down to the beach, where Zoé collects seashells and gazes longingly at the boats passing by. Occasionally she runs into the waves…

Of course Olive, being a typically forward-thinking person as gothic romance heroines frequently are, is keen to get to the bottom of the many mysteries of Yonder Key, and she is certain she can help Zoé move forward in time and find some sort of personal peace. In this she is strictly forbidden by bossy Joanna to “meddle”, and Ezra threateningly shadows Olive’s every move. Despite this discouragement, Olive persists in putting together Zoé’s back-story, with the increasingly interested assistance of Richard Lowrie, who lives alone in a little house across the island. Richard is working on one of his best-selling books about discoveries made while sailing the world’s seas in his one-man yacht. Richard is a long-time Croome family friend, hence his permission to inhabit his quiet corner of the Key, and is a confidante of both Judge Croome and, in her more lucid moments, Zoé. (Joanna keeps her distance.)

And of course, as Olive starts to investigate and ask awkward questions, things begin to happen.

This was an excellent read. Olive’s voice (the story is told in first person narration) is rather stoic and matter-of-fact, but that was a strength, rather than a weakness; the fantastical elements of the story are rather more believable when presented so dispassionately.  Olive paints vivid pictures of both the world of her own past, and of her new life on Yonder Key. The author has, in general, done well by her heroine in this story, allowing her scope to go about her clichéd path from mystery to resolution with reasonable motivations for everything she does. The romantic interests in Olive’s personal life are very well handled, and, as we discover the secrets of the Croomes, there is a certain plausibility to the tale which allows us to suspend our disbelief in the dramatic scenario which eventually unfolds.

Without going into spoiler mode, because this is a great little book and one which I’d recommend for further investigation to those of you who like a good du Maurier-like suspense novel – and yes, this one deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the works of Dame Daphne – it is very well done, in a minor key of the genre – I’ll share with you my satisfaction in the ending. The Yonder mystery is solved, and both Zoé and Olive find places of peace after their trials and travails.

I’ll be re-reading this one, I know, as well as looking for other books by the author.

Oh yes, the author. She is (was) Margaret Bell Houston, granddaughter (as every mention of her I can find emphasizes) of Texas soldier and politician Sam Houston, who famously led the state to independence from Mexico in 1836. (“Remember the Alamo”, and namesake of the city of Houston, Texas, etcetera, etcetera.)

Margaret was born in Texas in 1877, and was a published poet at an early age, winning numerous awards for her verse throughout her lifetime. She went on to write short stories, and something like thirteen novels, some of them bestsellers. The one most often mentioned is this one, Yonder, and its more than decent quality makes me immensely curious to explore more of her work. If Yonder is the best thing she produced – it was published in 1955, when the author was 78 years old, and nearing the end of her long life – she died in 1966, at the age of 89 – it must have come from somewhere, and I’m thinking her earlier works would show a similar quality. Yonder is not “high literature” in any sense of the term, but it is a good American light novel.

Is anyone familiar with this author, or any of her other works?

Well, after my satisfaction with Yonder, I picked up Sea Jade with high anticipation. Sadly, I was doomed to disappointment. “Gothic” it was; “good” it was not.

Sea Jade by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1966. Paperback. Library of Congress Number: 65-12605. 224 pages.sea jade phyllis a whitney 001

My rating: 3/10.

Phyllis A. Whitney. I read her occasionally while in high school, though I can’t remember a thing about any of the books. Seven Tears for Apollo is one that comes to mind; I’ve had that tattered paperback kicking around for a good thirty years, though I haven’t read it recently – for at least twenty of those years. My general impression, when I stop to think about it, is favorable. My mom likes it, and has read it a few times since I’ve been in charge of her reading material; I’ve picked up other Whitney novels – they’re quite  easy to come by – and she’s read them without comment and with every appearance of enjoyment.

But if Sea Jade is typical of Whitney’s work, I think I’ve perhaps personally outgrown this author.

Sea Jade is set in post-Civil War New England, on the shores of the crashing Atlantic, an ocean-side setting it shares with Yonder to some extent. There’s a similiar situation of massive family mansion inhabited by people with secrets, and the heroines of both enter the scene seeking physical and emotional refuge of sorts. In the accepted tradition of the Gothic Tale, both books even start with storms.

The heroine of Sea Jade, young, innocent and oh-so-lovely Miranda Heath, is uddenly desperately poor after the death of her lone surviving parent, a retired sea-captain. Despite an apparent deathbed warning by her father to avoid the Bascomb enclave, Miranda decides to seek help from her father’s old partner, wealthy Captain Bascomb, whom she’s heard so many romantic stories about, and whom she just knows will be happy to act as a surrogate father in her time of need.

It was fitting that I had my first glimpse of the house at Bascomb’s Point during the flash and fury of a violent thunderstorm.

The storm had not yet broken when my train from New York  stopped at the Scots Harbor station. As the conductor helped me to the platform, a gusty October wind whipped at my skirts and mantle. I clasped my portmanteau in one hand and stood looking about me – eagerly and without fear.

My father’s warnings had touched me not at all and my mind was filled with a romantic dream that I fully expected to become a reality. Since my father’s death some months before, the state of ny fortunes had grown very nearly desperate. Unless I threw myself on the charity of friends, I had nowhere to turn. Only Obadiah Bascomb could help me know. He had written to me in response to an appeal of my own, and I had come running, given wings by a sense of adventure, of expectancy, eager to meet the life counterpart of a legend with which I had grown up.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

That’s page one. I’m not sure why I even turned it to page two, but I did, to find much more of the same. Breathless, gushing Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. She’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with the widowed son of Captain Bascombe, in circumstances which completely beggar belief. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

The family secret is discovered and the villain is unmasked, and there is a last-minute rescue as the hero snatches the heroine from certain death; his arrival on a clipper ship with all sails set in time to rescue her from a fiery doom is improbable in the utmost. Luckily by the time we’ve made it this far we’re used to the author’s complete lack of attention to detail, and are taking her at her word that it’s all possible. Because she says so, right there in black and white.

Ha. This tale is so silly. Be warned!

The points I left this with were for a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

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the grand sophy georgette heyerWell, I’ve finally done it. Georgette Heyer has been praised so often and so enthusiastically by so many of the book bloggers whose recommendations I have come to look forward to as decidedly reliable that I have taken the plunge.

I don’t really “do” romance novels as such, though of course most of the books I read incorporate some sort of romance, whether it be traditional male and female or some other sort of love affair (and by this I mean any sort of relationship – platonic friendships are love affairs, as are parent-child relationships, and all of the individuals emotionally invested in some way, whether it be with an idea, an occupation, a house, a garden, a country, a way of life… it’s all about passion and feelings and, yes, “romance” of some sort, isn’t it?)

