Archive for August, 2013

fast fast fast relief pierre berton 1Fast Fast Fast Relief by Pierre Berton ~ 1962. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Hardcover. 185 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Pierre Berton, Canadian popular historian extraordinaire, began his career as a prolific and well-regarded newspaper columnist. After reading and enjoying an earlier collection of his newspaper articles, 1959’s Just Add Water and Stir , I was happy to acquire a similar 1962 collection. It has lived up to expectation, in providing a widely varied, and, for the most part, smoothly readable collection of serious essays, biographical sketches, social commentary, and satirical fabrications.

Highlights of the collection to me were a series of short, completely serious, “current affairs” articles highlighting social injustices, a number of lyrical essays describing the joys of country life, and a rather goofy collection of humorous short-short stories, extra-heavy on the satire. Of these last, The Waiting Room (Wesbrook Frayme, car racing ace, dies in a crash, gets to Heaven and is shocked to find out that his widow has married twice again; his wife and her other two spouses all appear to confound Wesbrook’s assumptions about his marriage and his wife’s mourning process) and Shakespeare Revises a Play (the Bard of Avon has his work worked over in a most Hollywood-like manner; in his first draft of Hamlet, Ophelia is thirty-two, and the ending involves lovers wandering off hand-in-hand into the sunset; the producer and director have other ideas), are particularly delightful.

A collection worthy of keeping on the night table for dipping into; an ideal guest room book for your fellow Canadian avid readers, especially those appreciative of Berton’s wry, thought-provoking, and occasionally just-plain-silly and boisterous tone.

All in all, over forty short pieces, plus an extensive and most interesting foreword by the author. Comic cartoon-like illustrations by George Feyer are an added touch.

Pure vintage Canadiana, and a good reminder of why Pierre Berton was so highly regarded for so many decades. His more than competent journalistic work brilliantly foretells his subsequent success as a writer of popularly accessible historical books.

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akaval james houston cover 1 001Akavak: An Eskimo Journey by James Houston ~ 1968. This edition: Longmans Canada Limited, 1968. Hardcover. 80 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Akavak is a slight but punchy short novel from Canadian artist and writer James Houston. Akavak was Houston’s fourth published fictional work, preceded by the award-winning Tikta’liktak in 1965, as well as The Eagle Mask (1966) and The White Archer (1967). Aimed at a youth readership, Houston’s short juvenile novels garnered high praise for their depictions of pre-European contact  Eskimo (as the Inuit were called at that time) and Indian (First Nations) life. Houston went on to write and illustrate a number of other juvenile adventure novels, most set in contemporary times, as well as several ambitious and well-received adult novels, all set in the North, and frequently featuring strong Inuit and First Nations characters.

In Akavak, a fourteen-year-old Inuit boy (Akavak) is asked to accompany his grandfather on a perilous journey along the coastline in order to fulfill the elderly man’s final wish, to see his beloved brother one more time before it is too late. Warned by his father that though Grandfather is still a master traveller and skilled hunter he occasionally shows flawed judgement due to his great age, Akavak must assess his grandfather’s moods and instructions as the journey proceeds, and find tactful ways to prevent the old man from putting himself and Akavak in danger.

At first the journey goes well, but soon a series of increasingly serious disasters threatens the expedition, and Akavak’s and Grandfather’s very survival; Akavak must finally take the lead and make some difficult decisions. The two ultimately attain their destination, but the ending of the story is bittersweet.

akavak james houston illust 2 001Well depicted details of traditional Inuit skills, as well as a compelling storyline make this novel a good read-alone or read-aloud for primary and intermediate grades, and it will work well as part of a Canadian/Arctic/Inuit Life social studies/humanities unit. The novel is set pre-European-contact (or perhaps in an isolated location); while there is a slightly educational tone to a few of the author’s explanations of customs or habits, the story is very respectful of Inuit culture without over-emphasizing its “exotic” nature to readers not of the North.

James Houston was a talented artist; while not meaning to downplay the vigorous story, I have to say that for me the illustrations are perhaps the best part of this short novel. Simplistic charcoal drawings, they brilliantly capture mood and movement, and are detailed enough to provide a clear picture of the places and people of Houston’s dramatic tale.

akavak james houston illust 1 001The story itself provides not much in the way of surprises; the adventuring pair overcome their frequent setbacks with predictable success. There is a very real sense of the peril that they find themselves in; Houston, though allowing the titular hero to attain his goal in the end, never guarantees a happy ending to any of the incidents he depicts, adding a dash of plausibility to a highly dramatized adventure story.

I would think that ages 8 to 12 or so would enjoy this story as a read-alone; add a few years onto each end of that range if using as a read-aloud. There are no chapter breaks, but I would suggest that it be broken into perhaps three or four sections if reading aloud, though an ambitious and well-seasoned narrator with an attentive audience could probably pull it off in less.