(And did I just digress? Yes, I think I did!)

Anyway, bodice rippers in the good old Harlequin tradition aren’t really my thing, and the undoubted fact that Georgette Heyer has been republished by Harlequin – I have here on my desk a just-purchased (but as yet unread) copy of The Quiet Gentleman, Harlequin, 2006, with a publisher’s list of other Heyers in the back – was not a point in favor. I’d also read several of Heyer’s mystery stories – she famously wrote one romance novel and one mystery novel each year during a period of financial necessity – and found them no more than mildly diverting. But then there were all those Jane Austen comparisons, and the chatter about her being a seriously underrated writer, and all those comments about her undoubted mastery of her chosen literary period – England’s Regency era, the first few decades of the 19th Century – and all of the lavish praise in the blogosphere…

So I made the decision to give Heyer one more try. Pulling up her name on the library catalogue, I was impressed to see that there was a reasonably large selection of titles, arguing a current popularity (my present public library is very quick to cull and has very few older books in the stacks), some of which I remembered as having received glowing reviews from my blogging peers. Home came Sylvester and The Grand Sophy, as well as a third which appealed because of the plot description on the back, but which I haven’t yet read, Black Sheep. I’m a bit Heyer-saturated at the moment, after reading the first two almost back-to-back, but will definitely be reading the third book well within my alloted three weeks before it needs to be turned back in.

In other words, I liked these. A lot.

Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle by Georgette Heyer ~ 1957. This edition: Sourcebooks, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-4022-3880-2. 386 pages.sylvester or the wicked uncle georgette heyer

My rating: 9/10.

This story is an absolute hoot. It has everything. Misunderstood heroine – check. Highly intelligent and of an unconventional attractiveness, of course – check. Wicked stepmother – check. Fabulously handsome, wealthy and aristocratic love interest – check. Initial misunderstanding by chief couple and instant dislike of each other – check. Endless complications before true love finds its way – check.

It’s basically Pride and Prejudice with the added bonus of a botched kidnapping (literally), a surreal trip to France, and horses.

You know what? I’m going to stop right here and refer you over to this absolutely excellent blog post by Claire at Captive Reader. It’s the one that convinced me to give this author a go, and the post says absolutely everything I would like to. Anything I could come up with this morning would be a pale shadow of what Claire has said so well. (I am horribly pressed for writing time these days, but cannot let this book pass without a mention. It was so much fun!)

The Captive Reader – Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle

Sylvester more than met my own expectations. The point it lost was right at the very end; I thought the final romantic scene wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest of the story. But endings are notoriously difficult, and it wasn’t terribly bad or anything. Just not quite… something

But all in all, a very enjoyable read. Great introduction to this author; I’m won over.


the grand sophy yestermorrow georgette heyerThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950. This edition: Yestermorrow, 1998. No ISBN found. 347 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

Gosh, where to start? Let’s see how good my condensation skills are this morning!

Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, world-roaming diplomat, drops in on his aristocratic sister Lady Ombersley for a brief visit while en route from Lisbon to Brazil. After racing through the polite preliminaries (Sir Horace is excessively focussed on getting right to the point with the least amount of fuss and trouble to his self-indulged self) the object of his detour becomes apparent.

Could he possibly leave his (motherless) twenty-year-old daughter Sophy with her dear aunt? Brazil, in the early 1800s, is rather rough in places, and even careless Sir Horace has qualms about its suitability for an upper-class English girl’s place of residence, even under the auspices of her important Papa. Sophy – “Dear little soul: not an ounce of vice in her!” exclaims said Papa – is as good as “out”, though the formalities of a Court presentation have been unavoidably omitted, what with living on the Continent and all – and will be a lovely companion for her cousin Cecilia. And while she’s here, dear sister, Sir Horace goes on to say, how about fixing her up with a suitable husband? I’m sure you can manage to arrange that for me…

Lady Ombersley is shocked into agreement, and Sir Horace disappears as quickly as he came, leaving with a promise that Sophy shall be welcomed into the bosom of her extended family. The family, as far as I can remember – there’s a lot of characters in this hectic novel – consists of Lord and Lady Ombersley, their eldest son Charles Rivenhall – who is by way of being head of the family, financially speaking, as he is his recently deceased wealthy grandfather’s heir as Lord Ombersley is an incorrigible gambler who has virtually impoverished his own estate – sober Charles is busy doing damage control while his father continues his dissipated lifestyle on a much more modest scale – the beautiful aforementioned Cecilia, a younger brother, Hubert, at Oxford, another, Theodore, at Eton, and young sisters Amabel and Gertrude.

Sophy shows up quite soon, and far from being the meek and gentle niece and cousin the family was expecting, turns out to be positively Amazonian, a self-assured and shockingly outspoken young lady, looking on her English sojourn as something of an amusing lark, though she’s agreeable to being introduced to some interesting and suitable young men on matrimonial approval, as it were. She throws the household into a turmoil it has never known before, and soon it becomes apparent that Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and that in her staid cousins she has found much scope for her personal hobby.

Charles is engaged to the most prim and proper Eugenia Wraxton, who is looking forward to her upcoming marriage and increase in social status with smug self-satisfaction; it soon becomes apparent that cousin Sophy does not meet with her approval, and Eugenia’s true nature as a sly, prying, manipulative scold is thereby revealed, though Charles appears blind to this, at least initially.

Cecilia has been presented with a suitable young nobleman, Lord Charlbury, as a potential spouse, but has instead become infatuated with Adonis-like Augustus Fawnhope, an aspiring poet. (He instantly reminded me of none other than P.G. Wodehouse’s Madeleine Basset, of “the stars are God’s daisy-chain” fame; subsequent events merely strengthened that comparison.) Hubert has gotten himself embroiled in gambling debts – shades of the paternal situation – and is too terrified to confess to his older brother, and has instead gotten into the clutches of an evil moneylender.

The younger children, luckily, are not much in need of sorting out, so Sophy busies herself with rearranging Charles’, Cecilia’s and Hubert’s lives for them.

Charles is immediately resistant to his lively cousin’s attempts to “manage” his family; he cleaves to the unpleasant Eugenia with commendable loyalty, but cracks soon appear in his iron-hard facade. Eugenia is quickly driven to open criticism of Sophy’s lack of propriety; Sophy seems to delight in shocking and annoying Eugenia; Sophy is marvelously clever at pushing all of Charles’ buttons, and seems to come out ahead in each of their encounters; her and Charles’ continued verbal sparring (and shared love of horses) gives the alert reader the key to the eventual outcome of that particular triangle of personalities!