Akavak has been continually reprinted in numerous editions throughout the years, and so should be fairly easy to find in most Canadian library systems, or through the second-hand book trade.

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mrs harris goes to new york paul gallico 4 001Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico ~ 1959. Alternate title: Mrs ‘Arris Goes to New York. This edition: Penguin, 1984. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001943-X. 168 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Cute story, but much too much “tell” versus “show”. And I suspect that unless you’ve already read the first Mrs Harris saga, you’ll be rather at sea as to why we’re supposed to be so fully on her side. In other words, it screams “SEQUEL!”

In the second installment of what would eventually be a four book series, sixty-one year old London charlady Mrs Ada Harris undertakes another major journey, and another major quest. (Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, her first journey and quest, to Paris for the purchase of an exquisite Dior party dress, is one of author Paul Gallico’s best-loved light novels.)

This time around it is the United States of America looming as the golden goal; the quest is to return an abandoned and neglected young boy to his ex-American soldier father. Luckily, coincidences again merge to bring the almost magical Mrs Harris’s plans to glorious fruition, though not without some glorious glitches here and there.

Eight-year-old Henry Brown has been fostered out by his feckless mother after her first wartime marriage to Henry’s father ended in divorce, and because her prospective second husband refused to have another man’s child under his roof. For a while all went well, with regular child support payments coming through, but eventually the monthly cheque ceased coming, and no one could trace the boy’s mother. She had obviously moved without leaving a forwarding address. It was then that Mrs Harris and her good friend Mrs Butterfield began to hear disturbing sounds coming from the flat sandwiched between their two independent domiciles. Young Henry was being regularly beaten and abused; he appeared increasingly pinched and obviously hungry; his uncomplaining endurance and sweet, unsoured nature under the burden of his sad fate endeared him to the two grandmotherly ladies, and they often mulled over just what could be done.

Then one day Mrs Harris had a brainwave. What about Henry’s American father?! If there was some way to notify him about his child’s plight, surely he would effect an immediate rescue? One small problem existed: no one knew exactly where Henry’s father now was. The child is, effectively, an orphan.

And then marvelous fate steps in. One day, at an employer’s flat, Mrs Harris stumbles upon what she considers a message from the heavens.

Left to herself, Mrs Harris then indulged in one of her favourite pastimes, which was the reading of old newspapers. One of her greatest pleasures when she went to the fishmonger’s was to read two-year-old pages of the Mirror lying on the counter and used for wrapping.

Now she picked up a page of a newspaper called The Milwaukee Sentinel, eyed the headline ‘Dominie Seduced Schoolgirl in Hayloft’, enjoyed the story connected therewith, and thereafter leafed through the other pages of the same instrument until she came to one labelled ‘Society Page’, on which she found many photographs of young brides, young grooms-to-be, and young married couples.

Always interested in weddings, Mrs Harris gave these announcements more undivided attention, until she cam upon one which caused her little eyes almost to pop out of her head, and led her to emit a shriek, ‘Ruddy gor’blimey – it’s ‘im! It’s happened! I felt it in me bones that something would.’

There among the wedding announcements is one for a Mr George Brown, described as an ex-soldier who had been stationed in England, and referring to the fact that this was Mr Brown’s second attempt at nuptials. What a brilliant flash of serendipitous luck this was! This must be young Henry’s father, for isn’t the groom’s father’s name also Henry Brown? And wouldn’t the little British-American baby have obviously been named after his paternal grandfather?

The wheels of Mrs Harris’s single-minded focus are suddenly set turning. If only there was a way to deliver young Henry to his father, then surely paternal love would instantly overwhelm the man, and he would cleave unto his dear son and rescue him from his current awful situation. And there is a possibility of actually bringing this about, for Mrs Harris is herself shortly to depart for a trip to America!

You see, another of her clients is the wife of a movies-and-television company director, and, upon a sudden promotion, the couple are to return to the States to allow Mr Schreiber to take on his new duties. Mrs Schrieber, a sweetly dithery, rather ineffectual, and continuously gently worried lady, is thrown into a state of absolute panic at the thought of having to establish a new household in New York, one which will require her to manage a number of domestic helpers, and to continually entertain her husband’s entertainment industry movers and shakers, and more than a few movie and music stars. What will she do? Could, would, will Mrs Harris come along, just for a few months, to help establish the Schrieber’s new ménage? Mrs Harris takes a deep breath and hesitatingly agrees, after arranging that her good friend Mrs Butterworth accompany the party; Mrs Butterworth being a skilled cook, and a definite asset to Mrs Schrieber during the “finding her legs” New York debut.

Now what if there was some way to smuggle young Henry aboard the bustling ocean liner Ville de Paris, ferry him across the sea, and reunite him with his father? Once they’re all in New York, surely a quick trip to Milwaukee will be easy to arrange…

If this seems to good to be true, of course it is. But the unlikely escapade starts off exceedingly well. Henry, a bright young lad, plays along most willingly, and his two sponsors get him on board and manage to keep his presence under wraps until mid-Atlantic, when it becomes apparent that getting the child off the boat at Ellis Island may prove something more of a challenge, what with stringent American customs and immigration officials examining every set of incoming papers with fine tooth combs and such. As for papers, young Henry possesses none. Gulp!

Ah, but again, kind fate steps in. Sharing the journey is a certain French diplomat whom Mrs Harris came to know well during her Paris stay. He and Mrs Harris have renewed their mutually affectionate acquaintance while on the journey, incidentally giving Mrs Schrieber something of a shock when she finds her Tourist Class charlady ensconced at the chief table at the First Class Captain’s Dinner Party. Gallantly stepping up when appealed to, the Ambassador temporarily adopts Henry as his grandson, and the latest disaster is averted. However, getting the child back from Washington, DC, where he has accompanied his “grandfather”, proves to be a bit more complicated…

And on and on it goes. Mrs Harris forges ahead, comes upon calamity, regroups (usually with the assistance od some random person completely won over by her twinkling eyes and sterling nature, etcetera) and trots along until the next hurdle pops up. Her creator treats us to occasional moments of musing, and throws a moral or two in as well for good measure, and to appeal to our sentimental natures. The ending is, predictably, a happy one, though not quite as Mrs Harris has envisioned it to be from her earlier altruistic schemings.

A light and completely impossible fairy tale is this one, though it touches upon some serious issues – child abuse, social class structure, discrimination, and the follies of celebrity worship. The Dior dress shows up again, with a rather good discussion of its symbolic significance. Mrs Harris is allowed the grace to realize that her impulsiveness is not always wise; in a real world she’d have been slapped down long ago, but because this is fiction of a particularly fluffy type she gets not just a pass but a promotion. Oh, and there is the teasing promise of a love affair for our Mrs Harris, too, setting things up, no doubt, for book number three.

An understated early (possibly first?) edition dust jacket.

An understated early (possibly first?) edition dust jacket.

Here we have an overly elderly Mrs Harris (she's only sixty-one, for goodness sake!) plus her charming young protégé.

Here we have an overly elderly Mrs Harris (she’s only sixty-one, for goodness sake!) plus her charming young protégé.

And my favourite of the lot. I wish I had this copy! It's apparently illustrated, too.

And my favourite of the lot. I wish I had this copy! It’s apparently illustrated, too.

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hello to springtime robert fontaineHello to Springtime: A Personal Memoir by Robert Louis Fontaine ~ 1955. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1955. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 8/10

As those of you who have been following my blog for any length of time will know, I have fondness for memoirs, particularly those of never-been-famous “regular people” or now-forgotten public figures. Their personal stories are always fascinating, and, if well-written – as they frequently are –  wonderfully readable for their occasional poignancy and frequent humour. The glimpses back into times gone by and their unique perspectives on historical events are an added attraction. Hello to Springtime is a good example of this particular biographical niche.

Robert Louis Fontaine was a minor celebrity in his time. Born in 1911, he was a working journalist, a best-selling author of short stories and novels, a public speaking humourist, and an occasional actor.

At the tender age of three, Robert Fontaine accompanied his mother and father by train from Massachusetts to Ontario, where his father had been offered the position of conductor and first violinist of an Ottawa vaudeville theatre. From snippets of memory, from looking at old photographs,  and from the accounts of his parents, Robert pieces together a child’s-eye account of the highlights of that trip, and of the years which came after. As his memories solidify, the book progresses into fully formed, detailed anecdotes of the strange and wonderful world of boyhood and adolescence.

Robert tells of his bemused response to the celebration on the streets of Ottawa at the end of the Great War, and of his increasing awareness that life was not simply the ever-present Mama and the away-much-of-the-evening Papa, and listening to the strains of violin practice coming from his father’s room, and playing in the street. It soon broadened to include school, and the usual childhood friends and enemies, as well as beloved and feared teachers, and, inevitably, the maddening but adorable charms of the opposite sex. As well, the Fontaine family was an extended one, and a number of Robert’s relations were French Canadian; visits from various aunts and uncles gave plenty of scope for humorous remembrance in later years.

Just before his final year of junior college, Robert and his family returned to the United States; the increasing popularity of “talking pictures” and the subsequent demise of the vaudeville and music hall phenomenon left his father scrambling for employment; the Canadian days were over.

The author was a strongly opinionated man; he holds forth with vigour on a wide array of topics, from the paradoxical moral standards governing young people and sex, to the evils of compulsory schooling, the complications of organized religion, and the various foolishnesses of civilized society in general. Often didactic in tone, Fontaine’s laying down of the law as he sees it is neatly tempered by his cheerful willingness to poke fun at himself; I was never truly offended by his rather outrageous pronouncements, but found myself frequently (though not invariably) in complete accord.