Cecilia and her poet are all over each other, while Lord Charlbury mopes in the his lonely corner (he’s recovering from the indignity of having had the mumps at a crucial time in the progression of his courtship of Cecilia.) Sophy takes those three in hand as well, giving Lord Charlbury instruction on how best to woo his reluctant prospective spouse, and eventually exposing Augustus Fawnhope’s deep ineffectualness to the no-longer-quite-so-besotted Cecilia.

Hubert’s moneylender is confronted with aplomb, in a scene which received some negative press in the blog world for its deeply stereotypical depiction of a Shylock-like Jewish character. (See here for a fascinating and extended discussion of racial stereotyping in literature, centered on The Grand Sophy, and widening to Heyer in general, then bringing in Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers as well; the many comments following this post are thought-provoking; the whole exchange is well worth reading.)

This workaday plot summary leaves out the sparkling dialogue and the deep humour which infuses every page of this lively historical romance; it’s a grand read for a dull day; perfect escape literature, and not to be taken too, too seriously, I think. An amusing romp, with the bonus of being meticulously researched and full of era-correct dialogue, descriptions of food, dress, and the social world of upper classes of post-Waterloo England. If you appreciate Jane Austen and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, you’ll find much to admire in Georgette Heyer’s detailed and very funny take-offs of the time.

As with Sylvester, The Grand Sophy was a whole lot of fun. More so, really – it is almost antic in its multitude of plot twists, turns and tangles, where Sylvester maintained a certain dignity even in its most absurd moments. But Sophy lost its point in the same place, right at the end. It was a good ending, a proper ending, with loads of predictability and a few (small) surprises, but there was something just a tiny bit rushed over how everything tied itself up so quickly, as if the author, with finish line in view, had pushed herself into one last full-speed-ahead dash of writing. But, as with Sylvester, not a big issue, and easy to forgive.

And I did forgive the author her moneylender; I mulled this over quite a bit, and have held back this review to consider how deeply I wanted to address this issue. I have come down on the side of letting it go in the interests of era-correctness. Yes, the book was published post-World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust were well-known and fresh in memory, but the treatment of the character in question was completely in line with the 19th Century world it depicted. And The Grand Sophy is something of a parody in its treatment of all of its characters; I don’t believe we are meant to take any of them all that seriously. If one wants to be offended, there’s a lot of scope for that in more than the Jewish moneylender episode. I choose not to be offended, though I see where the offense lies, and will leave it at that. (At least for now. This is a topic which is never really dormant, whether reading vintage or contemporary fiction.)

At the end of the day, I must say that I enjoyed these books, and I’m looking forward to encountering more of Heyer’s delicious romances, but I suspect that they are best taken one at a time, as a sort of self-indulgent literary “rich dessert”; nice as an occasional treat but not really suitable for daily fare!

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I’m drawing May 1st for three lovely Folio Society books, so if you haven’t done so already, check out the post and let me know which one you’d like to try for.

Everyone is welcome to enter, new blog readers or those who’ve been with me since the beginning, a whole twelve months ago. Just a little celebration of books and readers and the conversations we get into here in cyberspace.

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The Joyous SeasonThe Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis ~ 1964. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Hardcover. 230 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

Ignore the candy cane on the dust jacket, and the internet references you may find to this being a “holiday book.” No, no, no. It is not. Christmas features, but only incidentally. The scope is much broader than that.

“Patrick Dennis,” you’ll possibly be saying to yourself. “Sounds familiar, but ???”

Auntie Mame, darlings!

Ten years after penning his highly successful social satire starring the exuberant Mame and her sedate nephew Patrick, author Edward Tanner – writing under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis – came up with this little  comedic gem. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having only ever previously experienced Mame, but The Joyous Season was absolutely marvelous, and better than I had anticipated. Such a treat!

10-year-old Kerrington – Kerry – is our narrator. He lives in a posh New York apartment with his 6-year-old sister Melissa – Missy – and his parents, both members of the New York “aristocracy”, though his mother’s family is higher up in the strata, and his maternal grandmother never lets his father forget that for a moment. Dad’s a successful architect, and Mom is most definitely one of the ladies-who-lunch, leaving much of the care of her two children to the fifth member of the menage, Lulu.

Lulu’s our nurse. We need a nurse like we need a case of mumps. I mean, hell, I’m ten and eleven twelfths years old and I’ve already smoked over two packs of Tareytons. (They’ve got that extra charcoal filter, you know, for cancer.) Even old Missy can take a bath and get dressed and wipe herself without any help, which is pretty good for six, I guess. But like Mom always said, we can’t go around New York alone because of kidnappers and Dirty Old Men (especially on East Eighty-sixth Street) and types like that. So Lulu drags us across town every day, me to St. Barnaby’s – although she turns me loose at the stationery store so the kids won’t think I’m being hauled around by a nurse at my age – and Missy two blocks further (or farther, whichever it is) to Miss Farthingale’s. Except for that, Lulu hasn’t got much to do except see we go to bed and get up and eat and don’t fight.

Lulu’s quite a character. She’s colored and elderly and has been with us ever since I was born. She’s kind of old fashioned and hates the N.A.A.C.P. and says she doesn’t want to integrate with any white people except Missy and me and that’s only because she gets paid to. Lulu says that after us she needs a rest, if we don’t kill her first, and she wants to retire and move back down South. Gadzeeks, South! I mean I don’t even like Palm Beach, which is supposed to be the next thing to heaven… Give me New York City and keep the rest. Crazy! Anyhow, Lulu tells us real interesting stories and knows every kind of poker there is – except strip – and always lets us have some of her beer and hates Gran’s place in East Haddock almost worse than we do. I mean Lulu is great, even if we don’t need a nurse.

Oh – I forgot one more family member. There’s also Maxl, the incontinent, prone-to-carsickness, full-of-mild-vice dachshund. His escapades run in a kind of sub fusc harmony to the ups and downs of Kerry’s and Missy’s lives, providing a counterpoint to the human drama of this gloriously dramatic tale.