My initial mild enjoyment steadily increased as the narrative progressed and I became more and more caught up in Robert Fontaine’s reminiscences of his early youth and teenage years, and in his anecdotes about his family. I turned the last page with gentle regret; I could happily have kept going. An insidiously appealing read, this one.

Robert Louis Fontaine is perhaps best remembered for his connection to a popular 1952 feature film, The Happy Time, based on his 1945 fictionalized memoir of the same title. The Happy Time was made into a successful stage musical in 1968. Incidents in all three versions of The Happy Time are also detailed in Hello to Springtime; the author assures us in the forward that “these are the facts”.

I am also in possession of one of Fontaine’s best selling fictional novels, based on the antics of one of his actual relations, 1953’s My Uncle Louis. This was among my late father’s books, and I recall reading it as a teenager with not much enthusiasm; I remember thinking it rather silly. After my enjoyment of Hello to Springtime, I am now keen to revisit My Uncle Louis with fresh eyes. Perhaps the several decades of life which have gone by since that first reading will bring me to a new appreciation. We shall see.

While I wouldn’t recommend that you immediately run out and search for Hello to Springtime, I would encourage you to give it a whirl if it crosses your path, especially if you, like me, enjoy these glimpses into the past via good-humoured personal memoirs.

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mrs 'arris goes to paris paul gallico 2 001Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico ~ 1958. Originally published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris, and alternatively titled Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. This edition: International Polygonics, Ltd., 1989.  Softcover. ISBN: 1-55882-021-3. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’d read this before, long ago in junior high school – I have a memory of sitting reading it at one of the small round tables tucked in the back of the library early in my Grade 8 year, my refuge from the crowded cafeteria at lunch hour – and at least once in the years since then, and the re-read brought me no new revelations. A decidedly sweet (just this side of saccharine) novella. “Charming”, and “Adult fairy tale”, two terms beloved of this minor classic’s many reviewers, suit it well.


The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris. As with a rush and a roar the steel bird lifted itself from the runway and the wheels, still revolving, began to retract into its belly, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay heart’s desire.

London charwoman Mrs. Ada Harris is bound upon a great adventure, ten British pounds and a stunning one thousand four hundred American dollars tucked safely into her shabby imitation leather handbag, along with the return half of a round-trip ticket to Paris. What could she be up to?

We are soon to find out, when Mrs. Harris firmly directs her Parisian taxi driver to transport her with the utmost speed and efficiency to the Avenue Montaigne; more specifically, to the House of Christian Dior. Mrs. Harris is about to buy herself A Dress.

Now, how, do you ask, can a 1950s’ London charwoman, billing herself out at a modest three shillings an hour – roughly the equivalent, at the exchange rate of the time, to a little under fifty American cents – manage to come up with the incredible amount needed to purchase an original Dior creation? And, most urgently, you must be wondering why?!?

The how (this is a “fairy tale”, don’t forget) is quite easily explained by our author. There was a substantial win on the football pools; that got Mrs. Harris a quarter of the way to her goal. Scrimping and saving, going without her beloved weekly movies and occasional visits to the pub and cutting down on her lavish consumption of tea took her to the halfway point. A disastrous attempt at gambling on the dog races was a setback, but Mrs Harris soldiered on. It took her three years, but she did it; the cash is in hand. Now for the dress.

But, again, why a Dior dress? What on earth could be possessing this humble woman in setting her aspirations on such a worthlessly extravagant item? Well, it all goes back to a little incident at one of her employers’ houses, a certain fashionable and extremely wealthy Lady Dant.

Opening up Lady Dant’s closet in the discharge of her tidying up duties, Mrs. Harris discovers something marvelous. Not one, but two astonishing garments, the like of which she has never seen in real life before, though she has sighed briefly and appreciatively over such creations in the discarded fashion magazines which frequently have come her way. And she’s always loved beautiful things, though that love has hitherto only expressed itself through the more readily accessible medium of flowers; the geraniums she grows with such marvelous success, and the cast-off bouquets which come her way and which she nurses along until the vestige of any beauty is completely faded.

But now as she found herself before the stunning creations hanging in the closet she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty – an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman…There was no rhyme or reason for it; she would never wear such a creation; there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully…

Oops, there goes Paul Gallico expounding on the childishly weak nature of femininity again, a tendency he demonstrates fairly frequently, and which annoyed me so much in another one of his folksily frothy novellas, 1962’s Coronation. But steeling myself, and soldiering on, I allow myself to be caught up in the saga of Mrs. Harris and her Dior dress.

She does indeed reach her goal and attain her wonderful garment – the description of which appealed deeply to my own feminine soul, and left me feeling a yearning-for-loveliness sister to Ada Harris – but while she is going about it she also proceeds to magically make several unlikely friends connected with the House of Dior, and to change several lives, and to generally act as an unlikely catalyst to events beyond her daily sphere. For in Paul Gallico’s fictional world, a heart of gold and a cheeky smile can move mountains, cutting through the sneering superiority of the wealthy and snobbish, and bringing some down-to-earth sensibilities into the most artificially fabricated situations.