So as the story opens, Kerry, Missy, Lulu and Maxl are reluctantly heading out the door to Gran’s place in East Haddock. Gran is Mom’s mother, and oh boy, is she ever a snooty piece of work! And she’s more or less the reason for the whole darned situation Kerry and Missy are in. To condense greatly, on Christmas morning there was a bit of a situation with Mom and Daddy which saw several kinds of shots fired, much broken glass, some physical violence and some exceedingly blunt words spoken. As a result, Kerr and Missy are poised to become Children of Divorce, much to the delight of meddling Gran. Everyone (except Gran, who openly gloats about the come-uppance of her despised soon-to-be-ex son-in-law) has decided to be Very Civilized About It All, and Not To Make The Children Suffer, but suffering they are indeed, though not perhaps in the way one would expect.

Kerry and Missy, despite all of the adult antics going on in their world, are the epitome of well-adjusted, though no one but Lulu seems to quite get that, and Kerry’s knowing-naive narrative exposes the follies of the grown ups, and New York upper crust society at large, to our appreciative eyes.

Mom is suddenly being courted by her own divorce lawyer, the social-climbing Sam Reynolds, while Daddy is pounced on by the predatory Dorian Glen, a self-invented fashion magazine editor. This gives much glorious scope for satirical commentary, and Kerry is well up to it. His descriptive passages are true works of art, and I found myself wearing a perpetual smile as I willingly gave myself up to the contrivances of the complicated plot.

For example, as this is New York in the 1960s, psychoanalysis is all the rage, and Kerry finds himself saddled with three hours a week with Dr. Epston. The adults in his life just want to ensure that he is coping well, and they are sure that he needs “fixing”, which if nothing else gives Patrick Dennis via Kerry an opportunity to get in some juicy digs at the world of the well-paid New York shrinks.

Dr. Epston’s consulting room is small and dim with a couch to lie on; two easy chairs; Kleenex, for crying into, I guess; a desk and a bookshelf with about a million copies of Tensions in the Metropolitan Adolescent by I. Lorenz Epston. I guess it wasn’t exactly what they call a best seller, but he’s getting rid of the supply bit by bit by making each patient’s family buy a copy (at ten bucks a throw). There are also some pictures on the wall that look like Missy painted them and a framed photograph of Dr. Epston’s three daughters. One is in the upper school at Dalton, one goes to Rudolf Steiner and the littlest one is in the School for Nursery Years – if that gives you some idea of what kind of kids he’s got. They also look like Eskimos. In fact, Dr. Epston’s first question was always, “What are you thinking about right now?” And my answer was always “Eskimos.” But when he’d ask me why, I just couldn’t tell him, because even if he is kind of a boob, I didn’t want to hurt the poor guy’s feelings. So I’d hem and haw and talk about igloos and blubber and wasn’t it interesting that the French spelled Eskimos Esquimaux and like that. So I always got kind of a demerit for being what Dr. Epston called “evasive” (when I was only trying to be polite) and at the end of the first week Mom sent off to Wakefield-Young Books for copies of Nanook of the North and Inyuk and some other suitable reading about the North Pole, when I didn’t care much one way or another.

The first day Dr. Epston made me lie down on the couch and darned if I didn’t drop right off to sleep while he was droning away about trusting him and telling him everything that came into my mind, no matter what. After he woke me up he kept asking me what I was trying to escape from and he wouldn’t believe me when I told him I’d stayed up late the night before watching “The Nurses” (it was all about this dope fiend) and it would have rude to say that also he was kind of a bore. But after that he let me sit up straight in a chair.

And so on, and so on. Kerry certainly does not suffer from lack of things to say; his self-confessed verbosity is what makes this satire such a delight. He’s a truly nice kid, for all the knowingness and the cynical tone he tries to maintain, and his relationship with the volatile Missy is just plain sweet, though they swap sibling-appropriate verbal digs and occasional blows.

Missy is a glorious character in her own right, and it would take me pages and pages to do her proper justice, so I’m not going to even try.

If you liked Auntie Mame, I’ll guarantee that you’ll love The Joyous Season. Highly recommended.

And here, as a bit of a bonus (because I do like to read reviews from the time of publication, and usually try to seek them out to see what those of the time had to say to compare it to my own years-further-on take), is the Kirkus review from October 14, 1965, because it sums things up quite well. I did edit to remove the spoiler; the ending is blatantly given away; that’s such a cheat in a commercial review, don’t you think? Liked the Holden Caulfield reference, because I thought that too, before I ever read the Kirkus review!

The people from the Auntie Mame strata are back under the snickersee of Patrick Dennis. The narrator is 10-year-old Kerrington, scion of a bloodline so inside Society that he yawns at the mere thought. After Daddy’s monumental Christmas hangover, Kerry and his 6-year-old sister, Missy, are slated to become Children of Divorce. Kerry’s prose style would make even a Holden Caulfield blanch, but his reportage is as complete. It seems Mommy and Daddy are going to do the Terribly Civilized bit. The demoniacally wholesome children are taken in on the divorce plans and exposed to the new interests of their wayward parents. Daddy falls victim to a voracious career woman (whose job allows P.D. to vivisect the fashion magazine sub-culture) and Mommy gets stuck with a stuffed shirt (who polarizes the P.D. thunderbolts directed at the nouveau riche). No tribal rite of the East Coast uppercrust, no Southern smarm and no mid-Western gaucherie is sacred … P.D. has picked their milieu to tatters. His full cast of credible caricatures are given dazzlingly funny dialogue. It’s a fair guess that this could easily go the Auntie Mame route — book to play to movie.

I honestly don’t know if this book did ever make it onto stage or screen, but it could well have. All I know is that I’d never heard of it before doing my bit of casual research on the author while reviewing Auntie Mame last year. He was well on my radar as one to watch out for, and when I came across The Joyous Season last week on the bottom shelf of the used book section of a secondhand furniture store in Prince George which I visit every few months “on spec” – for locals, that would be City Furniture right in the core of the scruffy old P.G. downtown on 3rd and Quebec – stacks and stacks of dusty books which I’ve now mined fairly thoroughly but which still contain some occasional vintage “finds” – I grabbed it with a silent shout of glee.

Young Kerry, narrator of the story, could have come across as either cloying or annoying, but Patrick Dennis has nimbly avoided either obnoxious extreme, to create a character whom I found I could completely relate too, after checking my own cynicism at the door, as it were. (Young Kerry’s dialogue occasionally slips to reveal the very adult puppet master handling the authorial strings, but it didn’t matter at all; I was happily and deliberately complicit in my own deception and looked away the few times it happened.)

I liked the likeability of Kerry’s whole family, for though Daddy and Mom were guilty of high tempers and hasty words to each other, they truly came across as loving parents, which was much appreciated; it could so easily have had a sour tone. The in-laws on both sides, and the assorted friends and hangers-on of each of the parents, gave loads of scope for Patrick Dennis to work with; he was bang on the mark with each and every one. Brilliant.