Mrs. Harris is our hero(ine) of the moment; her eternal wisdom sees through the superficialities of social class and fancy dress, to the eternal desires for “something higher” trapped within every human soul.

Oh, Paul Gallico. I do enjoy your work, but there is always just a little hesitation in my own occasionally cynical soul which stops me embracing your fables fully…

Mrs. Harris gets a pass, however, and a generous one; the unlikeliness of her quest puts this tale on a plane of its own.

Next up, three more fables concerning our charwoman with a flair for the extraordinary. Gallico followed up the phenomenal success of Mrs. Harris’s Parisian escapade with equally fantastical trips to America, to the British Houses of Parliament, and to Soviet Russia. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I am in possession of two of them, the America and Parliament capers, in the 1967 collection of novellas under one cover, Gallico Magic. My husband read that collection a year or so ago, and finished it off wit the comment that it was a bit much to take all together; he was completely Gallicoed out by the end. I may approach with more caution, judiciously choosing only one or two of the novellas and leaving the others for another time. I will be sure to report back on Mrs. Harris, though. I’m quite curious as to what further tangles she’ll untangle with her golden “common touch”!

Oh – and I can’t leave you without a comment on the edition of Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris which I’ve just read. It has to have some of the ugliest illustrations possible inside; an absolutely perfect example of generic illustration lite. I shan’t share; it would be too painful, but a glance at the cover will give you a clue as to the horrors within. As an antidote, and to soothe my own ruffled sensibilities, I include several much kinder covers below. (Query: Who or what is International Polygonics, Ltd., and why did they ruin their otherwise nicely produced edition of this book – good paper, lovely font – with these pedestrian pictures?)

Ah, well. Moving on (at last!),  here are several nice reviews to peruse.

One Minute Book Reviews – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Stuck-in-a-Book – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

I do believe this is the first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

I do believe this is the 1958 first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender lady, capable of fitting into a Dior "floor model" hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also only "approaching her sixties" in age.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more sturdy and elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender woman, capable of fitting into a Dior “floor model” hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also described as “approaching her sixties” in age. The hat is bang-on, though!

Another early dustjacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; nice example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

Another early dust jacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; a great example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

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summer edith whartonSummer by Edith Wharton ~ 1917. This edition: Berkley, 1981. Introduction by Marilyn French. Paperback. ISBN: 0-425-04610-9. 205 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I couldn’t quite remember how many years ago I read this novel for the first time, but from the bookstore stamp (The Emporium – “New and Old” – Olds, Alberta) it must have been back in the late 1980s.

I have retained favorable memories of this rather Thomas Hardy-esque story right up until my re-reading this past week. There were a few gaps and blurring of details which I hadn’t remembered, but in essence my impressions of the book were identical this time around.

This was one of Edith Wharton’s favourites among her novels, according to Marilyn French’s Introduction, which I read, as is my habit – I prefer to come to my reading without too much prior analysis, as a rule – only after I’d finished the book.  Summer nonetheless has not been viewed as one of Wharton’s major accomplishments. It is a slight thing compared to her masterworks such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but it shares with those the same elements of examining how characters are trapped within a closed society’s defined roles, and, even more deeply examined, their moral struggles surrounding surrender to romantic and sexual desires.

Summer’s heroine is Charity Royall, foster child of one of her small, rural New England village’s leading citizens, Lawyer Royall. Charity is just that, a charity-child, brought into the village from the nearby “Mountain”, a loose community of social outcasts. In the words of Lawyer Royall:

“The Mountain? The Mountain?… Why, the Mountain’s a blot… That scum up there ought to have been run in long ago—and would have, if the people down here hadn’t been clean scared of them… there’s a gang of thieves and outlaws living over there, in sight of us, defying the laws of their country. Why, there ain’t a sheriff or a tax-collector or a coroner’d durst go up there. When they hear of trouble on the Mountain the selectmen look the other way, and pass an appropriation to beautify the town pump…”

Charity is now nineteen years old, and has been living alone with her foster father since her foster mother’s death some years ago. She’s a dark-eyed, dark-haired, lushly lovely young thing, poised on the brink of womanhood; her main emotion is of frustration at the bleakness of her present life, and the absence of any sort of prospects. Since her foster father’s tentative advances one night some time ago, Charity has made a few changes in her life. She’s approached the town’s most prominent citizen (after Lawyer Royall), Miss Hatchard, and asked for a position as librarian in the dusty little library; Charity hopes to earn enough money to get out of town, though her actual plans are nebulous. An elderly woman has also been hired to live in and provide chaperonage; Lawyer Royall, notoriously tight-fisted, has been shamed into paying for this after his alcohol-fueled faux pas.

When a handsome young relative of Miss Hatchard’s unexpectedly shows up one bright June day, Charity falls hard. Her romance follows the course of the season, from innocently blushing June through the breathless days of July to full fruition in sultry August. And, predictably, to a anti-climactic close in the fall, when Lucius Harney, betrothed to another woman, must abandon his summer love to return to his real life; worlds away from Charity’s.

But Charity is, predictably, left in a decidedly compromised position. Though her foster father and neighbours are willing to turn a blind eye to her summer love affair, the souvenir her lover has left her will change her life completely. If, that is, she doesn’t take steps to rid herself of her liability.

What a fascinating glimpse of early 20th century women’s private lives this story gives! The discussion about young women “losing their virtue”, and the choices then open to them is frank and vivid, even though voiced only in  Wharton’s veiled allusions. Charity visits an abortionist, a woman doctor who specializes in helping women deal with their indiscretions – for a price – and, once her pregnancy is confirmed, greatly surprises the doctor by her next decision.

This is a story that hangs greatly on a series of coincidences; it is abundantly obvious that the author has planned her narrative carefully; every incident has a connection to the whole. A brief meeting in chapter one, or a mention of a seemingly minor event or a character’s idiosyncrasy is invariably followed up later on. And much as I appreciated Wharton’s meticulous approach, after a while I started looking for those connections; I ended my reading with a strong sensation of having read something completely contrived and separated from any sort of organic flow.

This novel felt like the author deliberated every last word. Is this a good thing? Well, in my opinion, sort of. As a piece of literary art this sort of hyper-detail can certainly be appropriate, but as a reader I found myself becoming aware too often of the creative master hand; it did disturb the narrative flow as I increasingly mulled over the place of each incident in the broader web.

Summer is often referred to as Wharton’s “erotic novel”, and the description is apt, if one considers that the most powerful eroticism comes from one’s own mind, as the reader builds an emotional picture upon open-ended suggestion. We never get the actual details of what Charity and Lucius are up to, but it’s very obvious what is about to happen every time the curtain of propriety drops; Charity’s general state of being at the beginning of the novel can rightly be described as “ready for love”; her naturally sensuous nature (sensuous in the most genuine sense – she glories in every physical and emotional stimulus around her – the warmth of the sun, the feel of the wind, the fragrance of flowers, the sight and texture of a piece of lovely fabric) leaves her open to the experience of sensual (and ultimately sexual) pleasure when at last she has the opportunity in her more than sheltered life.

What Charity is not is any sort of an intellectual. Despite her librarianship, books leave her cold, and her foster father’s and lover’s lively shared conversations bemuse her completely; she escapes their verbal gymnastics by quiet emotional retreat into her own small inner world which is governed by feelings rather than ideas. But when ideas do start to form, Charity’s actions are gloriously individualistic. She becomes completely self-centered in her responses to the situations she finds herself in, moving by sure inner instinct rather than by “appropriate” societal response.

The novel’s ending (which I am not going to reveal in detail; I do think this is a novel which rewards a reader’s personal discovery) and Charity’s ultimate decision regarding herself and her unborn child is surprising, and could, to some, be easily seen as a failure on the author’s part to allow her character to continue on her path to personal self-fulfillment. This is, naturally, as seen by our 21st Century eyes. But Charity is not of our time; she is doing the best she can in the place she comes from; I don’t believe it is fair to judge her actions and decisions in light of the choices women have a century later. I came away feeling that Charity’s future might well be a reasonably content and fulfilling one, though doubtless many will not agree, seeing her fate as infinitely dreary, with regards to “happiness” as we might define it today.

A must-read for anyone who has dabbled in Edith Wharton’s more prominent pieces, and an excellent summer read (so appropriately titled!) for the connoisseur of vintage fiction.

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Tthe murder on the links agatha christie 1he Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie ~ 1923. This edition: Dell, 1967. Paperback. 224 pages.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Setting: Mostly in the vicinity of Merlinville, France, at the estate of expatriate English millionaire Mr. Renauld.

Detection by: HERCULE POIROT with continual accompaniment and occasional assistance by CAPTAIN HASTINGS. A fellow detective, MONSIEUR GIRAUD of the Paris Sûreté, is in official charge of the case; he and Poirot despise each other instantly.

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Death: STABBING – both times with a paper knife made from airplane wire. (But all may be not as it as first seems.)

100 Word Plot Summary:

Hercule Poirot receives a panicked letter from an English millionaire living in France: “For God’s sake, come!” Poirot and Hasting hasten to France, but arrive mere hours after Mr. Renauld’s stabbed corpse is found, in a half-dug grave on the unfinished golf course next to his estate. Mrs. Renauld is found bound and gagged in her bedroom; two bearded thugs are the suspects. But why can’t they be tracked? Why was the dead man’s son secretly in the neighbourhood that night? And what is the connection with a number of beautiful women who continually pop up, including Hastings’ latest crush?