And though I saw the ending coming from just a few pages in, it never ruined things for me to find out I was right. Great “light” escape reading, and definitely a keeper.

I do believe this title is fairly easy to obtain, as it was republished in 2002, and looks to be available as a new softcover through Amazon, or, hopefully, your favourite local bookstore. There are a few vintage copies available through ABE, but these are priced a bit high, up into the $20s and $30s and beyond, so unless you’re a purist and need the original hardcover, I’d say go for the cheapest decent copy you can find, which might well be the 2002 reprint. Or perhaps try the library?

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rhododendron pie margery sharp rebound 001Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp ~ 1930. This edition: D. Appleton & Co., 1930. 3rd American printing. Hardcover, rebound by library. 359 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

The standard set by this first novel is high; Sharp began as she was to go on, moving from strength to strength throughout her long writing career. Even her few “bobbles” in her later works are entertaining; her sheer writing skill and love and mastery of language make her a joy to read, even when the plotline falters. And it doesn’t do that here; this book is very well put together indeed.

This is the depressingly rare first ever Margery Sharp novel, long out of print, and extremely hard to come by. I finally tracked it down through inter-library loan; a complete search of the Canadian library database located one lone copy in Ontario. After paying a $20 borrowing fee, and waiting for what seemed like a terribly long time, it arrived in pieces, held together with several rubber bands, with a note asking me to use extreme caution when handling it.

Not knowing quite what to expect as a reading experience, but having very high hopes, I was more than rewarded for the time and trouble it took to get my hands on a copy of this book, at least temporarily, and I redoubled my efforts to find a copy of my own. This was something of a “take a deep breath” step,  as prices range from a low of $200 to a high of $600; the most copies I’ve ever seen on offer at one time are the current seven on ABE.

I won’t tell you what I ended up paying for my own copy, pictured above, but it was a major investment for someone of my relatively modest resources. Not the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased – that dubious honour goes to the even rarer Fanfare For Tin Trumpets, Margery Sharp’s second (and just a little less stellar) novel. What I will say is that I haven’t regretted it at all. Either of them. But most of Sharp’s later works – she wrote something like twenty-six novels for adults, and a dozen or so juveniles, many starring the mousy “Rescuers”, elegant white Bianca and common brown Bernard (“the Brave”) – are relatively easy to find. She was a best-selling author in her time, with a humourous inflection which transcends time. I love her writing; for me it simply “flows”, carrying me effortlessly along. Each re-reading reveals another layer; I’m far from finished with my exploration and enjoyment of her work.

I do so wish that someone in the publishing world would catch the Margery Sharp bug and reprint her early works! Rhododendron Pie is such an exquisite little gem, with the genuine clarity and sparkle. There are much more pedestrian works being brought back into the marketplace to feed the current hunger for such nostalgic period pieces! I live in hope.

In the meantime, we do what we can. For those of you who are also Margery Sharp fans, and who have not yet gotten your hands on this little prize, I am now posting, as promised way back in August or September, the entire Prologue to Rhododendron Pie. One day, if no publisher blesses us with a reprint, I might be tempted to scan the whole book and turn it into a pdf file, to share with fellow Sharp aficionados. (Or perhaps it might qualify for Project Gutengberg? I thnk it just might be old enough, and long enough after the author’s death.) In the meantime, here’s a sample.

If you enjoy the Prologue, let me assure you that the rest of the novel is ever so much better.

But first, a contemporary review from 1930:

Rhododendron Pie is something more than an amusing and good-natured gibe at literary and artistic snobbery, for all the Laventie family–including the mother, who comes in with a great burst of rhetoric on behalf of the bank clerk at the finish–and the various minor characters are far more than argumentative counters in the attack or defence of aestheticism.  They have all authentic lives of their own, and Miss Sharp is particularly successful in catching the accent of those inhabitants of the modern world who carry a magnificent undergraduate irresponsibility into the affairs of everyday life. – The London Times Literary Supplement

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The story proper opens ten years later. Our heroine, Ann, is now twenty, and we find her dreaming the summer away, poised on the brink of life. Her brother Dick and sister Elizabeth are busy following their own intense pursuits – Dick as an art student and aspiring sculptor, and Elizabeth as a writer and editor – but Ann has so far found no particular artistic bent of her own to follow. She is mostly merely accomplished at being agreeable, and with her sophisticated family and their many visitors a listening ear and a pleasant, interested expression are much appreciated as the egoists expound and Ann takes it all in. But she has a rich inner life of her own, and she’s busy sorting it all out.

Ann settled down on the grass again with her chin on her fists and one shoe waving in the air. She wasn’t reading really, only pretending to, so that the others wouldn’t talk to her. It was too nice in the garden to talk. How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world… an enormous warm green ball spinning slowly through space with somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot…

The Gayfords, ten years after we first meet them, are still persisting in being friendly to their uppish neighbours; continual delicate snubs are absorbed and ignored, and Ann has settled into her role as a liaison of sorts between the two worlds, which leads to occasional mockery by Dick, Elizabeth and Mr. Laventie, who assume that Ann is merely “collecting material” for reasons of her own.

But Ann is honestly fond of the happy Gayford clan, and this summer, with Peggy Gayford’s approaching marriage and John’s unchangeable good nature with every brief encounter, Ann is starting to wonder what is wrong with her, to find such healthy, hearty normalcy so attractive. For isn’t life meant to be an endless round of sensation-seeking, with the creation of an exquisite and “individual” persona for the edification of the other elite highbrows one’s chief occupation? So why is Ann having such difficulty working up a properly scornful attitude of her own to the Gayford’s enthusiastic embrace of the comfortable pleasures of upper-middle-class country life. (The Gayford patriarch is the local doctor; John has embarked on a career in banking, and his younger brother Nick is at medical school, in sharp contrast to the general Laventie bent for something more artistic and “fine” than mere useful “labour”.)

Avant-garde filmmaker Gilbert Croy appears on the scene, and with his languid courtship of her, which she warmly responds to, it seems that Ann will embrace the family tradition and rise above her delight in the everyday to take her place among the rarefied intellectuals. But circumstances and Ann’s innate common sense unite to turn things upside down …

Margery Sharp, though she does the conventional “happy ending” thing very well indeed, always seems able to put a twist into her story somewhere. Nothing is completely as it seems, and the clichés fall apart upon closer examination. There are some cleverly well-realized character sketches in Rhododendron Pie, as enjoyable to today’s reader as they would have been to those readers of the time more cognizant of the sly references Sharp has such a grand time making.

On re-reading what I’ve just written, I see that I haven’t done much in the way of detailing the plot, and I’ve completely ignored many characters who wander in and out of Ann’s widening orbit. There’s a lot in this little book; too much to share without giving things away completely, and too complex to detail without making this review even longer than it already is, what with all the images I’ve crammed in!


Sound appealing? If so, this is what you’re looking for in your library book sale and flea market travels. This lovely (and exceedingly rare) first edition with an intact dust jacket will set you back a cool $600, at Old Scrolls. Right now, April 2013, there are 7 copies listed on ABE, from $212 to the aforementioned $600.

There must be a few more out there in dusty corners for the persistent (and lucky) searcher. Particularly in Great Britain, or possibly the U.S.A. Happy hunting!


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One. Whole. Year.

I’m surprised it’s gone by so quickly, but yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Leaves and Pages blog. It’s been fun, and I definitely want to keep going.

So many books, so many books …

So without any further ado, I am announcing a


in honour of the occasion, and as a small way of saying “Thank You” to all of the other blog readers and writers who have brought me so much enjoyment this neophyte year.

folio giveaway 2013 leaves and pages 001I have acquired three handsome Folio editions of books I’ve read and enjoyed, and much as I am tempted to hoard them away like a miser squirrelling coins, I am going to be all brave and noble and send them out into the world. (That’s why I bought them, after all. And I was thrilled when I found them – “Perfect for the Blog Birthday,” I thought immediately. They were all purchased as “second-hand” but they are crisp and clean and beautiful and all three seem to be unread. These are truly deluxe editions, and I hope they will find good homes where they will be opened up and properly READ.)

So here we go. To take part in the giveaway, simply leave a comment on this post, telling me which book you’d like to try for. I’ll do the draw the old fashioned way, names on slips of paper to be drawn “out of the hat” – the winners will be announced and then we can arrange about addresses to mail them to and so on.

Anyone from anywhere is welcome to participate.

And please do – the more the merrier!

Drumroll, please…

The Father Brown Stories

by G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in 1911 (The Innocence of Father Brown) and 1914 (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

This is the full text of both books, with an Introduction by Colin Dexter and many excellent pen-and-ink illustrations by Val Biro. Clothbound with slipcover. 358 pages.

The Folio Society, 1996

the father brown stories folio giveaway 2013 leaves and pages 001

The Greengage Summer

by Rumer Godden

Originally published in 1958.

Includes a new Preface by the author added in 1993, a Foreword by Jane Murray Flutter, and an Introduction by Jane Asher (who played one of the children in the 1961 film of the novel), as well as illustrations by Aafke Brouwer. Clothbound with slipcover. 171 pages.

The Folio Society, 2000.

greengage summer folio giveaway 2013 leaves and pages 001

The Franchise Affair

by Josephine Tey

Originally published in 1948.

Introduction by Antonia Fraser. Illustrated by Paul Hogarth. Clothbound with slipcover. 254 pages.

The Folio Society, 2001.

franchise affair cover folio giveaway 2013 leaves and pages 001

Good Luck, everyone!

I’ll do the draw on May 1st, so you have a few weeks to enter.

Just a quick comment on this post, letting me know which of these grand books you’d like to own, and you’re in!

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Lasso Your Heart by Betty Cavanna ~ 1952. This edition: The Westminster Press, 1952. 184 pages.lasso your heart betty cavanna

My rating: 5/10.

This one just squeaks onto the keeper shelf and therefore gets a “pass”, and I’ve made generous allowances for the genre and time of writing. The Kirkus review says it, too. Merely “adequate.”


Kirkus Review, October 1952

A wholesome young love and how-to-be-natural-with-people-instead-of-just-horses-and-dogs novel, by a popular teen-age fiction author – about a young Texas girl and her adjustment problems with rich Philadelphia relatives. Sixteen year old Prue Foster and her family have moved to rural Pennsylvania where her father is managing a cattle fattening ranch. In Bryn Mawr live the Rowntrees, Mrs. Foster’s socialite family, and Prue is invited to her cousin Cissy’s debut. Her misgivings intelligently reasoned away, Prue enjoys herself with a young journalism aspirant Colin, until news is received of Cissy’s brother-in-law’s death in Europe. Mr. and Mrs. Rowntree fly to their elder daughter’s aid and Cissy goes out to the ranch with Prue where she falls in love with Mac, a Texas A. & M. student summering with the Fosters as a ranch hand. Prue averts a would be tragic elopement by enlightening Mac as to the evils of running away from temporary disapproval. So Cissy wins Mac the honorable way and Prue looks forward to a nice winter with Colin who will study at Penn. Adequate.

This is one of prolific “teen fiction” writer Betty Cavanna’s earlier books, and it is an exceedingly stereotypical “young romance” novel, though it is not at all a bad book – no groans of despair were emitted by this reader during the reading, which says something.

An interesting scenario in some ways, with the main character, Prudence – Prue – coming from a ranching family who has recently relocated from Texas to Pennsylvania. I appreciated that Prue’s father was not a ranch owner himself, but merely an employee of a large Texas holding. There is a complete acceptance by the author that agriculture was a more than respectable occupation for both Mr. Foster and the young “cowboy” love interest, Mac – much is made of the fact that they are well-educated professionals much respected in their fields – Mr. Foster is writing scientific articles for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Yearbook, and Mac is in his final years of study at Ag school (Texas A. & M. University), which is treated with as much respect as Harvard might be. I really liked those touches, and awarded an extra star for them. (Being an old aggie of sorts myself, from one of the venerable Albertan “cow schools.”)

Otherwise this is mostly just a typical 1950s’ teen romance, with the sweet, naïve, wholesome country girl falling in love with the cute city guy with the convertible, and wondering if he could ever be interested in her, and being oh-so-flushed-and-confused when it becomes apparent that yes, young love is in full delicious bloom. But though Prue and Colin are involved in a gentle teenage courtship (does he really read poetry to her under the trees by the brook? – I’m so jealous!) the situation between Prue’s cousin Cissy and the older Mac hints at something much more emotionally mature and physically passionate.

There is also a situation involving Cissy’s older sister Lea, living in Amsterdam with her pilot husband, Stewart. Stewart’s death in a flying accident on the evening of Cissy’s debutante ball injects a sombre overtone into what is otherwise a light and airy story, and the grief this brings to the families involved is handled well by the author, though she takes care to keep most of that aspect well off stage; Cissy is staying with Prue so Lea can go through the first months of her widowhood in private seclusion back at her childhood home without the fuss of Cissy’s busy social life trespassing on her mourning period. I thought this was an atypical scenario to include in a teen book of this period, and it definitely added another dimension to the story, beyond stereotypical “fluff.”