The author hits her stride with this excellent murder mystery, packed as full of red herrings as a 1920s’ millionaire’s wall safe is of banknotes. (Or secret documents.) And yes, this time we are dallying with a millionaire, albeit a very dead one, with a suitably convoluted past.

Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot, after forging a friendship while jointly dealing with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, are now sharing a London flat. Hastings is acting as a private secretary to a M.P., while Poirot employs himself as a private detective, chasing down lost lap dogs and stolen pearls for the wealthy dowager classes. Neither is particularly content with the status quo, so when a letter comes from a certain wealthy financier, Mr Renauld, formerly of England, Canada and Chile, now residing in France, referring to his life being in danger and a secret that he possesses, and begging for Poirot’s immediate aid, the bait is taken.

Across the Channel they go, only to find that they are mere hours too late. Mr. Renault is already dead, stabbed and left to die in a partially dug grave on the golf course under construction next to his country estate. (And, or the record, the site of the murder is the only connection this story has to golf in any way, shape or form. Please ignore all of the lurid paperback covers one will find with the body dressed in plus fours, or with a golf club or golf balls or any such nonsense. No one has played on the course yet! It is under construction! The title picks up on the most minor element of the story; careless illustrators assume something which isn’t in the story.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. The plot.

So: Mr Renauld is dead; his wife has been found tied and gagged in their bedroom. She claims that two bearded men tied her up and abducted her husband, and at first the story seems plausible, especially after Mrs. Renault faints in an excess of emotion after viewing her husband’s body. But there are just a few loose ends. Where did the bearded men come from, and where have they vanished to? What is the “secret” referred to in the letter to Poirot, and by the abductors? What part did the Renauld’s son Jack play in the events of the day leading up to the murder? Why is the elegantly mysterious neighbour’s beautiful daughter so anxious? Who was really dallying with the lovely young acrobat whom Hastings has already met back in England, and who shows up most unexpectedly at the site of the murder? And what’s all this about a SECOND body???!

The characters in general are not particularly sympathetic or memorable; the victim(s) and the criminal(s) appear as stereotyped set pieces, included merely to move the puzzle along. The egotistical French detective, Monsieur Giraud, pops in and out to sneer at Poirot and muddle the clues, but I could not even bring myself to dislike or scorn him; he just “was”, as manufactured a plot element as the murdered man, himself merely a lay figure labelled “the body”. The person I liked the most here was Poirot himself; I came away from this story with an increased appreciation both for his intelligence and his sense of humour. Hastings appears even more of a buffoon in this novel than he did in the Styles case; his actions in several cases act in direct opposition to the true murderer being discovered, at least in the short term. His romantic impulses were in full bloom throughout; only Poirot’s continual gentle mockery kept them in perspective to the reader, if not to Hastings himself.

Agatha Christie in this, only her third mystery novel, creates a most convoluted plot. She provides all of the needed clues, holding nothing back, but it will be a clever reader who guesses the true solution before the big reveal at the end. I had read this novel several times in the past, but even then could not quite get it sorted out until the final events, when my memory revived and I said to myself, “Of course!” Click, click, click, and it all makes a completed picture.

Final analysis: a strong puzzle mystery, well thought out, and an enjoyable light read ninety years after its first appearance.

Elegantly simple is this first edition cover from 1923.

Elegantly simple is this first edition cover from 1923. (And not a golf ball in sight!)

This is another 1920s' cover, nicely indicative of the plot within.

This is another 1920s’ cover, nicely indicative of the plot within, though I have my qualms about that flag on the golf course; it really shouldn’t be there, considering that the links are still under construction, and no one is golfing there yet.

Jumping ahead several decades, this paperback cover at least does not include a golf ball. Our brilliant detective features prominently, little grey cells working furiously, one would assume from his serious expression.

Jumping ahead several decades, this paperback cover at least does not include a golf ball. Our brilliant detective features prominently, little grey cells working furiously, or so one would assume from his serious expression. My only major issue with this one is the dagger itself; in the story it is a letter opener made of airplane wire, a war souvenir. Check out the first cover for what it might really look like.

Ooh, la, la! Poirot confronts one of the beautiful women who so abundantly decorate the story. This particular one is Hastings' acrobatic charmer. I am rather uneasy about the era-correct authenticity of that stage costume, but I doubt it was a strong consideration with the artist; he was more interested in the physical attributes of the girl in question, don't you think?

Ooh, la, la! Poirot confronts one of the beautiful women who so abundantly decorate the story. This particular one is Hastings’ acrobatic charmer. I am rather uneasy about the era-correct authenticity of that stage costume, but I doubt it was a strong consideration with the artist; he was more interested in the physical attributes of the girl in question, don’t you think?

A nice collection of clues presented here, in this still more recent (1970s, perhaps) paperback cover.

A nice collection of clues presented here, in this still more recent (1960s, perhaps) paperback cover.

A modern cover illustration, very classy in its detailed simplicity, and focussing on a key plot element which other cover illustrators have seemingly ignored until now.