Betty Cavanna knows her horses, too, and includes a sweet interlude with Prue’s mare giving birth to an adorable foal; there is also the de rigueur “caught in wire” scenario with the young heroine single-handedly rescuing the entangled horse and being praised for her good sense and bravery etcetera etcetera etcetera.

The readers of the period liked this stuff just fine; the old library copy of Lasso Your Heart I’ve acquired (no idea where – it’s been around for years and I cannot remember where I got it, though I’m guessing it was cheap or even free, due to its decrepit condition) is literally falling to pieces, and has been repaired by conscientious librarian a few times – tape overlapping on tape!

I’m getting rather interested in this author in a low-key way, and will be on the lookout for more by her. She has surprised me a bit, in a good way, in each of her three books I’ve read over the past few weeks. I spent some time browsing her titles on ABE, and was quite surprised to see that some are in short supply and are indeed very high-priced; she’s been deemed as “collectible”, apparently, so my interest is not exclusive.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Betty Cavanna in the future.

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The Unhappy People


Professor, may I introduce you

to two of the Unhappy People, whom you’ve described

as inhabiting a cultural vacuum

somewhere between the swamps of Frustration

and the salt sea of Despair.

May I present my wife’s cousins, Corey and Brent.

You will note immediately that their teeth are translucent,

the colour of reconstituted powdered milk,

which can be attributed to hereditary malnutrition,

as their lack of earlobes can be ascribed to inbreeding.

You are free to make notes, if you wish.

At worst, they’ll merely laugh at you.


Professor, I must ask you to forgive

the mandolin, the five-string banjo, the guitar, the fiddle

and the jew’s-harp. I must ask you to bear with

Brent when he dances – he prefers it to walking to

the refrigerator for another beer – and Corey when he


his groin in symbolic tribute to the girl in the yellow

bathing suit

playing with a frisbee on the grass across the street.

I know it’s distracting when, for no apparent reason,

they break into song. I can understand your not laughing

with them when they talk about driving

four-year-old cars at one hundred and ten

miles per hour down dirt roads with the police behind them,

of overturning and wondering drunkenly how to shut off

the headlights, until logic triumphed and they kicked

them out.

I beg you not to be disturbed when they whoop

at the tops of their voices – it’s in their blood,

I’m afraid, their way of declaring an instantaneous holiday

and, besides, Brent got out of jail this morning

or, as he puts it, got back from his annual vacation,

having been locked up this time because he didn’t

know his own strength, he says, and when he was refused


at the liquor store, being drunk, forgot he was carrying

nothing under his left arm to offset the force of his right

pushing open the door on his way out and so, purely by


drove his fist through the glass:

it could have happened to anybody, Your Honour,

he told the Court. You must excuse Corey, Professor,

like every other member of his family he walks in and out

of rooms without thinking it necessary to offer

any explanation. When they arrive at my house

or any other, they open the door, come in, sit down

and, perhaps, switch on the radio. They’d expect you to do

the same.

If you go to the window, Professor, you’ll see

that he’s talking with the girl in the yellow bathing suit

and already has her laughing. “Once you got them laughing,

you’re as good as in bed with them,” Brent says.

In celebration

he jumps up again and dances. They’ve brought venison

and wild rice and a half-dozen jars of their mother’s

homemade preserves and pickles, fresh loaves of her bread

two double cases of beer and a forty-ounce bottle

of dark rum, having shut down the cannery

where Corey works in honour of Brent’s homecoming.

“I said to hell with ‘er, let’s tie ‘er up.”

and with unanimous approval of his fellows,

conveyed without a word, he tied her up well

by making certain delicate adjustments to the machinery

when the bosses weren’t watching. His laughter and his


laughter and the laughter of the girl in the yellow bathing


mingle and rise like water from a garden hose, spraying the


from inside and out. The passersby turn

and smile, a neighbour’s dog runs to see what’s happening,

a host of starlings take wing, the tiger lilies are in flower

at the edge of the parking lot next to this house.

Professor, I don’t suppose you’d care to arm-wrestle?


Alden Nowlan ~ Smoked Glass ~ 1977

This poem is dedicated to some guys I used to know.

Gone, most of them, flamed out and crashed and burned in (mostly) self-imposed self-destruction.

The hard living took its toll, but they had a grand time while it lasted.

And they made a lot of people laugh.

Gone, but definitely not forgotten!


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my heart lies south elizabeth borton de trevino 001My Heart Lies South: The Story of My Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño ~ 1953. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1953. Hardcover. 248 pages.

My rating: 8/10.


I found this book among my mother’s boxes in her attic which I was supposed to go through and “deal with” when she downsized from the too-many-staircases rambling family home to the tiny-but-manageable single-level house she’s in now. I almost put it into the Sally Ann box, but something stayed my hand. “Elizabeth Borton de Treviño…. I know that name, somehow,” I thought, and that was enough to put it into my keeper pile instead.

Some years passed (well, six years, to be exact, because Mom moved in 2007, and much of what I brought home is still in “temporary” storage here, still waiting to be “dealt with” – and honestly, the only boxes I’ve cracked open are the ones full of books) and then one day I looked at My Heart Lies South again. And the penny finally dropped.

Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. Of course! I, Juan de Pareja. The 1966 Newbery Award winning historical fiction about the Spanish painter Velazquez and his personal slave, Juan de Pareja. I’d read this some years ago, and found it a well-written juvenile historical fiction, and that was why the name of the author sounded so familiar.

I opened My Heart Lies South, as I should have done six years ago, and started reading bits here and there. Far from being the serious and sober biography I had expected from the rather unprepossessing dustjacket – (“Don’t judge a book by its cover” – I know, I know) –  the passages I read were wry and funny and interesting. And when I settled down to tread it cover to cover, it definitely did not disappoint. Another hidden bookish gem, I think we could safely say.


Elizabeth Borton was born in 1904, in Bakersfield, California, and, encouraged by her parents, started writing at a very young age. After graduating from Stanford University in 1925 with a degree in Latin American History, Elizabeth went on to the Boston Conservatory of Music to study violin. She then worked as a reporter for the Boston Herald, and spent five seasons in Hollywood interviewing film personalities.

With her strong interest in all things Latin American, Elizabeth was continually talking about going to Mexico, and one day, in 1934, her editor broke down and sent her off with a handful of tickets, vouchers and contact lists, telling her to “just write something” once she got there. And with her eventual meeting with the representative of the Monterrey Chamber of Commerce, one Luis de Treviño, Elizabeth’s future, though she didn’t know it at the time, was about to take a very different turn from her life as an independent American career woman.

“Hello Luis!” said Bill. “This is Miss Borton. When you get to Vallecillo, buy her an ice-cold beer.”

Luis laughed nervously. There is nothing he likes better than a cold beer, but the lady he had taken across the border for the Chamber of Commerce two weeks before had resisted the beer with desperation as if it might be the first step in a seduction, and the lady last week had been Dorothy Dix, who was even then rather tired from pushing seventy or so and inclined to be tart with young men eager to waste her time in taverns.

I was turned over to the vaccination, immigration, and customs authorities, and at last, in a car which had been provided by the Chamber of Commerce, complete with chauffeur, we set out for Monterrey. I had my hair tied up in a scarf and I was wearing a large black hat as well as sun glasses. Now the sun began to go down and long violet shadows crept across the plain. I took off my hat.

“Ah,” breathed Luis.

I undid the scarf.

“So?” remarked Luis.

I took off the black glasses.

“Wonderful,” he decided, aloud. He leaned toward me and looked at me soulfully.

“Shall I sing you a song about love?” he asked.

“Why yes,” I agreed, thinking this must be a gag.

But he launched into “Palm Trees Drunk with the Sun,” went on to “The Sea Gulls,” and then sang “The Green Eyes,” in a light baritone voice.

“Very nice,” commented the chauffeur from the front seat. “Now sing ‘Farolito.'”

He sang it. After our beer in Vallecillo, Luis sang other songs. He sang all the way to Monterrey.

I didn’t realize it, but I was being courted.elizabeth borton de trevino 001

As you can see from the photo of the author, taken from the jacket of the book published eighteen years after her marriage, the initial attraction on looks alone is understandable!

Luis shows Elizabeth the attractions of Monterrey, including things definitely off the tourist track, such as his family ranchito, and, significance unknown to Elizabeth at the time, the private parlour of his beloved mother, Mamacita. He also takes her dancing, in company with a respectable engaged couple, a situation that made all of Monterrey society take note…

I was left at my hotel. But a sort of die had been cast. Luis had cast it and with his eyes open. He had taken a strange woman to dance. Just any strange woman, and the incident might have been passed over as a wild oat on the part of the fifth Trevino. But he had taken the strange woman in company with a pareja of his best friends, an engaged couple! Two plus two equals four. Dancing with one girl all evening, with an engaged pareja to make up the party, means something serious! Phones rang in Monterrey; the news went round. Only I was in the dark.

Formally on the afternoon of the next day, I was taken to call on Mamacita. While we sat in the sala, Luis disappeared, to return with a tray on which sat Mamacita’s best small silver liqueur glasses. In each was a thimbleful of sweet vermouth. On a plate there were some little yellow cakes that melted into a puff of flavour when bitten. These were Mamacita’s famous polvorones de maizena (cornstarch puff cookies), the engagement cake… They were a kind of symbol. All unknowing I ate the engagement cakes and tasted the engagement vermouth.

Later Luis brought me a small yellow-striped kitten and dropped it into my lap.

“Oh, the darling! I wish I could have him,” I cried. “But I am leaving tomorrow for Mexico City and I have lots of work to do. I won’t be home in California for weeks.”

Mamacita said calmly, “Galatea has kittens like these every four months. You will have a kitten.”

Paling visibly, Luis scooped up the kitten and left. I wondered what had happened, but it seemed he had only recognized his mother’s acceptance of me. Mamacita had decided that I was to come to Monterrey, marry Luis, and receive a kitten from the fecund Galatea. He had been working toward this, but it was serious, and it sobered him to realize he was practically a married man.

Elizabeth eventually catches on, and with the blessing of both sets of parents, the couple is married and sets up housekeeping in Monterrey, on a shoestring budget. Culture shock hits strong and hard, as Elizabeth is suddenly immersed in traditional Mexican society, and finds herself floundering more than a little in her new role as the wife of an established, upper class Mexican husband. Luckily Mamacita and Papacito, Elizabeth’s new parents-in-law, are firmly behind her, and guide Elizabeth through the maze of “proper” behaviour, and cover up her most blatant mistakes. Of which there are many, reported in full by the author.

I am afraid I am not at all familiar with Mexican society of the time period of the memoir – the 1930s – or even of the present day – but after reading My Heart Lies South I have a clear and mostly positive impression of a world in which family comes before all else, and in which women, though subject to the strictest of behavioural expectations from their menfolk, have an enormous influence and hidden power, which they can wield for either good or ill. Elizabeth’s family, visiting some years after her marriage, shake their heads in wonder and tell Elizabeth that she has wandered into a world frozen in the 1800s. Elizabeth, having carved out her domestic niche after significant struggle, agrees, but states that she is deeply happy, and that she now fully enjoys the more positive aspects of this steeped-in-tradition world.

This full acceptance of uber-traditional female roles may have modern-day feminists grinding their teeth in despair, and it also does appear, from the glowing reviews which this book receives on the “Godly womanhood” websites I’ve stumbled across while researching the author, that the more conservative “right-wing” types have embraced this memoir as an estimable example of true femininity.

I find that I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Elizabeth and Luis seemed, from all reports I’ve read, to have a most successful and happy marriage, which is an accomplishment worth celebrating, no matter in which society it is achieved. Elizabeth continued with her successful writing career after her marriage, managed to find time to keep up with her music, created a beloved home, and adapted very well to the expectations of her in-laws, while still staying in close contact with her American friends and relations. It seems to me that her life was most reasonably “fulfilled”; she certainly does not come across as downtrodden in any way, and she speaks of her integration into Mexican society with affection and sharp-eyed realism.

All of this to say that I enjoyed this book greatly.

There also exists an expurgated “Young People’s Edition” of My Heart Lies South, got up, I am sure, to piggyback on the perennial success of I, Juan de Pareja. Apparently all the more risqué bits are left out – and there are a few – so I can’t really see the point of that, as when Elizabeth shares some of her more “adult” anecdotes she’s really at her best. So look for the original version, which has been reprinted numerous times, instead. (And to add insult to injury, the cover of the junior version is not at all dignified, and hints at a jolly comedy, which, for all of its humour, this memoir is definitely not.)

My Heart Lies South has two companion memoirs, Where the Heart Is, and The Hearthstone of My Heart. I’m a bit taken aback by the Heart-y-ness of the titles – definitely working the theme to the utmost! –  but I’ll be keeping an eye out for these, as I’m sure they will be worth investigating.

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