A modern cover illustration, very classy in its simplicity, and focussing on a key plot element which other cover illustrators have seemingly ignored until now. (There’s no gag, though – my only complaint. Details, details!)

And here, as a sort of cover illustration bonus, is a Dutch cover illustration. This is a very clever one indeed, and the cover designer picked up on a major clue, which you will appreciate once you've finished the story. Very nice, and possibly y favourite cover of all, right up there with the simple dagger of the first edition pictured at the start of this cover art gallery.

And here, as a bonus, is a Dutch cover illustration. This is quite clever, and the illustrator picked up on a major clue, which you will appreciate once you’ve finished the story. Very nice, and possibly one of my favourites, right up there with the simple dagger of the first edition pictured at the start of this cover art gallery.

And here, at the bottom of the collection, is an entry for the Hall of Cover Illustration Shame. A completely wrong depiction of the scenario and the corpse. Maddening!

Now for an entry for the Hall of Cover Illustration Shame. A completely wrong depiction of the scenario and the corpse. Maddening!

And this contemporary illustration, which gets it completely wrong as well. The only thing the least bit appropriate is the period attire, but otherwise the picture is completely foreign to the novel. Boo, hiss.

Also shameful is this contemporary illustration, which gets it completely wrong as well. The only thing the least bit appropriate is the period attire, but otherwise the picture is completely foreign to the novel. Boo, hiss.

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the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.


Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…


I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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the secret adversary agatha christie 2The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie ~ 1922. This edition: Bantam, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-26477-X.  215 pages.

My Rating: 7/10

Setting: Mostly London, with a few excursions into the countryside; immediately post Great War, 1919.

Detection by: Thomas Beresford (TOMMY) and Prudence Cowley (a.k.a. TUPPENCE)

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Murder: POISON – death #1 from an overdose of chloral , and death #2 by cyanide

100 Word Plot Summary:

Who is Jane Finn, and why has she vanished after escaping from the sinking Lusitania with a secret document entrusted to her by its doomed courier? That paper could have changed the course of the war, but why is the British Secret Service still keen to recover it now, 5 years later? Why the competing hunt by a group of Bolshevik anarchists, led by the mysterious “Mr Brown”? Tommy Beresford and “Tuppence” Cowley, newly demobbed and desperate for jobs, join forces and market their services to Jane Finn’s rich American cousin, whose interest in her seems just a little overenthusiastic…


Agatha Christie’s second published work is a slightly more ambitious story than The Mysterious Affair at Styles; and it’s changed in style as well: dramatic thriller rather than sedate country house murder mystery. The tone is breathless, the plot improbable, the villains all degrees of wicked (urbane to thuggish), and the “women in question” suitably mysterious – as well as stunningly beautiful. What a grand little period piece of colourful writing, silly though the whole scenario is.

Here’s the devious (and exotically lovely)  Mrs Vandemeyer, who, incidentally, knows more about “Mr Brown” than is healthy for her long-term survival:

A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.

Gimlet eyes and indigo charmeuse; obviously up to no good. Beware!

Young adventurers Tommy and Tuppence are a rollicking change from the pompous Poirot and sober Hastings of her first novel; Agatha Christie was to follow The Secret Adversary with four other books featuring the pair, spaced throughout the years, with the characters aging appropriately.

Though I found this an amusing enough read, with plenty of nostalgia value, I couldn’t quite buy into the whole Bolshevist plot side of things; too many vagaries and improbabilities. (Even at my first reading as a young teenager, I recall a feeling of cynical disbelief; this was never one of my favourite Christies.) But so much scope of course for all sorts of shenanigans – secret identities, people vanishing, other people being tied up in windowless rooms, threats of torture, beautiful girls, invisible ink, car chases, shots fired that just miss our heroes – it’s all in here.

An early dustjacket - possibly from the first edition. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of "Mr Brown"!

An early dustjacket – possibly from the first edition*. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of “Mr Brown”! (February 2017 – A reader has just commented that this is not the first edition cover; that one apparently has a picture of a woman – presumably Jane Finn? – on it. I’ll keep an eye out for that one in my internet travels.)

Another early dustjacket, with "Mr Brown" as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Another early dustjacket, with “Mr Brown” as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a string of pearls; her companion much more appropriately tousled, considering the revolver covering them both... I'm guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback jacket.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a sedate string of pearls; her companion just a wee bit more appropriately tousled – though not much, considering the threatening figure in the foreground!  I’m guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback cover.

Another view from behind the handgun.

Another Pan paperback, this one for the North American market, and possibly released a few years later than the one just above. Great villains-eye view from behind the handgun.

I couldn't resist including this gorgeous paperback cover, from a French edition.

I couldn’t resist including this rather elegant paperback cover, from a more recent (I’m guessing 1970s or 1980s) French edition.

And from 2008, the cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

And from 2008, this attractive poster-like cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

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